Stuck without a good book to read this month? The Australian Women’s Weekly has you sorted with our selection of best reads for January.
Each title has been reviewed by our respected book reviewers, Katie Ekberg and The Weekly’s editor at large Juliet Rieden.
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.
Want more book reviews from The Australian Women’s Weekly? Sign up for our e-Newsletter!
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, Viking
In last year’s Booker Prize shortlisted Oh William! we found narrator Lucy Barton reconnecting with her first husband, William, following the death of her second husband.
In this sequel COVID has hit New York and William takes control. As a scientist “he saw it coming … sooner than I did,” she notes.
They isolate in a house by the sea in Maine. Lucy had expected to be there for weeks, but William knows better. He feels he’s saving Lucy, who is bemused until the seriousness of the pandemic washes over her.
The brilliance of Strout’s writing is in the silences, the awkward reunion of this couple at a time when the world is imploding, and the result for readers is gripping.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Faber
“For the kids who wake up hungry in those dark places every day, who’ve lost their family to poverty and pain pills,” writes Kingsolver at the end of this spirited saga, a reworking of Dickens’ David Copperfield.
Nance Peggot finds her 18-year-old trailer park neighbour, “passed out on the bathroom floor, with all her junk all over the place and me already coming out, still stuck inside the sack babies float in,” our narrator Damon Fields tells us.
Damon has red hair like his father, “one of Mom’s bad choices”. Giving 100 per cent in rehab, she gets work and Damon – nicknamed Demon Copperhead – has “the best day of his life” at an aquarium.
Salonika Burning by Gail Jones, Text
An intoxicating flight of fancy, as Jones unites Australians – writer Stella Miles Franklin and adventurer Olive King – and British painters Grace Pailthorpe and Stanley Spencer in a rich odyssey.
After 20 hours unrelieved, ambulance driver Olive arrives at the Scottish Women’s Field Hospital where Grace is a surgeon.
Stella is a kitchen hand; writers given the menial jobs.
Medical orderly artist Stanley makes up stories about lovers dressing hastily, as war rages. Olive’s Sydney life was “useless” – G&Ts and tennis.
“She’d read in books of such moments: an interception of self-knowledge that required a rapid change.”
All The Broken Places by John Boyne, Penguin
The protagonist in this sequel to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is elder sister Gretel who, now aged 91, lives in a Mayfair flat in London.
New neighbours are moving in below and she is twitchy. Gretel was born in Berlin, her father a Nazi SS officer, and then moved to Paris with a new identity.
Boyne bestows 12-year-old Gretel with a mature sense of being – coping with her drunk mother’s boyfriends.
In her London mansion block, Gretel is redeemed with selfless acts of human courage to a nine-year-old boy. Unforgettable ending.
A Song of Comfortable Chairs by Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown
Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and husband, J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Speedy Motors, live on Zebra Drive Gaborone, Botswana.
When he suggests she drop the “Ladies” from her business, she replies: “It’s justified after all these years of being held back by men.”
At her office, assistant Grace puts a nameplate with BSC after her name (Botswana Secretarial College). Phuti, Grace’s husband, owner of Double Comfort Furniture Store, is facing bankruptcy.
There’s no demand for chairs now people eat outside from cardboard boxes. But Precious and her “traditionally built” friends dish up beef and broad bean stew in comfy terrace chairs. Gentle and graceful.
The Only Child by Kayte Nunn, Hachette
Two timelines intertwine in this page-turner set on Orcades Island; the link between the two is Fairmile, a weatherboard mansion overlooking Puget Sound.
In 1949 it was a home run by nuns for “sinful girls”, thrown out by their families, their babies given to “righteous Catholic couples”.
In 2013 Fairmile is about to open as an inn, and former police officer Frankie Gray has moved from Australia to help her mother and hopefully mend her relationship with her own estranged daughter.
A well-paced plot unfolds when a nun is discovered brutally murdered in Frankie’s grandmother’s nursing home. Buckle up.
