Review: You’ve Got To Be Kidding by Todd Alexander

Title: You’ve Got to Be Kidding: A shed load of wine & a farm full of goats

Author: Todd Alexander

Published: 3rd February 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia


My Thoughts:

In 2019, Todd Alexander published the story of his and his partner’s mid life tree change where they abandoned inner city living and their highly paid careers, and purchased a hundred acre farm in the Hunter Valley, to grow grapes, olives, and run a five star B&B. Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Named Helga was longlisted for both the 2020 Indie Non-fiction Book Award and 2020 Booksellers’ Choice Adult Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and captured the imagination of a public who dream of escaping to the country.

It’s been seven years since Todd and Jeff took possession of Block Eight and they have created a successful business, but it has not been an easy process and in You’ve Got to Be Kidding: A shed load of wine & a farm full of goats, Todd again attempts to answer his own rhetorical question…how hard can it be?

It turns out, it can be very hard at times. If the men aren’t battling with broken machinery, sick or dead animals, or predatory business practices, then they are contending with drought, heatwaves, bushfires, and the pandemic. Todd and Jeff are forced to reinvent their plans several times to stay afloat, including culling vines, purchasing a tour bus, and altering their marketing strategy.

But then there are the moments when the couple can’t imagine being anywhere else as they share a glass of their own wine on their deck, or take a stroll around the property with their ever-growing menagerie of rescued farm animals which still includes (the now teenage) Helga the pig, as well as several more goats, sheep, peafowl, and ducks, each with distinct personalities that keeps them both amused and exasperated.

Related with honesty and self-deprecating humour, You’ve Got To Be Kidding is a sincere, funny, warts-and-all expose of country living, a sequel, of sorts, though it’s not necessary to have read Thirty Thousand Bottles before picking this up. I again enjoyed Todd’s anecdotes about both the highs and lows of farm life, and his relationship with his partner, the nominated snake wrangler and cushion obsessed, Jeff. I liked that this time photographs have been included in the book, though most feature their goats. Todd, a self identified ‘foodie’, also provides some more of his favourite vegan recipes, which sound tasty.

While Todd and Jeff remain convinced they did the right thing in following their dream, and are deservedly proud of all they have achieved with Block Eight, the book ends with them deciding it’s time to move on, and it seems they soon will be, since the property is now listed as sold. I look forward to Todd regaling us with the stories of their next adventure.


Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: Sargasso by Kathy George

Title: Sargasso

Author: Kathy George

Published: 3rd February 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

“The last thing I remember is the screaming. I remember that because I wasn’t the one doing it…. It was the house. Sargasso. The house was screaming,….”

Inspired by her love of classic gothic fiction, Sargasso is an entrancing, eerie tale of mystery and passion from debut Australian novelist, Kathy George.

Upon her grandmother’s death, Hannah Prendergast inherits Sargasso, the impressive house of glass and stone designed by her late father, built on a headland just outside Shepherd Cove, a holiday town two hours’ drive down the west coast of Melbourne. It’s been twenty years since Helen last crossed the threshold of her childhood home, the family having abandoned it when she was twelve after her father’s body washed up on the beach below.

The narrative shifts smoothly between the past and the present. ‘Then’ Hannah is a bright and imaginative child who delights in the eccentric aspects of Sargasso, one of which is the inscrutable boy who becomes her best and only friend, Flint. ‘Now’, Hannah plans to rejuvenate the house while she decides what to do with it, and is stunned when Flint reappears, a grown man, as enigmatic as ever.

It is the relationship between Hannah and Flint that is at the heart of this story, an obsessive, possessive, all consuming love forged in childhood and reignited with their reunion as adults. Hannah barely hesitates before ending her three year relationship when Flint demands it, and grows ever more reluctant to even leave his side, as Flint has a habit of disappearing for hours, days, even weeks, particularly when she displeases him. The sense of uncertainty and dread steadily escalates as the secrets of Sargasso, both past and present, begins to unravel.

