The Prison Healer

by Lynette Noni

Cover of The Prison Healer book by Lynette Noni. Image features flowers and  vines crawling through a prison gate set against a dark background. Image is to accompany book review on the same page.

Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov. Prison life is brutal – vicious guards monitoring the prisoners’ every move, fatal work and abhorrent conditions – every prisoner is expendable. Kiva survives by being impassive and earns herself the privileged position of working as the prison healer. She dreams of one day being free of Zalindov, a prisoner no longer, free to reunite with her family on the outside.

When the Rebel Queen is captured and brought to Zalindov, Kiva is charged with keeping the seriously ill woman alive long enough for her to undergo the Trial by Ordeal – a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water and earth. The Trial by Ordeal is assigned to only the most dangerous of criminals and no one has ever survived. Then a coded message from Kiva’s family arrives, containing a single order –

Stay alive.
Don’t let her die.
We are coming. 

Aware that the Trials will kill the sickly queen, Kiva risks her own life to volunteer in her place. If she succeeds, both she and the Rebel Queen will be granted their freedom. With an incurable plague sweeping Zalindov, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva can’t escape the terrible feeling that her trials have only just begun.

This is the first novel I have read in the Young Adult Fantasy genre and to say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. I just loved getting lost in this world. And I think that’s the attraction with the fantasy genre. The reader is transported to a kingdom which is so alternative to the one in which we exist, yet you’re so invested in the characters, perhaps because the conditions and situations they are in are so extreme. The Prison Healer is masterful storytelling by Australian author, Lynette Noni. The ending was both surprising and exhilarating and had me eagerly anticipating the next book in the series.

You may be familiar with the #1 New York Times best selling author, Sarah J. Maas, who penned the seriously popular ‘Throne of Glass‘ series and the ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ series. Authors such as Lynette Noni and Sarah J. Maas create worlds that are so richly imagined – their books have intelligent, strong and determined female heroines, people with special powers, a renegade group of friends, they inhabit strange, deadly worlds, there are kings and queens and war, a slow burn love interest and the main character is also grappling with a greater internal struggle, haunted by the past which is teased out throughout the story. The Young Adult Fantasy genre is immersive and transportive. There is so much to enjoy, it is captivating reading.

So if you would never typically pick up a Young Adult Fantasy fiction, I recommend you give them a try – you will not regret it! The Prison Healer is suitable for anyone aged over 14 years. The ending will have you running to the bookshelf to make way for the entire series of The Prison Healer. And you will need to get ready, because the second book in the series, The Gilded Cage, is out on 28 September. I can’t wait.

The Prison Healer, published 2021 by Penguin Random House Australia, 403 pages.

Why Everyone Should Read Young Adult Books

What book do you remember reading in your teenage years? Perhaps it was Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery? Or Lord of the Flies by William Golding? How about Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume? For me, it was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Certainly, the books you read in those teenage years can leave a lasting impression.

Often referred to as ‘coming-of-age’ novels, Young Adult (YA) books are aimed at the teenage market, generally aged 14 – 18 years. They are characterised by a teenage protagonist who will navigate several difficulties and crises and consequently their character will grow and develop throughout the story. These days, the content of Young Adult fiction is as diverse as the teenagers they represent. Indeed, Young Adult fiction is responsible for leading important conversations around topics such as friendship, love, identity, mental health, gender, racism and family.

Interestingly, over half of the Young Adult market are adults, aged 18 – 60. So what attracts adults who already have a plethora of fiction available to them to Young Adult novels?

Firstly, Young Adult books are highly consumable. They pack a big emotional punch and are highly engaging without being overly heavy or distressing. Further, Young Adult books tend to blur the boundaries of genres. After all, teenagers are never dealing with one incident in isolation – they are navigating friendships, love, relationships, school and family whilst opening their eyes to the world and finding their place in it. Such multi-layered story-telling makes for really interesting reading.

Finally, Young Adult novels are so diverse. From fantasy to psychological thrillers, suspense to romantic comedy, drama and mystery. Check out the diversity in this list of 10 Must Read Young Adult Novels.

10 Must Read Young Adult Novels

1. Honeybee by Craig Silvey
In Honeybee, author Craig Silvey presents a truly unique perspective on teenagers in modern Australian society. The story starts late at night, fourteen-year-old Sam steps onto a quiet overpass and notices an old man at the other end of the same bridge, smoking his last cigarette. It’s a chance encounter that ultimately changes both their lives forever – one offering hope, the other offering redemption.

2. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Thirteen-year-old Charlie Bucktin is startled late one hot summer night by an urgent knock on his window. It’s Jasper Jones, a teenage outcast in the mining town of Corrigan, begging for Charlie’s help. What Jasper will lead Charlie to discover must remain a secret, one which Charlie will carry like a brick in his belly throughout a simmering summer when everything changes. Jasper Jones is a quintessential Australian coming-of-age story made all the better for the hilarious banter between Charlie and his stoic, ever-smiling, cheeky, cricket-mad, Vietnamese best friend, Jeffrey Lu.

