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: The Change by Kirsten Miller

 

Title: The Change

Author: Kirsten Miller

Published: 3rd May 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

“Why do you think women are designed to outlive men? Why do we keep going for thirty years after our bodies can no longer reproduce? Do you think nature meant for those years to be useless? No, of course not. Our lives our designed to have three parts. The first is education. The second, creation. And in part three, we put our experience to use to protect those who are weaker. This third stage, which you have entered, can be one of incredible power.”

The Change is a wildly entertaining modern feminist revenge thriller with a supernatural edge from Kirsten Miller.

In the Long Island oceanfront community of Mattauk, three women embrace their destiny to avenge a murdered teenage girl discarded in a garbage bag amongst the dunes. It’s the recently widowed nurse Nessa who hears her ghostly cries, a talent inherited from her grandmother; gym owner Jo, who identifies the targets for their rage, while Harriet, whose stunning transformation from successful advertising executive to ‘wild’ woman, leads and inspires them.

As a woman very close to turning 50, suffering from the chaotic symptoms of peri menopause, uncomfortably close to becoming an empty nester, and angered by renewed attempts to subjugate women, I found something to relate to in all three of these characters. I enjoyed the fantasy of gaining power that defies western society’s general expectations for ageing women, particularly admiring Harriet’s metamorphosis and her new affinity for nature.

I was engaged by the mystery and its twists. With the Mattauk law enforcement seemingly dismissive of the victim found near the beach, the three women unite to determine the identity of her killer, eventually learning of more victims, and a shocking conspiracy perpetrated by the towns’ richest residents. I was fairly cheering as Nessa, Jo and Harriet wreaked their vengeance on the guilty.

With plenty of action and suspense, I thought the pacing was very good, and despite its length (480 pages) read the book almost in one sitting. I enjoyed the writer’s use of dark humour, and insightful, often blunt, commentary.

Compelling, witty and provocative, I found The Change to be a captivating, and even cathartic read, and recommend it without reservation.

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Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

 

Title: Book Lovers

Author: Emily Henry

Published: 12th May 2022, Penguin UK

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Penguin/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“Sometimes, even when you start with the last page and you think you know everything, a book finds a way to surprise you.”

‘Five stars aren’t enough’ is what I wrote on Goodreads when I marked Emily Henry’s Book Lovers as ‘read’.

An entertaining plot, witty characters, incisive writing, and the combination thereof, all play their part, and of course no book lover can resist a book about books, but the ability to articulate why I had such a strong reaction to Book Lovers eludes me.

Told with distinctive blend of insight, heart, and wit, Henry had me smiling, laughing, aching and I even shed a tear or two.

++++++++

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Review: Her Fierce Creatures by Maria Lewis

 

Title: Her Fierce Creatures {Supernatural Sisters #8}

Author: Maria Lewis

Published: 8th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Her Fierce Creatures is the breathtaking conclusion of Maria Lewis’s award-winning Supernatural Sisters urban fantasy series.

Since my very late introduction to this series with The Rose Daughter, I’ve tracked down the earlier instalments but regrettably not had the time to read them, so I was hesitant to jump into the finale. I was relieved to find my lack of familiarity with the series overall proved not to be a hindrance, and I quickly found myself absorbed in Her Fierce Creatures.

After centuries of oppression and increasing cruelty by the Trieze, the ruling class of the supernatural that live hidden among modern society, the time has come to revolt. The balance of power hinges on the safe delivery of banshee Sadie Burke’s triplets, and the best way to protect them is to disrupt and divide the forces of the Praetorian Guard, uniting races and clans in the fight.

Supernatural emissaries from all over the world gather in the Australian dessert to plan their rebellion. Vankila, the Scottish underground prison from which sprite Dreckly Jones is the only one to have ever escaped, is a priority target and they devise a risky plan in which werewolf Tommi Grayson gets herself arrested, to stage a break out, rather than a break in.

