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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

'Love, Death & Other Scenes' by Nova Weetman


From the BLURB: 

Nova Weetman’s unforgettable memoir reflects on experiences of love and loss from throughout her life, including: losing her beloved partner, playwright Aidan Fennessy, during the 2020 Covid lockdown; the death of her mother ten years earlier; her daughter turning eighteen and finishing school; and her own physical ageing. Using these events as a lens, Nova considers how various kinds of losses – and the complicated love they represent – change us and can become the catalysts for letting go.

This is a moving, honest account of farewelling a partner of twenty-five years, parenting teenagers through grief, buying property for the first time at the age of fifty, watching Aidan live on through his plays, and learning to appreciate spending hours alone with only the household cat for company. Warm and wise – and often joyful – Love, Death & Other Scenes ultimately focuses on the living we do after losses and what we learn from them.

At one point while reading Nova Weetman's memoir, I said out loud to the empty room; "Geez, you're good Nova."

Such was the power and force of certain sentences, ideas, inflections and offerings throughout. "As writers, we are stealers of other peoples memories, bowerbirds of story," she writes at one point - and then puts that ability to collect on full display throughout as she recounts the life she built with her partner, playwright Aidan Fennessy, who battled and then died from prostate cancer in 2020 during Melbourne's numerous lockdowns and waves of Covid.

I know Nova as a colleague, a fellow middle-grade author and someone I greatly admire, and whose books I truly - hand on heart - believe helped me in tapping into my own voice for this age group. I think it's a little odd that I feel like I know-her, *know* her now after reading 'Love, Death & Other Scenes,' though. And especially because I have a tangential understanding of the loss she and her two children experienced in 2020. My uncle died after his third bout of cancer - having beat the other two, it was pancreatic in the end, third time unlucky - and unlike Nova's partner who had the option but didn't use it; my uncle chose Voluntary Assisted Dying and went out on his own terms, at home, December 2020. We were all there. I'm both surprised and not at all by how much reading Nova's perspective of a death like that during Covid - which I watched my aunt and cousin go through, one of the helpers minding children and looking for ways to ease their pain - I needed to reexamine and feel.

But I'm also surprised at how beautifully romantic this book was too, as Nova writes about how she and Aidan first met - how she fell first, and pursued ... how so much of their relationship felt like it needed balancing, especially in their creative exchange; ‘He introduced me to albums I’d never heard, to singers dead before my time, and the way that songs stain your memories giving them meaning they don’t have in silence.'

In this too, I feel weirdly intimate to the story because Nova writes about Aidan's final play he ever wrote - 'The Heartbreak Choir' - finally being staged, but only after his death. His final work he never got to see fully-realised. It's because I know Nova and am a fan of hers, that I was aware through social media what she was going through - and when tickets became available for 'The Heartbreak Choir' debut performance in Melbourne, I snapped them up for both myself, my mum, and my aunt - also knowing that she in particular may find some comfort in both the story, and its background. And she did - we all did. I saw 'The Heartbreak Choir' in May 2022 and loved it! A play my Aunt still talks about, has triggered her love of theatre to the point that she and my mum will now spontaneously ask me to check out what's on and what's coming up, book something for us all.

'Love, Death & Other Scenes' feels like another chapter to that play, in a way. How apt, that Nova muses towards the end of her memoir; ‘And it is in words that I can find him,' and it's in both her words and his that I feel something being unlocked, and another story I want to share with my family. That I want to press this book into their hands and say; 'It's us, a little bit.' We're not so alone, I think.


Monday, March 4, 2024

'Unruly: A History of England's Kings and Queens' audiobook read by author, David Mitchell


From the BLURB: 

A seriously FUNNY, seriously CLEVER history of our early kings and queens by one of our favourite comedians and cultural commentators.

This will be the most refreshing, entertaining history of England you'll have ever read.

Certainly, the funniest.

Because David Mitchell will explain how it is not all names, dates or ungraspable historical headwinds, but instead show how it's really just a bunch of random stuff that happened with a few lucky bastards ending up on top. Some of these bastards were quite strange, but they were in charge, so we quite literally lived, and often still live, by their rules.

It's a great story. And it's our story. If you want to know who we are in modern Britain, you need to read this book.


This just *delighted* me and had me running to find any other audiobooks of David Mitchell's on my Library's BorrowBox app (and yes, I am forever disappointed when somebody says "David Mitchell" and means the bloke who wrote Cloud Atlas. I want 'Peep Show' David Mitchell, 'Upstart Crow' David Mitchell - and this book proves why!)

