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FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
The Fire and the Rose
Robyn Cadwallader, Fourth Estate, $32.99
From the author of The Anchoress (2015) comes another richly drawn medieval historical novel. In The Fire and the Rose, we follow Eleanor, an independent-minded young woman who has learned, unusually for the time, to read and write. Eleanor is compelled to leave her village. A prominent birthmark makes marriage a distant prospect, but it isn’t her ambition anyway. Determined to use her sharp mind and her abilities, Eleanor travels to Lincoln, where she meets a Jewish spice merchant, Asher, who shares her passion for the written word. A romance develops, but prejudice looms large on the road ahead. In 1276, England is a dangerous place for Jews. The antisemitic blood libel against them (Jews were accused of murdering children and drinking their blood) is in full swing, and increasing persecution will lead, within a generation, to their expulsion by royal decree. Robyn Cadwallader clearly knows her stuff. Her meticulously researched novel will stimulate and beguile those with a taste for medieval history; it’s also an instructive look at a racism that prefigures the modern variety.
Notes on Her Colour
Jennifer Neal, Vintage, $32.99
Gabrielle can alter the colour of her skin, a gift inherited from her mother, Tallulah. Her father, however, is a Black Republican lawyer who insists on leaching the house into a sterile white, a colour he prefers his daughter to “pass” as, especially as it raises her chances of being accepted into a prestigious premed program at university.
When Tallulah is hospitalised after a mental health crisis, her daughter must navigate her colour-changing talent alone. She finds solace in pursuing music during her gap year, and draws inspiration from her piano teacher Dominique, a queer Jamaican woman whose confidence, creativity, and vibrant embrace of colour stand in stark contrast to her father’s cold-eyed view of the world. Jennifer Neal’s Notes on Her Colour deploys magical realism to delve into the absurdities and contradictions of contemporary racial politics in the US. The device isn’t fully developed in an imaginative sense, but the questions the novel raises are sophisticated and complex, even if the “liberated by love” angle seems a little too rose-tinted.
Joanne Harris, Orion, $32.99
Menopause gives Bernie Moon psychic powers. Well, long ago she did have the ability to enter (and to change) other people’s minds, but it has lain dormant since she was a teenager. Her life since has been one of domesticity and self-abnegation, of putting aside her own needs in her role as mother and wife. She feels invisible in middle-age. When a young woman is murdered in a local park, though, Bernie’s superpowers return with her rage – and her hot flushes – and this time, she becomes determined to control them. Joanne Harris has hit upon a terrific idea for feminist genre fiction. Who doesn’t want to read about a mild-mannered psychic avenger manipulating the male mind to prevent sex crimes? True, there’s a fair bit of trashy, superficial stereotyping – and no one should waste time trying to suspend disbelief at the fast-paced, cartoonish plot – but Broken Light is also propulsive, acutely socially aware fantasy, with the internet playing a crucial role in the battle against toxic misogyny.
Kathy George, HQ, $32.99
Feminist fiction can revisit and refocus the lens on literary classics and sometimes, as with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre that illuminates the perspective of “the madwoman in the attic”, these novels become classics in turn. Kathy George’s latest gives voice to Estella from Great Expectations. Taken at the age of three and put under the care of Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’ most memorable villains, Estella is raised to manipulate men and break their hearts as revenge for her adoptive mother’s trauma. (Havisham herself was deserted at the altar.) The author fleshes out the backstory of her antiheroine and delivers the events of Great Expectations through her eyes. It’s an intriguing imaginative exercise, and the psychology behind Estella’s actions, growing up as she does with a damaged, abusive parent, rings true. The pastiche of the Victorian novel, however, is undercooked. Estella is related in diaristic, faux-Victorian syntax that doesn’t quite live up to the eloquence of the era and comes across more as Dickensian fanfic than a standalone literary success.
NON-FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Alexandra Collier, Hachette, $34.99
A pub shag was out of the question. In order to get pregnant, that is. Ally Collier had woken some years before in the New York apartment she shared with her American boyfriend immobilised with what she calls “baby want”.
But her boyfriend didn’t “want”, so the 37-year-old Collier came home to Melbourne determined to have a baby. Her memoir – lively, witty, with a strong sense of the here and now – plunges the reader down the rabbit hole of good and bad online and ordinary dating, family reactions, medical consultations and more, in search of a father for the child she desired. But what if she didn’t need a partner, only a sperm donor? What if she broke the mould and went it alone? The rabbit hole deepens, but she brings you back to the surface. An assured first book that walks the fine line between lightness and gravity.
The Indi Way
Voices for Indi, Scribe, $36.99
There have been a number of publications about the Independents movement since last year’s federal election, but this one takes us back to where it all began in the aptly named Victorian electorate of Indi, 2012, in the Wangaratta library. Written by many of the original members of the “V4I” movement, there’s a fly-on-the-wall element to this collective chronicle of how grassroots community action delivered a conservative Liberal seat to independent Cathy McGowan, defying the odds, the two-party system, and creating the template for Independents that followed. The contributors talk of the dissatisfaction that impelled them, the courage to stand up, and the unlikely, transforming strategy of Kitchen Table Conversations. Phil Haines’ description of the long election count still makes exciting reading. An uplifting community story.
The Shortest History of the Crown
Stephen Bates, Black Inc., $27.99
Whether addressing the guilt or otherwise of Richard III, the cause of George III’s madness (probably bipolar), the long, bourgeois reign of Victoria or the Nazi sympathies of Edward VIII (Hitler saw him as the puppet king), Stephen Bates’ chronicle makes a colourful, often intriguing read. At the same time, it can be taken as a short political, social history of England, seen through the lens of the monarchy. Particularly interesting is the revolutionary period of the civil war, Cromwell, the interregnum in which there was no king or queen, to the restoration and the Glorious Revolution that laid the foundations for the modern parliamentary system. An engaging history that finishes with Charles III, emphasising the crown’s long-running capacity for adaptation and contemplating the future of The Firm.
The Remarkable Mrs Reibey
Grantlee Kieza, ABC Books, $34.99
If you’ve ever wondered who the round-faced Mrs Reibey on the $20 note is, you’ll find out in this rollicking, Dickensian tale.
Born Molly Haydock in 1777 in Bury, England, she was sentenced to be hanged for stealing a horse at 14, but was spared and transported to NSW in 1792. In the roughhouse of colonial Sydney she met and married Tom Reibey, an adventurer and trader, and they set about raising a fortune as well as a family, Mrs Reibey eventually becoming one of the richest women in the country. It’s a rags-to-riches story with an epic narrative arc and a gallery of larger-than-life characters. But it’s also poignant, especially when, 40 years later, she revisits the house she grew up in, and we glimpse her reaction through her touchingly unpunctuated diary. Rich in detail (sometimes, too much), this is entertaining popular history.
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