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

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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.

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Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

Title: Other People’s Houses

Author: Kelli Hawkins

Published: 3rd March 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins

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My Thoughts:

Imagining the life that could have been as she wanders through ‘open houses’ on Sydney’s north shore every weekend is just one of the ways Kate Webb copes with the ‘incident’. So is drinking every night until she passes out. One afternoon, as she pockets a pebble for her collection of mementos, Kate overhears the estate agent talking about an exclusive listing. Walking through the front door of the ‘Harding House’, Kate loses herself in the fantasy of living in the large, beautifully appointed mansion, and for a heart stopping moment when she spies a photograph of the family that lives in the home, she imagines their teenage son is her own, sparking an obsession that soon spirals out of control.

Kate is not a character to admire, she’s a drunk, and as such is self-serving and frequently reckless. However, it’s impossible to condemn her completely, her loss – referred to as the incident- is an unimaginable tragedy. Grief is a personal thing and while ten years mired in self-pity, anger and depression may seem excessive, when you know the full story, I dare you to judge her.

That said there is only the barest of justifications for Kate’s obsession with the Harding family – Pip, Brett and their son, Kingsley – though she is in such a state it’s not like she needs much. In theory her heart could be said to be in the right place, but her thinking is so disorganised that Kate triggers a hellish mess when she interferes. Hawkins builds the suspense as Kate blunders around, making the situation worse for herself, and the Harding’s.

To be honest I cared more about Kate’s fate than any one else’s, and it was mostly my investment in her emotional turmoil that kept me turning the pages. I didn’t find the major reveal to be a surprise, but the confrontation that followed was tense and the conclusion was satisfying.

Offering a compelling protagonist and an interesting storyline, I really enjoyed Other People’s Houses. This is a well-crafted crime fiction debut from Kelli Hawkins.

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Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Girl Explorers by Jayne E. Zanglein

Title: The Girl Explorers

Author: Jayne E. Zanglein

Published: 2nd March 2021, Sourcebooks

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

While The Girl Explorers by Jayne E. Zanglein was not exactly what I was expecting, I found it ultimately to be a fascinating and inspiring book, highlighting some of the intelligent, daring and determined women who rebelled against expectations and paved the way for women to participate in what were traditionally male pursuits.

“Fifty percent of the world population is female, but only .05 percent of recorded history relates to women.”

The Society of Woman Geographers was founded in 1925 after the exclusively male Explorers Club refused to lift its ban on women members, condescendingly dismissing their ‘suitability’ for exploration, and their many achievements. Founded by Blair Bebee/Niles, a travel writer and novelist; Marguerite Harrison, a widowed single mother and a journalist who became US spy in Russia just after WW1; Gertrude Mathews Shelby, an economic geographer; and Gertrude Emerson, an expert on Asia and editor of Asia Magazine, membership was extended to women whose “distinctive work has added to the world’s store of knowledge concerning countries on which they specialized.”

Settling on the term “geographers” instead of explorers because it was flexible enough to encompass explorers, scientists, anthropologists, ethnographers, writers, mountain climbers, and even ethnographic artists and musicians, the stated aims of the Society were, “…building personal relationships among members, archiving the work of its membership in the society’s collections, and celebrating the achievements of women.”

“With the passage of time—as so often happens with women’s careers—the names and contributions of these explorers tended to sink from sight, their achievements questioned or minimized.” – Elizabeth Fagg Olds, newspaper correspondent and former president of Society.

Though the Society accepted ‘corresponding’ members from any country, The Girl Explorers tends to focus on American adventurers. I recognised only a few names, icons such as aviator Amelia Earhart, anthropologist Margaret Mead, former US First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and author, Pearl S. Buck. While I did think that it was a shame that the author wasn’t perhaps as inclusive as she could have been, I was nevertheless still fascinated by what I learned of the many women I’d never heard of.

Of the founding members, I considered the life of Blair Bebee née Rice (later Niles) to be particularly intriguing, in part because her story is the most complete, but also because of the sheer breadth of her achievements. I was also captivated by the intrepid mountaineer, Annie Smith Peck, who in 1895, at the age of 45, became the third woman to ascend the Matterhorn, though the first to do so in knickers (men’s knickerbocker trousers) and without a corset.