I listened to this while I walked the dog, and I must have looked like a King George III-level maniac laughing and guffawing as I picked up his poo (with a bag) and walked blithely along, nodding and laugh/crying ... but it was truly just *that* good!

David Mitchell's injections and rants are next-level (at one point he manages to tie in the absurdity of awards for art; like the year that the theme song for 'Shaft' was up against 'The Age of Not Believing' from 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' for best song at the Oscars, to which he says you may as well compare a fish-finger to a ladder for all the good it does to categorise and quantify two pieces of art like that ... and he's not wrong!)

Mitchell only takes the book up to King James-ish because he says that was the last time that monarchy had true, absolute power before Parliament, Prime Ministers, foreign Governments and such started interfering with what the royals had bamboozled England into thinking was "divine rule," ... I do hope he decides to write a second-book about the waning royals (is it too much to ask that he give a full-throated debate on why a Republic would be better? Throughout the listening of this I could feel his tension to rein in what could have been an 11-hour long rant on the subject!)

As such, this was perhaps the most enjoyable new read I've encountered this year so far. Amazing!


Sunday, January 21, 2024

'Witch of Wild Things' by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland


From the BLURB: 

Legend goes that long ago a Flores woman offended the old gods, and their family was cursed as a result. Now, every woman born to the family has a touch of magic. 

Sage Flores has been running from her family—and their “gifts”—ever since her younger sister Sky died. Eight years later, Sage reluctantly returns to her hometown. Like slipping into an old, comforting sweater, Sage takes back her job at Cranberry Rose Company and uses her ability to communicate with plants to discover unusual heritage specimens in the surrounding lands. 

What should be a simple task is complicated by her partner in botany sleuthing: Tennessee Reyes. He broke her heart in high school, and she never fully recovered. Working together is reminding her of all their past tender, genuine moments—and new feelings for this mature sexy man are starting to take root in her heart. 

With rare plants to find, a dead sister who keeps bringing her coffee, and another sister whose anger fills the sky with lightning, Sage doesn’t have time for romance. But being with Tenn is like standing in the middle of a field on the cusp of a summer thunderstorm—supercharged and inevitable.

I am a seasonal reader, and that’s a very hard thing to be in Melbourne at the moment where we’re swinging between heatwaves and downpours. So I find it interesting that in a bit of a reading slump, I randomly decided to reach for a witchy book that includes a character whose mood can change the weather … 

This is my first read by Gilliland - and it’s her third book, but first adult romance. Her second YA book - ‘How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe’ - won and was shortlisted for a slew of awards, and was already on my radar. But TikTok actually put me onto ‘Witch of Wild Things’ - about a Mexican woman who returns to her hometown where her dead sister haunts her, another curses her, and the boy who made her swoon over AOL until he broke her heart has grown into a hot man with forearm tattoos.

The fact that we come from dirt, and eventually turn to dirt, is spooky and incredible to think about it at the same time. My sister is dirt by now, surely. All of our ancestors are, too. This must make dirt holy, holy enough for the old gods to walk upon it from time to time. Holy enough that Nadia gives it a little cup of espresso to drink every single morning.

 I’m so glad I started with this book because it *hit the spot* - was lovely and spicy, but also made me weepy and tender-hearted. Our protagonist Sage has a particular story-arc about being the oldest sibling to her two sisters, and defaulting to a parental responsibility role that’s so rarely explored in fiction like this … imagine Luisa Madrigal’s ‘Surface Pressure’ song from ENCANTO, made into a novel. 

It’s also very ‘Practical Magic’ by Alice Hoffman (BUT - it’s actually more of the 1998 Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman classic movie ‘Practical Magic,’ with its cottagecore-comfy and whimsy, whereas the book is … not? It’s darker. So if you prefer movie ‘Practical Magic’ then *this* is the book for you … not the actual Hoffman book, FYI and lol) 

You can *kinda* tell that this book struggled to find a strong plot, however. And Gilliland hints at this in her acknowledgements, where she talks about a severe bout of writer's block from which this story was borne, from the scraps of an abandoned and unworkable idea. It does have a little bit of that feeling, like; she was immersed in this town and this family, the universe, and an actual strong through-line of story had to be somewhat shoehorned in. 

So while I loved this - I maybe would have liked a few threads to be more deeply explored and wrapped up, and *maybe* it got slightly too easy by the end … but those are minor quibbles in an otherwise very sparkly and lovely book.