After You Were Gone by Vikki Wakefield, Text
We start with every mother’s nightmare – after a less than successful trip to a street market trying to introduce her stroppy six-year-old daughter, Sarah, to the wonders of weird exotic fruit, Abbie turns her back and Sarah has vanished.
Soon the word abduction enters her sphere and single mum Abbie is “sat in the back of the police car, shaking so hard my teeth felt loose”.
Six years pass and two days after Abbie gets married, she receives a phone call that sends her into a spin.
Chilling and laced with dark suspense.
Murder in Williamstown by Kerry Greenwood, A&U
With her “Dutch doll” features, the Hon Phryne Fisher sits at her Bechstein grand piano.
But all is not as it should be at the house on the Esplanade, St. Kilda. Threatening letters saying, “WHORE OF BABYLON!” have been dropping through the mailbox.
Phryne’s lover, Lin Chung, is being targeted too, but it doesn’t stop our detective attending a magnificent ball at the house
of mysterious Hong, where a shocking tragedy breaks out among the “boor-jwah”.
Exiles by Jane Harper, Pan Macmillan
Jane Harper’s endearing and troubled federal agent, Aaron Falk, from The Dry and Force of Nature is back.
As the tale opens Falk is driving to the christening of his good mate Greg Raco’s son in South Australia’s rural wine region.
Readers of The Dry will know him as the police officer we first met there, so we’re on pleasingly familiar ground… The christening also marks a year since Raco’s childhood friend Kim Gillespie disappeared, leaving her six-week-old daughter behind, a mystery Falk is soon to splash around in.
The best-selling author is back on form with a murder mystery cloaked in the landscape and a rich tapestry of characters that fill that world.
Wildflowers by Peggy Frew, A&U
Australian author Peggy Frew creates characters you feel you know and long to help. That aching compassion draws you in and despite its traumatic world of addiction, Wildflowers is impossible to put down.
Meg and Nina have always lived in their dazzling sister Amber’s shadow, but that promise didn’t turn out as anyone expected. Amber should have been a brilliant actress but now her siblings are staging an intervention to try and break her spiralling drug habit.
In a remote house in Far North Queensland the sisters are tested and lives unpicked. We flit back to scenes from the past, bleak reminiscences as we see how Amber’s drug habit touched everyone in the Atkins family.
Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, A&U
This expertly-paced courtroom drama combines whodunnit suspense with a poignant love story and a smart delve into the secrets people keep.
Ava Campanello and Olivia McAfee have both moved to a quiet town in New Hampshire looking for a new start.
Following a difficult divorce Olivia is taking over her dad’s beekeeping business in her childhood house and raising son Asher away from his abusive dad.
Ava later moves to the area with daughter Lily for her crucial final high school year. There Lily falls for Asher. It is all going so well until Lily is found dead and Asher is arrested.
Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran, Ultimo
A beating heart of ancestors, family, land and religion burns in this sweeping history of the civil war which divided Ceylon, following its independence from Britain in 1946.
Colombo, 1936, and Rajan, 11, watches a monk set fire to himself. The monks are angry about the Tamils. Rajan loves the Tamil language; the richness of Hinduism.
In 1945, Nala, 17, prays for a good husband. An astrological match is found and Rajan, now a consultant doctor with his own house, sleeps with his back to her, reading a P.G. Wodehouse book.
Nala, a talented artist, mixes with the landowners. “Ceylon is the spice shelf in the Empire’s pantry,” says one.
A rich heritage tapestry to embrace.
Daughter of the Home Front by Jennie Jones, HQ Fiction
Maturely crafted handling of the pregnant Catholic girls taken into church-run homes and made to give up babies for adoption.
In 1942, Emma, 15, longs to leave her poor Queensland home (where she raises four brothers for her unthankful mother) to see the world. Opportunity comes when girls over 16 are required to join the war effort in Townsville.
When Emma meets warm bar hostess Cassie, 17, and Frank, a handsome serviceman “… her first ever friend and first ever kiss, what a splendid day!”
Acute observation of when society did not allow women to feel important, and innocent girls went astray.
