Tag Archives: new release

Book Review: Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down

I always like reading a Miles Franklin winner and this one recently won this prestigious prize.

The novel begins with the narrator opening a Facebook message from a man called Tony who is wondering if she is Maggie from his childhood foster home. The message leads Maggie to reflect on her old life and she takes us down a heart-breaking and tragic past. Her mother died from an overdose and her father was is in jail for murder by the time she reaches five. From then she is shunted from foster home to foster home, encountering abuse, drugs and institutional neglect.

This is a tough story to read and it makes you wonder how much trauma and tragedy a person can endure. For some, this will be a very difficult story to get through. Yet the writing compels you to keep reading, to turn the page with the desperate hope for something better for little Maggie. And whilst there is at times despair, there is also hope as she claws her way to people who do care and love her unconditionally. The scenes with her last foster mum are heart-warming and gratifying as is her early life with her husband and his family. But of course, nothing lasts for too long as events take a twist forcing her to make difficult choices.

The foster care system is fully scrutinised and its failings highlighted for debate in the wider community. Down shines a light on how institutionalisation affects a child’s, education, sense of belonging and self, demonstrated when Maggie finds she has no history – no photos, scant background on her family and little record of where she’s been.

Set in various parts of Melbourne and Phillip Island it’s always gratifying to read about my own backyard and the author has been meticulous in her research given that the time periods of which she writes have not been directly experienced by her.

It’s a fascinating novel, highlighting important themes, yet the last third for me seemed to drag a little. Perhaps the trauma of her life was just a little bit too much for me. However, I was compelled by Maggie, her resilience and her perseverance for the life she wanted and eventually got.

Book Review: Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

This is another beautiful story following McConaghy’s first novel, Migration.  Along similar lines, this book explores climate change and the deteriorating world environment.

Inti Flynn and her twin sister Aggie arrive in Scotland. Inti leads a team of people who are tasked with introducing a group of wolves into the wilderness, commonly known as rewilding.  Inti and her team must deal with antagonism and suspicion from the locals some of whom still retain centuries old superstition about wolves. Despite that, she leads her team with grit and determination. When a sheep and then a man dies, the wolves are blamed and Inti makes an ill-fated decision which creates disastrous consequences to protect the animals.

The wolves are indeed the central characters. The rewilding process is a fascinating idea and has actually been introduced in Scotland in 2021. Land has been overrun by deer and farming. By introducing wolves as predators, the deer move on allowing the ecosystem to rebuild.

“if we can extend woodland cover by a hundred thousand hectares by 2026 then we could dramatically reduce CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change and we could provide habitats for native species.”

I really enjoyed the author’s exploration of this idea and it made me read further. It was successfully done in Yellowstone National Park and rewilding has begun to take shape in many countries across the world providing new hope.

But this story is much more than about wolves. The backstory of the sisters is emotional. Where Inti is ferocious and passionate, Aggie is silent and the trauma behind that is quite shocking. We learn also that Inti has the rare condition known as mirror-touch synthesia where she feels the pain of others.

The writing as always is beautiful and the descriptions of place so vivid, I could feel the bleakness and the cold. The sub-plots covered a lot of territory from domestic violence, to twin behaviour, animal bonding, community ignorance, trauma and mental illness. Without giving away spoilers, some of this could have been pared back as there was a lot to deal with as a reader. Was Duncan’s backstory just a bit too much?  It became quite complex yet wrapped up very neatly at the end, just a little too conveniently.  And while I appreciated what the author tried to do, there were some things that seemed to move towards the edge of implausibility.

But despite all that I really did enjoy it and the messages still remain important. Give this one a go.

Book Review: Denizen by James McKenzie Watson

Nothing is as it seems in this thriller debut by Australian author James McKenzie Watson.

Nine-year-old Parker grows up on a farm in outback New South Wales. His mother kills herself and his father is distant and Parker blames himself, knowing that something is wrong with him. An incident at a creek solidifies his growing terror and guilt about what happened. As an adult, the birth of his baby son brings back disturbing memories and doubts via flashbacks and when he returns to the creek on a camping trip with friends, he’s forced to face his past with drastic consequences.  