Zanglein’s narrative sometimes feels a little scattered and occasionally seems to veer off-topic, however the tone is personable, and what I learned was so interesting, I found I didn’t much mind. I highlighted screeds of information as I was reading that really doesn’t have a place in this review, but that intrigued me.

“Their stories change our history…”

The Society of Woman Geographers still exists today, they maintain a museum and library on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. with a robust membership that continues to meet regularly, and supports women geographers with fellowships and awards. I’m glad to have learnt more about organisation and the amazing women who are part of it.

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Available from Sourcebooks

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Review: A Home Like Ours by Fiona Lowe

Title: A Home Like Ours

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: 3rd March 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2021, courtesy Harlequin Australia /Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“Life was an unpredictable lottery. But surrounded by a community and a garden, the future was easier to face.”

An insightful, warm and engaging story, A Home Like Ours is another fabulous novel from award winning Australian author Fiona Lowe.

When Helen arrived in the small town of Boolanga in rural Victoria three years ago, she had been living in her car, searching for work, and a place to call home. Now, having secured a position as a caretaker of the town’s community garden which provides her with a small cottage, her new found stability is threatened when she insists a local group of refugee women be provided with plots.

Jade is a young mother with no family to speak of and a deadbeat, often absent, partner. To supplement her meagre pension, and provide her baby son with organic produce, she reluctantly agrees to assist Helen in the community garden. Though initially distrustful of everyone, especially the refugees, Jade slowly discovers a place she could belong.

Tara doesn’t understand why her husband, hardware store owner, Jon, seems to have lost interest in her. Wrapped up in her own self-pity, she is stunned when he is diagnosed with a debilitating condition, and is forced to consider what community really means.

The central theme of A Home Like Ours focuses on the effects of displacement. Like the protagonists of Lowe’s story, almost all of us are vulnerable to events such as illness, injury, relationship breakdown, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, as well as extreme situations like war, which could result in a complete change of circumstance.

To face these sorts of unexpected challenges requires the support of a community – of family, of friends, and often even strangers. Lowe’s decision to centre the story on the town’s community garden is a clever one. Not only is it a site that allows her to reflect the population of the town at large, but it’s also a setting in which her very different characters can plausibly meet.

Portrayed with a realistic complexity, I really liked Lowe’s characters and found their stories to be engaging. It’s impressive that she is able to credibly depict women who are of widely disparate ages and backgrounds, and have diverse concerns. I would have liked for Fiza, a Sudanese refugee, to have had a larger role in the story, though I can understand why Lowe likely shied away from doing so.

Lowe also explores a range of specific issues relevant in Australia at the moment including racist attitudes towards refugees from African countries, the rise of homelessness experienced by women over 55, the inadequacy of current social support payments, the lack of support programs in rural areas, and government corruption. It seems like a lot, but these issues overlap and intertwine, enriching the story, and informing the reader.

I barely noticed that A Home Like Ours was almost 600 pages long, engrossed in the well-paced story I finished it in a day. This is an wonderful read that encourages empathy, compassion and community.

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Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates

 


Title: Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All

Author: Laura Bates

Published: 2nd March 2021, Sourcebooks

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

#NotAllMen they yell whenever a woman shares an encounter with an aggressive admirer, a handsy boss, a leering stranger, a violent rapist, a condescending colleague, an abusive partner. They are right, but there are definitely too many men, and their numbers don’t seem to be decreasing.

In Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All, journalist Laura Bates investigates the online communities whose ideology centers around having power and control over women, how these affect society, and what can be done to change it moving forward.

Whilst incels (Involuntary celibates) beg for sex on demand, pickup artists (PUA) deploy predatory “gaming” tactics, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) choose to eschew relationships with women altogether, and Men’s Rights Activists (MRA/MRM) insist women return their stolen power, there remains a wide range of common ideas and tactics underpinning what Bates terms ‘manosphere’ communities.

As ‘Alex’, a lonely young man, she allowed herself to be recruited into an online world in which nothing was his fault, in which he was an aggrieved martyr, not the privileged loser he felt society painted him as. And the cause of all his woes? Women. ‘Foids’ that won’t sleep with him, ‘sluts’ who say no when they really mean yes, ‘nags’ who sap their energy, ‘feminazi’s’ who want to rule the world.