3. The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni
Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov. Kiva earns herself the privileged position of working as the prison healer and dreams of one day being free of Zalindov to reunite with her family. But first she must undergo the Trial by Ordeal – a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water and earth. With an incurable plague sweeping the prison, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva is all too aware that her trials have only just begun.

4. 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze by Clayton Zane Comber
Xander Maze loves lists. Then one day, from the palliative care ward at the hospital, Xander Maze’s beloved Nana asks him to write a list of 100 remarkable feats that he can achieve by the end of the school year. But can this list of 100 remarkable feats really save Nana’s life? A thoroughly heart-warming read about never accepting the unacceptable, the power of lists and one boy’s unconditional love for his Nana.

5. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Challenger Deep is a moving and compelling journey of a teenager grappling with his mental health through increased paranoia, anxiety and depression. This story is so cleverly written by Neal Shusterman. Constantly moving between two worlds – Caden’s increasingly detched version of reality, and life onboard an imagined pirate ship journeying to the deep. The startling connections between the two worlds becomes apparent as the story unfolds and it serves to convey what it would be like to sail the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness. 

6. Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller
Ghost Bird is a wonderfully original and frightening suspenseful novel by First Nations author, Lisa Fuller. Stacey and Laney are twins. When Laney disappears one night, Stacey can’t believe she’s just run off without telling her. As the days pass and Laney doesn’t return, Stacey begins dreaming of her twin. The dreams are dark and terrifying and Stacey can’t tell what’s real and what’s imagined. All she knows for sure is that Laney needs her help. Will Stacey find her sister in time?

7. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
This is an entertaining whodunnit! The investigator is teenager Pippa Fitz-Amobi, an A-grade student with a shameless love for homework and an obsession with the closed-case murder of schoolgirl Andie Bell from five years ago. Pip aspires to be an investigative journalist so when it comes time to apply for her English extension project, she proposes to use Andie Bell as a case study. But Pip’s investigations soon start to uncover secrets that someone in the town desperately wants to remain hidden. Could the real killer still be out there? And do they now have Pip in their sights?

8. Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein
A psychological thriller from Australian author Sarah Epstein. Tash Carmody has been traumatized since childhood when she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure young Mallory Fisher away from a carnival. At the time, nobody believed Tash and she has since come to accept that Sparrow wasn’t real. Now fifteen and mute, Mallory has never spoken about the week she went missing. As disturbing memories resurface, Tash, who struggles with severe anxiety, starts to see Sparrow again. And she realizes Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about a dark secret connecting them. Does Sparrow exist after all? Or is Tash more dangerous to others than she knows?

9. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A teenage perspective on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. After the incident, what Starr says could not only destroy her community, it could also get her killed.

10. All the Bright Places by by Jennifer Niven
All the Bright Places is a tear-jerking romantic drama that will leave you sobbing. Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death. As their friendship grows, Finch knows that it’s only with Violet that he can be himself. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink. How far will Violet go to save the boy she has come to love?

Can you Solve the Case?

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

Cover of the book called The Appeal by Janice Hallett. Cover features a red ribbon tied around a stack of papers. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Someone was murdered.

Someone went to prison.

And everyone’s a suspect.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

The Appeal is a fun, murder-mystery book set in a small town in England. The story centres around an amateur theatre group called ‘The Fairway Players’. The group are rehearsing for their upcoming production of Arthur Miller’s classic drama, ‘All My Sons’. Meanwhile, it is discovered that the two-year-old granddaughter of the Chairman of The Fairway Players has a rare form of brain cancer and urgently requires life-saving medical treatment. The various members of the theatre group rally around the Chairman and his family, starting a charity appeal for little Poppy inclusive of a fundraising ball, a raffle, merchandise and even a yogathon.

But there is another appeal at the heart of this story: a court appeal. At the outset, the reader is presented with a letter from a QC instructing his young protegees to read through the swag of evidence presented before them, consisting largely of a trail of emails between the various members of The Fairway Players. You see, someone has been murdered, someone has been sent to prison and everyone at The Fairway Players is a suspect.

The author, Janice Hallett, wrote The Appeal as a tribute to her many years spent in community theatre. Setting the story around an amateur theatre group is a clever way to bring together a host of characters who otherwise wouldn’t typically interact and provides an almost endless list of suspects. For example:

Martin Hayward, aged 59, Chairperson of The Fairway Players amateur theatre group, joint owner of The Grange Country Club and grandfather to the terminally ill Poppy Reswick.

Isabel Beck, 29, Elderly Care Nurse and amateur dramatic. She’s lonely, fairly socially isolated, has obsessive tendencies and lives for The Fairway Players.

The two newcomers to town, recently returned from many years spent working as volunteer nurses for a medical humanitarian organisation in Africa.

