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February 2021

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

The Sanatorium - Sarah Pearse - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Sanatorium has one of the most spine-chilling settings I’ve ever encountered: a sanatorium with a sketchy past that has been repurposed as a luxury hotel. Think The Shining, with a story reminiscent of early Dan Brown. Traumatised detective Elin arrives at the hotel at the invitation of her estranged brother, to celebrate his engagement. When his fiance mysteriously disappears, and a sudden storm cuts off all access to the rest of the world, all of Elin’s bad gut feelings are confirmed.

This is a well-paced thriller, with several twists and turns. The only real let-down was the ending: the villain’s reveal was unexpected, but that meant it required a long and cliche reveals-all speech in the penultimate chapter (and the motivation seemed a little flimsy and unearned). It’s a shame, because otherwise this is an evocative and spooky twist on the locked-door mystery. Pick this one up if you value mood over pay-off.

Get The Sanatorium here.

His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

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His Only Wife is a Cinderella story with a feminist twist, one that’s been repeatedly likened to juggernaut series Crazy Rich Asians. The film rights have already been acquired, and it was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. The tone is set by the opening line: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.” How could you help but to read on? The wonderful folks at Oneworld (Bloomsbury) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The main character, Afi, is a seamstress in a small town in Ghana, offered a ticket out of her family’s poverty in the form of a marriage proposal from a wealthy stranger. She is swiftly relocated to one of his swish apartments in the bustling city of Accra, where she can make her dreams of fashion design school come true… but the fairytale isn’t what it seems. I loved the premise, and the glorious setting that Medie brought to life. I wish the characters had been drawn with a similar level detail; as it is, I didn’t feel I really got to know any of them, and the dialogue was a bit too clunky to reel me in. Still, it’s a fun take, one I look forward to seeing on the screen.

Get His Only Wife here.

The Shape Of Darkness by Laura Purcell

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Confession: I’ve had a copy of Laura Purcell’s Bone China sitting on my shelf for ages. Before I could get around to it, though, she lapped me with her latest: The Shape Of Darkness, which the fine folks at Raven Books were kind enough to send me for review. I glanced at the blurb and decided that this one sounded like more fun, anyway!

The Shape Of Darkness is a delightfully lightly-scary ghost story-slash-murder mystery, set in Victorian era Bath. Agnes is a silhouette artist, struggling to stay afloat with the advent of the photograph threatening to put her out of business. One of her few remaining clients is brutally murdered… and then another… and then another. Her chapters alternate with those about Pearl, a young girl who can speak to the other side with a grifter sister who plans to wring every dollar out of her she can. Agnes suspects Pearl might be able to help her find the murderer that seems to be targeting her business, but (as she points out on page 212): “Ghosts, it seems, are contrary creatures. Not the oracles she had hoped for but imps, out to tantalise and tease.”

Get The Shape Of Darkness here.

The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

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OUT 2 FEB: The Imitator, Rebecca Starford’s fiction debut!

Bri Lee says that she “can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t love this book”. Hannah Kent says she “devoured it”.

FROM THE BLURB: “Based on real-life events of a young female spy in London, The Imitator is a page-turning World War Two thriller with themes of espionage, coming of age and antisemitism with a plot twist that you won’t see coming ad wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

Thank you to my friends at Allen & Unwin for the sneak peek!

Get The Imitator here.

January 2021

The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray

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After the past few years, you’d be forgiven for thinking political satire is dead. The Speechwriter proves it isn’t so. Martin McKenzie-Murray’s skewering of Australian bureaucracy and political lethargy is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years, and I am endlessly grateful to Scribe for sending me a copy to review. The absurdity is unshakably familiar, but dialed up to eleven. The tone is endearingly nihilistic: the fed-up straight man to the world’s clown car. The Speechwriter had me snort-laughing on almost every single page.

It is styled as the prison memoir of Toby, former speechwriter to the PM and current inmate of Sunshine correctional facility. It is edited (with frequent footnote asides) from his murderous cellmate Garry. Together, they weave a tale so extraordinary you can’t help but believe it. This is Australian humour at its finest. A highly recommended read for anyone who needs a wry laugh and a shot in the arm.

Get The Speechwriter here.

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

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The Arrest caught my eye because of its premise: what if all technology, everything we rely on day-to-day, simply stopped working? It’s the Y2K panic come to life: no televisions, no phones, no cars, no guns, no toilets(!). Would it be a return to utopian by-gone-years? Unlikely. The blurb promised “speculative fiction at its absolute finest” and “unrepentant joy”. The fine folks at Atlantic Books (via Allen & Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Lethem doesn’t waste any time interrogating how or why exactly all of these features of modern life stopped working: they just don’t. His story focuses instead on Journeyman, known before the Arrest as screenwriter Alexander “Sandy” Duplessis, who survives on his sister’s farm in a tiny Maine town (and the similarities to Stephen King’s Under The Dome don’t end there). It’s been reviewed positively elsewhere but unfortunately, for me, The Arrest didn’t hold up to the promise of its premise. It wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped, the characters were flat, and the plot was all fits and starts. It’s a post-apocalyptic pastoral-cum-steampunk fever dream which seems to end before it really begins.

Get The Arrest here.

Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell

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Glitch Feminism is a challenging “new manifesto for cyber feminism”, one that explores the the relationships between gender, technology, and identity. It’s a slim little tome, so I was fooled into thinking it was something that could be knocked over in a breezy afternoon: not so! This copy was kindly sent to me by Verso Books (via Bloomsbury) for review.

“Glitch feminism”, as I understand it from Russell’s writing, incorporates new ways of being, becoming, and understanding ourselves in both the digital and corporeal realm. Russell discourages the use of terms like “real world”, encouraging us to adopt instead “AFK” (away-from-keyboard) to reflect the fact that our online and offline selves no longer exist or operate in isolation. We are to embrace the “glitch”, Russell says, as to malfunction in our identities is to challenge the status quo. Though Glitch Feminism incorporates art and anecdotes, it’s still very academic in tone – not a beginner’s guide to queer theory, nor a light read. I’m glad to have more insight into the malleability of our identities in the digital era, but probably could have used a primer first…

Get Glitch Feminism here.

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

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Bro! If the idea of reading Beowulf gives you traumatic flashbacks to high-school or university English lit classes, you need to check out this new translation. Maria Dahvana Headley wrote The Mere Wife, a contemporary adaptation of the poem, but even after it was published back in 2018 she found she couldn’t let the story go. So, she set about translating the text, in full, and produced this incredible feminist interpretation The amazing team at Scribe were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Headley says, in the introduction she penned for this edition, that Beowulf is “a poem about willfully blinkered privilege, about the shock and horror of experiencing discomfort when one feels entitled to luxury”, and an “intricate treatise on morality, masculinity, flexibility, and failure,”. This Old English poem (first scribed sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries) could hardly be more timely. Headley incorporates distinctly modern phrasing and slang to make the text more accessible for today’s audience. Even though Beowulf: A New Translation is undoubtedly easier for a novice to read than, say, Seamus Heaney’s translation, it would be good to familiarise yourself with the plot beforehand to make sure you don’t miss anything (I summed it up in this post, if that helps). I’m so glad I got to read and thoroughly enjoy this one for fun, instead of study.

Get Beowulf: A New Translation here.

Want even MORE? Check out my reviews of the book releases of previous years:

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