The Work Wives by Rachael Johns, HQ Fiction
Rachael Johns dedicates her latest novel about friendship, love and the emotion inbetween to “women who are striving to keep kids, partners, houses and pets from falling apart, all the while trying to maintain a thread of sanity”, and her tale will certainly chime some chords.
Debra and Quinn met at the photocopier at work and immediately hit it off. But away from the office they are very different.
Quinn is on a dating app mission to find Mr Right; Deb is a single mum who has no interest in men. Meanwhile, her teenage daughter Ramona is rattling her cage trying to find the identity of her sperm-donor father.
The scene is set!
The Butterfly Collector by Tea Cooper, HQ
Journalist Verity Binks is called in by her editor to compliment her on a piece of strong writing for women.
We are in Sydney in 1922 and the piece is about the bicycle emancipating females. But, adds Mr Bailey, with so many out of work servicemen from the war, he has to let her go.
Country NSW 1868, Theodora Breckenridge’s sister Florence runs the household since their parents died at sea. Theo
is a talented artist and wants to follow in the footsteps of the famous botanical artists, the Scott sisters.
“I have work to do,” she says. “You have a hobby. Ladies do not work!” reprimands Flo. But when she nets a never-sighted-before butterfly she is poised to make her name in science.
The Circus Train by Amita Parikh, Hachette
London 1938, polio takes Theo’s wife Gia, as she gives birth to daughter Lena who will live at their World of Wonders circus.
Wheelchair-bound Lena was born with polio and the difference she feels from chameleon performer Laura, who can turn from trapeze to contortionist, and water ballerina Suze leaves her lonely.
She finds solace in books – “Lena realises the magic surrounding the circus was a matter of scientific and mathematical calculations.”
She rescues Alexandre, a Jewish orphan who stumbles upon their tents, but when her illusionist father and he are sent to work at a circus in a “spa town” [ghetto] for Jews, Lena is lost.
Brilliant debut novel.
Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory, Simon & Schuster
Canter alongside scheming Livia as she deserts her husband for a royal summons to join friend Queen Mary II’s household in 1685.
Her son, Matteo, is being raised by foster mothers Alinor and Alys. Livia allows herself to imagine the dirty wharf where “she gladly left her son so she could rise to this greatness”.
Running parallel, Ned, Alinor’s brother, lives in a community of American Indians where he gathers herbs and artefacts. Boarding a boat to England he rescues a roped Indian prisoner only to discover this boy is a fearless girl.
The Romantic by William Boyd, Viking
William Boyd’s rambling but brilliant new novel is based on the true story of Cashel Greville Ross, a 19th century soldier, farmer, felon, writer, father and lover.
Boyd came across Ross’s letters and a memoir which he weaves into his own magical tale.
From Ireland to London, fighting at Waterloo and seeking his fortune in Zanzibar, Ross is a compelling character who meets romantic poets Byron and Shelley in Pisa and a woman who captures his heart in Ravenna.
Iris by Fiona Kelly McGregor, Pan Macmillan
Trying not to smell the wafts of the pie shop, famished Iris arrives from country Glen Innes to Sydney to be immersed in the underworld.
On the train “a fella offered me a meal for a jerk, I insisted on a bob too”. It’s 1932. She was born in the Bathurst Salvation Army Women’s Hospital, her mother doing a stretch at Cooma Gaol for larceny.
It’s impossible not to fall for this emancipated, well-read, hard-working woman. In Sydney she meets a woman who takes her to her Palmer Street brothel.
Five years later, married to gambler Ned Webber, she faces convictions ranging from insulting words to murder. This is a definitive story of Depression-era Sydney suffering and survival. McGregor’s use of the slang of the day adds punch.
Those Dashing McDonagh Sisters by Mandy Sayer, New South
Tireless, flawless research by Sayer in this evocative and entertaining story of three remarkable sisters, whose individual talents combined to bring international-standard film production to these shores from 1926 to 1933.
Eldest Isabel, under stage name Marie Lorraine, acted in all the lead roles, while middle sister Phyllis – who had her first book published at 10 – art directed. Youngest Paulette was one of only five female film directors in the world.