George develops an extraordinary atmosphere that blurs the line between what may be real and what may be imagined. The initial impression of Sargasso is one of light and strength, but slowly, particularly in the present timeline, the atmosphere of the house becomes oppressive and sinister. Rather than protect Hannah, it seems to trap her in a space between waking and sleeping.

The influence of novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca are obvious in terms of both plot and character but I think George provides her own modern Australian twist. Sargasso is an enthralling, haunting, gothic tale.


Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Relics, Wrecks and Ruins by Aiki Flinthart (Ed)



Title: Relics, Wrecks and Ruins

Author: Aiki Flinthart (Editor}

Published: 31st January 2021

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy the editor


My Thoughts:

It’s not often that I respond to a Twitter call out but Relics, Wrecks and Ruins caught my attention for several reasons. Of course I’m always eager to support Australian authors, several of whom are contributors to this anthology, and I’m trying to include more fantasy and science fiction in my reading, but I was also moved upon learning that this was to be the final project for Australian Sci-Fi novelist and the editor of this anthology, Aiki Flinthart, who has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, and that the profits from sales will fund a mentorship program for emerging writers in her name.

Relics, Wrecks and Ruins is an impressive collection of 24 short stories penned by a stellar range of authors including Australian writers Garth Nix, Kate Forsyth, Kylie Chan and international authors, Juliet Marrilier, Jasper Fforde, and Neil Gamain, among others who generously donated their work to the publication. The tales are loosely connected by the titular themes, exploring the relics, wrecks and ruins of the past and future, in this world and others. The stories cover almost every sub-genre of speculative fiction including horror, sci-fi fantasy, and dystopian.

As such, I think Relics, Wrecks and Ruins has something for everyone. There were several story’s that particularly appealed to me from both familiar and unfamiliar authors. Juliet Marrilier’s ‘Washing the Plaid’ is a charming, whimsical introduction to the anthology about a book lover discovering magic. A unique punishment devised by a future society features in 16 Minutes by Jasper Fforde. Fans of Julie Kagawa will enjoy Mary Robinette Kowai’s story, American Changeling where a human/faerie teenager is called upon to save the Seelie Queen. Lee Murray’s The Wreck of the Tartarus sees a submarine full of US sailors caught under a rockfall waiting for rescue. Readers familiar with Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor Trilogy will appreciate a Red Sister Story featuring Nona, Rulin and Clera called Thaw, and horror fans won’t want to miss Six Stringed Demon, where a rock band fights to exorcise a young boy in a hell of a battle by Sebastian de Castell. Aiki Flinthart has the honour of finishing the collection with a poignant story about birth, death, and humanity’s legacy.

Aiki Flinthart has successfully put together an exciting and powerful anthology with Relics, Wrecks and Ruins. A legacy to be proud of, it has my enthusiastic endorsement.


Available worldwide in ebook via books2read

Or in paperback direct from Aiki Flinthart

Review: The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

Title: The Schoolgirl Strangler

Author: Katherine Kovacic

Published: 3rd January 2020, Bonnier Echo

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy BFredriksPR


My Thoughts:

When the body of a young girl, lured from the park by a stranger during the summer of 1930, is found bound, gagged and strangled in an abandoned house, Melbourne is stunned. The police quickly focus in on a suspect, but as they move ahead with the prosecution, another young girl is found bound, gagged and strangled in a vacant block. Twelve year old Mena Griffiths, and sixteen year old Hazel Wilson were the first two of four victims of a serial killer, given the media moniker of ‘The Schoolgirl Strangler’ that eluded the police for five years.