Tuesday, January 16, 2024

'Everyone and Everything' by Nadine J. Cohen


From the BLURB: 

When Yael Silver’s world comes crashing down, she looks to the past for answers and finds solace in surprising places. An unconventional new friendship, a seaside safe space and an unsettling amount of dairy help her to heal, as she wrestles with her demons – and some truly terrible erotic literature. 

Funny and tender, Everyone and Everything is about friendship, grief and the deep, frustrating bond between sisters. It asks what makes us who we are and what leads us onto ledges. Perfect for fans of Meg Mason, Nora Ephron and Victoria Hannan, this is an intimate, wry and wise exploration of one woman’s journey to the brink and back.


'Everyone and Everything' is the 2023 debut by Australian author, Nadine J. Cohen - from Pantera Press.

I've just come off an absolute roll with a certain type of new (millennial?) women's fiction. I've been calling it 'Fleabag'-esque. I don't like the term "well-dressed and distressed," for how some of the covers are often stylised - but I'd take "Women's Fiction with Bite." So I was in a bookshop the other day with a legit legend bookseller (Jaci from Hill of Content) who knows I have devoured 'Crushing' by Genevieve Novak, 'A Light in the Dark' by Allee Richards,' and 'Search History' by Amy Taylor ... when we were browsing the shelves and she just gently placed Nadine J. Cohen's debut into my hands and said; "Trust me," and reader - she was right. 

This is the story of Yael Silver who joined the 'orphan's club,' far too young, and when the book begins has just made an unsuccessful attempt to end her life because of her latent grief over the deaths of both her parents and Nanna, an f-boy who emotionally wrecked and ghosted her and a general feeling like she's become a burden to her older sister, Liora. 

Yael is on a long and slow pathway to recovery that largely begins in earnest when she starts regularly visiting the McIver's Ladies Baths in Coogee - perched on a cliff-face and offering her a scenic place to cry and read bad erotic fiction in peace. Until she meets older woman Shirley and they form an odd and healing friendship. 

At one point Liora asks Yael; 'Is that what it's like in your head all the time?' after she shares another random and disturbing thought, to which Yael replies; 'Yup.' And this is essentially the book, too. Chapters are broken down by months spanning a whole year, but they're made up of almost vignette fragments; wisps of memory and tangents (sometimes deeply emotional, recounting her childhood or the lead-up and come-down of her Nanna, mother and father's deaths - other times pop-culture heavy; "Pacey Witter cures all ills.") It's all cogent, I must stress, and brilliantly done for reading like a patchwork of a healing mind, and the memory-squares amounting to so much insight as to who Yael is as a person. She's deeply funny and relatable (from Cher Horowitz praise to 'Gilmore Girls' marathons, she reads like a friend) but also very broken and fragile, and I found myself both smiling and crying in equal measure. 

Jewish identity is also tenderly touched on in this book in a way that I really don't feel like I've read much in contemporary Australian fiction. Like how Yael looks back on her Nanna, mother and father's mental states at various times in their lives - how she retrospectively wonders what her grandparents being Holocaust survivors must have done to those lines of generational trauma;

I think about her often fraught relationship with mum, who, like all children of survivors, grew up with irrevocably damaged parents, and six million ghosts. 

... and musing on how comfortable Jewish people are with death, compared to gentiles. 

I absolutely adored this book. It wasn't easy, but it was beautifully wrought and Yael was a fine companion.


Monday, January 8, 2024

'Gwen and Art Are Not in Love' by Lex Croucher


From the BLURB: 

Gwen, the quick-witted Princess of England, and Arthur, future lord and general gadabout, have been betrothed since birth. Unfortunately, the only thing they can agree on is that they hate each other. 

When Gwen catches Art kissing a boy and Art discovers where Gwen hides her diary (complete with racy entries about Bridget Leclair, the kingdom's only female knight), they become reluctant allies. By pretending to fall for each other, their mutual protection will be assured. 

But how long can they keep up the ruse? With Gwen growing closer to Bridget, and Art becoming unaccountably fond of Gabriel, Gwen's infuriatingly serious, bookish brother, the path to true love is looking far from straight …

'Gwen and Art Are Not in Love' by Lex Croucher is; "an outrageously entertaining take on the fake dating trope."

I know, I know - I am forever forgetting about my first bookish social platform love, my blog. I can't promise I'll be any better about updating on here in 2024, but I don't want to let the cobwebs entirely take over so I wanted to at least shout out a *little* something.

This 2023 YA historical queer title is my first Lex Croucher read, but it won't be my last by the British author because I absolutely fell head-over-heels in love with this book! 

