Review: Do As I Say by Sarah Steel

 

Title: Do As I Say: How Cults Control, Why We Join Them, and What They Teach Us About Bullying, Abuse and Coercion

Author: Sarah Steel

Published: 28th June 2022, Macmillan Australia

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy PanMacmillan

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My Thoughts:

Sarah Steel, the creator and host of the popular ‘Let’s Talk About Sects’ podcast, examines the dynamics of cults and the people involved with them in Do As I Say: How Cults Control, Why We Join Them, and What They Teach Us About Bullying, Abuse and Coercion.

The definition of a cult is not always clear, but most of us are certain we would recognise one, so I found it interesting that many of the former members (who weren’t born into one) interviewed by Steel claim they didn’t join a cult, they joined ‘a group’ or ‘a movement’ or’ a community’, and it was only much later, some not until after they’d left, that they recognised they had been recruited into a cult. They’d often been vulnerable at the time, not because they were naive or unintelligent as people are wont to think, but because they were at a turning point in their lives and searching for purpose or a sense belonging.

Toxic cults, Steel demonstrates, are incredibly adept at promising to have the answers for those seeking them, and irrespective of country, culture or belief system, share similar unhealthy traits designed to impose control on their followers. Steel explores the tactics they exploit to recruit and keep members, and why people, especially women, find it so difficult to leave once they become enmeshed. It’s far more complicated than you might think and Steel, sharing fascinating firsthand accounts and meticulous research, provides thoughtful insight into the issues.

Steel also addresses the elements of cultic behaviour that can be found in a range of societal organisations including mainstream religion, MLM companies, political groups, fandoms, and street gangs. There is some discussion about conspiracy theories including those that have arisen due to the pandemic. I appreciated the focus on cults operating in Australia, somewhat surprised to how many have a foothold here, though often these are an offshoot of North American or British groups imported via the global reach of the internet, and disappointed to learn that Australia’s weak whistle-blower laws offer them so much protection.

Written in an almost conversational tone, Do As I Say reads well. I particularly like that Steel allows for individuals to share their personal stories. I do think the book could benefit from some boxouts to highlight or summarise points made in the narrative though.

Do As I Say is an interesting, thought-provoking read that should suit a range of readers interested in the topic. In her conclusion, Steel suggests transparency, empathy, bridging and education, especially in regards to understanding coercive control, is a way to not only combat unhealthy cults, but will also help those caught in abusive intimate relationships. Certainly something needs to change as society increasingly veers towards absolutism.

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Review: Five Bush Weddings by Clare Fletcher

 

Title: Five Bush Weddings

Author: Clare Fletcher

Published: 2nd August 2022, Penguin Random House Australia

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin Random House Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Five Bush Weddings is a charming Australian romantic comedy debut from Clare Fletcher.

Wedding photographer Stevie-Jean Harrison loves being part of a couple’s special day, but, single at 31, she’s starting to think she may never have her own. Everyone she knows seems to found ‘the one’ – her ex has just announced his engagement, and his gorgeous, young bride-to-be wants Stevie as their photographer; Jen, her best friend and roommate, seems committed to the Most Boring Man Alive; even Stevie’s sexagenarian mother has started dating, – why can’t she?

Johnno West has been in love with Stevie-Jean since he was nineteen. Recently returned to rural Queensland to fulfil his parents expectations and take over the family farm, he is hopeful his best friend’s ex might finally be ready to give him a chance. After all, she once made him promise that if they were both single at 32, they would get married, and he intends to hold her to it.

The friends-to-lovers romance trope has always been my favourite, and it underpins the story of Five Bush Weddings. Stevie and Johnno have known each other for over a decade, but her relationship with Tom (Johnno’s best mate), and his later move to London, stunted their mutual attraction. Fletcher cleverly utilises the wedding ceremonies that Stevie is hired for to create a framework that ensures the two characters are reunited. I enjoyed the chemistry between the pair, and their teasing banter. There are several obstacles to their relationship as the story progresses including a reluctance to risk their friendship, Stevie’s poor self-awareness, and the introduction of romantic rivals, and while you know it’s going to work out, the author does generate some tension. The heat level in this novel is quite chaste, though remarkably Fletcher is able to communicate passion with a dropped meat pie.