Drawing on newspaper reports, police records and court documents, author Katherine Kovacic lays out the particulars of each murder and the investigation into each crime in chronological order. I liked the structure Kovacic chose for this narrative though this is really only possible because of the unique path the investigation took, primarily as a result of several serious errors by the police. In the crimes against Mena Griffiths, Hazel Wilson, and twelve year old Ethel Belshaw, a different suspect was identified each time, leading to an arrest, and in one case even a false conviction. I found myself intrigued by the way in which the cases unfolded, which Kovacic reveals in detail. In the absence of modern crime scene techniques, and understanding (the term ‘serial killer’ would not be coined for decades), the charges were based on little else than flimsy circumstantial evidence and eventually fell apart, with the real killer having escaped notice. It wasn’t until the discovery of the tiny body of six year old June Rushmer in December 1935, who was also bound, gagged and strangled, that the man responsible for all four crimes was captured. With his prompt confession under questioning, the links between each case became clear.

The identity of the murderer finally revealed, Kovacic then leads us through his trial. What I found most interesting with regards to the prosecution of the perpetrator was the debate about his sanity. The killer blamed his actions on drink, claiming he lost his senses when under the influence and didn’t remember the actual commission of his crimes so could not therefore be held accountable. The defence ran with this, pleading insanity, combining it with the general assumption that a person who would strangle young girls for no discernible reason must suffer from a mental disease.

Kovacic presents a meticulous and astute account of a fascinating historical crime in The Schoolgirl Strangler, and I think readers of both the true crime, and crime fiction genres will find the narrative approach accessible and interesting.


Available from Echo Publishing Australia and Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely by Jessica Dettmann

Title: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely

Author: Jessica Dettmann

Published: 6th January 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, Jessica Dettmann’s sophomore novel, was my first read for the new year, and happily, an ideal selection.

Witty, warm, sharp and sincere, this is a story of responsibilities, regrets, secrets, anxieties, dreams and dysfunction, as the family of Annie Jones, which includes her three adult children, their partners and offspring, her ex-husband, and the man he left her for, gathers under the same roof for Annie’s father’s funeral in the days before Christmas.

No family is without complications, but at this particular moment, Annie’s can be said to have more complications than most. Though she had imagined that with her father’s passing she would finally be free to pursue her own dreams, as the week unfolds, Annie begins to doubt that escaping the needs of her family will ever a possibility.

I quickly became invested in the characters of This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, even though I had little in common with them. They are realistic and nuanced, as are the dynamics between them. Annie garnered my complete sympathy, her daughter, Molly, not so much. I felt sorry for Simon’s wife, Diana, while Annie’s friend, Jane, made me laugh.

Taking place in the northern coastal suburbs of Sydney over the Christmas period, the details of the setting are very familiar, as I spent several summer holidays with cousins who lived in the same area. We too made the daily pilgrimages to the beach, ate meals in the back yard, and played hide and seek among the plumbago.

Dettmann’s writing is perceptive, tender and poignant, deftly portraying the complexities of the modern family, and exploring themes of choice, resentment, expectation, freedom, and creativity. An absolutely lovely read.


Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell

Title: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

Author: Joanna Nell

Published: 27th October 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia/ Netgalley


My Thoughts:

The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a charming novel proving you’re never too old for a fresh start from Joanna Nell.

After 89-year-old Miss (never Mrs or Ms) Hattie Bloom breaks her hip from a fall in her backyard, she is dismayed to be told she must spend four to six weeks convalescing at the Woodlands Nursing Home. A recluse, far more more comfortable with birds than people, she is desperate return to the sandstone cottage she was born in, particularly concerned for the welfare of a pair of nesting owls in a tree her new neighbours are threatening to fell. When an ill-timed escape attempt is frustrated by a traffic jam, Hattie resigns herself to the temporary encroachments on her privacy and independence, agreeing to repairs on her home that might let her leave her sooner.

Ninety-year-old Walter Clements, recovering from a car accident, is also determined to return to his suburban home sooner rather than later. To that end, the former driver instructor agrees to humour his daughter and the DON (Director of Nursing) and undertake an assessment to show he is capable of safely managing a mobility scooter. Walter is outraged when a few small mistakes, which includes running over his examiner’s foot, destroying an antique table, and knocking over newcomer, Miss Hattie Bloom, scuppers his chances.

