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The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Conifer by Ilsa Evans
The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Conifer is one of those books with a dark premise, but a tone so endearing and light-hearted that it’s an absolute delight to read. In this perfectly-timed new story from Ilsa Evans (who became a grandmother herself as she was writing), two women on opposing sides of a family divide come together to protect their granddaughter after they learn she is being abused by her father. The fine folks at Harlequin (Harper Collins) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
The adventures of wacky mad-cap older folks are a balm to all the stresses of this year. Beth and Shirley are very Odd Couple: the cynic and the optimist, the conscientious planner and the free thinker. But Winnie, the sneaky and snarky great-grandmother, is my favourite of the lot. They all come together to save the day in this heart-warming and up-lifting read. “It may take a village to raise a child,” as Evans says on page 241, “but perhaps it only took a couple of older women to protect one.”
Get The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Conifer here.
Mortals by Rachel E. Menzies and Ross G. Menzies
Would being reminded of your own mortality make you more likely to buy a lipstick? Defend your government? Take petty revenge on someone who’d wronged you? You might be surprised. In Mortals, father-daughter psychologist team Ross and Rachel Menzies present the evidence they’ve gathered that our collective subconscious fear of death has shaped our societies and behaviours over the course of human history. My friends at Allen and Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
For a book about death (or, at least, the fear of it), Mortals is surprisingly positive and affirming. It’s not so much about the Grim Reaper as it is about how to counteract the negative consequences of fearing death in order to live a better life. It’s also a springboard to incorporate a lot of fun facts about world history and culture, so you’ll be well supplied for water-cooler conversations for the next little while. The chapter on suicide (trigger warning, by the way) got a bit off track, I felt, but otherwise this was an interesting and informative read.
Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick
What happens when you experience symptoms that can’t be measured, tested, or diagnosed – let alone treated? In Ill Feelings, Alice Hattrick begins with her own and her mother’s experience of long-term unexplained illness, where symptoms are relegated to the status of “feelings”. Over the course of the book, her focus widens to a societal and historical view (incorporating the experiences of “women of note”: Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and more), to form a “collective biography and memoir” of illness without any definitively identifiable cause. The team at Scribe were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
On the whole, I loved Hattrick’s insight and ideas in Ill Feelings. She gave me a lot to chew on; I’ve scribbled down notes like “the structure of medical care is based on mistrust“, and “the experience of illness and the experience of medicalisation are linked, but not the same”. I was hoping, though, for more of a case study format, which might have made the various narrative threads easier to follow, and I’ll admit I embraced the skim for some dense sections of medical jargon. Hattrick’s discussion towards the end of what this means and what might change with the emergence of long-COVID was fascinating, and I hope she writes more on that specifically in future. Ill Feelings is not an easy read, but it’s an interesting and worthwhile one for anyone interested in the intersection of gender and disability.
Get Ill Feelings here.
My Body Keeps Your Secrets by Lucia Osborne-Crowley
Lucia Osborne-Crowley has already proven she has the chops with her long-form essay I Choose Elena, which I read and reviewed last year. In My Body Keeps Your Secrets, her first full-length book, she continues to wrangle with the Mobius strip of trauma, health, and shame. Osborne interviewed nearly 100 women and non-binary people to unearth the ways in which the secrets we keep about what has happened to us are written over our bodies and our lives. My dear friends at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
As with I Choose Elena, My Body Keeps Your Secrets is not an easy read, but (again) as with I Choose Elena, I found myself nodding furiously the whole way through. Every other page offers a lightbulb moment or the kind of insight that will make you gasp. This is up there with Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do in terms of offering a brave and broad account of the impact of patriarchal violence. Osborne-Crawley deserves a wide readership; her tireless efforts to examine and self-examine will resonate for all readers, regardless of their own identities and histories.
Get My Body Keeps Your Secrets here.
My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life by Georgia Pritchett
Well, first off, Georgia Pritchett gets an A+ for her book title: My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life. Isn’t that brilliant? Haven’t we all felt that exact way, at one point or another? I am pleased to report that the contents of her memoir absolutely live up to the high expectation it sets, too. Pritchett is a TV writer and producer by trade, and this is her memoir – told in “gloriously comic vignettes” – about learning to live, even thrive, with anxiety. My friends at Faber Books and Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Pritchett’s series of short, sharp anecdotes are like particularly hilarious and insightful contributions to a conversation over cocktails. Her sense of humour clearly aligns perfectly with my own, because I was snort-laughing on every other page. The deadpan delivery of critical reviews she has received in her career were particular highlights. But it’s more than just a few laughs; Pritchett is very frank and honest about the highs (working on Veep) and the lows (two young sons on the autism spectrum) of her life, all navigated while managing her own intense anxiety. I’m so glad Pritchett shared her story in this way, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t find My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life relatable in some measure.
