Stuck without a good book to read this month? The Australian Women’s Weekly has you sorted with our selection of best reads for August.
Each title has been reviewed by our respected book reviewers, Katie Ekberg and The Weekly’s editor at large Juliet Rieden.
Starting out with our Great Read for this month, The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton, we have something to suit every kind of book worm.
So settle in with one of these Women’s Weekly recommended reads, all available through Booktopia.
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The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton, Macmillan
It is 1705 and we are back in the Amsterdam of Jessie Burton’s 2014 novel The Miniaturist, only a generation later. While this is a standalone, if you haven’t read the first novel, now is the perfect opportunity.
The power of Burton’s writing is in the lush three-dimensional world she creates – it’s as if the paintings of the Dutch masters have sprung to life, the damp streets and elegant houses of the waterside city alive with dark, complex characters.
Nella Brandt, the heart of the first novel, is now a widow grappling with the disgrace heaped on her house following the death of her husband Johannes at the end of the first book, and the prurient fascination with her niece Thea, the illegitimate daughter of Johannes’ sister Marin and his African man servant Otto.
Marin died in childbirth and in their wills brother and sister left their townhouse to Otto, as well as shares and small parcels of land outside the city to Nella.
As The House of Fortune opens 18 years have elapsed, and Nella, Otto, Cornelia (the house’s cook) and Thea are still in the family home but struggling.
In theory they should have managed a comfortable existence with Otto, who had worked by Johannes’ side for almost a decade, easily capable of continuing his business. But the stain of shame from Johannes’ past life and ugly racism levelled at Otto and Thea has taken its toll.
For her part Thea is unaware of her family history and desperate to know more about her mother, her father’s childhood as a slave, and the reason aunt Nella is so reluctant to return to her own home in the countryside. But no one is keen to tell Thea the truth.
The naïve teenager is also hiding her own secret – a love affair with the chief set painter at the Schouwburg Theatre. But Nella has other plans – to find a wealthy suitor for her niece.
And the miniaturist whose spectre via beautifully crafted objects that signify eerie warnings, is back.
Burton says she felt compelled to return to the characters of her first book. “They’ve been a part of who I am, for a long time before I even wrote The Miniaturist. I can’t ignore them, so if they want to come out, I have to let them,” she teases.
In The House of Fortune Burton hopes readers will “feel transported into a story of a woman at a crossroads in her life, wrestling with her past, and what shape her future is going to take. I have tried to write a portrait of an unorthodox family, one full of difficulties but also love.”
Settle in for another intriguing page-turner.
Goodnight, Vivienne, Goodnight, by Steven Carroll, HarperCollins
The last part of Carroll’s T.S. Eliot quartet, as he reimagines the final years of the famous poet’s first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. It’s 1932 and Vivienne farewells Tom as he sails to New England.
By 1940, she’s been at Northumberland House insane asylum for three years. But The Lunacy Reform Society discovers an old law; if a person can break out of an asylum and stay free for 30 days, proving they can look after themselves, the authorities can’t make you go back.
Vivienne escapes inside a laundry bag, George the “laundry driver” helping her out at the safe house owned by his Society member sister. “Was I heavy?” asks considerate Vivienne. “Light as a feather, Mrs Elliot.” Wistful thinking.
The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill, Ultimo
Australian author Hannah Tigore has a following. So much so a fan in Boston, Leo, reads her manuscripts to help with non-Americanisms – we don’t say “pullover” or “sleeping rough”, although the latter sounds less defeated and permanent than homeless.
This is a brilliant book about words. The right and the wrong words. How fact can become fiction, fiction fantasy. Leo writes in Boston Public Library, a mistake because the ceiling is so magnificent it’s hard to concentrate.
One day four strangers in the reading room are united by a piercing scream. When the body of Caroline Palfry from Boston’s upper echelon Brahmin family is found dead, the quartet forms a discombobulated writing-cum-support group. One is a murderer.
Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow, Hachette
“Always cherish your gift.” Stringfellow roots this stand-out Tree of Life of three generations of North family women with Hazel, born 1921, the first black nurse at Mount Zion Hospital. The resilient family still gathers under the porch pergola in the house that police Captain Myron built as his wedding present to Hazel.
Myron is lynched by his all-white smirking squad, posthumous daughter Miriam an echo of his name. Miriam, a brilliant doctor, marries Jax, an unfaithful, violent Marine. Her talented singer sister August, 15, brings the house down in the church when she belts out, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.
There ain’t no mountain high enough for prodigious painter Joan. This brilliant novel is a modern classic.
Dressed by Iris, by Mary-Anne O’Connor, HarperCollins
A richly woven tale of the dirt-poor Depression-era in Newcastle’s shanty town corrugated-iron shacks – queuing for free butcher’s ham bone for soup, shod in cardboard shoes. Catholic beauty Iris, 17, is the eldest of six. Ma does her best to keep a nice “home” while Da pans for gold with son Jim.
When Jim joins the fledgling Sydney Harbour Bridge construction gang, they all head for the smog. Iris has her own “glint in the pan” – a talent for creating Hollywood star clothes at night – cleaning a Sydney department store by day.