It’s not the most auspicious start to a relationship but nevertheless a friendship slowly blossoms between Hattie and Walter, despite their oppositional temperaments. Where Hattie is reserved and aloof, Walter is loud and gregarious, they actually remind me a little of my own grandparents (and coincidentally my grandfather was also named Walter). Both are well-developed characters, depicted with authenticity and warmth. Hattie, a naturalist and author, who has spent almost her entire life alone by choice, slowly opens up as she becomes enmeshed in the fabric of Woodlands. Walter is occasionally inappropriate, a little bewildered by today’s mores, fond of a glass or three of whiskey, and an incurable optimist, though not without regrets. Though he hopes to go home, he is making the best of his time in Woodlands.

Nell draws on her experience as a GP visiting nursing homes, to provide some insight into the routines, successes and failures of institutional care. Woodlands certainly seems better than many which have made news headlines due to abuse and neglect, however it’s still an institution and as such rules and regulations often override common sense practice. This is evident when night nurse Bronwyn is fired after her aged black lab Queenie, accidentally knocks over and injures one of the residents. Bronwyn is a favourite of many of the Home’s residents, not the least because of her unofficial night time ‘club’, the Night Owls, that provides and encourages activities for the sleepless.

Hattie and Walter’s antics are delightful, though not without a hint of poignancy. They bond over their plan to have Bronwyn reinstated, assisted by Murray, another resident who has become a close friend of Walter (men are severely outnumbered in Woodlands) but is bedridden. Nell doesn’t shy away from portraying the difficult realities of ageing, and Murray’s approaching demise, and his desire to go home one last time, is treated sensitively.

The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a witty, charming, and heartwarming novel, recommended for the old, and not so old alike.


Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

Review: Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Title: Dead Man in a Ditch {The Fetch Phillips Archives #2}

Author: Luke Arnold

Published: 24th September 2020, Orbit

Status: Read September 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia


My Thoughts:

“But Sunder City makes a few things without fail: hunger in winter, drunks at night and trouble all year round.”

Picking up a few months after The Last Smile of Sunder City ended, nothing much has changed for Fetch Phillips ‘Man For Hire’, but he is about to learn that his beloved adopted home, Sunder City, has been changing around him in Dead Man in a Ditch, the second urban fantasy novel from Luke Arnold.

When Fetch is asked by the police to examine a dead body in the Bluebird Lounge, and stunned to find the man has been killed with magic, since it’s been seven years since The Coda vanquished all magic from the world. Fletch believes the magic is lost forever, and he’s determined to prove it… but what if he’s wrong?

After establishing character and world building in the first novel, Dead Man in a Ditch has more action as Fetch moves between a variety of investigations, most of which lead him into trouble, from searching for an errant husband, to tracking the origins of a dangerous new machine, battling with a crazed unicorn, and hunting down a killer wizard. All roads eventually lead to a company looking to make their mark, and a battle to save the City.

That’s not say Arnold doesn’t continue developing both the world and his characters. New characters are introduced, most notably a grifting werecat named Linda Rosemary, but it’s the unexpected return of Fetch’s former mentor, Hendricks, that has the most impact on the plot. Suffering from the effects of Magic’s withdrawal Hendricks is not the man, in body or spirit, that Fetch remembers, putting the two on an inevitable collision course.

Though perhaps a little long, the story is fast paced, with an entertaining mix of drama and dark humour. The City, and Fetch, are still rather dirty and bleak but there is a little light breaking through.

An imaginative and enjoyable sequel, I’m looking forward to Fletch’s next adventures in Sunder City.


Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK I Indiebound

Review: The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

Title: The Night Swim

Author: Megan Goldin

Published: 4th August 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read August 2029 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia


My Thoughts:

“The trial starts next week. We’re in this together. Let’s see where the evidence takes us. I’m Rachel Krall and this is Guilty or Not Guilty, the podcast that puts you in the jury box.”

To ensure the continued success of her popular true crime podcast, journalist Rachel Krall decides to broadcast a trial from small town Neapolis in North Carolina, where the town’s ‘golden boy’, the college-aged, only son of wealthy parents, destined for Olympic swimming success, stands accused of the assault and rape of a sixteen year old girl. Rachel is on her way into town in advance of the trial when she discovers an envelope under her windshield wiper. The letter within begs Rachel to help her deliver justice for another sixteen year old girl, Jenny, who was murdered in Neapolis twenty-five years earlier.

“…I don’t get how we can almost unanimously agree that murder is wrong, but when it comes to rape some people still see shades of gray”.

Unfolding from the perspectives of Rachel, and the letter writer, Hannah, The Night Swim by Megan Goldin is a harrowing read that explores issues related to sexual assault, and its impact on individuals and within communities. Goldin’s approach is compassionate and thoughtful, but pulls few punches, so readers sensitive to the topic should be wary, though this story is certain to stir a range of emotions in anyone.

“That’s how the criminal justice system works. Guilty or not guilty. His word, against her word.”

Goldin has us join Rachel in the courtroom as she hears the specifics of the case from the prosecution and defence, listening to the testimony of the alleged crime from evidentiary and expert witnesses, the day’s discoveries then related in her recordings for her podcast. I thought the procedural details of the trial seemed authentic, as did the observations about the difficulties faced by prosecutors in such cases, and the ways in which the victim’s trauma is compounded by the process. Rachel tries to remain objective but it’s clear her sympathies lie with ‘K’, particularly as her own investigative digging uncovers more information.

“This year we mark a milestone. Twenty-five years since Jenny died. A quarter of a century and nothing has changed. Her death is as raw as it was the day we buried her. The only difference is that I won’t be silent anymore.”

From Hannah, we slowly learn the circumstances of her sister’s life, and how she eventually met her tragic death. My jaw grew sore from clenching my teeth in fury, frustration and disgust as Hannah describes how Jenny was victimised not only by her rapists, but also the townspeople. Only a young girl at the time who hadn’t understood what was happening to her sister, Hannah’s guilt is palpable, and despite her desire to focus on the trial, Rachel can’t help but respond to her desperate plea for help.

“Similar descriptions. Two rapes. Twenty-five years apart. In the same town.”

Eventually Rachel realises that there is some overlap between aspects of the current trial, and what happened to Jenny, and uncovering the truth behind one event, unravels the secrets of the other. I liked the way in which Goldin drew the separate threads of the story together and weaved them into a whole in a manner that didn’t feel forced, or expedient. I do consider the book to have more in common with the suspense genre, rather than a mystery or thriller, which matters little in the scheme of things though.

The Night Swim is a thought-provoking, poignant and gripping read, and there is a hint that we will meet Rachel again. I’ll be looking forward to it.


Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound

Review: Public Enemies by Mark Dapin


Title: Public Enemies: Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox, Ray Denning and the Golden Age of Armed Robbery

Author: Mark Dapin

Published: August 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

Public Enemies is a fascinating and unexpectedly entertaining true crime book featuring infamous Australian bank robbers, Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox and Ray Denning, from Mark Dapin.

Pieced together from various sources including personal records, news reports, legal documents and interviews, Dapin attempts to sort fact from fiction to present a comprehensive and realistic portrait of Denning and Cox, and the path that led to them being deemed Australian Public Enemies, Number One and Two in the 1980’s. He explores their difficult childhoods marked by poverty and abandonment, teenage years spent in and out of appallingly abusive reformatory schools, and their criminal behaviour, resulting in various terms of imprisonment (and repeated escapes), throughout adulthood.