While such groups are often dismissed as ‘fringe’ online activities, Bates shows how savvy members of these groups have actively spearheaded campaigns that downplay, distort and discredit women’s issues, amplified by trolls who enjoy the controversy, the irresponsible practices of clickbait mainstream media, and social media algorithms. Bates also explores how the manosphere rhetoric spills into the real world, inspiring everything from wordless intimidation to mass murders, and even influencing politics.

If terrorism is a means of attempting to exert control and wield power by creating fear, then at an individual level, it also describes men who intimidate, harass, coerce and abuse women. Bates is aware that the publication of this book will again make her a target of derision, vile abuse, rape, and death threats, and that her physical safety could be at risk. No one will be surprised to hear it, few will believe that there is anything that can be done about it. As a society, we seem to assume violence against women is inevitable.

#NotAllMen hate women, but some do. Some men blame women for every frustration, every grievance, every loss. Some men see women as objects, undeserving of respect or autonomy. And they are emboldened when these views remain unchallenged. These men are an obvious danger, not only to women, but also to society at large. A significant percentage of those who commit acts of terrorism and mass murderer have a history of violence against women.

I agree with Bates that intervention is needed well before some boys/men wander down this path. We, both women and men, need to be informed, to admit there is a problem, and work together to change it. We need to challenge instances of sexism, and fake ‘news’, to encourage boys and young men to define masculinity in a manner that doesn’t put them in opposition to women. “Ultimately, there are major changes that need to happen across a wide range of sectors, from government to tech companies, from media to education…”

I am the wife of a man who loves me, and whom I love. I am a mother of two daughters, and two sons whom I adore. So I know it’s #NotAllMen, but it is #SomeMen, many of whom I have had the misfortune to encounter in my lifetime. Men Who Hate Women is a book that will disturb, infuriate, challenge, and perhaps change you, for the better.

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Available from Sourcebooks

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Review: Everything Is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray

Title: Everything is Beautiful

Author: Eleanor Ray

Published: 9th February 2021, Piatkus

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

Eleven years after Amy Ashton was encouraged to gather a selection of precious memories in a shoebox, her home is filled to the brim with keepsakes. Bundles of newspapers tower in the hallways, boxes block the stairs, wine bottles cover the floor, coffee mugs and cookbooks clutter the kitchen, ceramic birds perch on every flat surface, vases hold dead bouquets of honeysuckle, and lighters and ashtrays (even though Amy doesn’t smoke) are stacked in teetering piles.

Told in alternating chapters between present day and the past, why Amy came to stuff her home with ‘treasures’ is gradually revealed in this heartrending and beautiful tale by author Eleanor Ray. A capable and valued administrator at a financial advice firm, Amy is unassuming, her wardrobe is dull, she never wears makeup and avoids social events. Few would imagine what the intensely private woman returns home to each night, and Amy prefers that no one cares, she is content with just the company of her ‘beautiful things’ that remind of happier times.

Amy’s neighbour, Rachel, cares though, and blames her for an ongoing problem with mice. When a new family moves in next door, Rachel thinks she has found an ally in forcing Amy to change, but with a well paced and thoughtful plot, it doesn’t happen in the way that you may expect. I loved the unexpected way in which some of the elements of the story developed, and though I had an inkling of what the main twist would be, I wasn’t disappointed to be proved right.

Amy is slightly awkward and intensely vulnerable, but despite her extreme behaviour, there would be few who would not find her sympathetic. I found myself feeling strangely protective of her, perhaps in part because I’m a bit of a hoarder myself. There are also several delightful supporting characters in the book, including the two charming young sons of Amy’s new neighbour, and an elderly retired shopkeeper. It has its villains too, who are satisfyingly dealt with.

Everything is Beautiful may begin as a story of tragedy and grief, but ultimately it is one of healing and hope, which I found moving and am delighted to recommend.

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Available from Hachette Australia

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*Published in the US as The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton

Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Title: Florence Adler Swims Forever

Author: Rachel Beanland

Published: 3rd February 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

Rachel Beanland draws on her family history in Florence Adler Swims Forever, a tender, character-driven debut novel.