There’s lots of fast paced, high tension action as Tommi enacts the plan with plenty of help, while groups of volunteers simultaneously attack other Trieze facilities around the world. Dreckly Jones and Corvossier ‘Casper’ von Klitzing, also play major roles in the battle. The clashes are dangerous and violent, and there are losses that will weigh heavily on them all.

Meanwhile Sadie is hidden from the Trieze in a remote New Zealand stronghold, guarded by her family and Tommi’s Māori werewolf relatives. Sadie is struggling with both the physical and emotional pressures of her pregnancy, and her anxiety grows after a vision suggests that the Trieze will come for her. Werewolf Simon is tasked as Sadie’s personal guard, and I was surprised and delighted by the heartwarming romance that developed between the two.

Her Fierce Creatures is a must read for fans of the series, those familiar with the Supernatural Sisters will appreciate the elements of closure for the characters they’ve grown to know and love, and the ending is as dramatic and climatic as could be hoped for.

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Review: Daughters of Eve by Nina D Campbell

 

Title: Daughters of Eve

Author: Nina D. Campbell

Published: 1st March 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

Daughters of Eve is a spectacularly provocative thriller from debut author Nina D. Campbell.

When a high profile defence barrister is shot dead by a sniper on the courthouse steps in front of her, Detective Sergeant Emilia Hart is eager to take the lead on the investigation, but instead finds herself sidelined, and assigned a ‘floater’ discovered in the Sydney Harbour. It surprises everyone when an autopsy reveals the man in the water was shot by the same weapon that killed the barrister. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between the two, but as a third, and then a fourth man are killed, each from a sniper shot with the same grouping, Emilia sees a pattern her colleagues prefer to ignore, until the Daughters of Eve, and their manifesto, makes it impossible.

A thrilling tale of revenge, I raced through Daughters of Eve. The mystery is intriguing as Emilia tries to piece together the motive and the identity of the vigilante sniper, chasing leads that seem to go nowhere. It’s Emilia who identifies the link between the victims, all too familiar with the violence men wreak on women and children, like that she, the two girls she claims as daughters, and the names listed on her refrigerator, have endured. Emilia is painfully aware as to how rarely these men are held accountable for their behaviour, but as a police officer she can’t condone vigilantism and commits herself to solving the case, no matter where it leads.

I can’t deny that it was somewhat satisfying to imagine the tables turned, for abusive men to be afraid as the Daughters of Eve reveal themselves, launching an app that invites women to name their unpunished tormentors, sparking a wave of copycat murders across the nation. Campbell imagines a response that seems infuriatingly plausible-of a government mobilising every resource available to put an end to the killings, despite its failures to provide even the bare minimum to ensure the protection women and children victimised by domestic abusers and rapists. Exploring themes such as justice vs vengeance, prevention vs protection, the plot is as thought-provoking as it is sensational.

I thought the author deftly balanced the professional and personal aspects of Emilia’s life, ensuring a well rounded character who engenders both affection and respect.  As rabidly anti-male as the story may seem to be, Campbell acknowledges good men too. Emilia’s investigative partner, Robbo, is, by and large, a decent guy. So too is Melbourne detective Matt Hayes with whom Emilia becomes involved despite her wariness.

Gripping, bold and sharp, I’ve rarely been so impressed by a debut novel, and recommend Daughters of Eve without hesitation.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History by Eliza Reilly

 

Title: Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History

Author: Eliza Reilly

Published: 22nd February 2022, Hachette

Status: Read February 2022, Hachette

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My Thoughts:

 

“The Sheilas in these pages are celebrated for the chaos and brilliance they bring, and they deserve to be spun into legend. They have helped me find out who I really am, and I think reading about them is going to give you some clues about who you really are, too.”

Sheilas: Bad Ass Women of Australian History is a fascinating, inspiring, irreverent celebration of some of Australia’s women who refused to accept the status quo throughout history, by writer, director and performer, Eliza Reilly.