She falls hard for “Proddy” (Protestant)John in Newcastle, but his elation of opportunity – a journalism place at university – meant separation for heartbroken Iris.
Portrait of a Thief, by Grace D. Li, Hachette
A daring, plucky fast-paced debut novel that is grounded in diaspora and identity. Harvard art history student Will Chen works at the Sackler Museum. Sirens sound as robbers steal 23 pieces of priceless Chinese art.
He stands up to the cop who interrogates him in an accusing manner, Will reminding him he was born and raised in America “just like you”. A business card fluttered to the ground as Will pocketed a jade tiger, with “nice lift” written on it.
Wang Yulong, youngest billionaire CEO of a secretive company, is hand-picking her crew to reclaim the remaining five zodiac sculptures, of the 12 which adorned the fountain of the Old Summer Palace. She will pay each $10 million in a bid to “take back what the West stole”.
The Secret Wife by Mark Lamprell, Text
A staggeringly beautiful book about the friendship between mousey mother of two girls, Edie, and flash neighbour Frankie, mother of two boys. It’s 1961; Yuri Gagarin the first human to orbit Earth. Pivotal dates are seen as signs by Edie; “she shadowboxes history”. Her husband Charlie is the perfect antidote, asking gently, “What’s happening in Edieland?”
The crux of this secret slice of life is the fiercely protective love Edie feels for Frankie. She becomes Frankie’s “secret wife”, dusting and cooking at her neighbour’s house while Frankie models, without her controlling husband knowing of her thriving business.
Catholic Edie has many miscarriages, but will give birth again to a child who is three as we come to the story’s tragic end.
The Islands, by Emily Brugman, Allen & Unwin
Nalle Saari was one of a shoal of Finnish migrants who set up camp on Little Rat in the 1850s, to join a WA crayfishing community. Fishermen say there’s an invisible line drawn in the water as you leave “it” all behind. Then, a sliver of landscape bleached in coral and saltbush.
This is an elemental, spiritual, mythical book. Nalle is lost at sea, last seen at Disappearing Rock. Mineworker brother Onni and wife Alva arrive from Geraldton to find him. Nalle had no fear of the sea, say the fishermen who drink homemade moonshine. But Onni knows his brother couldn’t swim!
When Alva gives birth to Hilda, she leaves Geraldton Hospital to cross the invisible line and go back to the islands; Hilda nestled against her chest like a barnacle. And at last Onni feels “that hard-to-catch fish called happiness”.
Rose, by Suzanne Falkiner, ABC Books
French Rose Pinon, 19, married naval officer Louis de Freycinet in 1814; he 15 years her senior, having already made his name as the first to publish a map of the Australian coastline in 1811.
Deeply in love, Rose couldn’t bear to be apart from Louis as he prepared to set off for a three-year scientific expedition to revisit Australia, so decided to go with him, dressed in male attire. Cutting her hair to aid her disguise, she defied societal conventions and the prohibition on women sailing on French naval ships.
The Uranie – about a tennis court and a half in size – would be home for 125 men (and a woman) for several years. Louis had a poop deck constructed, roofed by a small additional deck, where Rose could have a private space and take the air unobserved. Beautifully crafted from Rose’s evocative journals and letters to her mother.
Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Penguin
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall’s Aussie book choice
This novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 (a prize that I was delighted to present to Flanagan), and should come with a warning that handkerchiefs will be required. It tells the story of a doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who is haunted by the memory of one woman and by his experiences as a Prisoner of War, forced to build the Burma Death Railway.
Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by books about POWs, as my father was taken prisoner during the Second World War by the Nazis. Although his time in captivity was vastly different from Dorrigo’s, he would, I think, have recognised much in the theme of “mateship” that Flanagan explores in these profoundly unsettling pages of the novel.
Dorrigo is a complex character, who lives with the tension of being thought a hero while his own reality contrasts sharply with his reputation. But I defy any reader not to feel, when closing the book for the last time, that one is saying goodbye to a very dear, if infuriating, friend.
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The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka, Penguin
The obsessive swimmers at the underground pool count their lengths, add a batch in case they miscounted. Fast lane for alphas, medium lane more relaxed, slow for water walkers and aqua joggers. Above, New York sits in smog and paper jams.
Alice, a retired lab technician, is in the early stages of dementia. Above she is a little old lady, down here she’s “myself”. After Christmas, the unshowered “binge swimmers” push in, swagger swim, duck under a rope, dangle from it breathless.
One day a crack appears at the bottom of the pool. Pool officials close it for public safety. Alice swims her last lap. She can remember late best friend Jean’s telephone number and graduating with honours in Latin.
Now she’s at Belavista care home – conveniently located minutes from the Valley Plaza Mall – because “she failed the test”. There’s a welcome reception, a gift basket. If you’re allocated a room without a view, you can buy a virtual window with convincing images of trees.
Soaring, comforting and unforgettable.
You can read this story and many others in the August issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – subscribe here.