The Understudy by Julie Bennett book review

The Understudy by Julie Bennett

Immersed in the underbelly of the theatre world in the gritty streets of Sydney in 1973, this addictive debut will have you wondering just how dangerous ambition – and love – can be.

It’s opening night. The stage is set, the houselights have dimmed and the handsome male lead is waiting. This is your time. Your chance to prove you are so much more than the understudy.

You have worked so hard and would have done almost anything to get here. But not what they are accusing you of – never that. It’s simply bad luck that Australia’s darling of opera has gone missing, throwing the spotlight on you just as the whole world is watching history in the making.

But the show must go on and it’s all down to you. Take a deep breath and get ready to perform the role of your life.

My Review

The Understudy is a thrilling story of mystery and intrigue in the world of professional opera singers set against the iconic background of the Sydney Opera House in the 1970s and rural Australia in the 1950s.

When understudy Sophie gets the chance to star as the lead role in Madama Butterfly with handsome Italian tenor Armando Cecchi, her excitement is tempered by the mysterious disappearance of leading lady Margaret Gardiner. Not only is Margaret gone but everyone thinks that Sophie must know what happened to her and her relationship with Armando is all over the papers.

The 1950s timeline tells us more about how Margaret became the overbearing leading lady and provides clues about what happened to make her disappear in the 1970s.

I particularly enjoyed the 1970s setting of Sydney and the Opera House, which was inspired by the author’s own experiences performing there for its opening performance. The power plays between the performers was brilliantly executed and I thoroughly recommend this debut novel.

Details

Title: The Understudy

Author: Julie Bennett

Published: Simon & Schuster Australia (March 2, 2022)

Format: Ebook, 464 pages

Source: Netgalley

Goodreads Reviews: The Understudy

Book Review: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

“Heart-wrenching, heartwarming and ultimately uplifting–a story about the power of a little kindness.”

The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

A story of friendship, love and what it means to truly live when, sometimes, it may seem easier not to.

Caitlin is convinced she’s going to die.

Two years ago she was a normal twenty-something with a blossoming career and a plan to go travelling with her best friend, until a car accident left her with a deep, unshakable understanding that she’s only alive by mistake.

Caitlin deals with these thoughts by throwing herself into work, self-medicating with alcohol, and attending a support group for people with death-related anxiety, informally known as the Morbids.

But when her best friend announces she’s getting married in Bali, and she meets a handsome doctor named Tom, Caitlin must overcome her fear of death and learn to start living again.

Beautiful, funny, and universally relatable this story of hidden loneliness and the power of compassion and companionship reminds us that life is an adventure truly worth living.

‘Mental illness captured with remarkable nuance and skill: The Morbids is a lively and often very funny book, and one that is hopeful and heartfelt. It is an assured debut, and a book that will mean a great deal to many people.’ – The Guardian

My Review:

Caitlin is struggling after a car crash convinced her that she was going to die. She thinks that she’s coping with things with her new waitressing job and her support group the Morbids, but she realises that she needs more help than she thought when she meets an attractive doctor and her best friend announces that she’s getting married in Bali.

I felt that the topics of depression and anxiety surrounding death in this novel were depicted accurately and sensitively. It’s not always an easy read, but I was drawn in by Caitlin and the people in her life and found the ending heart-warming and uplifting. The characters of the self-help group the Morbids often added a humorous touch, despite the difficult issues that they all faced around death anxiety. It was a bit like those kind of what if scenarios that I think everyone imagines sometimes times 1000.

Caitlin often walks around the streets of Sydney and I found the immersive description a wonderful touch. The ending was a lovely reminder of the importance of allowing the people in our lives to help us when we need it like we all do sometimes.

A touching and heart-warming read relatable for most people who experience depression and anxiety.

Details

Title: The Morbids

Author: Ewa Ramsey

Published: Allen & Unwin September 2020

Format: Paperback 368 pages

RRP: $29.99

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads reviews: The Morbids

The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

Book Review: The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

“1930s Melbourne. In sunny suburban streets, a serial killer lies in wait…”

The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

November, 1930. One sunny Saturday afternoon, 12-year-old Mena Griffiths was playing in the park when she was lured away by an unknown man. Hours later, her strangled body was found, mouth gagged and hands crossed over her chest, in an abandoned house. Only months later, another girl was murdered; the similarities between the cases undeniable. Crime in Melbourne had taken a shocking new turn: this was the work of a serial killer, a homicidal maniac.