Get My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life here.
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
Classical violinist Anna Sun is burnt out. She reached the pinnacle of viral success with a YouTube video, and she has driven herself crazy trying to replicate it. And now, her long-term boyfriend announces that he wants an open relationship. That’s where we begin with Helen Hoang’s latest novel, The Heart Principle, which my friends at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me for review. You’ll be delighted to hear, true to form for Hoang’s characters, Anna responds to this turn of events in a very healthy way: by setting out to have as much inappropriate sex as possible.
Yes, this has all the hallmarks of a Hoang classic: a diverse cast of characters and a lot of no-holds-barred open-door lust. It’s a little unrealistic (the first bloke that Anna matches with on Tinder is the winner – really?), but all the best romance novels are. What puts The Heart Principle a head above Hoang’s earlier novels (like The Kiss Quotient) is the dark turn the story takes at the end of Part One; Anna receives a devastating phone call that changes everything. It made for an all-too-real jarring contrast between sex and sadness. Luckily, the story speeds towards an ending that is both hopeful and happy, with a vital and timely message about caring for the caregivers. I loved it, even more than I thought I would.
Get The Heart Principle here.
The Banksia House Breakout by James Roxburgh
Ruth is 81 years old, and already sick of her “new life” at the Banksia House assisted living facility. With the help of her new daredevil friends, Jean and Beryl, and resident escape-artist Keith, she makes a run for it. Her sights are set on getting to Brisbane in time to say goodbye to her terminally ill best friend, Gladys. The Banksia House Breakout is the great-escape-slash-road-trip debut novel of Sydney audiologist James Roxburgh, inspired by the lives and stories of his clients. The fine folks at Ventura Press and DMCPR Media were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
It would be impossible to read The Banksia House Breakout without finding your heart warmed and your funny bone tickled. It’s a fun-filled adventure that showcases the very best of the kindness of strangers and highlights the importance of respect and independence. Roxburgh has done an excellent job of carefully crafting three-dimensional older characters who prove that there’s a lot of life to be lived in later years. A sweet all-ages read that will have you cheering on a rag-tag group of fugitive octogenarians
CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie
I’ve long been a fan of Meshel Laurie’s Australian True Crime podcast, and the 360 view it offers of perpetrators, victims, and the “justice” system. That’s why I was so excited to pick up her book CSI Told You Lies (which my friends at Penguin sent to me for review). It’s a natural extension of the interviews Laurie does on her podcast, exploring the role of forensic medicine in high-profile Australian crime investigations.
The book is named for the CSI Effect, the unrealistic expectations the general public have of forensic pathology based on that TV show and others like it. Laurie offers the truth to try and counteract that false perception. Why would anyone choose to do forensic pathology work, to be a victim’s last doctor? Why are they so under-appreciated as crucial links in the chain of justice? What does their work actually involve? Laurie’s approach makes CSI Told You Lies a de-facto collection of Australian true crime stories told from a different perspective than we’re used to, and I loved it. Some chapters meander, some conversations are tangential, but all are fascinating. A must-read for Murderinos who love to peek behind the curtain.
Get CSI Told You Lies here.
Nothing But My Body by Tilly Lawless
Tilly Lawless is a Sydney sex worker with a big online platform, which she uses to shine a light on the everyday stigma faced by people in the industry. Nothing But My Body is her debut book, an intense work of auto-fiction that covers eight days in the life of a sex worker as she navigates relationships, friendships, queerness, and the challenges of contemporary youth. I loved Kate Holden’s In My Skin, and I’ll admit I came to Nothing But My Body hoping for more of the same. My friends at Allen & Unwin sent me a copy for review.
Nothing But My Body steers hard into the skid of stream-of-consciousness; reading it is like listening to a friend who has been waiting for you in a bar and disgorges as soon as you’ve arrived. It might be a bit confronting for some people who aren’t familiar with sex work (and that’s possibly the “point”), but that didn’t bother me. The thing is, I found it a bit too performative and self-involved to really resonate. I think Lawless could write really well and offer a lot of insight into sex work… some day. For now, the experience is too raw and her perspective too green, I think. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the memoir she writes in ten years’ time.