The characters in this book are many and varied and whether they serve as a possible suspect or are included purely for entertainment value, they all contribute to weaving a detailed and enjoyable story. Acknowledging the large cast of characters, the author has included a complete listing of all the members of The Fairway Players which provides a handy character reference for the reader towards the start of the book.

The Appeal is highly original in that there is no narrative to the story. Rather, the story unfolds as a series of emails and messages between the members of the amateur theatre group. Together, this communication trail comprises the evidence presented to two law students by their solicitor mentor for review as he prepares to launch an appeal on a current conviction involving certain members of The Fairway Players. The presentation of all the evidence for the case forms the story and puts the reader in the midst of the investigation, challenged with solving the case alongside the two young articled clerks.

If you are up for some sleuthing with a side of community theatre, you’ll really enjoy this highly original and entertaining novel.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett, Published 2021 by Viper Books, 416 pages

Chills and Thrills as a Reunion in the French Alps Turns Deadly

Shiver by Allie Reynolds

Cover of the book 'Shiver' by Allie Reynolds featuring a snow covered mountain and a lone snowboarder making their way down the mountain. Off to one side is an isolated lodge. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

This thriller by Australian author Allie Reynolds is the perfect winter read! Five friends are invited to a reunion at a resort in the French Alps. They haven’t seen each other in ten years. The last time they were all together, they were at the peak of their competitive snowboarding careers. That is until one friend suffered a near-fatal injury during a competition and another friend never showed up to compete at all – her disappearance still a mystery ten years on.

Upon arriving at the isolated resort, the group are surprised to learn that there are no other guests, no staff and an icebreaker game awaits them in the resort’s function room. The game quickly ignites past grievances and incites new ones. Along with increasingly strange happenings at the resort, the group are on edge – questioning who invited them to this reunion, who they can trust and most disturbing of all, what really happened to their missing friend Saskia all those years ago?

Shiver has great pace from the get-go. It flips between the present and the past with both timelines providing engrossing storylines. It delves into the competitive world of professional snowboarding. These athletes live, socialise, train and compete at the highest level with the same people for months at a time in fairly isolated areas. In Shiver, this means walking a fine line between friendship and maintaining that competitive edge, and what can happen when that line is over-stepped in both directions.

Shiver is author Allie Reynolds’ first book. Nowadays Allie lives on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, where she has traded her snowboard for a surfboard after spending five winters in the mountains of France, Switzerland, Austria and Canada as a professional freestyle snowboarder. Reading Allie’s book, you get a sense that it was written by someone who has been immersed in the world of professional snowboarding and experienced that level of competition first-hand.

Don’t let the snowboarding terminology throughout the novel put you off. If you don’t know your ‘Cripplers’ from your ‘McTwists‘, it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the story. Frankly, I’d rather go to a beach dressed as a giant hot chip and be set amongst a flock of seagulls than entertain the prospect of a snow holiday. Shiver provides the perfect winter escape, and reading it on the couch with a hot chocolate in hand means you’re far less likely to fall into a crevasse.

Shiver by Allie Reynolds, published by Hachette Australia, 2021. 421 pages.

Top 5 Tips for How to Read More Books

Do you wish you had more time to read? Life is hectic and most of us feel as though we could do with more downtime in our days. The all too easy distractions of social media and streaming services mean that even with the best intentions, many of us don’t read as much as we’d like too. Reading is great for broadening the mind, entertainment, relaxation and practicing mindfulness. Here are the top five tips to read more books.

Tip #5 Join a Book Club

Book clubs are a fantastic way for people who share a love of books and reading to get together, share insights and compare reads on a regular basis. The added bonus is that the structure of book club and the expectation that everyone will have read the book by the next meeting is a great motivator to prioritise your reading. Starting a book club can be as easy as getting a group of friends together who have a shared interest in reading and agreeing to get together once a month or every six weeks – whatever timeframe is realistic for everyone. Set some ground rules and be prepared that like anything worthwhile, book clubs require some work and a level of commitment from everyone in the group in order to be successful.  The benefits are that you are reading more regularly, extending your reading interests and have a great excuse for regular, social catch ups with a group of like-minded people.

Funny meme which reads 'At my book club we drink so much that nobody has noticed I'm completely illiterate'. Image of a lady holding a cocktail and looking to one side. Meme accompanies tip on joining a book club as a way to read more books.

Tip #4 What to Read

Sometimes just finding a book you want to read is half the battle. Subscribe to a book blog (such as The Reading Edit http://www.thereadingedit.com) and follow The Reading Edit and other #bookstagrammers on social media (@the.reading.edit). Search Instagram using popular tags to find a Bookstagrammer with similar reading interests to you and follow them for recommendations:

#newrelease
#whattoreadnext
#bookstagramaustralia
#fiction
#thriller

Pop into a bookshop and support independent book sellers! As well as loving to chat all things books, independent book sellers often have a wall of best sellers or popular fiction in store. Alternatively, you can browse their websites for details on new releases and sign up to receive their newsletter. Don’t forget your local library is a great resource too.

