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April 2021

The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent

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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

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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

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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).

Like Mother by Cassandra Austin

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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

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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

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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!

March 2021

The Breaking by Irma Gold

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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

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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.

Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

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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

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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.

February 2021

Of Gold And Dust by Samantha Wills

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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

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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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