I did grow impatient with Stevie at times as she leant into her self-pity a little too often, and behaved badly as a result, particularly with Jen. I liked her relationship with her mum though, and no one deserves to have an affair implode so publicly. Funny, thoughtful and easy-going, Johnno is a less complicated character. I liked the dynamic with his family, and his support of his sister.

I really enjoyed the distinctive Australian details in this novel. Though Stevie is based in Brisbane, the book is set largely in rural Queensland where the various weddings she photographs take place. Fletcher ably evokes the vastness of the outback and its landscape, but more importantly she captures the sense of community and tradition that unites small towns, and the characters that populate them. The ‘Bush Telegraph’ posts are a fun touch, and I appreciated that Fletcher also touches on some important issues that impact rural life.

Told with heart and humour, Five Bush Weddings is an entertaining read with a satisfying happily ever after.

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Review: The Angry Womens Choir by Meg Bignell

 

Title: The Angry Womens Choir

Author: Meg Bignell

Published: 5th July 2022, PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“I’m all for stirring things up but the West Moonah Womens Choir manages perfectly well in its steady, peaceful way. The Angry Womens Choir would burn down the world.”

I knew by page three I was going to adore Meg Bignell’s new release, The Angry Womens Choir, as much as I did The Sparkle Pages and Welcome To Nowhere River.

A story of friendship, community and empowerment, it begins when busy wife and mother Freycinet Barnes distractedly steps in front of a moving car. The driver, Kyrie and her passenger Rosanna, are members of the West Moonah Womens Choir, and Freycinet (who dislikes being called Frey) finds herself welcomed into their supportive fold.

The award-winning West Moonah Womens Choir is made up of nine women of different ages and stages of life. They are well known for their traditional repertoire performed at various events in Tasmania, but in private the women transform into The Angry Womens Choir, belting out their large, and small, frustrations and ‘furies’ in song.

“So we have a rebel princess, the actual Liniment Girl, a hero lawyer, a badly behaved genius, a dementing woman, a rising star, a dying woman and a murderess.”

The choir is more than just a group of singers, they are a family who choose to love, support, and celebrate one another, even if they occasionally squabble like siblings. Bignell has created a delightful cast of unique women, some with quite extraordinary histories, all of whom I came to care for, from the formidable choir director Bizzy, to the brave and tragic Rosanna. Despite appearances, and her own doubts, Freycinet, it transpires, fits right in. I enjoyed getting to know her and cheered her on as she struggled to reclaim herself.

Freycinet joins the choir just as they have announced they are going to host their own rally in a few months to protest oppression in all its forms. Naturally there is a strong feminist angle to this theme, but it’s intended as an inclusionary term to encourage empathy and everyday activism. Bignell captures the passion, energy and courage of these women and their campaign to make a difference that will not only better the community, but themselves as well.

Other subplots are weaved neatly into the story including the threat to the choir’s practice space, a shabby historical building which a local councillor is determined to demolish and Freycinet’s daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder. Most of the choir members also have an arc of sorts from an unexpected pregnancy, to a reunion with a lost love.

Though there is plenty of humour, and even moments of sheer absurdity, to be found in The Angry Womens Choir, which are sure to make you laugh out loud, there is real emotional depth to this novel as Bignell explores loss, grief, regret, forgiveness, and rage.

The Angry Womens Choir is witty, impassioned, poignant. A joy to read, I encourage you to #JointheChorus

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Review: Someone Else’s Child by Kylie Orr

 

Title: Someone Else’s Child

Author: Kylie Orr

Published: 1st June 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Debut author Kylie Orr explores friendship, betrayal, and trauma in Someone Else’s Child.

With traditional approaches failing to treat eight-year-old Charlotte’s brain tumour, everyone agrees that securing her a place in an overseas clinical trial that offers help is essential, despite the exorbitant costs involved. While Lottie’s heartbroken father Jeremy continues to work to support the family, and her devoted mother Anna, takes sole responsibility for her care, Ren, Lottie’s loving godmother, does what she can to help them all cope with the strain, and is an eager supporter of the fundraising efforts.

