Stuck without a good book to read this month? The Australian Women’s Weekly has you sorted with our selection of best reads for November.
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, A Brief Affair by Alex Miller, 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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A Brief Affair by Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin
There’s a seductive, languid poetry to Alex Miller’s writing that gently lulls the reader into his world and makes it a place you never want to leave. There, we are surrounded by a melange of sights, sounds, smells and most importantly characters, a place that is at once embracing and poignantly thought-provoking.
In A Brief Affair that universe is largely inside the head of Dr Frances Egan, a 42-year-old academic, wife and mum of 14-year-old Margie and 10-year-old Tommy, and follows what happens when an abandoned sexual encounter with a beautiful stranger on a business trip to China shifts her perfect life off-kilter. “Everything had changed,” Fran ponders. “She could see no way back to her innocence.”
“The affair has for Fran a compelling reality which she gives in to without really understanding its larger implications at the time,” explains author Alex Miller. “The experience, however, satisfies in her a longing to possess something that does not belong either to her family or to her professional life but belongs wholly to herself. A sense of her own inner world of creative possibilities is opened to her through the experience of transgressing the limits imposed on her life by family and professional responsibilities.”
Fran is an exquisitely drawn character, courageous and compassionate yet trapped; stifled by an idiot boss, sleazy colleague and the parameters of her conventional life. “My sense of empathy with Fran, and my identification with her longing to explore her own inner world probably enabled me to write of her with sympathy. Much of Fran is based on myself,” confides Alex.
The university building Fran works in was once a lunatic asylum and her office, cell 16, was occupied by the privileged but troubled Valerie Somers. When the former gardener who knew Valerie shares her diary with Fran, it’s as if another sphere in her cosmos is spinning out of control. The diary is one of few items from the asylum not to be destroyed and in its pages Fran uncovers the tragedy of a passionate love unable to flourish.
What happens next ripples through Fran’s family and takes a surprising but deeply satisfying turn. Alex says, “I would hope readers might find room to read their own story here,” and it is this connection with his intimate characterisation that sings out. A masterpiece.
About the author
Award-winning author Alex Miller, 85, grew up in London where “despite the war” he had a happy childhood; his father was a “wonderful storyteller”. Inspired by photographs by artist Sidney Nolan, Alex says, “I developed a longing to see for myself the vast emptiness of the Australian outback.” Age 16 he left for Australia. “I felt I had arrived home,” he says.
“Free for the first time in my life from the requirement to explain myself socially.” He worked on a cattle station, became a voracious reader and soon a writer. A Brief Affair is his 15th work.
In Search of Perfumes by Dominique Roques, Welbeck
A fascinating foray into the world of the perfumer. “I remember a moment I experienced as a child in the woods. There was such a profusion of lily-of-the-valley in the Rambouillet forest … I was spellbound by this scent which conjured up images of my mother wearing Diorissimo.”
Memory plays an olfactory role in this romantic industry, which at the same time can involve clandestine deals. “This book is an account of three decades of wandering, on the hunt for the source of the world’s scents.”
They are a dispersed community who gather plants, to collect saps and resins, says Roques, who is a fiercely passionate supporter of France’s lavender industry. “Beautiful lavender is the smell of sun on white linen.”
The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry, Hachette
When Thomas Hardy’s wife, Emma, died in 1912, she left notebooks of an idyllic life riding the cliffs in Cornwall, where she lived with her teacher sister and vicar brother-in-law. Trained as an architect, Thomas was hired to restore the rotting church. In this compassionate reimagining of a slice of Emma’s life, Lowry gives lively presence to a young woman who declares, “So, I met my husband, or rather he met me.”
When Emma dies suddenly, Tom should feel free to be with young Florence Dugdale, the admirer of his work who offered to be his researcher and was also his secret lover. Now he could have both work and passion. But after the funeral Tom, reading the disenchanted diaries (which he burnt), realised Emma’s real feelings about their marriage.
The Secret World of Connie Starr by Robbi Neal, HarperCollins
An epic tale set between 1934 to the 1950s with four families in Ballarat. Connie is the daughter of preacher Joseph Starr and his second wife, Flora, 20 years his junior. He blames himself for the death of his first wife with whom he had Thom, 10, Lydia, nine, and Danny, five. Flora is a cheery, unflappable wife. Connie is different.
She sees angels and demons. She says Dad is either an angel dressed as devil or a devil dressed as angel. The children knew the softer their father’s voice became, the angrier he was and when it was a whisper, the rod would follow. When boys sign up for war, the parish affairs become an escape route for unfaithful husbands, hell for the mothers of young lads. Come on in, fall in love with cosmic Connie.