Tip #3 Eliminate Distractions

Be prepared to put the phone down and turn the TV off. Leave your phone in a different room if you have too. At night, use the Settings app on your phone and set a regular, pre-determined time for the Do Not Disturb function. On the subject of eliminating distractions, it’s important to acknowledge that there will rarely be a time when there are no distractions at all, so don’t wait for the conditions to be perfect or you’ll never get to that book. Try to unwind at regular intervals of 10 – 20minutes throughout the day (or even longer if you can). Think of all the times during the day when you are scrolling through your phone. What if you picked up a book at some of those times instead? What a great example we would set for our children if they saw us picking up a book instead of picking up our phone.

A funny meme to accompany an article on how to read more books. The meme features a lady relaxing on a couch with the words 'The quickest way for a mother to get her children's attention is to sit down and look comfortable'.

Tip #2 Try to fit some reading into every day – and don’t wait until bed time!

Do you get into bed exhausted at the end of the day, pick up your book, read two paragraphs and fall asleep? Time to move that book off the bedside table, take it out into the world and show it a good time! Carry a book with you throughout the day and you’ll be surprised how many opportunities present to do some reading. Even a 10minute window can be an opportunity for a few quick pages. Don’t begrudge only reading two or three pages at a sitting. Each time your brain switches into reading mode, you are also switching it into mindfulness mode and the more you practise this, not only will you get better at reading, but you’ll reap the benefits of mindfulness practise. In addition, taking the opportunity to read several times throughout the day is also great for keeping you engaged with the story. Try these tips to get more reading into every day:

  • Set the alarm 20 minutes earlier in the morning, make yourself a tea or coffee and enjoy the serenity of sitting outside with the birds and a book to start your day.
  • Go to bed half an hour earlier, make sure you phone is on Do Not Disturb and enjoy unwinding with a book. You’ll sleep much better and have better engagement with the story.

Reading is like running. It might seem hard at first – you can’t concentrate, you have trouble finding the time, there’s too many distractions – but like running, the more often you do it, the easier it gets.

Tip #1 It’s a Matter of Priorities

How do some people get up at 5am to go to the gym before work? How do people find time to volunteer? To play club sport? To study as well as work a full-time job? It must be because they’re not as busy as the rest of us, right? They must have help – grandparents, cleaners, a better boss etc.
WRONG.
Everyone is busy. And yes, some people are busier than others, but how we spend our time each day is a matter of PRIORITIES. You get up an hour earlier to go to the gym because exercise and good health is a PRIORITY for you. You study while working full time with a young family because obtaining that qualification to get a better job, earn more money and potentially have a more successful career is a PRIORITY to you.
It’s the same with reading. People who read a lot of books do so because reading and the escapism, relaxation, broadening of the mind and the entertainment they get from reading is important to them.
So, if you want to make more time for reading in your life, it has to be a priority over other things, such as scrolling through your phone, mindlessly watching tv for hours and doing boring chores like cleaning the house. We are always told to make time for ourselves and the things we love and the various benefits that result when we do so such as improved mental health, better sleep and increased productivity. It can be as simple as picking up a book.

A funny meme to accompany an article on how to read more books. The meme features an image of a woman relaxing in an armchair and reading a book with the words 'I was going to clean the house, but then I realized...this book isn't going to read itself.

So there you have the top five tips to read more books. Now, if only I could get up at 5am to go to the gym….
Happy reading!

Spring Clean for the Peach Queen

by Sasha Wasley

Listen to The Reading Edit’s review on ‘Recommended Reading’ on Drive with Julie Clift, ABC Gold Coast, 27 April 2021.

This book is such a delight! Thirty-year-old Lottie Bentz left her hometown 12 years ago, soon after she was crowned ‘Peach Queen’ at the annual Harvest Ball. Now, her celebrity career is in tatters, she’s in the middle of a media scandal and her agent is in crisis mode. All Lottie wants to do is go home to the orchard town of Bonnievale and wait until the whole thing blows over.

But, following her recent, well-publicised indiscretions, she arrives back in Bonnievale to discover her feminist mother is furious with her. Lottie is broke and determined to declutter her life and start afresh with a clean slate. She lands herself a place to stay at the Brooker’s farm, living in a dusty old caravan with no electricity and embarking on a Marie Kondo-style declutter of both her life as well as the long-held Brooker farm. But as Lottie’s declutter begins to stir up long buried memories and half-truths, the very private Angus Brooker – former Peach King to Lottie’s Queen and heir to the Brooker farm – makes it clear she’s not welcome.

Nonetheless, Lottie is soon swept up in small town life, avoiding her mother at the family newsagency and even finding herself on the organising committee for the recently reinstated Harvest Ball. As kind Mrs Brooker’s health deteriorates, Angus starts to appreciate Lottie and even begins to enjoy having her around. It seems the Brookers and Bonnievale may need Lottie as much as Lottie needs them.