For a time, Denning, Cox and other bank robbers like them, were considered ‘legends’, anti-heroes whose crimes and activities attracted newspaper headlines (to which author Michael Robotham, who was at the time a cadet journalist attests), female fans of all ages, and grudging admiration for their daring and cunning.

Of the two men, Denning was clearly the more colourful character. A walking contradiction, he was a hard, violent man, but also charming, with a great sense of humour. For years he espoused anti-authoritarian views, and used his notoriety while on the run to campaign against the regular bashing of prisoners meted out by prison guards, and the the practice of ‘verballing’, (the creation of unsubstantiated, fabricated statements), used by the police to secure convictions. Then suddenly in the late 1980’s, Denning became an unrepentant ‘supergrass’, informing on, and testifying against, many of his associates. Not that the police nor government were grateful, reneging on an agreement to provide him with witness protection services. He died a few weeks after his release from jail in 1993, officially from a self-administered heroin overdose, though that verdict is in doubt.

Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox, whose real name was not Russell or Cox, nor Mad Dog (a nickname he despised) was both harder and more violent than Denning, suspected of being involved in at least three murders, but was also considered to be intelligent and even ‘professional’, arguably one of the more successful bank/payroll robbers of the era. Like Denning however, Cox had a knack for escaping jail, and once, incredulously, trying to break in.

Denning and Cox worked together only sporadically, but moved within the same criminal circles which stretched from Victoria to Queensland. Dapin exhaustively explores their milieu, introducing their associates, common enemies (like Roger Rogerson), and occasionally even their victims. Though it can be challenging to keep track of so many people and details, the additional context is compelling.

Public Enemies is provocative, gripping and entertaining, written in a personable tone, rife with Australian colloquialisms, I found myself utterly absorbed in the life and times of Ray Denning and Russell Cox.


Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: Bush School by Peter O’Brien


Title: Bush School

Author: Peter O’Brien

Published: August 4th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

In his engaging memoir, Bush School, Peter O’Brien recalls his two years as the teacher of a one-room school in Weabonga, a tiny farming village two days’ travel by train and mail cart from Armidale.

In 1960, aged just twenty years old with barely more than year of teaching experience, Peter was asked to fulfil his rural teaching service requirement and encouraged by the Education Department Inspector, after a false start in Guy Fawkes, to select one of NSW’s remote regions on the western lip of the Great Divide. After an uncomfortable journey, and a worrying introduction to his lodgings, Peter found himself welcoming eighteen students, ranging in age from five years to fifteen, to Weabonga School.

I could not imagine, as a new graduate with limited teaching experience, being placed in sole charge of a schoolhouse, far from everything familiar, with children of varying grades (an experience my mother shared in early 1970’s, but thankfully I escaped in early 1990’s). Peter’s experience may not be unique, but it’s seldom shared and a pi

The first-person narrative is an easy and accessible read, and though I did find the tone slightly formal, there is also a genuine sense of warmth. Peter writes of the challenges and triumphs of his new environment. Professionally he has concerns about his limited experience, his inability to consult with colleagues or a mentor, and the lack of available educational resources, but luckily his pupils prove enthusiastic, and his instinct for a child centered, or ‘open learning’, approach to teaching, serves him well. Personally Peter’s living situation, a spare, paper lined single bedroom in the home of a student where he took his meagre meals alone exacerbated his homesickness, and he was on the verge of giving notice until he received an alternate offer of accomodation. The separation from his sweetheart, who later become his wife, also weighed on his mind.

Bush School is a winsome, interesting and entertaining memoir. As a teacher, I found Peter’s explanation of his pedagogical development interesting, particularly since his theories closely mirror my own, which is why I prefer to work in early childhood education. As someone interested in social history I appreciated his effort to contextualise his experience, and that of his students, amid wider Australian societal events and issues. As a generally curious reader I enjoyed Peter’s affectionate reminisces of unfamiliar people and places.


Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

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