Review: A Little Bird by Wendy James

 

Title: A Little Bird

Author: Wendy James

Published: 30th November 2021, Lake Union Publishing

Status: Read January 2022 courtesy Lake Union Publishing/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

A Little Bird is an intriguing, character-driven mystery from Australian author Wendy James.

When the end of her relationship coincides with learning her father is ill, journalist Jo Sharpe reluctantly returns to her home town of Arthurville in western New South Wales to take up a position at the town’s local newspaper. Her father, a grumpy alcoholic, bitter about his wife’s desertion over twenty years ago, hasn’t changed much but the town, in the grip of drought, is in obvious decline.

One of Jo’s first assignments for the Arthurville Chronicle, which is really not more than a community newsletter, takes her to Pembroke, her wealthy grandmothers estate on the outskirts of town. The Beaufort’s are little more than strangers to Jo, given they disowned her mother, Miranda aka Merry when she married Jo’s working class father, and failed to reach out even after Merry vanished, taking Jo’s baby sister Amy with her, in 1995.

Confronted with her past, Jo is motivated to re-examine her mother’s disappearance, and makes a shocking discovery that changes everything.

Shifting between the past and present, as Merry’s history unfolds, exposing her frame of mind prior to her disappearance, Jo’s narrative, set in 2018, is related in the first person.

Jo is a well-developed, likeable character. She presents as resilient, smart and determined, though her vulnerabilities, stemming from her mother’s abandonment, her father’s neglect, and the collapse of her long term romantic relationship, are evident.

The small community of Arthurville is realistically portrayed, a conservative rural town affected by drought and the subsequent economic downturn. Of its residents I was fond of local vicar Shep, with whom Jo rekindles a relationship, as well as the teens he is mentoring.

Jo’s investigation begins as she reconnects with the people from her past, most notably her mother’s friend, Kirsty, who provides Jo with some information that prompts her to look at Merry’s disappearance differently. While I felt the pacing was a little slow through the first half of the novel, there is a gradual increase of tension during the second half. I really liked the way the mystery played out, I thought James’ plotting was clever, and I was anxious to understand Merry and Amy’s fate.

A slow-burning, but gripping domestic thriller, I enjoyed A Little Bird.

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Review: The Accusation by Wendy James

 

Title: The Accusation

Author: Wendy James

Published: May 20th 2019, HarperCollins AU

Status: Read May 2019- courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Accusation is author Wendy James’ contemporary take on the Canning Affair, an eighteenth-century criminal case that titillated the Victorian public, a compelling story of trust and betrayal, guilt and innocence.

Susannah Wells, a high school drama teacher, has been living with her mother in the small rural community of Enfield Wash for a just a few months. It’s a quiet life, her mothers dementia driven outbursts aside, in contrast with the years she spent as a young starlet on a popular TV soap.

Susannah, like the rest of the residents in Enfield Wash, expresses her shock when news breaks that a frail, bedraggled young woman has been found on the outskirts of town, claiming to have been abducted, drugged and chained to a bed for more than a month. When presented with the initial results of the police investigation, Ellie tearfully confirms the identity of her captors- Susannah Wells, and her mother, Mary.

Susannah vehemently denies the accusation, but with her arrest, her friends, even her closest friend, her colleagues, the townspeople, and the public at large, judge her guilty. Only her lover, Chip, is willing to believe in Susannah’s innocence, but even his faith begins to waiver as seemingly irrefutable evidence against Susannah builds.

If Susannah is innocent, why was evidence of Ellie’s ordeal found in her home? If Susannah is innocent, what possible motive could a stranger, especially a beautiful and bright young woman like Ellie, have to accuse her? If Susannah is innocent, who is guilty?

I raced through The Accusation, utterly engrossed by the question of Susannah’s guilt or innocence. James skilfully keeps the reader guessing, even while probing the possibilities of truth and deceit.

The story is structured in three parts, covering a period of about 12 months, for the most part progressing linearly, with the occasional slip backward and forward in time. Primarily the narrative unfolds from the perspectives of Susannah, and Honor, Ellie’s PR representative, with brief excerpts from a documentary produced about the case, after its resolution.

Of particular interest is the way in which James explores the role of ‘spin’ and social media in contributing to Ellie’s new found celebrity status, and Susannah’s public vilification. It’s an all too real scenario that demonstrates how easily the public can be manipulated, and how easily truth is dismissed.

The Accusation is provocative and gripping, a contemporary psychological thriller that should be moved to the top of your reading list.

Read an Excerpt

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Available to purchase from HarperCollins AU

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Also reviewed at Book’d Out by Wendy James

Review & Giveaway: Out of the Silence by Wendy James

 

Title: Out of The Silence

Author: Wendy James

Published: Momentum April 2013

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from April 11 to 13, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Set at the turn of the last century in Australia, Out of the Silence is a compelling blend of historical and crime fiction. Based on a true story it draws from historical record and the imagination of Wendy James to explore the fate of two women, working class Maggie Heffernan and genteel immigrant, Elizabeth Hamilton at a time when the suffragist movement, led by Vida Goldstein, was gaining ground in Victoria.

Maggie’s story is told in the first person, beginning in rural Victoria where she lives with her family. A little wild, Maggie wants more than “…a life indoors where nothing happens but potatoes boiling over and socks that need darning, or a child to be fed or changed or beat.” and when she meets Jack Hardy, who similarly longs for more than his status offers, she falls desperately in love.

Elizabeth’s life is shared through letters to her brother and private journal entries. The tragic death of her fiance in an accident shattered her dreams for the future and she chose to emigrate to Australia to take up a position as a governess. When she determines she unsuited to the situation she is instead offered accommodation with her cousins and Elizabeth joins the staff of a private school in Melbourne, finding herself a witness to the growing suffragette movement but yet hoping for “the promise of the fulfillment and contentment and happiness that for [Elizabeth] only marriage can provide”.

Vida Goldstein, who is a real figure from history, is Elizabeth’s employer at the private school where she works, and a close friend of her cousin, Harriet, with whom she lives. Vida’s passion for women’s rights is what brings these three very different characters together, when Maggie is accused, convicted and sentenced to death for murder.

Out of the Silence is not a who-dunnit but a why-dunnit exploring the social and personal contexts that led Maggie to commit such a heinous crime. It questions where the blame lies for the path her life takes, for the choices she is forced to make and how society’s perception of who she is, and so what she deserves plays a part in determining her fate. It’s a fascinating tale that James writes with empathy and adds human interest to the wider debate about women’s rights.

Though Elizabeth’s accounts can be rather dry, her moderate views temper Vida’s enthusiasm and Maggie’s desperate circumstances. I like that James gives each woman and her perspective a voice without judgement. Though their situations are very different their basic desire, to choose their own fate, is the same.

Out of the Silence is rich in period detail, it illustrates a time, place and attitude where science, religion and social awareness began to conflict. In large part this novel is a historical record of the momentum of the suffragette movement in Australia around the year 1900. It explores the role of women in accordance with class, privilege and law of the time, contrasting the circumstances of individuals like Maggie and Elizabeth.

A well crafted, thoughtful novel, Out of the Silence is a fascinating story of women, of love and desire. I am very pleased that Momentum has republished this award winning title for a new audience to discover.

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