Building on the (must watch) ‘Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History’ comedy webisode series Eliza created with her sister Hannah, developed as a part of Screen Australia‘s initiative called Gender Matters in 2018 (available on YouTube), the book ‘Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History’ introduces a bushranger and suffragettes, swimmers and pilots, a spy and an artist, among others. I was disappointed in myself to realise how few names I recognised.

Not content to simply regurgitate the dry facts and figures which are the hallmarks of many history books, Sheilas has a conversational tone, complete with expletives for emphasis. Reilly incorporates on point, funny and occasionally savage personal commentary, tweets and pieces of trivia. Her flippancy won’t appeal to everyone but I think it’s more likely to capture the attention of a wide audience than any history textbook. Photographs and ephemera support each story, while the illustrated titles for each woman, designed by Regine Abos, are whimsical and witty.

Here are a few notes on just three of the incredible Sheilas in the book…

Mary Ann Bugg

“There probably isn’t a better example of white Australia’s bad habit of holding up a grubby man as a hero and discarding a woman of colour who was literally doing the exact same shit but better than the story of the overlooked bushranger and her illiterate white boyfriend who was there too.”

Captain Thunderbolt (aka Frederick Ward) may be remembered for having the longest bushranging career in New South Wales, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Mary Ann Bugg, a Worimi woman who swam the shark-infested Sydney harbour with a metal file between her teeth to liberate her boyfriend from his prison cell on Cockatoo Island. When she finally tired of Fred’s company, she remarried and became a nurse.

Catherine Hay Thomson

“…very real and very scary grounds for being locked up included: ‘Laziness’,‘Masturbation, ‘Medicine to prevent conception’, ‘Mental excitement’, ‘Novel reading’ and practising ‘Egotism’. Which sounds more like my daily to-do list than a justification for insanity.”

Like her well known American counterpart Nellie Bly, Australian journalist, Catherine Hay Thomson, admitted herself to Kew Asylum in Melbourne to expose the abuse and corruption rife within the institution. In 1886 alone, Catherine published five stories on the Melbourne hospital. Her articles resulted in formal nursing training being introduced in Victoria and a ‘Ladies’ committee’ being imposed to help patients.

Deborah Lawrie

“Ansett went on to name The Period as enemy number one, pleading that people with periods should legally be banned from flying because they would ‘act strangely every month, simply were medically unfit once a month, “out of action”’.

Deborah Lawrie refused to take no for an answer when Ansett Airlines repeatedly rejected her application to become an airline pilot. In what was the first case ever held before the Equal Opportunity Board, Deborah won, At the direction of Ansett Airlines owner, Sir Reginald Ansett, the result was appealed to first the Supreme Court, and when they upheld the ruling of the EOB, to the High Court of Australia, where the court directed Ansett Airlines to hire Deborah after a two year legal battle. Sir Reg was so affronted he stood down as CEO and unlike the now defunct airline, Deborah is still flying today, a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a master air pilot.


Read Sheilas: Badass Women of Australian History to learn about sheroes including Faith Bandler, Nancy Wake, Fanny Durack. This is informative, hilarious, and badass.

 

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Available to purchase from PanMacmillan Australia

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Review: The Maid by Nita Prose

 

Title: The Maid

Author: Nita Prose

Published: 20th January 2022, HarperCollins Australia 

Status: Read January 2022 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley 

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My Thoughts:

 

“Today at work, I found a guest very dead in his bed. Mr. Black. The Mr. Black. Other than that, my work day was as normal as ever.”

 

The Maid is a quirky dark comedy cozy murder mystery from Canadian book editor turned debut author, Nita Prose.

Molly Gray is a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel, a five-star boutique hotel. Completing every task with the good humour, efficiency and attention to detail her late grandmother encouraged in her, she loves everything about her job from donning the crisply laundered uniform to fluffing pillows. Discovering a VIP hotel guest very dead in his bed not only disrupts Molly’s daily routine but very quickly her whole life when the police name her as a suspect.