The first two parts of this novel was a slow reveal of Parker’s past and some of his present, his friends and his foes. The tension grows as does the disquiet drawn not just from Parker but from the very bleakness of the landscape, the town and its desolation and hopelessness. The relationship between mother and son is as disturbing as it is ferocious.

When I finished part two, my head was swimming trying to work out what the hell just happened, as everything I thought I’d known about this character tumbled away. Had I been sucked in by an unreliable narrator? It certainly seemed so. It took a couple of days to get back into the book as I needed that time to process the shock.

This story burrows into your mind as you try to make sense of the unfolding event, all the while compelling you to turn each heart-thumping page. It’s beautifully written, evocative of language and place.

At the core of this novel is mental health issues in rural Australia, the lack of resources for people and the consequences of what it can do. It’s not a happy or even hopeful story and may be very confronting for some, but nevertheless it’s a powerful and important read.

Book Review: The Mother by Jane Caro

A fictional debut by Jane Caro, this story about coercive control sheds a light on an ugly and little-known side of domestic violence. 

Newly-widowed, Miriam is grappling with her husband’s sudden death when her younger daughter, Ally marries a man she doesn’t know. Her relationship with Ally hasn’t always been steady made all the more difficult by her distance of a few hours where she lives in a country town. Ally’s new husband, Nick seems to say and do all the right things. Yet when he calls her to discuss Ally’s mental health issues after her son is born, Miriam is concerned enough to visit her daughter to help.  After much cover up, the truth emerges of what has been going on behind closed doors when Ally eventually leaves Nick to seek refuge with Miriam. And so, this sets off a reign of terror unleashing a painful dilemma for Miriam about the right course of action.

The first half of the novel was understandably slow as we meet and understand the characters, in particular Miriam.  You can’t help but feel sorry for her as she grapples with something she’s doesn’t understand. Her internalising for me was a little repetitive taking me out of the story at times.

Nevertheless, the author does a great job showing us what the subtlety of coercive control looks like. Is her Ally overreacting, believing she is the problem? Is Miriam really listening and questioning? Is anyone picking up the many red flags like surveillance, constant phone calls, and withholding money?   The second half however really comes into its own as the tension and suspense rachets up. I was unable to put this one down until the end.

There was a struggle in my head as I put myself into Miriam’s place wondering what on earth I would do in the same situation. How far would you go to protect your children? Surprisingly, I think many of us would want to go as far as we could. But whether we have the capacity is another matter.

This story, while topical is nevertheless an important one highlighting the gaps in our collective understanding of coercive control and the law’s inability to do much about it. As I write, there is debate by our politicians to change the law as well as educate everyone about what it looks likes and its consequences. Until there are serious consequence for this type of control, then it will only continue.

This one is  thought provoking and one to read.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler

It’s been a very long time since I read one of Anne Tylers books and writing about family is one of the  things she does best.

Mercy and Robin marry in 1940 and while Robin works long hours in the father’s plumbing business, Mercy raises the couples three children, Alice, Lily and David.  They manage to go away on their one and only holiday in 1957 with the three children. The novel provides snippets of their lives until 2020 and this is one of the rare novels, I’ve read which talks about living with the pandemic, familiar to so many of us.

Mercy is also an artist and there are no prizes for her style of mothering, as it is at best basic.  Alice picks up where her mother has left off by being the cook and carer of the younger two. The parents fail to see anything wrong with letting Lily, only fifteen, go out with a twenty-one-year-old man and Alice worries for her younger sister. 

The novel skips time after the holiday, spanning such a lot of time that I failed to truly engage with any of the characters. Mercy was self-absorbed in her need for peace and quite as she slowly moved away from Robin to live in a loft above a garage, ostensibly to paint. Robin is left bewildered, isolated, alone and sad. No-one confronts Mercy and the family just seems to know she’s left despite the appearances. But that is how the family operates – nonconfrontational.