Get Nothing But My Body here.
Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
Look, obviously this one is worth picking up for the amazing title alone, but Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead is no bait-and-switch. The contents are every bit as great as you’d hope! With hints of Convenience Store Woman and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, this book from debut Canadian author Emily Austin is a hilariously deadpan, macabre-meets-comedy read, kindly sent to me by my friends at Atlantic Books and Allen & Unwin.
Gilda can’t stop thinking about death (given the state of the world, it’s hard to blame her). In desperation, she responds to a flyer for free therapy from her local church – but instead of healed, she finds herself installed as their new receptionist. For a queer atheist with intense anxiety, this presents many problems. Her anxious apathy and her unsentimental delivery make an otherwise-dark story a hilarious and relatable read. Plus, it’s got a quick and neat resolution, a relief after the intensity of the previous pages, and it ends on a hopeful note (but not a saccharine one).
Get Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead here.
The First Time I Thought I Was Dying by Sarah Walker
If you were a drama kid in high school, The First Time I Thought I Was Dying by Sarah Walker is a must-read. This essay collection explores the body in art and society: sex and violence on-stage, shape and Photoshop, revulsion and intimacy, advertising and anxiety. Walker writes towards the idea of dismantling shame through honesty and humour, encouraging us to “embrace our own chaos”. My friends at UQP were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
The First Time I Thought I Was Dying has been compared to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Bri Lee’s Beauty; I’d add that it’s along the lines of Fiona Wright’s fabulous essay collections, too. Not every essay was as sharp as I would have liked, and sometimes the humour was a little inside-baseball, but Walker certainly gave me a lot to think about – particularly in the context of our changing relationships to our bodies in the context of COVID-19 lockdowns. Of course, given the subject matter, the collection warrants a few trigger warnings around consent and coercion, and body shaming, but assuming you can deal with those, this is a very interesting and insightful read.
Get The First Time I Thought I Was Dying here.
138 Dates by Rebekah Campbell
Rebekah Campbell always dreamed of a fairytale romance. She let her first love, Steve, drift away so that she could get swept off her feet by someone better… then he died, tragically and unexpectedly, and Campbell found that no one could quite measure up to her memories of him. She clawed her way to the top of the entrepreneurial world with her social-network-cum-restaurant-review app, but over a decade later she found herself still single, still thinking about Steve. So, she committed herself to dating, applying all the business strategies she used at work to finding love. It sounds like your standard 2010s rom-com, but it’s the real-life story of a Kiwi CEO (sent to me for review by my dear friends at Allen and Unwin).
138 Dates wasn’t a difficult read, I chewed through it in one sitting, but something about the particular strain of girlboss feminism running through it didn’t sit right with me. At times, it felt like Campbell was cloaking an advertorial about her business in a memoir about “love” (she didn’t mention until the epilogue that she had stepped down as CEO, but she mentioned the app and the restaurants she found using it on every other page). She seemed very concerned with appearances (“What will people think?!”) and yet her self-awareness was barely skin deep. If you’re looking for a memoir about how to find love, this probably ain’t it, but it’s got business advice and Tinder nightmare stories aplenty.
Get 138 Dates here.
She Is Haunted by Paige Clark
The beauty of a short story collection is that it allows you to traverse all manner of topics. Transnational Asian identity, intergenerational trauma, female friendship, mother-daughter relationships, the love of a dog – all are examined in Paige Clark’s debut collection, She Is Haunted (kindly sent to me by the wonderful team at Allen & Unwin for review). It has been compared to Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, reason enough to pick it up for me!
I liked the stories where Clark nudged at the supernatural (or, to put it another way, when things got weird). This is also the first “post-pandemic” fiction I’ve read that directly and explicitly describes the impact of COVID-19. I must offer a trigger warning, for that and for dog-related trauma (which will always, no matter the context, make me cry). This is a fine debut, showcasing glimpses of good things to come from a young Chinese-American-Australian writer.
Get She Is Haunted here.
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade
In The Five Wounds, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut novel and a Roxane Gay Book Club pick, Amadeo Padilla is an Ideas Man… that is to say, he’s an unemployed 33-year-old absent father, living with his own mother in a small house in New Mexico. He’s just about to embark on his next great Idea – playing the role of Jesus Christ in a re-enactment of the crucifixion – when his 15-year-old daughter, Angel, shows up on his (mother’s) doorstep. Pregnant. History is repeating itself in this novel about becoming a parent when you feel ill-equipped to take care of even yourself.
