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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.

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.

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)

The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book The Good Sister by author Sally Hepworth featuring a pink paper cut out of two sisters holding a bunch of flowers against a bright blue background. Image is to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page.

Australian author, Sally Hepworth, brings us her sixth book just in time for the summer holidays. ‘The Good Sister’ is the perfect holiday read with a captivating story, a cracking pace, lovable characters, humour, suspense, plenty of twists, drama and a satisfying ending.

The story revolves around twin sisters, Rose and Fern, and alternates between each of their perspectives and between their childhood and the present.

Fern is portrayed so wonderfully, I loved her right from the start. She is a librarian and loves her job at the local library. She avoids loud noises, bright lights, crowds and anyone looking for help with the photocopier. Fern’s interactions with library visitors and staff are delightful and bring much warmth and humour to the story. She has dinner three nights a week with her twin sister, Rose.

Rose has always looked out for Fern and protected her. The sisters are very close, bound together as twins and by shared secrets from their childhood. Early in the book, the reader learns that there was a tragic event that occurred when the girls were 12. As a result, Fern has never been able to fully trust herself, often questioning her memory and doubting her capabilities. Fern relies on Rose, just as she does her strict daily routine.

Rose is married, however her husband has recently left her and she remains desperate to have a baby. Fern sees this as an opportunity to repay Rose for all that she has done for her, however unforeseen events soon threaten to disrupt Fern’s carefully structured life and reveal deep secrets from their past.

‘The Good Sister‘ is a compelling story of family, love and the ties that bind us. It is part mystery, part romance, part thriller and part domestic drama. There are a lot of elements to this story, but the author weaves them all together so seamlessly and by doing so, creates a story that is highly engaging and addictive. This was my first Sally Hepworth novel. I enjoyed it so much, it definitely won’t be my last.

Published 2020 by Pan Macmillan Australia; 328 pages.

Page-turning Australian Murder Mystery

The Survivors by Jane Harper

Cover of the book The Survivors by Jane Harper featuring ocean waves crashing into the wall of a rocky cave. Image to accompany book review on the same page.

Kieran Elliott lives with the guilt of the events that occurred one devastating day twelve years ago, when a once-in-80-year storm hit the small, coastal town of Evelyn Bay. The consequences of decisions made that day were fatal, and the disappearance of a local, fourteen year old girl was never resolved.

When Kieran returns to visit Evelyn Bay with his young family, it is soon apparent that all is not forgotten or forgiven by some of the locals. Then, the body of a young waitress is discovered on the beach. 

For Kieran, the investigation that follows presents questions that can’t be ignored, and revelations that prompt him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about the events that unfolded on the day of the storm. 

The Survivors is the fourth novel from popular Australian crime writer, Jane Harper. Her other books include The Dry, Force of Nature and The Lost Man.  As with these previous novels, The Survivors is an absolute page turner, with plenty of twists along the way. It delivers several interesting, likeable, well-crafted characters and a story that keeps you guessing right from the start.

I love the unique and distinctly Australian landscapes Harper features as the settings for her books. In The Survivors, Harper has captured the rugged beauty of the east coast of Tasmania; a coastline of sunken ships, enormous caves that tunnel through the cliff face, and cold, blue ocean as far as the eye can see. 

Jane Harper offers enjoyable and dependable murder-mysteries and has a real knack for teasing out a story. Whilst the ending wasn’t necessarily predictable, it didn’t come as a complete surprise either. But overall, the rest of the story was so entertaining and the ending still believable that I really didn’t mind.

Published 2020 by Pan Macmillan Australia.

An Australian Epic by the Author of The Book Thief

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Cover of the book Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak featuring the silhouette of a boy sitting on a roof and behind him is an orange sky. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Bridge of Clay is Zusak’s next novel following the huge success of his international best-seller The Book Thief, and it couldn’t be more different. It is an Australian epic of family, love and loss – and it’s an absolute ripper.

At 579 pages, you can really immerse yourself in this sprawling family saga, set largely in the outer suburbs of Sydney. The story revolves around five brothers – the Dunbar boys – Matthew (the eldest and the narrator of the story), Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy. Their mother is dead, their father has fled. The five boys, aged in their teens and early 20s, are growing up together in the family home.

A family of ramshackle tragedy. A comic book kapow of boys and blood and beasts.

Matthew Dunbar, Bridge of Clay (page 9)

They live with an assortment of pets collected by the youngest brother, animal lover, Tommy. The pets are each named after characters from the great Greek literary works, The Illiad and The Odyssey. So named perhaps in tribute to their mother, Penny Dunbar, who carried the books as a young immigrant from the Eastern Bloc and went on to lovingly read the stories to her sons, just as her father had read them to her.

Following the death of the boys’ mother, their father has retreated to the outback, in a house beside a river that overflows in big rain and isolates him from the town.

Our protagonist, Clay, is 16 years old and the fourth Dunbar boy. He is quiet and sensitive, yet also extremely physical. Always training for something, but none of them, including Clay, know what that is. All they know is that whatever it is, when that day comes, he’ll be ready.

And that may just be the day their father (only ever referred to as ‘The Murderer’ throughout the book) returns to ask the boys for their help to build a bridge over the river by his home. The sudden, unexpected return of their father is not welcomed by the boys; Clay, the only one who agrees to take their father up on his offer.

As the story unfolds, the building of the bridge provides a metaphor for the slow, rebuilding of the relationship between Clay and his father and the healing from grief following the death of their mother.

Clay will absolutely work his way into your heart. His young life has been marred by immense loss, tragedy and grief, but also love. As Matthew writes on page 10

“Let me tell you about our brother. The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay. Everything happened to him. We were all of us changed through him.”

Matthew Dunbar, Bridge of Clay (page 10)

Bridge of Clay will have you laughing out loud at unexpected moments. Equally, there will be times when your heart will swell with sadness and grief for the Dunbar boys, particularly Clay. With both scenarios, Zusak often catches the reader off-guard with his trademark laconic style.

Bridge of Clay took Zusak over ten years to write, and I for one am so glad he persevered.

Published 2019 by Pan Macmillan Australia, 592 pages.