Review: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

 

Title: Demon Copperhead

Author: Barbara Kingsolver

Published: 18th October 2022, Faber

Status: Read October 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

Inspired by the Charles Dicken’s classic novel, David Copperfield, Barbara Kingsolver presents Demon Copperhead, an extraordinary coming of age tale set in contemporary America.

“My thinking here is to put everything in the order of how it happened, give or take certain intervals ….it’s easiest to forget about the misery and pretend you knew all along what you were doing. Assuming you’ve ended up someplace you’re proud to be. And if not, easier to forget the whole thing, period. So this is going to be option three, not proud, not forgetting. Not easy.”

Born ‘en caul’ on the floor of his drug addicted, teenaged single mother’s rented single-wide trailer in the Appalachian mountains, Demon Fields’ red hair and green eyes inherited from his late Melungeon father, earns him the nickname Demon Copperhead. Tended to mainly by the neighbouring Peggot family, who are raising a grandson of the same age, the deprivations of his childhood barely register, Demon is content to roam the woods with his best friend, draw super heroes, and dream of one day seeing the ocean. But that ease ends after his mother marries a violent bully and then, never able to maintain her sobriety for long, overdoses on Demon’s eleventh birthday, abandoning him to an overburdened foster care system.

Related in the first person, looking back from barely a decade later, Demon continues to share his incredible story, revealing a life of desperation and tragedy, of courage and hope. I confess it took a few chapters before my interest was engaged. I’m generally not fond of the stream of consciousness style Kingsolver deploys and Demon’s ‘voice’, being of an unfamiliar cadence to me, took a little time to get used to, but once I did, I was utterly captivated and reluctant to put this book down.

There were moments when I was tempted to however just because Demon’s experiences of abuse, exploitation, addiction and loss evoked such strong emotion, from horror and anger to frustration and pity. Even on the rare occasions when things are going well for him, there is an unrelenting certainty of impending doom. Demon’s resilience in the face of disadvantage and hardship is remarkable, but his need for it, especially as a young child, is infuriating and heartbreaking.

Kingsolver’s support for social justice issues is well known, and Demon Copperhead is an indictment of engineered poverty, under-resourced social welfare and education services, unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies and doctors, prejudice and inequality. She calls out privilege, hypocrisy, stereotypes and ignorance with an understanding of the harm they perpetuate.

Offering memorable characters and a powerful and thought-provoking narrative, Demon Copperhead is an utterly absorbing novel. Certainly one of the best I’ve read this year.

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Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

 

Title: Fairy Tale

Author: Stephen King

Published: 6th September 2022, Hodder & Staughton

Status: Read October 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“I’m sure I can tell this story. I’m also sure no one will believe it. That’s fine with me. Telling it will be enough. My problem—and I’m sure many writers have it, not just newbies like me—is deciding where to start.”

After seventeen year old Charlie Reade tentatively investigates the frantic barking coming from what has locally been dubbed the ‘Psycho House’, Charlie discovers its injured, reclusive resident, Howard Bowditch, his ageing dog Radar, and an otherworldly realm in need of a saviour.

There’s no denying Fairy Tale is slow to start, had this been written by any other author I would likely have have given up on it, but I trusted that the investment would be worth it.

I was charmed by the main characters, Charlie and Howard, and Radar, a German Shepherd and Bowditch’s faithful companion, who steals Charlie’s heart. King’s character development is on point as always and the relationship between the eager teen, eccentric old man, and loyal dog is heartwarming.

It’s Charlie and Radar who enter King’s otherworld, a kingdom named Empis, for reasons best left for you to discover. Their journey becomes one of adventure, magic, horror, and heroics, told with suspense and excitement. Readers will recognise elements of, or references to, familiar fairy tales and fantasy classics, from Brothers Grimm ‘Goose Girl’, to Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ during their journey. Of course King has combined them in creative ways and added his own, often dark, twist.

As with all of King’s stories, Fairy Tale is also speckled with pop culture references, oblique commentary on current social woes, puerile humour, and ‘easter egg’ references to his other works.

I enjoyed Fairy Tale, it’s escapism that champions kindness, care, courage, and hope, all sorely needed in today’s world, but it if I’m honest I was underwhelmed. It just wasn’t as captivating as I hoped

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Review: All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien

 

Title: All That’s Left Unsaid

Author: Tracey Lien

Published: 30th August 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read October 2022 courtesy HQ Fiction/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

After her seventeen year old brother, Denny, is beaten to death in a local restaurant on the night of his high school graduation, Ky Tran, a journalist, returns to home to Cabramatta for his funeral. While her mother makes offerings at Temple and her father sleeps in his slain son’s bed, Ky, learning the local police aren’t actively pursuing the case in part due to uncooperative witnesses, begins her own investigation, desperate to understand why Denny, who’d been voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ just hours earlier, was murdered.