Told from her point of view, twenty-five year old Molly is an endearing character, sweet and artless but also socially awkward. Raised by her grandmother, who recently passed away, Molly clings to her routines, struggling to adapt to a life without her. Her work is all she has, and though she is generally content to be invisible as she carries out her duties, Molly, who has trouble interpreting nuance, is susceptible to people willing to take advantage of her.

It seems absurd that anyone would consider Molly capable of murder, it appears obvious that she’s unwittingly been manipulated into a vulnerable position by a desperate wife and a roguish barman. In fact there doesn’t seem to be much to the mystery of Charles Black’s death at first, so disclosures later in the story came as a brilliant surprise. There is unexpected depth to The Maid which is easily overlooked, reflecting the complexity of Molly’s own personality. It’s with her Gran’s advice echoing in her head, and the help of a few true friends at the Regency Grand, that Molly begins to blossom, and find a way out of her predicament.

Prose seems to have been partially influenced by movies such as Clue, and Knives Out, the former obvious given the character’s names associations with colour, and the cozy eccentricity of the latter. Already optioned for development The Maid will translate well to the screen.

Clever, heartwarming and charming, The Maid is an absolute delight to read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

 

Title: Unforgiven

Author: Sarah Barrie

Published: 1st December 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read December 2021 courtesy Harlequin Aus/Netgalley

 

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My Thoughts:

 

Unforgiven is a compelling, gritty thriller from Australian bestselling author, Sarah Barrie.

When the body of a young girl dressed in a mermaid costume is discovered among bushland on the central coast of NSW, doubt is thrown on the conviction and imprisonment of serial killer and paedophile, Thomas Biddle aka The Spider. Lexi Winter has no such doubts, as a victim of Biddle and his paedophile network which included her own parents, she has never forgotten the man who orchestrated her abuse. Determined to prove the latest murder is the work of a copycat, Lexi is reluctantly reunited with Detective Inspector Rachael Langley, who arrested Biddle 18 years ago.

Offering plenty of tense moments, Unforgiven offers a well crafted, fast paced plot. I was caught up in the hunt for the murderous ‘copycat’ as Rachael and Lexi, along with Lexi’s younger sister Bailee, and the members of the task force, work together to expose the truth and prevent the death of any more innocent children.

I liked Lexi a lot, she’s a complex character, essentially a functional alcoholic, who makes her living as an escort. Hardened by her life experiences she is a survivor, tough, resourceful, and sometimes reckless, but also not without her vulnerabilities. It’s brave of Lexi to become involved in the ‘copycat’ case, given both her past, and present (which includes a dead man in her boot), and her general antipathy for authority.

There’s an interesting backstory between Lexi and Rachael which results in tension between the two women that also spills over into Lexi’s relationship another detective on the case who happens to be Rachael’s nephew, Finn Carson. I found both Rachael and Finn to be appealing characters, and I really liked their dynamic with Lexi.

Though Unforgiven deals with the grim subject of child abuse, there is unexpected levity to be found in Lexi’s sarcastic wit, and the behaviour of her remarkably helpful neighbour, Dawny.

Unforgiven is a terrific, riveting read, I’m left with the impression that there will be more books featuring Lexi and her role as a police consultant in the future, and I really hope there will be.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz


Title: Before You Knew My Name

Author: Jacqueline Bublitz

Published: 5th May 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

+++++++

My Thoughts:

On the same day that eighteen year old Alice Lee stepped off a bus from Wisconsin into the hustle of New York City hoping for a fresh start, thirty six year old Ruby Jones flew into New York from Melbourne seeking the same. Barely four weeks later, Ruby finds the battered half naked body of a nameless young girl while jogging along the Hudson River. Her name is Alice Lee.

“Her body was found by a jogger. Such a famous line. Two anonymous women connected by just seven words. Just how close had they come to each other that morning? Close enough to change roles, play each other’s parts?”