It exists in a post-King Arthur world, where the legend of Camelot and the Round Table still live on as myth and legend and the latest crop of teenage young royals are dealt the unfortunate blow of being politically and patriotically moulded into the second-coming of that once-great reign. Down to the political marriage alliance between princess Gwen and wealthy Lord, Arthur - who have been betrothed since childhood, and hated each other since then too. 

Their feelings towards each other are particularly clouded because both are queer and develop feelings for others throughout the timeline of a tournament that Gwen's father has thrown to highlight the prosperity of new Camelot. 

For Arthur, it's Gwen's brother and the next King of England - Gabriel - who perhaps feels the weight of Arthur Pendragon more than anyone. For Gwen, it's the only female knight competing, Bridget LeClair. 

I cannot stress enough how much I loved this book; not least for the wide themes it addresses about weight of expectation, what history highlights and hides, and how much of courage takes fear. 

'To be truly brave, first you must be afraid—and to be afraid, you must have something you cannot bear to lose.' 
There's also plenty in here about how cruel families can be, and how your chosen family can come to mean more and see you so much clearer than you see yourself; 

‘You know … fathers aren’t always right, just by virtue of being fathers. Or even … just by virtue of being king.’

This was also a deeply, deeply funny book. One of my favourite character's was Arthur's steward, Sidney and the brotherly/jovial relationship they had with one another. 

But hands-down, the romances are stand-out. I was swept up in Bridget and Gwen, Arthur and Gabriel and every heart-palpitating glance, kiss, up-against-a-wall make-out session ... all of it! I actually loved them all so much, I'd have been fully onboard had Croucher announced this as an ongoing series following the foursome as they stand to rule over a very new England. 

Alas, she's moving on to another queering of a beloved myth next; Not for the Faint of Heart, a Robin Hood re-do! *squeeeeee*!

I can't wait! 


Sunday, September 10, 2023

'Falco: The Complete BBC Radio Collection' by Lindsey Davis


From the BLURB: 

Full-cast BBC Radio 4 dramatisations of the first five Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, starring Anton Lesser as Marcus Didius Falco.

The Silver Pigs:

 One fine day, AD 70, Sosia Camillina quite literally runs into Marcus Didius Falco on the steps of the Forum. It seems Sosia is on the run from a couple of street toughs, and after a quick and dirty rescue, PI Falco wants to know why. Hoping for future favours from Sosia's powerful uncle, Falco embarks on an intricate case of smuggling, murder, and treason that reaches into the palace itself.

Shadows in Bronze:

 Rome, AD 71. Against his better judgment, Marcus Didius Falco secretly disposes of a decayed corpse for the Emperor Vespasian, then heads for the beautiful Bay of Naples with his friend Petronius. But this will be no holiday: they have been sent to investigate the murderous members of a failed coup, now sunning themselves in luxurious villas and on fancy yachts in Neapolis, Capreae, and Pompeii. 

Venus in Copper:

 A small accounting error has left Marcus Didius Falco sharing a cell with a large rat. But the Roman Empire's most hard-done-by investigator is finally bailed out and promptly accepts a commission to help a family of freed slaves fend off a professional bribe....

The Iron Hand of Mars:

 Falco is dispatched to one of the most hostile parts of the empire to deliver a new standard, an iron hand, to one of the legions. Germania is cold, wet, dismal and full of dark forests inhabited by bloodthirsty barbarians, but Falco has an even bigger problem to worry about: he has forgotten Helena Justina's birthday, and she is being pursued by the Emperor's son Titus Caesar. 

Poseidon’s Gold:

 Returning to Rome after his mission to Germania, Falco finds that his mother is being harassed by a centurion named Censorinus, who says he is chasing a debt owed to him by Falco's late brother, Festus. When Falco refuses to cough up the money, he and Censorinus end up fighting...and later, the centurion turns up dead. Under suspicion of murder, Falco must confront his past and uncover his brother's secrets before he can clear his name and solve the mystery.

These funny and fast-moving adaptations are a treat for all Falco fans.



Okay, I started listening to the first X5 'Marcus Didius Falco' books by Lindsey Davis, adapted for BBC radio (Dramatised by Mary Cutler, Directed by Peter Leslie Wild) because my library had them on the BorrowBox app.

I'd been vaguely aware of this series as a great recommendation of a Historical Crime - but given that they were first published in 1989 and there's currently 32-instalments across two series, it just seemed like a huge investment of time, money and resources .... step in local library and BorrowBox, not to mention how entertaining and *wonderful* this condensed BBC Radio Play was!

I think this series is absolutely brilliant; a gumshoe Roman-noir detective series set in AD-70 and featuring a wiry, jaded and sleazy 30-something ex-soldier who is somewhat scarred from his time fighting against the Boudica-uprising.