Spring Clean for the Peach Queen is funny, warm and modern, but brimming with good old fashioned country charm. I really liked how the story confronted complex family relationships and didn’t shy away from the challenges faced by small towns and farming communities. I loved the characterisation of the various folk in the small country town of Bonnievale. Lottie especially is just so darn likeable! Anyone who goes out on a limb to save an unwell chicken, nurse it back to health and then eventually release it back into the chook pen while singing ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child, is a kindred spirit of mine.

At 472 pages, it’s not a short story and it wasn’t exactly one of those books that you can’t put down. It’s more like a freshly made batch of homemade scones (with jam and cream) cooling in a country kitchen. You don’t want to eat all the scones in one go, rather, you can’t resist popping back for one more because they’re so warm, comforting and delicious.

The ‘Marie Kondo-style’ decluttering that Lottie embarks on refers to the Japanese tidying and decluttering sensation, Marie Kondo. In 2010, Marie Kondo authored the book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’. Her method of tidying, known as the KonMari Method is based on determining which items to keep. You simply pick up an item one at a time and if it sparks joy, you keep it! If it doesn’t, you thank it for its service and let it go. Whilst it is a highly effective tidying practice, the actual goal of tidying using the KonMari Method is to clear away clutter so you are free to live the life you want.

Although I don’t have any actual practical experience with the KonMarie Method, I am constantly decluttering. My husband worries that if he sits in any one place too long, I’ll throw him out too. It’s partly because we have a small, but character filled home with little storage, but I also love the idea of living simply and decluttering our lives to bring calm and contentment.

Spring Clean for the Peach Queen has been described as a ‘spring clean for the soul’ (Joanna Nell). There’s romance, it’s funny, the country setting and characters are so real and honest, and at it’s heart, it’s a book about discovering the sort of contentment you feel when you are truly happy just being yourself. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy reading, I’m sure that, like me, you’ll be happy spending time in the town of Bonnievale too.

Spring Clean for the Peach Queen. Published by Pantera Press, 2021. 471 pages.

Controversial or Captivating?

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Image of the cover of the book American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a repeated pattern of blue birds and barbed wire against a white background.

Right from the very first chapter, American Dirt is a thrilling and captivating read. It begins in Acapulco, Mexico as Lydia and her family host a backyard party to celebrate her niece’s 15th birthday. During the celebrations, while Lydia and her son cower in the bathroom, all 16 members of their family are gunned down by a notorious drug cartel, seeking to make an example of her journalist husband. 

Immediately following the brutal attack, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca are on the run, fleeing for their lives with targets on their back and no idea where to head next. Lydia soon learns that the reach of the cartels runs deep, with roadblocks on every highway and police and migration officers in their pay. She quickly realises that in order to make it to the Mexico/United States border as quickly as possible, the most dangerous route is also the only route. And so begins a heart-stopping journey riding illegally atop the freight trains, known as la bestia, with thousands of other migrants just like them who will risk everything in the desperate hope of starting a new life in the United States. 

Despite its harrowing storyline, American Dirt was nowhere near as violent or confronting as I was expecting. There is a constant thread of fear and sense of urgency throughout as Lyndia and her son struggle to flee Mexico to the assumed safety of the United States. Lydia’s fear of the cartel discovering them propels her and Luca forward into dangerous, unknown territory daily. At every turn, Lydia is forced to make hasty decisions that rely on instinct rather than careful consideration and rationale. Together as they flee for their lives, Lydia and Luca must suppress their grief for the loved ones they have lost, their only goal each day is to stay together and survive.  

Upon the release of American Dirt in 2020, the hype machine went into over-drive. The author earned a much publicised seven-figure advance from the publisher, it was endorsed by high profile authors such as Stephen King, it was selected as an Oprah Book Club pick and the film rights were sold to Imperative Entertainment, the studio responsible for Sierra Leone civil war drama, Blood Diamond. But the hype was soon followed by extensive criticism. It was labelled as stereotypical and culturally insensitive and there was much pushback from Chicana writers about the author, Jeanine Cummins, who identifies as white, writing a story about a Mexican migrant experience. Chicana writer, Myriam Gurba, expressed that with American Dirt, Cummins has ‘‘identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it’’. Ouch. 

Cummins insists her intention was to put a human face to the story of the Mexican/US border and to give a voice to the marginalised migrant community. She acknowledges in the author’s note at the beginning of American Dirt:  

“I was worried that, as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” 

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

In American Dirt, Cummins reminds the reader that migrants are human beings, not criminals and their reasons for fleeing are diverse and complicated. For reasons good and bad, American Dirt has certainly got people talking. Ultimately, if it makes people aware of the danger and desperation faced by so many migrants, not just in Mexico, but all over the world, then stereotyping or not, it is an important book.  

Despite all the criticism, American Dirt is a compelling, entertaining and thought-provoking read. I was right beside Lydia every step of her heart-stopping journey to freedom. 

Reference: Jane Sullivan, Sydney Morning Herald, February 11 2020

Published 2020 by Hachette Australia, 352 pages. 