My Review

The Schoolgirl Strangler is a fascinating true crime account of Melbourne’s earliest recorded serial killer. In the 1930s, a sick and twisted killer terrorised the suburbs of Melbourne and country Victoria, luring young girls to their deaths and strangling them with their own underwear. The police were under pressure for years to solve this chilling murder spree, interviewing thousands of people. Even prosecuting the wrong man at one point.

Katherine Kovacic has methodically researched the hunt for the Schoolgirl Strangler, often under difficult circumstances during Covid restrictions, and she has done a brilliant job of weaving the facts into a story that had me turning the page like a thriller. I found it interesting that she uncovered The Schoolgirl Strangler while she was researching her novel The Portrait of Molly Dean. It seems likely that Molly’s killer was a copycat of the Strangler.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and Katherine Kovacic’s in-person talks that I’ve been lucky enough to attend to listen to her speak about her research and writing processes.

Title: The Schoolgirl Strangler

Author: Katherine Kovacic

Published: January 3, 2021 by Bonnier Echo

Format: 320 pages, paperback

RRP: $32.99 AUD

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads: The Schoolgirl Strangler

The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

Book Review: The School by Brendan James Murray

The ups and downs of one year in the classroom

One teacher. One school. One year.

Brendan James Murray has been a high school teacher for more than ten years. In that time he has seen hundreds of kids move through the same hallways and classrooms – boisterous, angry, shy, big-hearted, awkward – all of them on the journey to adulthood.

In The School, he paints an astonishingly vivid portrait of a single school year, perfectly capturing the highs and lows of being a teenager, as well as the fire, passion and occasional heartbreak of being their teacher. Hilarious, heartfelt and true, it is a timeless story of a teacher and his classes, a must-read for any parent, and a tribute to the art of teaching.

My Review

The School is such a powerful read about the ups and downs of a year in a high school classroom told through the eyes of an English and Literature teacher. The names and events have been fictionalised and span many years and schools, but the school of this story is set in a public school on the Victorian coastline.

Over the course of the story, we progress through the school year with Mr Murray and his students, learning more about them and their lives as the school year progresses. The warmth, love, and care between Mr Murray and his students is evident throughout the book and I grew to care about all of the students almost as much as their teacher so thoughtfully does.

I also appreciated the way that the author highlighted the issues and the injustices that public school students so often face. It’s an important issue that needs to be addressed and Murray goes into great detail on this with his characteristic grace and humour. It must be so difficult and heartbreaking from a teacher’s perspective, but he remains focused on his students and their needs.

This is a wonderful story and a tribute to all teachers and the students that they care for. It’s beautifully and sensitively written and I think Mr Murray’s students are very lucky to have landed in his classroom. Just as I was lucky to attend high school with him in our own small coastal school. Highly recommended reading!

Details

Title: The School

Author: Brendan James Murray

Published: Pan MacMillan Australia

RRP: $34.99 AUD

Source: Publisher

Goodreads: The School

Zeus with our copy of The School by Brendan James Murray

The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall Book Review

THE MOTHER FAULT BY KATE MILDENHALL

Set in a dystopian Australia in the not too distant future, THE MOTHER FAULT is a cleverly crafted eco-thriller that had me on the edge of my seat all the way through.

Mim is a geologist turned stay at home mum with two children Essie (11) and Sammy (6) in a Victoria that is ruled by ‘The Department’. Her husband Ben is an environmental engineer at an Australian/Chinese mine in Indonesia. Climate change has begun to cause catastrophic damage, all citizens are microchipped ‘for their safety, and anybody who doesn’t comply with ‘The Department’ are shipped off to a place called ‘Best Life’.

When Mim receives a phone call to let her know that Ben has gone missing from the mine she packs up Essie and Sammy and sets of across the country, and then across the ocean, to find a way to get to Indonesia and find her husband. Even though she must put her family and her friends in serious danger, Mim is determined to get to Ben.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE MOTHER FAULT and found the dystopian Australia that had been ravaged by climate change to be frighteningly plausible. The vivid characters and fast-paced action make it a compelling reading experience.

Details

Title: The Mother Fault

Author: Kate Mildenhall

Published: September 2, 2020 by Simon & Schuster

Pages: 366 pages, paperback

Genre: Dystopian, Thriller, Eco-Thriller, Speculative Fiction

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads

GULLIVER’S WIFE by Lauren Chater

GULLIVER’S WIFE by Lauren Chater

GULLIVER’S WIFE is an imaginative and rich retelling of Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels from his long-suffering wife’s perspective with a strong feminist flavour.