On a sunny morning in the summer of 1934, as Esther and Joseph Adler stroll along the Atlantic City Boardwalk and their granddaughter Gussie, and houseguest Anna wade in the shallows, their daughter, Florence dons her bright red bathing cap and heads into the ocean. A champion swimmer, twenty-year-old Florence is training to swim the English Channel in just a few weeks, so no one expects that an hour later, her lifeless body will be dragged from the water.

Florence Adler Swims Forever unfolds from multiple perspectives exploring the decisions made, and the changes wrought, in the wake of Florence’s untimely death. Esther and Joseph are devastated by the loss of their youngest daughter, but Esther in particular is worried about how the news will affect their oldest, and makes the decision that she not be told. Fannie, Gussie’s mother, is in hospital on bed rest waiting the birth of her third child, her second having been born too prematurely to survive, and is growing increasingly annoyed that her sister hasn’t visited. Freed from the daily care of his wife and daughter, and taking advantage of his distracted in-laws, Fannie’s husband Isaac grows more distant, chasing a foolish dream. Seven year old Gussie, sweet and precocious, has an innocent’s clear-eyed view of the changes in her world, but is bewildered by its nuances. Anna, a young German Jewish woman whom Joseph has sponsored to study in America on the strength of a long ago association with her mother, is somewhat uncomfortable to find herself in the midst of this family tragedy, especially when her own threatens. Stuart Williams is the outlier- a Gentile, a handsome lifeguard, swim coach, and reluctant heir to a Boardwalk hotelier. He thought himself in love with Florence, and in the aftermath of her death strikes up a friendship with Anna.

The novel examines several themes, including those of grief, love and family, but most significantly, the sacrifices parents will make to protect their children. Esther forgoes some of the traditional rituals of mourning of the Jewish faith, and attempts to represses her own devastating sense of loss to safeguard the health of her remaining daughter, as does Joseph. Joseph also willingly compromises his financial resources to protect Fannie from her husband’s weakness. Fannie meanwhile spends three months confined to her hospital bed in the hope that the child she carries will be born healthy. Anna’s parents, concerned by the political climate in Germany as Hitler ascends to power, insist she travel to America, and pull whatever strings they can to see her safely out of the country. Issac, in complete contrast, selfishly abandons Gussie in pursuit of his own dreams, and betrays the support offered by his own father. Stuart’s relationship with his father is a little more nuanced, though the man definitely has his faults, he does care about his son’s future.

Beanland grounds her story well in time and place, with vivid descriptions of the beach and boardwalk of Atlantic City, and the Adler’s baking empire. Fannie is obsessed with the Dionne quintuplets born earlier that year and battling for survival, in part because her late son, Hyram, spent some time in an incubator on display at the Boardwalk, just as they did. The author also touches on the anti-semitism rife not just in Europe as the Nazi party began to gain a foothold, but also in America.

With a measured pace, Florence Adler Swims Forever is a meditative, poignant, and engaging read, suited to a languid summer afternoon. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end of the book.

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Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: The Cold Millions by Jess Walter


Title: The Cold Millions

Author: Jess Walter

Published: 18th February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

“All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.”

The Cold Millions is a sweeping historical novel set at the beginning of the labor union movement in Spokane, Washington, focusing on two brothers, Gregory and Ryan Dolan. At 21, Gig is a charming, surprisingly articulate young man, Rye, only 16, is his brother’s shadow. Orphaned, they have joined the mass of itinerant workers, tramps riding the freight trains in search of work where they can find it. While Rye’s one wish is simple – a job, a home, a family; Gig gets wrapped up in the energy and chaos of the Free Speech Riots as The Industrial Workers of the World, aka Wobblies, fight for change. When the brothers are arrested during a riot, their paths diverge. While Gig endures a brutal incarceration, Rye is quickly released and is determined to free his brother. Soon he too is bound up in the cause, and is courted by a man set on stopping it.

Told with acumen, compassion, wit, and a hint of nostalgia, this story is ambitious in scope. Walter explores a dramatic period of social change and its issues – wealth vs poverty, ownership vs labour, rights vs responsibilities, nationalists vs immigrants, arguments that have still not been resolved in the US a century later. Yet this is also a coming-of-age story, an intimate tale of brotherhood, love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and even a murder mystery.