Alternating between Ky’s voice and the perspectives of the witnesses, All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien is much more than a mystery as a young woman tries to solve the murder of her younger brother, this is a stunning novel that explores the themes of guilt, loss, grief, identity and belonging.

“There was so much that she wanted to say—to Denny, to her parents, to anyone who would listen. Apologies, explanations, painful observations that she knew revealed volumes of truth. The words in her head rushed to arrange themselves, colliding and falling in a panic, and in her desperate attempt to speak, she found that all her body would permit her to do was gasp.”

I’ve attempted to complete this review repeatedly but I just can’t seem to articulate my thoughts in a way that I feel does it justice. I found it truly moving, challenging and edifying as Lien writes viscerally of Ky’s complicated relationship with her family, with her community, with her culture, and with herself. I thought the exploration of the complex legacy of the immigrant experience, including inter-generational trauma, through the lives of several characters, was insightful and compassionate.

“There is no way for me to tell her that the loss began well before we were born, that our parents had loss, and their parents had loss, and our ancestors had loss— loss of home, loss of place, loss of self, loss of life—and we were born with that loss, carried it, burdened by it, part of it.”

I’m familiar with the Cabramatta Lien portrays in her novel, having worked in an adjacent suburb during the same time period. I was employed by an organisation that provided many types of support exclusively to Chinese and Vietnamese refugees, and the parents of the preschoolers in my care were eager for their children to thrive and succeed in Australian society. I was, and remain, infuriated with the media and politicians who were unwilling to understand and address the issues affecting the community, and instead amplified racism.

“They’re all fair dinkum this and everyone gets a fair go that. This is the luckiest country in the world, right?…But they don’t tell us that the luck doesn’t extend to us. That’s the big lie. They’ve been shoving it down our throats since we were kids. You’re a fool if you believe it. Not only are they not gonna look out for us, they’re gonna turn on us the moment they think we’re a threat.”

Lien’s prose is eloquent, authentic and expressive. I highlighted at least a dozen passages that I thought were well-articulated, though I’ve shared less than a handful here.

All That’s Left Unsaid is an extraordinary debut, Lien is an author with a lot to say, who left me speechless.

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Review: Yours, Mine, Ours by Sinead Moriarty

 

Title: Yours, Mine, Ours

Author: Sinead Moriarty

Published: 7th July 2022, Sandycove

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin UK/NetgalleyUK

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My Thoughts:

Unfolding from multiple perspectives Yours, Mine, Ours by Sinead Moriarty explores the complications of blending families, especially when navigating step-parenting, and co-parenting.

There aren’t really any surprises in this book. Having fallen deeply in love, Anna and James are excited to be starting a new life together, and are sure that their respective children, 15 year-old Grace, 9 year-old Jack, and 14 year-old Bella will quickly embrace the merging of their lives. Neither are prepared when their dream of a happy family rapidly becomes a nightmare.

There’s plenty of drama as the children make life hard for Anna and James, putting a dent in their bubble of bliss. While Grace, a science geek, is willing to give the situation a chance, James’s spoilt daughter Bella doesn’t like sharing her father, and refuses to give Anna an inch. Jack, egged on by his immature father, Conor, is absolutely awful to James, and because of her guilt, Anna excuses his bad behaviour, which becomes a wedge between the couple.

I wasn’t very fond of Anna, though I had some sympathy for her, I found her lack of self awareness in several situations is irritating. James, a university professor, is a fairly bland character, though I admired his patience with Jack, and Anna. Conor, Anna’s ex, is an absolute douche who embraced every stereotype of toxic masculinity, while Bella’s mother, an ambitious career woman remarried to a wealthy hotelier, is focused on the wrong things when it comes to her daughter.

As you would predict, after tantrums, tears, break-ups and make-ups, it all works out in the end.

Moriarty writes well, there is genuine warmth, angst and humour in the story, but there was just not anything unique or particularly memorable about it for me.

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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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Title: Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister

 

Title: Wrong Place Wrong Time

Author: Gillian McAllister

Published: 12th May 2022, Michael Joseph

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

Jen’s relief at her teenage son’s return home late one October Friday night, turns to horror as she witnesses him stab a man just meters from their front door. Todd is promptly arrested, and Jen, along with her husband, Kelly, are left stunned, unable to speak with him until the next morning when they can return with a solicitor. The last thing Jen remembers of that night is dozing on the sofa, but when she wakes she is in bed, Todd is in his bedroom, Kelly is at work, and it’s Friday morning …again.

Jen is confused, her son and husband are bemused by her story, and Jen allows herself to be convinced she dreamed the whole thing, but nevertheless insists Todd stays home, and as she’s falling asleep she is confident she’s avoided a nightmare scenario. So why, when she next wakes, is it the day before the day before?

Every time Jen wakes, she finds herself further back in the past, sometimes days, weeks and even years, eventually realising that to change the future, and save her son, she has to determine where everything went wrong. I felt sympathy for Jen as her whole life slowly began to unravel, her past revealing crushing secrets, and admired her determination to find the answers.