Mystery in the Tasmanian Wilderness

The Bluffs by Kyle Perry

Cover of the book The Bluffs by author Kyle Perry to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a rocky outcrop with a misty, rainy sky.

“I won’t walk alone by the mountain trees,
Or the Hungry Man will come for me….”

Four teenage girls go missing on a hiking track during a storm while on a school camp in the Great Western Tiers of Tasmania’s rugged wilderness. Detective Con Badenhorst, recently transferred to Tasmania from his native Sydney, is tasked with solving the case and finding the missing girls. His investigations into the disappearance of the four school girls from the small town of Limestone Creek involve a teenage social media sensation, local drug dealers and the urban legend of the Hungry Man – a bushman allegedly linked to the disappearance of five teenage girls taken from the same bushland in the 1980s (there’s even a creepy school yard rhyme to keep the legend of the Hungry Man alive).

Then the body of one of the girls is found, mauled, at the bottom of a cliff – barefoot and with her shoes placed side by side at the top of the cliff with the laces neatly tied, just like in the legend of the Hungry Man. Detective Badenhorst’s investigations soon lead him to discover that Limestone Creek is a small town where everyone has something to hide and everything is not as it seems.

In his novel, Kyle Perry’s characters challenge the way we see drug dealers as always being the bad guys, or teenage girls as always so innocent and harmless. Kyle Perry has real-life experience in both these areas. In his job as a counsellor and youth worker, Perry has worked extensively across high schools, dealing with at-risk youth as well as a counsellor and case worker in men’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics. He grew up in a small country town, and his childhood was spent in the Tasmanian bush. He still lives in Tasmania today and notes in the introduction to the book that he himself has been lost in the Tasmanian mountains twice, once using pages ripped out of a journal to find his way out. The descriptions of the isolation and beauty of the bush in the Great Western Tiers only adds to the drama and appeal of the story.

Immediately they were enveloped by cider gums, their sap filling the air with a scent like honey, their leaves casting mottled shadows on the undergrowth of ferns and fallen branches.”

The Bluffs, page 396

If you love Jane Harper books, you’ll really enjoy The Bluffs. Like Jane Harper’s murder-mysteries, it features a distinctly Australian setting, the Great Western Tiers of Tasmania. Whilst The Bluffs doesn’t have the pace of a Jane Harper novel, the story unfolds in a way that lends itself to the reader really investing in the characters as well as the setting and builds to an absolute roaring finish that is equally exciting and unsettling.

Published 2020 by Penguin Random House Australia, 418 pages.

Scandal and Glamour in Old Hollywood

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Tara Jenkins Reid

The cover of the book The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by author Taylor Jenkins Reid to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a blonde woman wearing a green gown with a pearl necklace set against a rich red background.

Ageing Hollywood icon, Evelyn Hugo, is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. When she personally selects unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her life story, no one is more surprised than Monique herself.

Evelyn Hugo’s life as an actress and Hollywood icon through the 50s, 60s and 70s, has been a string of scandals, marriages and divorces. It’s sure to be one hell of a story and Monique is determined that this opportunity will be the one that jump starts her career. After all, she didn’t choose to stay in Los Angeles while her husband moved to New York so she could stay on the editing desk at Vivant magazine forever. But as Evelyn’s story nears its end, it becomes clear exactly why Ms Hugo sought out this unknown writer, as the lives of the two women intersect in tragic and irreversible ways.

Set in Los Angeles and steeped in old Hollywood glamour, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is everything we love about the lives of the rich and famous. It’s gossipy, scandalous, sexy and has a surprising twist. This makes the story sound frivolous, but in terms of storytelling, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is no lightweight. It weaves themes of ambition and success, love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Evelyn herself is glamorous, sultry, ambitious and formidable. One cannot help but be seduced by the famous Ms Hugo. Her seven husbands were only ever extras in the story of her extraordinary life.

Me, I’ve always gone after what I wanted with everything in me. Others fall into happiness. Sometimes I wish I was like them. I’m sure sometimes they wish they were like me.

Evelyn, page 344

I loved how the story was interspersed with news, tabloid and blog articles to give the reader a perspective of Evelyn from the outside world at that particular time. I also loved how each section of the book devoted to a particular husband opens with an illustrative moniker, such as ‘Poor Ernie Diaz‘, ‘Goddamn Don Adler‘ and ‘Gullible Mick Riva‘. It really set the tone for the character of that particular husband that was to follow.

I hope they make this book into a movie! It would be stunning on screen – from Evelyn’s early years growing up poor in New York, through her successful years as a famous Hollywood actress in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the marriages, the love affairs, the celebrity, all set against a backdrop of Old Hollywood glamour and an enthralling tale of what one woman was prepared to do and the sacrifices she would make to ensure the longevity of her own success.

Published 2018 by Simon & Schuster, 385 pages.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Cover of the book Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a woman wearing an apricot colored dress lying on her back on a green couch. Her head is hanging over one arm of the couch with her hands placed over her head. Cover is the same green as the couch.