Don’t be fooled by the quasi-earnest piousness of the first chapter. The Five Wounds is a drama without the gloss or glamour, just a three-dimensional view of real life (which, as we know, never goes to plan). Angel is one of those self-interested teenagers who are lucky enough to know everything, but she’s forced to grow up quickly when neither her father nor her grandmother are capable of providing the support she’d hoped. Amadeo really got up my nose – I enjoy an unlikeable character as much as the next girl, but sheesh! – and yet, I couldn’t help but find myself strangely moved and deeply touched by this family saga.
Get The Five Wounds here.
The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock
Sometimes, you pick up a book and its premise resonates in a way neither you nor the author anticipated. That’s what happened for me with The Other Side Of Beautiful (kindly sent to me for review by my friends at Harper Collins). I doubt that Kim Lock foresaw that I’d be reading her book about Mercy Blain, a woman terrified to leave her house, while I was locked down and not allowed to leave the house… but here we are. Luckily, Mercy Blain’s story is warm and heart-felt, one of overcoming fear and finding home wherever you are.
It opens with a really tight first chapter, one that will grab you and not let go: Mercy watches her house burn down, forcing her out into the world that she’s been avoiding for years. She finds herself in a campervan, with her ever-faithful sausage dog Wasabi (my absolute hands-down favourite character) by her side, driving the length of Australia, from Adelaide to Darwin. Lock’s alarmingly accurate depictions of Mercy’s physical experience of anxiety were a little triggering, to be honest, but the wonderful rhythm of her writing carried me through the discomfort. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
It can be hard to follow-up a debut novel that went gangbusters the way that Red, White & Royal Blue did, but McQuiston hasn’t broken stride. One Last Stop is a, frankly, fucking delightful queer romance with a time-travel element. My friends at Macmillan were kind enough to send me a copy for review. The central character, August, is new to New York City, but she’s already got the cynicism down (“August believes in nothing except caution and a pocket-knife” – one of the OG Murderinos!). That is, until she meets Jane – a beautiful stranger on a train, with a bewitching smile and a leather jacket. How was August to know that Jane had come unstuck in time, from her home in the 1970s, and falling in love with her would cause all kinds of trouble?
One Last Stop is snort-laugh funny; anyone who’s ever lived in a share-house or found themselves a family in an ensemble of bizarre friends will relate, hard. The romance is steamy at times, sweet at others, and always just a little bit magical. It was a particular pleasure to read a queer novel that touches on significant issues in the community (including discrimination and AIDS) without being a giant, whining bummer. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I can’t wait to see what McQuiston comes up with next.
Get One Last Stop here.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami
I loved Meiko Kawakami’s last novel, Breasts And Eggs, so I did an excited SQUEEE when Macmillan sent me a copy of her latest, Heaven, for review. As I’ve come to expect from Kawakami, it’s a little dark, a little weird, and very visceral. Two bullied teenagers find connection and solace in each other. A lazy eye and a dirty shirt are enough to see them ostracised by their peers. They exchange letters, each dripping with the desperate emotional intimacy of kids who don’t have anyone else. Over the course of just 167 pages, their friendship devolves to a horrifying denoument.
Obviously, the content of Heaven warrants trigger warnings for bullying and depression/suicidality. This one will put you in a weird headspace. It’s quite a bummer, but still beautifully written and passionately felt. It’s one I’m not sure I would “recommend”, it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s one that lingered with me for days. Credit for the translation from Japanese goes to Sam Bett and David Boyd – don’t forget to #NameTheTranslator!
Get Heaven here.
Loving Lizzie March by Susannah Hardy
Life is not exactly going to plan for Lizzie March. She thought she’d be a fashion designer, but she’s working in a call centre. She thought her boss was Mr Right, but “dropping by” his house (which her best friend called “stalking”) landed her in hospital… where Lizzie finds out she’s pregnant. Loving Lizzie March is the debut novel of former actress and comedy sketch writer Susannah Hardy. My friends at Macmillan were kind enough to send me a copy for review. As a former hot-mess-slash-call-centre-employee myself, I figured if nothing else, Lizzie March would be relatable…
Loving Lizzie March is the perfect summer read for fans of Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes (i.e., me). Lizzie is occasionally exasperating, but on-the-whole endearing, and you’ll find yourself rolling your eyes at her while also desperately hoping that she finds her happily-ever-after. I would offer a trigger warning for pregnancy-related issues, but beyond that this is a delightful rom-com about accidentally figuring your shit out.