The plot is intricate, though not unfathomably so, once you become comfortable with the time slips. While I’m not a fan of time travel generally, I found I was quickly absorbed in this high concept story. The novel unfolds at a compelling pace, despite moving backwards from the crime to its cause, and offers plenty of surprising twists. The epilogue too is quite the stunner.

Intriguing and clever, Gillian McAllister presents an original premise executed with impressive skill in Wrong Place Wrong Time.

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Review: The Emma Project by Somali Dev

 

Title: The Emma Project {The Rajes #4}

Author: Sonali Dev

Published: 17th May 2022, Avon Books

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Avon Books/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

The Emma Project is the fourth (and last) book in Sonali Dev’s popular Jane Austen inspired rom com series, The Rajes, though if, like me, you haven’t read any of the earlier books it is a successful stand-alone read.

The story’s connections to the original ‘Emma’ are generally quite subtle, but still recognisable. Vansh Raje is the youngest of the Raje’s siblings. Handsome, successful and single, he is effortlessly charming, and somewhat spoilt. Knightlina (Naina) Kohli is the aloof ‘Knightly’ to Vansh’s ‘Emma’, a long term, close friend of the family, who had previously been involved in a fake relationship with Vansh’s older brother, Yash.

I liked both characters, who are portrayed with a complexity I wasn’t expecting from a romcom. Naina and Vansh both have rich back stories that are coherent motivator’s for their attitudes and actions.

The pair’s history is an obvious impediment to their relationship, with Naina having been Yash’s (fake) girlfriend for nearly a decade, both have trouble seeing each other as a potential romantic partner, as does the entire Raje family. Vansh is also twelve years younger than Naina, and her (horrible) father, clearly the root cause of her distrust of love and marriage, in particular is disparaging of the age difference.

Much of the couple’s conflict however stems from Naina being forced to share a multimillion-dollar endowment from Jignesh Mehta, the sixth-richest entrepreneur in the world, to her charitable foundation that supports sustainable economic security for women in remote and neglected regions. Naina has a plan for every dollar, so she is appalled when Mehta insists she share his largess with Vansh on the basis of a cocktail conversation.

I liked the development of their romance, it’s not quite an enemies-to-lovers trope but  fairly close. There are the inevitable misunderstandings and miscommunications, tantrums and tears. I liked the heat level of the romance, but I was a bit surprised to find it here.

A secondary romance plot involves another Raje family member, cousin Esha who has an unusual story of her own, and Sid, a photojournalist. To be honest, I felt this thread was shoehorned in, and elements of it, out of place, though there is a loose parallel to the romance in ‘Emma’ between Jane Fairfax and Churchill.

Dev also touches on a number of surprisingly serious issues including domestic violence, homelessness, dyslexia, and (what I thought was) an odd reference to to the BLM movement.

Others will be better judges than I on how satisfying The Emma Project was as a series finale. I was entertained by the story and its characters, though I don’t feel compelled to read the earlier instalments.

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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: Overboard by Sara Paretsky

 

Title: Overboard {V.I. Warshawski #21}

Author: Sara Paretsky

Published: 10th May 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

Overboard is the 21st novel featuring iconic Chicago private detective, V.I. (Vic) Warshawski. The series, credited with transforming the role and image of women in crime fiction, written by award winning author Sara Paretsky made its debut 40 years ago, in 1982.

Vic is focused on three cases in this novel. The first involves a favour for her long term friend, Dr Lottie, who has asked her to investigate the harassment of a local synagogue. The second Vic stumbles into when, while walking her dogs along the foreshore, she discovers a badly beaten girl hidden amongst its rocky banks, who later vanishes from her hospital room under suspicious circumstances, and the third, a plea for help from a teenage boy who suspects his mother, whom Vic knew in highschool, is having an affair.

Readers who are familiar with series will know what to expect from Overboard. Vic is a methodical and dogged investigator who never backs down and is willing to take risks to defend the vulnerable and innocent. As adept at sifting through paperwork and databases, as she is committing the odd break-in, and fighting off attackers, Vic employs all her skills to resolve the mysteries she is faced with. I enjoy the complexity of concurrent cases, and the entertaining mix of tense action and intelligent investigation. Somewhat improbably, though not troublesomely so, VIc’s three cases also spawn loose links to, and between, a mobbed up developer, a corrupt cop, and elder care abuse.

I like that Paretsky references contemporary events within her storylines to ground them in time and place, and in Overboard she highlights several issues of the post-pandemic lockdown period, namely police violence and corruption, the rise of hate groups, and the societal changes wrought by CoVid, like the challenges of financial recovery and the use of masks.

Though Overboard can be read as a stand-alone as the plot is self contained, the story is definitely enhanced by familiarity with the characters and their world. I’d expect long time fans, like me, will enjoy and be satisfied with this new instalment.

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