Sorrow and Bliss is the story of a woman called Martha. As described on the back of the book, ‘It is sad and funny’ and so much more.

The story is narrated in the aftermath of Martha’s separation from her husband, as she reflects on her life, trying to better understand it and herself. For Martha has always known there is something wrong with her, she just doesn’t know what it is. Martha is a vivacious and intelligent character and her narration is laced with acerbic wit that makes the story so endearing and very funny.

But at the heart of the novel is the crushing mental illness that Martha has lived with since childhood. At age 17, she has a complete breakdown and spends the summer in her father’s study. Even when Martha is well, her fear and anticipation of a recurrence is never far from mind and, more importantly, she lives with information a doctor told her at one of the many interventions during her teenage years: that falling pregnant while on the medication would not be safe for a developing baby. Because of this, from a young age, Martha has convinced herself that she doesn’t want children, despite her adoration and desire to have them.

Over the years, Martha tries to manage her condition through varying diagnoses and prescriptions, but ultimately believes she is just bad at being a person. Her eventual full and correct diagnosis brings clarity, understanding and anger. The fallout from this revelation is utterly absorbing, heartbreaking and sad, as Martha finally navigates her way to uncovering who she really is and admitting what is important to her.

I loved how the story is told through a series of linked vignettes on Martha’s life, from childhood, through to her early 40s. Each of these vignettes typically give a short description of what happened, laced with witty asides, and is then finished with a final crucial line to hint at the wider tragedy of that particular anecdote.

The story is set in London and Oxford (with a short time spent in Paris), giving it a quirky Notting Hill vibe.

There are so many great characters in this novel. Martha has been fortunate to grow up surrounded by people who care, support and love her, including her family (both immediate and extended) and a much-loved work colleague. She has a strong bond with her sister Ingrid, so strong that others describe it as a ‘force-field’. Their father, an aspiring poet, is dependable, strong and kind. Their mother is largely absent, devoting her time to creating sculptures out of repurposed materials in the garden shed and prone to throwing huge parties at their Goldhawk Road flat. (I loved that Martha grew up on Goldhawk Road. It’s the same road I lived on when I lived in London. But ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ isn’t the story of 12 expats living together in a three bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Back to Martha.) Her Aunt Winsome hosts Christmas every year in her central London home. One year, Martha’s cousin brings his friend, Patrick, home to celebrate Christmas with the family, after Patrick’s own family neglect to book him a flight home from boarding school. This begins a tradition whereby Patrick joins them for Christmas every year, becoming a welcome addition to the extended family.

What is really liberating about this story is that Martha’s illness is never named, even once she receives a diagnosis. In her writing, Mason simply refers to it as ‘— —’. Despite this being somewhat of a frustration for the reader who is well and truly invested in Martha by the time of her diagnosis, by refusing to label her condition, the author removes the medical prognosis and any preconceived notions of a particular condition. After all, the name itself is not important. What is important is Martha’s ability to finally understand and know herself, and to see herself for who she really is after decades of that being compromised by false information and advice from doctors, by loved ones who have turned the other way, and by her own fear of what besets her.

So much of Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha trying to reimagine her past and the person that she is, and to redeem the hurt and loss at its centre. It is tender, sad, heartbreaking and funny throughout, thanks to the author’s sharp writing and intelligent wit. It is a revealing look at family, relationships and navigating life with serious mental health challenges. Finally, it’s about finding yourself and starting again from nothing, if you can find something else to want.

Published in 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers; 341 pages.

A Story to Devour Like A Delicious Bowl of Pho

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham

Image of the cover of the book The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features lots of incense smoke swirls in pink against a grey background.

The Coconut Children is the story of two teenagers, Sonny and Vince, growing up in Cabramatta, south-western Sydney in the late 90s. Both are first generation Australians from refugee Vietnamese families. Sonny is quiet and lives with her family, including her perpetually inebriated grandmother and her volatile mother. Vince became a bit of a legend around Cabramatta after he was hauled off to juvenile detention when he was 14.

Sonny and Vince are neighbours and as children, they were very close. Now that Vince is back from his two year stint in juvie, Sonny watches on with interest as he steps back into life in the ‘burbs.

‘Since he had been taken away, it seemed a mist had settled over Cabramatta and their suburb had gone to sleep. The world was only awake when Vince was there to see it.’

Sonny (page 4)

In The Coconut Children, I loved the way author Vivian Pham portrays life for migrant and refugee families who arrived in Sydney from the late 70s. Trying to establish a new life in neighbourhoods troubled with gangs, violence, drugs and socio-economic hardship. But this is just the backdrop to the story. The Coconut Children is a moving, funny and sharp observation on community, family, love and loyalty.

I also loved the nods to Vietnamese culture throughout the book – Sonny’s mother always in the kitchen, cooking; her father tending to their garden filled with Vietnamese herbs, fruits and vegetables; the untranslated Vietnamese language filtered throughout the book. Most of all, I loved the way in which the author nails the balance between emotion and humour throughout the story. For her to achieve this at just 19 years of age, as a debut novelist is extraordinary.