Get Loving Lizzie March here.
She Come By It Natural by Sarah Smarsh
For a long time, I was just like anyone else: I associated the name Dolly Parton with the three Bs (blonde, boobs, bimbo). Then I listened to the Dolly Parton’s America podcast, and everything changed. I recognised Dolly for what she was: our saviour, our guardian angel, a brilliant woman truly capable of single-handedly saving the world. All of this is to say, Pushkin Press was playing a stacked deck when they sent me a copy of She Come By It Natural by Sarah Smarsh for review. Of course I was going to love it. I would take a bullet for its subject.
Smarsh traces Dolly’s life and career – from a hard-knock Tennessee childhood to stadium shows – with touching little anecdotes about her own family and roots. She Come By It Natural isn’t a biography or a memoir, but a testament to the cultural significance of an icon. Plus, it’s full of the kind of fun facts I love to lob at my friends and family without warning (did you know Dolly has donated over 133 million books to children through her Imagination Library?). Smarsh also includes a foreword about how the world has changed since the essays’ original publication as a four-part series; I loved this extra context, and I wish more non-fiction books offered it. This is a must-read, for both the fans and the barely-familiar.
Get She Come By It Natural here.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
The Other Black Girl is one of the most-anticipated hot debuts of 2021. In it, Harris examines “the psychic cost to Black women of making [themselves] palatable to institutions that use [their] cultural cache for their own ends”. Twenty-something Nella is the only Black employee at Wagner Books, until Hazel arrives. She thinks she’s found an ally in the office, someone to bond with over the microaggressions that are as much a part of the everyday as printing pages for her boss. Then, Nella starts receiving threatening notes on her desk: “LEAVE WAGNER, NOW”. Is it just a coincidence that the notes coincided with Hazel’s arrival, or is there something darker at play? My friends at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Given the premise, I was really hoping for something along the lines of last year’s Such A Fun Age, maybe with a little The Devil Wears Prada thrown in. I loved the premise, and the insight it promised, and Harris has crafted one of the most chilling anonymous antagonists of all time (the threatening notes are written in Comic Sans – horrifying!). Unfortunately, the chronology of this one is wonky. Nella’s narration goes off on so many expositional free-association tangents that it’s easy to lose focus on what’s happening. Nella’s character is also, ironically, a little flat; she doesn’t have much going on other than Being Black In Publishing. The story takes a particularly weird turn around two-thirds of the way through which just didn’t feel “earned” to me. Harris stretches the metaphor to breaking point. The Other Black Girl is a brilliant idea, but ultimately falls short in execution.
Get The Other Black Girl here.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. Opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in America (turns out guns aren’t their only problem, not even their biggest!) and in Empire Of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe carefully examines how the actions of the Sackler family were the catalyst for this crisis. My friends at Macmillan were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Empire Of Pain is a chunky book, but it doesn’t read like one – it’s every bit as gripping and compelling as any fictional family saga. (And don’t worry, the medical jargon is comprehensible to anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.) With the precision of a prosecutor, but the even-handedness of a responsible journalist, Radden Keefe picks apart the origins of this dynasty’s deadly legacy. This is one of my favourite reads of 2021 so far, a must-must-must for fans of Erin Brockovich and The Social Network.
Get Empire Of Pain here.
Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald
Nancy Drew tragics, rejoice! Our favourite crime fighters (since the classic sleuth who inspired their name) are back again. The Nancys saw them investigate the grisly murder of a local schoolteacher. In Nancy Business, they gather once more when their small New Zealand town is rocked by an explosion at their town hall. Sounds like a case for The Nancys! This is a natural continuation of the original story, but can certainly be read as a standalone cosy queer mystery, blending crime, family drama, and #OwnVoices queer storytelling. My friends at Allen & Unwin invited me to join the blog tour for this perfect pick for Pride.
McDonald stays true to form in Nancy Business. The story is snappy, and the narration is as frank and literal as its main character, Tippy Chan. She has a certain naivete in her observation and expression, which makes the darker aspects of her story more palatable, balanced with keen insights into the human condition that could only come from the mouths of babes. It was a pleasure to join her, her uncles, and the residents of Riverstone for another heart-felt and hilarious romp in the world of amateur sleuthing.