The first book in the series 'Silver Pigs' has Falco getting entangled with a Senator's family with a missing daughter whom Falco stumbled across and tried to help ... this has him becoming embroiled in a far great conspiracy scandal against the Roman Empire that Falco finds himself being hired to investigate (difficult, since he's also an avowed Republican - given he still has memories of Rome under psychotic Nero).

From the first book he meets the missing girl's cousin, Helena Justina - and she becomes his HEA and one-true-love throughout the rest of the series. I absolutely *love* this aspect, since I can only get invested in ongoing crime-series if there are relationships and romances established from the jump (hello, Karin Slaughter) and I rather love that Helena is far too good for Falco (and he knows it) but she sees and brings out the best in him, and the two spar and sizzle on the page.

Lindsey Davis does a marvellous job of bringing Rome to life and moulding her crime-of-the-week plot-lines around fascinating tidbits of Roman history; from their Legions to their love of art and culture, all within the seedy underbelly of Rome - the literal centre of the universe and first Empire. It has actually made me want to visit Italy for the first time, if only because the history Davis paints is so vivid I feel compelled to reach out and touch what's left of it ...

The BBC Radio Play truly is marvellous, and with a rich acting list;

Falco — Anton Lesser

Helena — Fritha Goodey/Anna Madeley

Petronius — Ben Crowe

Ma — Frances Jeater

Pa — Trevor Peacock

Vespasian— Michael Tudor Barnes

Titus —Jonathan Keeble

I cannot even begin to tell you how awks it is that I found Anton Lesser's voice to be so sexy in this (he who played Qyburn in 'Game of Thrones') and now that I'm getting deeper into Falco fandom, I also appreciate that many of them Fan-Cast Andrew Scott in the role, if it is ever adapted (and that is *spot-on*!)

I do know some fans were disappointed that to condense the books down to 2-4 hour radio-plays, much of Falco's interiority got cut for pacing - and that's apparently where he truly shines, and we see his cleverness and humour - so I am most looking forward to hunting down secondhand copies of ALLLLLLLL these books (R.I.P. my wallet) and getting stuck into a book-reading of the series to properly meet un-edited Falco. I might skim-read the first 5 books, just to make sure the BBC put me in good-standing and foundation for the rest of the series, but overall I'm just so grateful that they offered me a taster into this far-reaching and epic series and now I know for sure that it's right up my alley.


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

'Dirt Town' by Hayley Scrivenor

From the BLURB:  

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing. 

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home. 

Ronnie's going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can't be gone, Ronnie won't believe it. 

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it. She has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible. 

Lewis can believe it too. But he can't reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret. 

Five days later, Esther's buried body is discovered. 

What do we owe the girl who isn't there?

I am so late to reading this novel that came out with Pan Macmillan last year, but after hearing author Hayley Scrivenor speak about it at Brisbane Writers Festival I simply had to dive in.

And - wow! - I was blown away.

This is the tale of Esther Bianchi; who goes missing from her small Australian country community, called Durton ('Dirt Town' to the local kids). We follow various characters in town - including Esther's best friend Ronnie, Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels who has come to town to try and solve the mystery, Lewis another friend of Esther's with a big secret and abusive father ... and then interspersed throughout their accounts are the 'We' chapters - a Greek chorus of Durton children which is how Scrivenor came to write this story in the first place. She wrote her PhD in creative writing in 2016 all about collective narration, and this (from what I gathered at BWF) largely influenced 'Dirt Town' and the 'We' of Durton children who are an omniscient, playful and secretive Greek Chorus to the events unfolding ... it's an eerie and imaginative overtone to the whole tale which works so perfectly, and harmonises beautifully with the over-arching mystery.

I absolutely loved this; having listened to the audiobook via BorrowBox and narrated by Sophie Loughran, it totally consumed me for a couple of weeks and was a brilliant walking and train-riding companion.

Scrivenor is a real talent, and I'm sure she'll be compared to Jane Harper for the small-town-Australia angle ... but I think she has a particularly beautiful and distinct wandering eye to dying rural communities and claustrophobic townships, and especially the angle of how this sociology impacts the next generation. This is the real over-arching thread in the book - "what do we owe the girl who isn't there?" - and what wounds are we inflicting by our actions or silence?

I'll be so keen to read whatever Scrivenor writes next. I do wonder if it will be more Sarah Michaels or another Greek chorus overseeing a mystery as the thing that hinges her books together. But no matter - I'll be there.


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