As the story unfolds from Ren’s perspective, it’s clear she admires Anna, though they are quite different from one another. Orr’s skilful portrayal of their dynamic, which is integral to the plot, is very believable. In their nine years of friendship, Ren has never had reason to suspect Anna capable of deceit or cruelty. If Anna is lately occasionally sharp and demanding, Ren readily accepts the stress and exhaustion of the circumstances as an excuse. While she may not always agree with her friend’s decisions, Ren tells herself she is not a mother, and she trusts that Anna knows what is best for her daughter.

Orr stirs a range of strong emotions as the story progresses, from sadness and compassion, to dread and anger, but there is nuance to be found too. Though there is no surprise in regards to the direction the main plot takes, there is growing tension as Ren begins to suspect something is wrong which eventually builds to a dramatic confrontation. I like that Orr also briefly explored the aftermath of events, with an epilogue set three years later.

Subplots also add texture to the characters and enhance the story, in particular Ren’s struggle, as a Respite Coordinator for the town council, to find help for a young single mother of disabled son at the end of her rope.

Well-written, with complex characterisation, and an emotive plot,  Someone Else’s Child is a strong debut. I couldn’t help but consider how I, compared to Ren, would reaction at various points, suggesting this would be a great choice for a book club.

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Blog Tour Review: A Recipe for Family by Tori Haschka

 

Title: A Recipe For Family

Author: Tori Haschka

Published: 3rd August 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia 

Read: August 2022 courtesy DMCPRMedia

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My Thoughts:

Stella Prentice feels like she is drowning. With her husband, Felix, rarely home, she’s struggling to manage her full time career as a brand manager for an upmarket grocery chain while raising her bright four year old, Natalie, and resentful teenage stepdaughter, Georgia, along with fulfilling life’s everyday tasks. Stella’s friends amongst her well-off Northern beaches community insist that a live in au pair is the life raft she needs, but will it be enough to save a sinking ship?

Set within the same community as Tori Haschka’s debut novel, Grace Under Pressure, A Recipe for Family shares the exploration of similar themes such as work/life balance, marriage, motherhood, family, friendship and the stresses of modern living.

As an overwhelmed working wife and mother, Stella is an easy character to relate to as she attempts to juggle the demands on her time, struggling with guilt and resentment when she inevitably drops a ball. Hiring an au pair is an impulsive move, and though Stella is hopeful it will work out, she is uncomfortable with the arrangement. Subsumed by her own issues however, Stella does not handle the situation well, and her relationship with Ava becomes increasingly strained.

I felt very sorry for Ava, still grieving the recent loss of her mother, she is very far from home, and still so young. Ava attempts to draw comfort and advice from notes and recipes left to her by her late mother, but it quickly becomes clear, though she bonds well with Natalie and Georgia, that she doesn’t quite have the maturity or experience to negotiate the awkward situation she finds herself in.

There’s also a third narrative strand in A Recipe for Family which involves Stella’s mother-in-law, Elise. I liked the character, and enjoyed many of her observations, but I didn’t feel the features of her storyline fit comfortably in the novel. I thought the glimpses into the lives of Stella’s and Ava’s friends and acquaintances were more relevant, providing some interesting context and contrast to their circumstances.

Food, and in particular its associations with motherhood, is a linking motif in the novel, from Stella’s repeated attempts to connect with Georgia by preparing meals to honour her stepdaughter’s late mother, to the comfort food Stella prepares for herself at a low point, to the recipes that Ava cooks for the Prentice’s. I think many of us have at least one recipe that serves as a connection to family – for me, it’s my mother’s meatloaf, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I also really liked that Haschka thoughtfully includes the recipes mentioned through the story in full.

Warmly written, with relatable characters, and thoughtful observations, A Recipe of Family is an engaging novel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the last few lines of the novel had quite the unexpected kick, and I hope that Haschka decides to explore its consequences, (particularly for Eve) next.

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Review: Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivener

 

Title: Dirt Town

Author: Hayley Scrivenor

Published: 31st May 2022, Pan Macmillan Australia 

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Pan Macmillan

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My Thoughts:

Dirt Town (published in the US as Dirt Creek) is an impressive crime fiction debut from Hayley Scrivenor.

When twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi fails to return home from school one afternoon, the small country town of Durton is horrified. The reader knows from the outset that Esther is dead, though it’s five long days before the town learns her tragic fate.