The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
Class reunions make us all apprehensive, but Ambrosia dreads hers more than most. Gathering with all of her classmates from Wesleyan, the strange elite college she attended when she was a starry-eyed small town girl and desperate to fit in, threatens to dredge up her darkest secrets. The Girls Are All So Nice Here alternates between “then” and “now”, slowly building up to reveal what really happened That Night at Dorm Doom, and who must pay the price ten years later. My obliging friends at Harlequin (Harper Collins) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
This book is basically Gossip Girl with a dead body and a whodunnit thrown in. Unfortunately, aging up the characters means that you get a bunch of people in their 30s talking and acting like teenagers. Their emotions and entanglements were overwrought, their motivations unclear, and the narration lacked the finesse to make it forgivable. The hints as to Ambrosia’s secret went from tantalizing to heavy-handed as it progressed, and I’m not sure the pay-off was really worth it. The premise was intriguing, it started strong, but I’m afraid The Girls Are All So Nice Here fell flat for me.
Get The Girls Are All So Nice Here here.
Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson
Bree is 38 years old, she uses canvas bags, she’s a former board member of several charities, and she’s a doting mother to two teenage daughters and a “surprise” infant son. Her perfect life is shattered when she looks away for just a moment, and her son is taken. The phone rings: “Go home. Tell no one. Do not call the police. Do not call your husband. Be at your house by 5:15pm or he’s gone for good.” It’s a fairly standard (if horrifying) opening, but Jackson has a few surprises in store for readers of her latest, Mother May I. The wonderful team at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
The prose of Mother May I, and the twists in its premise, are a marked improvement on Jackson’s last novel (Never Have I Ever). This time around, she veers into territory I now think of as the “#MeToo novel”, where women’s anger and desire for vengeance is centered. The violence is not gratuitous, the sexual exploitation is not milked, but the stakes are high and women lead the charge. The ending is perhaps a little neat, but that was a forgivable comfort after a heart-pumping climax. It’s wonderful to see Jackson hitting her stride as an author of compelling suburban thrillers.
Get Mother May I here.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk
If we’re talking hotly anticipated new releases this year, Second Place could just about burn your fingers: the new novel from literary darling Rachel Cusk, author of the acclaimed Outline trilogy. The story of her latest is a tribute to Mabel Dodge Luhan, the woman who hosted D.H. Lawrence at her home in the 1920s. In Cusk’s version, a woman invites a famed visual artist to stay at her remote coastal home. The narrator, M, seems to fancy herself an Emma Bovary-type, isolated at home with her “not bourgeois” husband, her grown daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend. She hopes the artist, L, will be her salvation and she’s – naturally – disappointed by the strained relationship that develops between them.
This book can be found at the intersection of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Garner’s autobiographical fiction, but sadly falls far short of them both. There’s nothing fresh or ground-breaking in this testament to privileged second-wave feminism. Second Place is fine, it’s readable, but it’s also nostalgic to the point of boredom and quite forgettable. Still, I’m grateful to my friends at Faber Books for sending me a copy!
Get Second Place here.
The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent
Birdy Finch is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a millennial rom-com heroine. She has an arsehole kind-of boyfriend, no real direction in life, and a suitcase full of clothes selected for purchase because they don’t need ironing. She sees the opportunity to escape for the summer, impersonating her best friend Heather as a sommelier at a remote Scottish hotel, and she takes it. That’s the premise of The Summer Job, the first adult novel from YA writer Lizzy Dent, kindly sent to me for review by the wonderful team at Penguin Random House. Bridget Jones’ Diary meets Bridesmaids in this fresh, contemporary take on the secret identity trope.
Birdy arrives expecting a hole in the wall where she could bluff her way through. Instead, she finds the kitchen of a Michelin-starred chef and a twenty-page wine list. Her panic is very relatable: we’ve all found ourselves overwhelmed and underprepared for a new job, haven’t we? Of course, there’s a love interest, the dreamy sous-chef James, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of the story, which is a relief. Really, Birdy’s relationship with Heather is the defining element of this novel, and her desire to get more out of life. The Summer Job is an enjoyable escapist read with enough guts to earn your respect.