In London 1702 Mary Burton Gulliver is forced to raise her son and daughter alone while her husband is at sea. He is often gone for years, rarely keeping in contact, and each time he returns his stories become increasingly fanciful. Mary has no choice but to work as a midwife to make ends meet, even though that she is judged harshly for having to work as a married woman.

When her husband returns home from his long stint at sea feverish and making the most ridiculous claims yet, Mary has no choice but to take him in and to care for him. Even though it was difficult to survive while her husband was at sea, in many ways Mary found it easier to manage her household on her own. Her life without Lemuel was spent managing her household, working in her garden, and caring for the local women in her role as a midwife was mostly calm and orderly. Even before his outlandish ravings began Lemuel brought chaos and deception wherever he went, and his light fingers meant that Mary needed to try to hide whatever meagre money and valuables she possessed.

I particularly liked the character of Bess, Mary’s daughter. Bess is 14 years old and infatuated with her father. She believes his tall tales and false promises that he will take her sailing with him one day until his selfish behaviour puts her in danger this time. Mary hopes that she will train to become a midwife like herself and her mother before her. I think that the relationship between Mary and Bess perfectly captured the difficulties often found in the mother/daughter relationship during the tumultuous teen years when the daughter is trying to figure things out for herself and is desperate for her independence.

I thoroughly enjoyed GULLIVER’S WIFE and would highly recommend it to lovers of historical fiction with a strong feminist bent and touches of magic and wonder. The story is engrossing and skilfully weaved together.

Details

Published: April 1st 2020 by Simon & Schuster

Source: Own copy

Read: Paperback, February 2021

Pages: 416 pages

Rating: 5 stars

Goodreads

Amazon AU

About the author

Lauren Chater is the author of the historical novels The Lace Weaver and Gulliver’s Wife, as well as the baking compendium Well Read Cookies – Beautiful Biscuits Inspired by Great Literature.

In 2018 she was awarded a grant by the Neilma Sidney Literary Fund to travel to the Netherlands to research her third novel The Winter Dress, inspired by a real 17th century gown found off the Dutch coast in 2014. She has made appearances at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Storyfest, the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival and the Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival, as well as many others. She is currently completing her Masters of Cultural Heritage through Deakin University.

For all rights enquiries, please contact Tara Wynne at Curtis Brown Literary Agency.

For all media enquiries, please contact the Marketing and Publicity department at Simon & Schuster Australia.

You can also connect with Lauren via Facebook and Instagram.

Book review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

I’ve been obsessed with books set in the 1930s lately, so I was instantly intrigued by The Portrait of Molly Dean when I discovered that it’s a true murder mystery set against the background of Melbourne’s bustling art scene in 1930.

Goodreads Blurb

An unsolved murder comes to light after almost seventy years…

In 1999, art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a lost portrait of Molly Dean, an artist’s muse brutally slain in Melbourne in 1930. Alex buys the painting and sets out to uncover more details, but finds there are strange inconsistencies: Molly’s mother seemed unconcerned by her daughter’s violent death, the main suspect was never brought to trial despite compelling evidence, and vital records are missing. Alex enlists the help of her close friend, art conservator John Porter, and together they sift through the clues and deceptions that swirl around the last days of Molly Dean. 

Review

The Portrait of Molly Dean is based on a real unsolved murder. Molly Dean was brutally murdered in Melbourne in 1930. She was a beautiful and popular artist’s muse who was determined to break out of her complicated home life and make a name for herself as a writer but her murder was never solved and she was almost forgotten.

This novel imagines what might have happened in Molly’s last days via the fictional investigations of an astute Melbourne art dealer who snaps up Molly’s portrait in 1999 for a bargain. As Alex and her art conservator friend investigate the painting and the mystery surrounding the death of Molly Dean, they discover that there were many inconsistencies surrounding the investigation and that there are still people out there who will do whatever it takes to make sure that the truth remained hidden.

There really isn’t anything that I didn’t love about this book! Both the 1930 and 1999 timelines were full of distinctly timely and Melbourne features and I also found the art history fascinating. Molly was such an interesting character that I found myself invested in finding out what happened to her. I feel like I could have been great friends with her. And I loved Alex Clayton the sassy art dealer and will be adding the rest of the Alex Clayton art mystery series to my TBR list!