Dirt Town unfolds from multiple perspectives, most notably the poignant voices of Esther’s best friends, Ronnie and Lewis; the missing girl’s devastated mother, Constance; investigative officer Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels; and a dramatic ‘Greek chorus’ that represents the children of the community.

This is an absorbing, tense mystery where Esther’s disappearance prompts the revelation of several secrets. It’s not just the girl’s killer who is desperate to hide wrong-doing from Michael’s investigation, and untangling the mistakes, deceits, scandals, and crimes that cloud the case is a challenge for an outsider. With so many viable suspects, I did not guess the answer as to who, or why, until it was revealed.

Sensitive readers may find particular scenes disturbing, but I did not feel they were gratuitous, and spoke to character.

The insular nature of the community, it’s remote location and hot, energy-sapping weather create an atmospheric read. The characters anxiety supports the momentum of the narrative, which is measured, but not slow.

Skilfully crafted, Dirt Town is a gritty, intense, and moving novel that exposes a tragedy and its aftermath.

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Review: Rattled by Ellis Gunn

 

Title: Rattled: A rare first person account of surviving a stalker

Author: Ellis Gunn

Published: 1st May 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

“….I was beginning to think I’d overreacted. Looking at it logically, he hadn’t done anything wrong.He hadn’t threatened me, or been offensive. A little over-eager maybe, a little too personal, but…probably nothing to worry about.”

It began with an casual interaction over a chest of drawers at an auction, Elise Gunn responded amiably to The Man’s attempt at conversation but politely brushed off his overture for further contact, and then ignored his unsolicited email. When he attempts to speak with her again, weeks later at the same auction house, Elise quickly makes her exit, feeling uncomfortable and anxious. When The Man next approaches Elise, she is walking home through a park having just dropped her son at school. He insists on walking with her, and during his one sided conversation he mentions details about Elise he is unlikely to know, unless he’s been following her for some time. The police are sympathetic when she reports her concerns but can’t do anything to help, and Elise is left feeling powerless.

Elise Gunn gives a powerful account of being stalked by a stranger with unknown motives. For Elise, The Man’s behaviour is ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. Quivering from hyper-vigilance, and expecting the worst, she is anxious, fearful, and panic-stricken. Unable to affect The Man’s behaviour, Elise attempts to take control of her own, seeking help from a victim support agency and CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).

In between each encounter with The Man, Gunn relates a former experience where she was affected by sexism, misogyny or male violence, from being heckled by a group of aggressive young men outside a pub, to enduring a rape by a trusted employer, and a poem the messages women too often receive about such encounters.

I was expecting an exclusive focus on stalking but Gunn also explores the broader research on topics related to trauma and PTSD, socialisation, gendered crime and inequality, and what is still needed for society to change. I am a little disappointed that, though Gunn includes a bibliography, she doesn’t list Australian services that readers could reach out to.

I found it frighteningly easy to relate to many elements of Gunn’s narratives. Rattled is an honest, thoughtful and impactful memoir that educates and informs.

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Review: One of Us by Kylie Kaden

 

Title: One of Us

Author: Kylie Kaden

Published: 3rd May 2022, Pantera Press

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Pantera Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

One of Us is a contemporary novel of domestic suspense from Australian author Kylie Kaden.

Within one of the architecturally designed homes behind the gates of the exclusive Apple Tree Creek Estate lies the body of a man, blood pooling on the living room floor from a deep stab wound. As a detective studies the scene, and the reactions of the man’s wife, Kaden shifts to the recent past, and focuses on two women, near neighbours Gert Rainworth and Rachel York, who meet and become friends just as their respective marriages are falling apart.

At a fairly measured pace, Kaden exposes the secrets, betrayals, and stresses that culminate in the introductory scene. Gertie is reeling from her husband’s acceptance of a year long transfer to his company’s Singapore office, and his decision to go alone, leaving her with their three children. Rachel, heavily pregnant with her third child, is increasingly exhausted by her husband’s serial philandering, and escalating control issues.

Gertie and Rachel, despite having little in common, form a supportive rapport that feels authentic, as they both struggle with their respective situations. Kaden has a real talent for portraying the familiar minutiae of domestic life, and explores the challenges of marriage and motherhood with empathy.