Get The Summer Job here.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
From the pen of poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood comes No One Is Talking About This, her first novel and one of the buzziest books of the year. Her poetic prowess is on full display in this story, told in fragments, of a life lived online. A woman, who shot to international fame when one of her only-barely-considered social media posts – “can a dog be twins?” – went viral, travels the world talking about “the portal”, the infinite scroll, the digital zeitgeist. She’s forced to confront the fragility of her virtual life when a tragedy in her “real” life threatens its margins. The wonderful team at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Look, I’m not going to lie: No One Is Talking About This is a bloody weird book. It’s full of nods to inside jokes and flash-in-the-pan memes that will be instantly recognisable to those of us who are Very Online, and completely meaningless to those who are not. Lockwood also excels at combining the surreal and the tangible, with hauntingly beautiful similes – like “he felt as breakable as a link in her arms” – that reflect how our digital and lived realities merge. I will offer here a big-time trigger warning for pregnancy and infant loss (I’m a tough nut to crack, and even I found myself blinking away tears in Part Two). Ultimately, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but I dig it.
Get No One Is Talking About This here.
The Hiding Place by Jenny Quintana
The Hiding Place is the book I didn’t know I needed: a twisty-turney thriller without a dead or missing girl. Imagine that! Also notably, blessedly absent: hard-boiled heavy-drinking detectives with a dark past, ticking time bombs, and ex-boyfriends with a knack for coercive control. Jenny Quintana’s third book is a compelling page turner without the tired tropes. My friends at Macmillan were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
The story centers on Marina’s search for the truth surrounding the circumstances of her birth. As an infant, just a few days old, she was found wrapped in a blue shawl in the doorway of 24 Harrington Gardens, in a quiet London suburb. Now, as an adult, she can’t resist the allure of one of the apartment at that address for let, and the opportunity to find out what exactly happened to her birth mother. The neighbours, the house, the nearby bookshop – they all hold clues. Quintana’s close attention to detail will transport you (though be aware that there are some passages regarding childbirth, abortion, and grief that may be triggering).
Get The Hiding Place here.
Like Mother by Cassandra Austin
Is it possible to be too tired to remember where you put your infant daughter down to sleep? If the stories I hear of new parenthood are true, abso-freakin’-lootly. That’s the disturbing premise of Like Mother, the new domestic noir from Cassandra Austin. Set in small-town Australia in 1969, over the course of a single day in the life of sleep-deprived Louise, it interrogates the role of women in the world and in the home, and how far the apple really falls from the tree.
Louise’s husband is away “working”… or is he? Her daughter is in the nursery “sleeping”… or is she? Her mother is constantly “interfering”… or is she? This book made me so impatient, I just wanted to shake it and scream “what is happening?!”, right up until the final chapter. I also loved all the nods that Austin made to the American cultural imperialism that intensified with the space race of that era. Much gratitude to Penguin Random House Australia who sent through this copy for review.
Get Like Mother here.
Love Objects by Emily Maguire
Nic treasures things that others discard. It begins each morning, at 6AM, when she provides breakfast for all the stray cats of her neighbourhood. It continues each evening, after work, when she finds new objects to bring home. Nic has always been especially close with her niece, Lena, but when a nasty accident exposes Nic’s hoarding, it causes a rift between them that may never be repaired. This beautiful novel—seriously! look at that cover!—Love Objects is the latest from Australian writer Emily Maguire, and the amazing Allen & Unwin team were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Maguire writes fearlessly about life’s messiness, without letting it consume or overwhelm the reader. I was particularly taken with Maguire’s treatment of class and perception; it’s a theme that purposefully permeates every strand of this story. Love Objects is a frank and highly-readable novel about family, fear, and confrontation.
From Where I Fell by Susan Johnson
Have you ever accidentally sent an email to the wrong address? Surely it’s happened to us all at one time or another. Most of us receive an automatic reply indicating that the misspelled address doesn’t exist… but what if our missive actually landed in a stranger’s inbox? What if they replied? That’s the premise of Susan Johnson’s modern twist on the epistolary novel, From Where I Fell (based on her real-life experience of the same!). The lovely team at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Pamela’s emotional email to her ex-husband is received instead by Chrisanthi, a woman on the other side of the world. Chrisanthi takes the time to respond, to let Pamela know her message has gone awry, and from there a friendship develops. There’s something deliciously voyeuristic about reading this exchange, like looking at screenshots of a friend’s messages over drinks, though to this millennial mind the instant intimacy between the women (in their 50s and 60s) seems a little strange. Still, I was impressed by the way Johnson managed to create and combine two strong and unique voices – Pamela’s heart-on-the-sleeve self-indulgent fretting, and Chris’s no-bullshit reasoning behind a stiff-upper-lip. This would make for a fantastic dual-narrator audiobook!