While Rye is the story’s anchor, there is a large cast of characters. Walter draws real historical figures into the novel including Police Chief John T. Sullivan who was a strict enforcer of law, and a vigorous defender of Spokane against the Wobblies, and their activities; the ‘redoubtable, estimable, formidable’ Elizabeth Gurley Flynn a young activist and orator, and takes inspiration from others to create a distinct, colourful cast. Brief vignettes from the perspectives of people who cross paths with the brothers interrupt the linear narrative, but also enrich it.

I feel Walters has been influenced by several classic American novels, particularly those by John Steinbeck, and perhaps Mark Twain and others, with similarities found in themes and characters.

While I don’t feel the connection with the history in the way an American might, The Cold Millions is an entertaining, fascinating, and unexpectedly timely novel.

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Available from Penguin Australia

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Review: The Paris Affair by Pip Drysdale

Title: The Paris Affair

Author: Pip Drysdale

Published: 3rd February 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

“Well, it began like any anti-love story. With Chapitre Un.”

Having landed a dream job as an arts and culture journalist for The Paris Observer, Harper Brown is enjoying her new life in the City of Love, though love is last thing she’s interested in. Still nursing a broken heart after the demise of an eight year relationship, Harper doesn’t want normal – she just wants to impress her new boss, work her way onto the features desk, and has just one rule- do no harm.

It’s rare that I’m surprised by the direction a story takes, but Drysdale managed to do so in The Paris Affair. The first quarter or so of the novel reads more like a romcom, so I wasn’t really expecting the twists in this tale that sees Harper caught up in an art world scandal, and become the target of a serial killer. While not a strong thriller, there are certainly moments of tension, and the pace is persuasive.

Harper Brown is a very appealing protagonist. Though not without her flaws, with her generally pragmatic and confident attitude, she stands out from the more typical insecure, capricious, aged 20-something protagonist in contemporary fiction. Though her cynicism about love is a little intense, it’s also understandable, and her obsession with true crime podcasts is a fun trait.

The Parisian setting will likely charm readers (personally I don’t care much for the place), as will the chapters headed in French, though Drysdale does provide a glimpse of the city’s shadows. The story is firmly grounded in the here and now as Harper scrolls through Instagram, browses though Tinder, texts with friends, and makes her way around the city via Uber.

I found The Paris Affair to be a quick, entertaining and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart

 


Title: The Silent Listener

Author: Lyn Yeowart

Published: February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Silent Listener is a disquieting tale of a dysfunctional family, draped in tension and dread, from debut novelist, Lyn Yeowart.

Unfolding primarily from three perspectives over three time periods, The Silent Listener tells the story of the Henderson family. In 1943, Gwen is swept of her feet by George Henderson, who courts her with a singleminded determination. In 1960, their eleven-year-old daughter, Joy, is terrified of her father’s rages that regularly culminate in brutal beatings. In 1983, George is dying and Joy has returned to the family farm in rural Victoria with the goal of unmasking her father’s secrets.

Themes such as domestic violence, trauma, religious hypocrisy, mental illness, and poverty, makes for heartbreaking reading as George terrorises his family. Gwen’s dreams of a happy new life are quashed within days of her wedding. Her new husband’s charm is reserved for the townspeople who consider him an upright pillar of the community, ignoring the thick foundation Gwen applies to her face, arms and legs. Their children cower under their father’s control, their innocence slowly stripped with every brutal strike of the belt that leaves their bodies, and minds, bleeding and scarred.

Yeowart’s characters, both major and minor, are carefully crafted, though it is Joy who is the most compelling. Joy is a sensitive child, who seeks solace in God as she is instructed to, in her sister, Ruth, and words. A synesthete, words conjure vivid images for Joy, offering her an escape of sorts from the reality of her daily drudgery. It’s the disappearance of a young neighbour, nine-year-old Wendy Bascombe, and her older brother, Mark, that finally strips Joy completely of her innocence, and she finds secret ways to rebel.

With Joy’s return to Blackhunt, and George’s passing soon after, Yeowart creates another mystery that gives rise to some surprising twists and a shocking, pitiless conclusion. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending still, while it absolutely fits with the story, it’s sad and dispiriting.

Skilfully plotted, with vivid characters, and evocative writing, The Silent Listener is poignant, confronting, and gripping.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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