Stripping back the facade of privilege, wealth and security the community and its residents project, Kaden reveals a host of hidden dysfunctions, from the awful truths about Rachel’s husband, to a neighbours secret shame, and even the way in which the measures used by the gated estate to keep residents safe, can be perverted.

By the time the identity of the stabbed man is revealed, several characters prove to have reasonable motives for the attack. I enjoyed the puzzle of determining which was most likely, and was satisfied by the denouement.

One of Us is an suspenseful and entertaining suburban thriller, sure to appeal to fans of Liane Moriarty, Sally Hepworth and Lisa Jewell.

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Review: Scrubbed by Dr. Nikki Stamp

 

Title: Scrubbed

Author: Dr Nikki Stamp

Published: 1st May 2022, Allen & Unwin 

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin 

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My Thoughts:

“How did this happen? How did I get here? Hell, how did we all get here? It’s almost unfathomable that a group of people who largely started on this pathway in medicine and surgery could be anything other than kind. After all, we exist every day to make people better. What happens to make people do the exact opposite?”

Scrubbed is an honest and thought-provoking account of Dr Nikki Stamp’s career in medicine and her journey from an idealistic student to a disillusioned surgeon.

Nikki Stamp dreamed of becoming a surgeon from childhood. She endured the hard work of medical school, the punishing regime of residency, and gained a place in the prestigious fellowship program to become one of three female cardiothoracic surgeon’s in Australia, only to step away after twenty odd years to save her sanity.

Dr Stamp is not the only health professional in recent years to draw attention to the problems in the culture of the Australian medical system. I am infuriated and exhausted by the archaic, and often toxic environment, Stamp describes. Not just the prevailing culture of misogyny, but also the unreasonable, and sometimes dangerous practices, passed off as ‘tradition’ that excuses unrealistic expectations, exploitation, harassment and bullying.

I’m not at all surprised that Dr Stamp’s mental health suffered under such unrelenting pressures, and leaving her career is not just a great personal loss for Nikki, but also for those patients who may have otherwise benefited from her hard earned expertise. Such attrition, which it seems is widespread, is shameful, and completely preventable.

While the CoVid pandemic has highlighted funding and staffing problems across the spectrum of health services, from hospitals to general practice, and the stress this places on medical professionals, it’s clear that they are but two of many systemic issues plaguing the service.

I’m glad Dr Stamp has found a new passion, and is happier and healthier for it, but I remain angry at the reluctance of the system to change despite the benefits it would clearly provide to everyone, health professionals, patients and society at large.

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Nonfiction Reader Challenge: Medical memoir

Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

 

Title: The Woman in the Library

Author: Sulari Gentill

Published: 7th June 2022, Poisoned Pen Press

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Poisoned Pen Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

Metafiction is a rare narrative technique, and often difficult to execute successfully, but The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill does so with ease, offering a clever and compelling mystery novel.

In this story within a story (within a story), Australian author Hannah Tigone is writing a murder mystery, inspired in part by her correspondence with American aspiring author and fan, Leo Johnson. In Hannah’s developing manuscript, Australian author Winifred ‘Freddie’ Kincaid, is in Massachusetts on a writers’ scholarship, when she becomes embroiled in a murder mystery that takes place in the Boston Public Library. As Hannah completes each chapter, Leo provides feedback via emails, the tone of which grow more imperious, and disturbing, as the story develops in ways he doesn’t like.

As Freddie, along with psychology student Marigold, law student Whit, and published author Cain whom she meets when a scream disturbs the quiet of the Boston Public Library Reading Room, tries to solve the murder of a young journalist, it’s testament to Gentill’s skill that I was invested in the story, and often forgot it’s place in the novel’s structure, in fact I occasionally resented the reminder when disrupted by Leo’s missives. With its air of a ‘locked room’ mystery, I was deftly led astray by Gentill’s misdirects, and found myself eager to discover who, how, and why the murder was committed.

I feel I have to mention the adroit way in which Gentill navigated the world events of 2019/2020, the years in which this book was set, with the CoVid pandemic, the BLM protests in the US, and the fires that ravaged the Eastern coast of Australia, all acknowledged in interesting ways.

Ingenious and intriguing, The Woman in the Library is a terrific read.

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