There’s a sadness throughout as Robin tries valiantly to hold onto a non-existent marriage too weak to do anything about it. Alice helicopters over her sister, Lily, sitting in judgement about her behaviour while David their brother is so remote that he may as well have been on another planet.

They are more a set of individuals living in their own worlds than a cohesive family unit and I wondered what was the point of it all. While there is no plot, it is a pure character study yet the characters weren’t particularly interesting enough to spend time with and Tyler doesn’t allow us to anyway.  The reader never really gets close enough to anyone other than Mercy yet we still don’t understand her – I didn’t anyway.

The idea that family patterns can repeat is joyfully at odds with David who as an old man, a grandpa himself, gives rise to hope that he has out of them all, created a family whom he loves and is deeply connected to. And, he was surprisingly the one who shone through with hope for the future.

I’m glad I read this one.

Book Review: The Good Mother by Rae Cairns

Whew, just closed the last page of this debut mystery thriller and am still trying to recover.

Sarah Calhoun, a Sydney divorced mum of three is living her life, arguing with her children, making the school lunches and working. She gets along with her ex-husband and negotiating their family life in two separate households. Along comes a detective who pops into her life digging up her past, a past in Ireland when she worked as a youth worker during the nineties.

The detective wants her to testify against a man who has become a leader of the IRA, and he is not about to let her forget the terrifying past when she dodged bullets and grenades. To complicate matters she sixteen-year-old son has won a trip to play soccer in Ireland.

That same IRA leader finds her whereabouts and threatening her family, he directs her to return to Ireland. Trusting no-one, she reluctantly turns to her estranged father for help. Having no choice she and her father leave Australia, leaving her two daughters in the care of her ex. The detective assures her safety and her father protects her son but she doesn’t reckon on what the IRA leader will do to her.

This debut novel is simply astounding. It sets a cracking pace of tension and edge-of-your-seat page-turning action. I found myself screaming (in my head of course) for Sarah not to make the decisions and action she chose. But having no idea what else she should do, you just know you’d probably do the same to save and protect your children no matter what the cost.

Cairns has captured the very essence of the mother lion in all of us and thankfully, is very rarely tested in the circumstances that Sarah faces. Yes, there’s some violence, a lot of tension and even a bit of romance. It’s well-written and there’s a lot to learn about the battles between Protestants and Catholics during the 1990’s. It’s also about resilience and learning to trust.

If this one isn’t a movie soon, then it really should be. Calling all movie producers! Get this one made. Move over Jack Reacher for Sarah Calhoun. In the meantime, go out,  buy this one and prepare to read it quickly.

Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

As with many of Sally Hepworth’s books this is a  page turning novel full of intrigue and suspicion.

The book opens at a wedding and while out the back during the signing, someone is injured. Then we meet Stephen Aston, a highly respected heart surgeon and his daughters, Tilly and Rachel. It seems a happy family but we soon realise that not all is quite right with Tilly, whose middle-class lifestyle is falling apart, when her husband loses the family fortune and she turns to shoplifting to cope. Her sister, Rachel is a baker-extraordinaire who hasn’t been with a man since she was sixteen.

Sound interesting? Well then, there’s more when we meet Stephen’s new young fiancé, Heather, an interior designer whom he met while she was designing Stephen’s house for him and his wife.  How’s that for a bit of drama as the reader is taken on a guessing game of intrigue. What happened to the wife?

The story flicks in and out of Tilly, Rachel and Heather’s point of view and their characters are well drawn as we see their perspective about each other as well as their growing awareness of who their father really is. Not to mention that we are sporadically taken back to the church by an unknown character.

There were a lot of clues along the way and I could see what was coming fairly easily which merely pushed me to see if the three women could work it out too. I quite like that technique of letting the reader know first, yet teasing us along as well.

Overall, a quick and easy read – very enjoyable.