Details

Published: March 1st 2018 by Bonnier Publishing Australia/Echo

Source: Own copy

Read: Paperback, January – February 2021

Pages: 271 pages

Rating: 5 stars

Goodreads

Amazon AU

Amazon UK

Amazon US

About the author

Katherine Kovacic was a veterinarian but preferred training and having fun with dogs to taking their temperatures. She seized the chance to return to study and earned an MA, followed by a PhD in Art History. Katherine spends her spare time writing, dancing and teaching other people’s dogs to ride skateboards.

A research geek, Katherine is currently fired up by the history of human relationships with animals, particularly as they appear in art. Her first book, The Portrait of Molly Dean, was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award for best first fiction.

Katherine lives in suburban Melbourne with a Borzoi, a Scottish Deerhound and a legion of dog-fur dust bunnies.

January 2021. True Crime.

Available in all good bookshops and online (paperback, ebook, audio) including:

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Booktopia)

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Amazon US)

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Amazon Australia)

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Kobo)

Book Review: The Yield by Tara June Winch

The Yield by Tara June Winch

My Review

“The yield in English is the reaping, the things that man can take from the land. In the language of the Wiradjuri yield is the things you give to, the movement, the space between things: baayanha.” 

Even though The Yield is my first book review of 2021 I’m quite certain that it will be the most profound and meaningful book that I will read this year. It’s a story about the Wiradjuri people’s culture, language, family, and the intergenerational trauma of colonisation in Australia. 

When Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi finds out that he will die soon, he decides to record the language and everything that was ever remembered by his people, the Wiradjuri people from the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. He knows that if he doesn’t write everything down it will be forgotten, and he’s determined to pass it down the words of his ancestors. Through Poppy’s dictionary, we are shown an extraordinarily moving and personal insight into the customs and language of the Wiradjuri People as a whole group, as well as Poppy’s immediate Gondiwindi family. 

When Albert’s granddaughter, August, returns for his funeral after living on the other side of the world for ten years she discovers that their family home is about to be repossessed by a mining company. She is determined to make amends for the past events that led her to leave the country all those years ago by saving her family’s land. August’s story about returning to her family and rediscovering her connection to the land and their language and culture was also incredibly insightful, as well as being a gripping David versus Goliath story. 

Interspersed throughout the novel is also the story of a 1915 missionary at Massacre Plains told in the form of a serialised letter. It tells the story of Poppy and August’s ancestors who lived on the mission at that time. While I felt like this was the driest and most tedious section of the novel, it also makes a lot of sense to have this generation of the Gondiwindi family story being told by white colonisers. The voices of so many generations of First Nations Peoples have been lost because they were unable to tell their own stories and many were prevented from passing down their stories and their culture to younger generations. 

I know that I will be thinking about this book for a long time and I look forward to reading it again over the coming years. A once in a lifetime book that will change the way you think and a powerful reclamation of the Wiradjuri language. This is so important because, as the author’s note explains, Australian languages are rapidly dying out and so many essential aspects of culture are inherently tied to language.

My cat Zeus with my copy of The Yield by Tara June Winch

Blurb

Winner Miles Franklin Literary Award 2020
Winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2020 – for Fiction, People’s Choice and Book of the Year.
Winner Booksellers Choice Literary Fiction Book of the Year 2020
Shortlisted The Stella Prize 2020
Shortlisted Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction 2020
Shortlisted ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year 2020
Shortlisted Queensland Literary Awards for Fiction 2020

Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind.

August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.

Profoundly moving and exquisitely written, Tara June Winch’s The Yield is the story of a people and a culture dispossessed. But it is as much a celebration of what was and what endures, and a powerful reclaiming of Indigenous language, storytelling and identity. 

Details

Published: July 2nd 2019 by Penguin Random House

Source: Own copy

Read: Paperback, January 2021

Pages: 343

Rating: 5 stars

Goodreads

Book review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

scrublands cover
Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Blurb

In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself. A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don’t fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can’t ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest’s deadly rampage. Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal. Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town’s secrets stay buried. A compulsive thriller that will haunt you long after you have turned the final page.

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Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Review

Scrublands opens with a tense scene that pulls you straight into the mystery at the heart of the novel. We are shown how the young dedicated priest of the drought-plagued town of Riversend methodically shoots five of his parishioners before turning the gun on himself, but we aren’t told why he would do that.

One year after the tragedy troubled journalist Martin Scarsdale arrives in Riversend to write a feature on how the town is coping now. It seems as though the reasoning behind the priest’s crime had already been revealed by one of Marin’s colleagues but as he gets to know the town and its inhabitants Martin discovers that there is far more to this story than he ever could have imagined.