Elizabeth Of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir, Hachette
1472 and six-year-old “Bessie” is being prepared by her mother, Queen Elizabeth, for marriage. She’s the eldest daughter of the late King Edward, and “It is time for your education to begin, to learn how to be the wife of a great prince. We will start with the most important things, which are honesty and chastity, qualities much admired by men.”
A homily of what was required of a young lady followed: “You must carry yourself with dignity, with a straight back, and your eyes modestly lowered.
There must be no more running in the palace.” In the wings is a certain upstart, Henry Tudor, to whom marriage would unite the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster. Rich detail.
Esther’s Children by Caroline Beecham, Allen & Unwin
Inspired by self-sacrificing Esther Simpson, who helped rescue thousands of Jewish teachers and scholars from the Nazis, as Afearless fieldworker for the Society for the Protection of Science in Austria.
Daughter of Jewish Lithuanians, “Tess” spoke German and French, and in Beecham’s brilliantly researched tale we meet Tess with violin case, watching the waiters weave gracefully between tables with cups of kaffe.
Classical musicians play – Jewish violinist Harry and Tess smitten on sight. Lightheaded with love, she and Harry head to the romance of the Alpine Club, to find a Swastika flying. Harry’s parents are made to scrub political slogans with toothbrushes in Vienna. Can Tess help?
Apollo & Thelma by Jon Faine, Hardie Grant
The true story of strongman Mighty Apollo and his sister, Thelma, who Faine never met, but came to know through his dealings as Apollo’s lawyer, trying to make sense of Thelma’s complicated estate when she died. “His epic tale and Thelma’s ghostly presence have been in my life for 40 years.”
Apollo proudly shows Faine his trophies: for pulling five cars with a toggle in his mouth; his most famous achievement, a five-ton elephant sitting on top of him, the injuries of which nearly killed him. Thelma performed with him, as he knelt on stage, lifting her to full stretch on his palm. Thelma settled in the remote Northern Territory, female publican of the infamous Wanda Inn.
The Trial of Lotta Rae by Siobhan Macgowan, Welbeck
Content Warning: The following paragraph touches on the topic of sexual assault which may be triggering for some readers.
1906: Charlotte “Lotta” lives with Mam and Pap in London’s poor Spitalfields. Pap is a worker at the Whitbread Brewery. On Halloween night, when Lotta is 15, the brewery holds a masked ball. She innocently walks with a “gentleman” after a silly row with a boy she’s courting. The grandson of a powerful parliamentary lobbyist rapes her violently in an alleyway.
Mam believed the Halloween pageant was profane. “The devil came for me that night,” says Lotta. When Lotta bravely agrees to give evidence at a trial, her fate is set. The defence lawyer keeps losing cases and needs to win. Lotta’s quest for justice leads her to a Soho brothel, into the heart of the Suffragette movement, as World War I looms over London.
Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, The Journals of Alice Walker, Hachette
Edited with the inconspicuous touch of the late Valerie Boyd and organised in decades from the ’60s to the early 21st century, “Walker chronicles every life event imaginable. It is a history of our time.” When Alice left her segregated hometown of Eatonton, Georgia, for Atlanta college, she brought “three magic gifts” from Mama: a suitcase, a sewing machine and a typewriter. And it is that maternal relationship which shines.
In 1967 Alice weds attorney Mel Leventhal, daughter Rebecca is born in 1969. In spite of an estrangement, mother and writer/activist daughter appear at literary events together. The Color Purple wins The American Book Award. “Fame exhausts me. But I am getting my strength back. The days are long and golden … there is hay stacked in the neighbours’ fields,” writes incomparable AW.
All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien, HarperCollins
Unforgettable debut set in “Cabra”(matta) at its height as Australia’s heroin market. A-grade student, journalist Ky Tran, was born in Vietnam, her brother, Denny, in Australia. When gentle Denny, 17, is “stomped to death” at his high school grad party in Lucky 8, a banquet-style seafood restaurant, her parents decline an autopsy, not wanting a stranger to cut open their son “to make sure he’s dead?”.
What happened is “bad luck, a bad death” they believe. This is a book facing the obligations of family, religion, culture: “praying that we will finally be able to conquer this place we call home.” Ky takes on a solo investigation of what happened to Denny, but no one will speak. Ky and “forever sister” Minnie fell out when the latter began “playing the streets”; wagging school, doing drugs, but she holds vital clues as to what happened that fatal night.
Hanh, Ky’s father, misses Saigon. But the more wife Yen tells him to forget the past, “the more white-faced strangers yelled for him to speak English … the more the world erased his past.”
Audrey Hepburn: The Illustrated World of a Fashion Icon by Megan Hess, Hardie Grant
Australian graphic artist Megan Hess brings her evocative interpretation to this visual biography of screen legend and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn.
The luxurious hardback offers a stylised journey through Audrey’s life in a celebration of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s icon.
You can read this story and many others in the December issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – subscribe here.