The Breaking by Irma Gold
The Breaking will draw you into the murky world of eco-tourism. Are the white travellers who impose their righteousness on Thai elephant trainers really any better than those who pay to have their photos taken with the animals? This is the ethical tightrope Hannah must walk, one of countless lost souls who has made their way to Thailand to try and find themselves. Many thanks to Midnight Sun and BFredericksPR who were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Upon Hannah’s arrival in Thailand, she’s swept up in the whirlwind of elephant rescue, riding the coat-tails of the beautiful and enigmatic Deven. Irma Gold weaves a moral quandary with queer romance in her intimate and textured debut. It’s a confronting read for anyone particularly sensitive to animal abuse and exploitation, but it’s thrilling and tense and urgent in other ways as well. The Breaking will remind you that good intentions aren’t always enough, and that real problems never have easy solutions.
Get The Breaking here.
New Animal by Ella Baxter
New Animal is a rare beast, a thoroughly-devourable debut novel from Ella Baxter. “Raw” is an over-used word for honest and forthright stories about sex and death, but that’s exactly what this book is: it’s the steak tartare of literature. Perhaps that means it’s not for everyone, but everyone should at least try it, right? My dear friends at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Amelia is the cosmetician in her modern family’s funeral parlour, “well known in this town full of retirees and clumsy tradespeople” (ha!). She also likes to de-stress from her days of dressing corpses with the company of young men (ahem). She’s an expert compartmentaliser, but even she struggles to keep her emotions in order when the grim reaper comes too close to home. Baxter could have easily veered into the smutty or the maudlin (or both!) with such a story, but she balances her unique brand of dark comedy with expertise that belies her early career status. I loved, loved, loved this book and snort-laughed all the way through.
Get New Animal here.
Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
The idea that super-smart Siri-like machines might rise up is hardly a new one in fiction… but what if they didn’t revolt? What if our Artificial Friends did exactly what they said on the tin, and upheld their obligation to serve us faithfully? This is new ground for “dystopian” literature, and naturally it is being trod by Nobel prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro. The fine folks at Faber Books were kind enough to send me a copy of his latest, Klara And The Sun, for review.
The story is told from the perspective of Klara, an Artificial Friend who satisfies herself with what she can see from the store window until a child selects her to take home. The title is not metaphorical: Klara comes to worship the sun, being as she is solar-powered, and it takes on mythic proportions for her. It’s a fresh take, but the themes are undeniably Ishiguro-y: memory, duty, and sacrifice, all of which exist in an uncanny valley too-near our own reality.
Get Klara And The Sun here.
The Art Of Death by David Fennell
Picasso once said that “every act of creation is first an act of destruction”. (I know that because David Fennell used that quote as an epigraph.) The Art Of Death takes that idea to its logical extreme. The premise is basically this: what if Banksy was a serial killer, and his artworks were his murder victims?
This one checks all the boxes for high-energy procedural thrillers: child abduction, a missing MP, a troublesome journalist, a difficult home life for the lead detective, a ticking clock, a parable about the dangers of social media… I actually can’t think of anything Fennell left out. The opening chapters were a little chaotic actually: Fennell throws a LOT of information at the reader, very quickly. Still, The Art Of Death was a solid, gripping read, one that steers into the skid of the gruesome and macabre. Thank you to Zaffre Books for sending through a copy to review!
Get The Art Of Death here.
Of Gold And Dust by Samantha Wills
OUT 2 MAR: Of Gold And Dust, the true story of Samantha Wills’ “overnight success”.
Samantha started her jewellery business on the kitchen table of her Bondi share-house. Soon, she found herself drowning in debt, and came within a whisker of selling a 51% share of her company to pay it off. Just a few years later, she turned over her first million, and a stream of celebrities were photographed wearing her pieces. Then, in 2019, she shut up shop. What happened?
Of Gold And Dust is Samantha Wills’ story, in her own words. Thank you to my friends at Allen & Unwin for the sneak peek!
Get Of Gold And Dust here.
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse
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
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
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
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.
The Speechwriter by Martin McKenzie-Murray
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
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
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
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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