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.

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

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. 

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)

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.

A Captivating Story of Identity

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Cover of the book The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett featuring two facial profiles lying side by side, one black and one white, Image is to accompany book review on the same page.

The Vanishing Half is the story of identical twins, who grow up in the small, southern, black community of Mallard until they run away together at age 16, seeking a better life.

Mallard isn’t a typical black community. It is idealistic in that it values lightness of skin. Hence how many years after leaving the town, one twin has returned with her black daughter, while across the country, the other twin secretly passes for white, living a privileged life with her white husband and blonde-haired daughter who know nothing of her past. 

Once inseparable twins who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds: one black and one white.

For over two decades, the twins live separate lives, without ever seeing or having contact with each other. That is until fate intervenes and the lives of their daughters’ intersect – revealing confronting admissions and revelations from them both. 

The story is told over several decades, from the 60s through to the late 80s, from Mallard to New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York. It is a wonderfully engaging story and a very unique approach to the topics of race, segregation and prejudice. 

But surprisingly, so much deeper than the story itself, is the underlying concept of identity. The story is told through each twin, as well as their daughters, introducing several multi-layered perspectives of identity with respect to race, gender, privilege and class.

Through her subtle and intelligent writing, Bennett prompts the reader to consider why a person would seek an identity so opposingly different to the one into which they were born. Such self-determinacy does not come without challenge and sacrifice, but the possibility lies in opportunity, freedom, self-expression, privilege and the potential to live a happy and fulfilling life without fear or prejudice. 

‘She hadn’t realised how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.’

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (page 169)

With so much to unpack in this novel, The Vanishing Half would make a fascinating book club discussion and is one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. This one won’t be vanishing from the shelves anytime soon.

Published 2020 by Dialogue Books, 343 pages.

Funny, Heart-warming and Utterly Unpredictable

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Cover of the book Anxious People by Fredrik Backman featuring a very anxious looking man holding a sign featuring the titleand author's name against a light blue background. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

As the title suggests, this is a book about a group of anxious people. 

There is a would-be bank robber, who has made a terrible mistake, and a group of people at an apartment viewing who suddenly find themselves in a hostage situation. 

And they are the worst hostages ever! Not even slightly threatened by the would-be bank robber, the hostages are drinking wine in the closet and are intent on ordering free pizzas from the police; all the while opening up about themselves to each other, revealing their own, individual insecurities and anxieties.

I loved the characterisation in this book. There are ten characters, which is a lot, but it’s not hard to follow because of the way it’s written and the fact that each of the characters are so unique. I particularly enjoyed the interaction between the father and son police officers, tasked with rescuing the hostages and solving the case before a special investigative team from Stockholm are sent to take charge. 

Ultimately, ‘Anxious People‘ is a book about being human. And it’s a reminder to the reader that you never really know what is going on in someone else’s life, or why they act or behave the way that they do. Everyone is just trying to do their best every day.

Whilst ‘Anxious People‘ deals with some pretty serious subjects and is a very heart-warming read, it is also very funny! It reminded me of the movie, ‘Death at a Funeral’; similar in that there is an underlying hilarity and quirkiness which makes it very entertaining, without taking away from the seriousness of the issues raised.

This book made me laugh out loud, at times catching me so unaware and being so utterly ridiculous, almost slapstick, that I could actually imagine this book as a stage show. If it was a stage show instead of a book, I think that at the end of the performance you’d leave the theatre having had a really good laugh, perhaps shed a tear of two and think, “Well, that was a really good night out“.

Published 2019 by Penguin Random House, 336 pages.

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.

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