The further Martin digs into this story, the more entangled he becomes with the weird and wonderful townsfolk of Riversend, including a romance. He eventually breaks the cardinal rule of journalism and becomes the story himself and this puts his job, his budding relationship, and even his life in danger but he is in so deep by then that he feels as though he has no choice but to see things through to the bitter end.

I loved the drought-stricken bush setting of this book and you can almost feel the heat radiating off the book while you hold it. The author has accurately conveyed the dry heavy heat of the Australian bush during droughts, as well as all the weird ways that it can affect the people who live there. I read this book over the cold winter months of lockdown in Melbourne and the way that the heat was described had me dreaming of long road trips I’ve been on in the past through towns just like Riversend.

I also found the why-dunnit mysteries and plot twists fascinating, but like other reviewers, felt that it was perhaps a little bit too convoluted at times and this meant that there was a lot of catching up and explaining to do towards the end.

Scrublands is a must-read for crime fiction fans and one of the stand out additions to the bush noir subgenre of books set in drought-stricken Australian country towns. Hammer has skilfully connected the scorching heat of the Australian bush with dark and desperate characters and I will definitely be adding his latest books to my never-ending TBR pile.

Details

Published: Published July 25th 2018 by Allen & Unwin

Source: Own copy

Read: Paperback, September 2020

Pages: 496

Rating: 4 stars

Goodreads

About the author

chris hammer
Chris Hammer

Chris Hammer is a leading Australian crime fiction novelist, author of international bestsellers Scrublands and Silver.

His new book, Trust, will be published in Australia and New Zealand in October 2020 and internationally from early 2021.

Scrublands was an instant bestseller upon publication in 2018, topping the Australian fiction charts.

In Australia, it was shortlisted for the 2019 ABIA, Indies and NSW Premier’s awards ; in the UK it was named the Sunday Times Crime Novel of the Year 2019 and won the prestigious UK Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award; in the US it is shortlisted for both the Barry and the Strand Magazine awards for debut crime fiction.

Silver, also featuring journalist Martin Scarsden and his partner Mandalay Blonde, was shortlisted for the ABIA and Booksellers Choice Awards and longlisted for the UK CWA Gold Dagger.

Before turning to fiction, Chris was a journalist for more than thirty years. He reported from more than 30 countries on six continents for SBS TV. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, senior writer for The Age and Online Political Editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Chris has written two non-fiction books The River (2010) and The Coast (2012), published by Melbourne University Press.

He has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in International Relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra, Australia.

Author Eliza Henry-Jones shares her favourite comfort read: the books of James Herriot

Today’s comfort read is brought to you by the wonderful Australian author of contemporary adult and young adult novels Eliza Henry-Jones

eliza herriot

My favourite comfort read is the series written by James Herriot (the pen-name of Yorkshire based vet, James Wight).

Wight writes with warmth and humour about his experiences as a country vet during the 1930s through the war and into the 1950s. While parts of it haven’t dated well (unsurprising, given the first book was written in the 1960s!), his books never fail to make me laugh out loud and feel very cosy and cheery. I first read them when I was nine and stayed in Yorkshire a few years ago, so it’s sort of nostalgic on two fronts.

About the Author

eliza henry jones
Author Eliza Henry-Jones

Eliza Henry-Jones is a novelist, researcher and freelance writer based on a little farm in the Yarra Valley of Victoria.

Her debut novel In the Quiet (2015) was published as part of a three book deal with HarperCollins Australia. She has since published Ache (2017), the young adult novel P is for Pearl (2018) and How to Grow a Family Tree (2020). Eliza’s novels have been listed for multiple awards.

Eliza has qualifications in English and psychology as well as grief, loss and trauma counselling. She has completed a first class honours thesis exploring representations of bushfire trauma in fiction and is currently a PhD candidate at Deakin University.

Eliza is a proud ambassador for the Satellite Foundation, which supports children and young people who are impacted by parental mental illness.

Eliza has been awarded a residential fellowship at Varuna in New South Wales, a young writer residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Western Australia,  the Tyrone Guthrie Fellowship in Ireland and an Australia Council Grant to work on a new novel set in Scotland.

Eliza is an experienced public speaker, facilitator and writer. You can find out more about her writing and other services here.

Click/Tap the titles to read my reviews of Ache, P is for Pearl, and How to Grow a Family Tree