Before You Knew My Name is narrated by Alice, whose spirit still lingers after her death. She tells both her own story and that of Ruby, two women who find each other by chance, or perhaps it’s fate. Alice’s voice is achingly poignant as she asks to be heard, to be known.

“…maybe you’ll wish this for every dead girl from now on. The chance to speak for herself, to be known for more than her ending. Wouldn’t that be something. After everything we’ve lost.”

Bublitz deliberately centers Alice in the story, not her murder, nor her murderer. Everyone can name a serial killer, probably a dozen, but few will remember their victims names, or anything but the barest details about them, except for how they died. Here Bublitz ensures we know Alice, a bright, curious young woman who, despite experiencing hardship and tragedy, has hopes and dreams for her future.

“She does not know how to be this other person. How to be someone who discovered a body.”

Ruby, already lost, is further disoriented by discovering the body. She finds herself reevaluating her own sense of safety. She relives her own shock and fear, and dwells on the horror of what she imagines of Alice’s last moments. She thinks about what sort of man could beat, strangle and rape a girl. And then, finally she begins to wonder about the girl. Helping to identify Alice, learning about her, gives Ruby the purpose, and connection she came to New York to find.

“There is no name to be spoken, but I am recognised by each of the women present, clasped around their lifted hands, heavy on their hearts. I am their fears, and their lucky escapes, their anger, and their wariness. I am their caution and their yesterdays, the shadow version of themselves all those nights they have spent looking over shoulders, or twining keys between fingers.”

Much of the novel speaks to women’s experience, particularly of men. Not just how we are reduced by them, as Alice is by her killer, or how we choose to reduce ourselves, like Ruby does for her lover, but also how society reduces female victims of violence, designating some worthy, and others not. Both Alice and Ruby are women we recognise, in ourselves, and in others.

“I wanted to start over. I wanted to disappear. But that’s not the same as being forgotten. To be clear, I never, ever wanted that.”

An impressive debut, this is ultimately a story of a life, not a death. I found Before You Knew My Name to be eloquent, deeply moving, and insightful.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane


Title: Last Night

Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Published: 1st April 2021, HarperCollins UK

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy HarperCollinsUK/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

“That night was the last night of The Past, and we had no idea.”

 

I sat down to get a start on Mhairi McFarlane’s newest release and turned the final page just as my husband put his key in the door. The house was dark, the oven was cold, and I realised I hadn’t moved for the past three hours or so. While I very much enjoyed McFarlane’s previous novels, If I Never Met You, It’s Not Me, It’s You, and Don’t You Forget About Me, Last Night just felled me.

Though both romantic and funny, Last Night is much more than the romcom it’s marketed as. It’s a contemporary, captivating story exploring friendship, loss, secrets and love, told with McFarlane’s distinctive blend of insight, heart, and wit.

It would be far too easy to spoil the plot, which is why I’m avoiding my usual introduction to a review, but I can say it centres around four best friends since childhood – Eve, Susan, Justin and Ed, now all aged in their mid-thirties, faced with a shattering event that challenges their comfortable status quo.

There’s an authenticity and nuance to McFarlane’s characters that just appeals so strongly to me, even though I don’t necessarily have anything in common with them. Last Night unfolds from the perspective of Eve, single (and secretly in love with Ed), with an unfulfilling job, but nevertheless content with her life, largely due to her close relationships with Susan, Justin and Ed. The dynamic between the four friends is enviable, though not without its complications, which are brought to the fore in the wake of profound tragedy.

I’m not claiming Last Night is flawless, nor will it appeal to everyone, but it was near perfect for me for so many reasons. The author has a talent for natural dialogue and great timing, and I love McFarlane’s sharp, dry wit, but it’s her ability to evoke a full range of emotions that ensures I become invested in the story. I laughed and shed a tear, sighed and held my breath.

It should be obvious by now that I adored Last Night, its going to be a favourite for this year.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins UK

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