Like Sonny, author Vivian Pham is a first generation Australian from a refugee Vietnamese family. 

Her father fled Vietnam at age 17 and made the dangerous journey by boat when, after 10 days at sea, it had run out of gasoline and was drifting with barely any food on board. The boat finally hit a coral reef and all passengers were forced to flee to safety on a nearby deserted Indonesian island. During the journey, their small boat was raided by pirates several times, leaving dark physical and emotional scars on the men, women and children on board. They lived on coconuts and fish for three months before finally being rescued by Indonesian officials and being taken to a refugee camp where he spent the next 12 months before finally being granted entry to the United States. You can read more on Vivian Pham’s family story here.

The stories her father shared with his daughter from this time is largely what inspired her writing. As Pham notes about her father in the back of the book, “…she grew up writing stories because she knew there was one stuck inside of him.” So, whilst The Coconut Children isn’t biographical, it is very much inspired by both her own upbringing in Sefton, Western Sydney and her father’s stories as a refugee.

When Vivian was 16, she joined a novella writing program run by a not-for-profit creative writing centre for marginalized young people in Redfern. Instead of writing short, she handed in 90,000 words – the first draft of The Coconut Children. A senior editor at Penguin Random House was a volunteer on the program and was assigned to work with Vivian on her story. He read the first page and was stunned. Her draft soon found it’s way to a Sydney literary agent who quickly realized it’s potential and took the manuscript to auction. Every publishing house that saw it, bid for it and in 2018, when she was just 17 years of age, Vivian signed a contract with Penguin Random House.

Now a third-year Arts student, majoring in philosophy and minoring in creative writing, The Coconut Children is no fluke. Vivian Pham is intelligent, funny and keenly observant. You can read more about Vivian Pham’s writing journey thus far here.

The Coconut Children is warm, funny, tender, and wise. It’s about not just what it means to be an immigrant, but what it means to be the child of a refugee and the responsibility of carrying that legacy and those stories with you, even though they aren’t directly your own.

Vivian Pham has been described as a ‘voice of her generation’ (Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Feb 2020). If you do decide to read The Coconut Children, I hope, like me, you will devour it like a big, delicious bowl of Pho.

The Coconut Children scores 5 coconuts out of 5.

Brilliant First Nations Debut

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson

Image of the cover of the book Song of the Crocodile by author Nardi Simpson to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features the bare branches of a lone tree against a starry night sky. There is a black crow on one of the branches.

Song of the Crocodile is the debut novel by First Nations author, Nardi Simpson. It is set in the fictional ‘gateway’ town of Darnmoor, home to the Billymil family. The story is told through three generations of women from the Billymil family. Along with the rest of the Indigenous community of the town of Darnmoor, the Billymil’s live in the Campgrounds – makeshift camps that are located out of town, past the dump, with no running water or electricity.

Meanwhile, in town, the white settler families live comfortably in their homes, with their neatly manicured gardens and watered green lawns. The differences between the black Indigenous community in the Campgrounds and the white settlers in town are stark and uncompromising.

As the town of Darnmoor marches towards ‘progress’, the divide between the white settlers and the Indigenous community widens. Though the rigid status quo is mainly upheld through threats and soft power, rather than the overt violence of yesteryear. The inhabitants of the Campgrounds struggle to navigate a world that doesn’t want them. Some of the Indigenous community bravely try to affect change, others survive by keeping their heads down. There is deep segregation, discrimination, racism and violence inflicted on the Indigenous men, women and children.

The story culminates in a violent act that shakes the town to it’s core. Nardi Simpson heightens the suspense in this multi-layered story by intertwining the legend of the mighty crocodile into the final shocking events.

Reading the story of the three generations of Billymil women, I felt deep sadness and shame for the treatment of our First Nations people. But the shame and sadness that I felt sat alongside me as I read and never took over from the story itself.

Yes, Song of the Crocodile is an emotional read, but it is also wise, warm and gentle. It is an astonishing and brilliant read with great depth, a compelling storyline and beautifully written.

I would encourage everyone to read, not just Song of the Crocodile, but any book written by First Nations authors. It is so important that we search out and continue to read books about First Nations people, told in their own voice. When you do, you are rewarded with stories that are contemporary, wise, warm, brilliantly written and brimming with First Nations people’s culture, sense of community, spirituality and connection to the land.

Song of the Crocodile was read in Yugambeh Country, Gold Coast, Australia.

Other notable books by First Nations authors:

Swallow the Air and The Yield by Tara June Winch (Fiction)
Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (Fiction)
Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (Non-fiction)
Loving Country, A Guide to Sacred Australia by Bruce Pascoe (Non-fiction)
Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller (Young Adult Fiction)
Welcome to Country by Aunty Joy Murphy and Lisa Kennedy (Children’s Non-fiction)
Bindi by Kirli Saunders (Middle School Readers)

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