Relatives tried to discourage them “risking it” in a male-dominated world. Far from failing, they even brought Fritz Lang expressionism cinema to Sydney, proving they could transcend stereotypes of farmers’ wives and downtrodden servants.
Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop by Alba Donati, W&N
If the book cover doesn’t tempt you to visit ex-Florence publishing PR Donati’s “literary cottage”, its location in Lucignana (pop 180), Tuscany will.
This is someone who loves books and worries about them while work begins on her bookstore.
“I know they don’t cope well with humidity – I can picture them covers curling.”
It opens in December 1919, but in January 2020 it’s on fire. It was the catalyst for a group of aficionados of the beacon “Bookshop on the Hill” to become a community. Paradise not lost.
Whatever Next? by Anne Glenconner, Hodder & Stoughton
This is the second autobiography by Lady Anne Glenconner, the first focusing on her role as Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret.
Lady Anne is now 90 and ready to go into more depth with much more candour about the darker times of her life.
Living in the lap of privilege certainly came at a price and she fills in the gaps on her traumatic marriage to at best eccentric, and worst abusive and “dangerous” Colin Tennant.
“I lived with domestic violence and abuse for most of my marriage,” she admits.
As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh, Bloomsbury
Salama Kassab was 18 and a pharmacy student when war in Syria – which had already taken Baba, Mama and brother Hamza – made her leap to hospital surgeon.
Roaming the empty aisles of the supermarket for something to cook for Layla, her bereaved sister-in-law, seven months pregnant, there is still hope in the hearts of malnourished men with shining eyes.
At night she hallucinates after the horrors she has seen; an impish boy urging her to stay in Syria and fight for her people, for the revolution. She meets Kenan whose sister still has shrapnel in her body.
At their home Salama performs miracle surgery. But something is familiar about this boy.
“We haven’t met because we never got the chance … You were going to come for a marriage talk.”
That was the fatal bomb day.
One More Mountain by Deborah Ellis, A&U
Damsa, 15, dreams of becoming a lab scientist. Her grades are great but when the Taliban rose to power again life changes for the hard-won freedom of women and girls.
The Taliban are hunting women in uniform and police officer Shauzia helps burqa-clad Damsa reach the safety of her friend Parvana’s Green Valley school, where she is joined by Rafi,11, who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.
Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave & Tom de Freston, Hachette
Compelling story of Leila, a Damascus refugee aged nine, who, having lived in a detention centre in England is reunited with her mother in Canada.
Leila is guided through customs but her scientist mother, tracking an Arctic fox, is not there to greet her.
Based on a real blue fox who walked from Norway to Canada to survive.
Tilda by Sue Whiting, Walker Books
Tilda is 10 when her papa waves her off at the pointy gates of Brushwood Convent and Orphanage for Girls and goes to war.
“I know it’s hard,” he says, giving her a leather-bound notebook.
They will both write what they do when apart and read the books together at Mama’s grave when he returns.
Sister Agatha insists Tilda says she is an orphan, but proud Tilda refuses.
Alice’s Book by Karina Urbach, Hachette
“I knew from family lore my grandmother was a famous cook in 1930s Vienna,” says Urbach, who inherited a box of Alice’s letters. “From that moment I wanted to tell her story.”
This impeccably researched tome reveals the stolen copyright of Jewish manuscripts by Nazis. In 1938 when German troops crossed the Austrian border, Alice fled to England.
Returning in the 1940s she discovered her 1935 cookery book, So kocht man in Wien (Cooking the Viennese Way), had been republished under the name Rudolf Rosch. It contained her recipes and 100 photographs that even included her hands.
Playing Under The Piano by Hugh Bonnevile, Little, Brown
Best known as Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey, Hugh Bonneville’s laugh-out-loud memoir is packed with anecdotes from a who’s who of co-stars.
One of the best is a fantastic exchange between British and Hollywood royalty – Dame Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine.
Shirley is recounting her multiple love affairs including one with Danny Kaye – “Darling, you have been busy,” says Maggie somewhat caustically. “I know … I did all the work, my brother [Warren Beatty] got all the credit,” quips Shirley.