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, Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, 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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Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng, Little, Brown
When 12-year-old Bird receives a surprise letter, he knows it’s from his mother even without opening it. He hasn’t been called Bird since his mum left.
It was the name she said he gave himself when he was tiny, the only name he would answer to because “it felt like him”.
Now Bird must answer to Noah, his birth name, and forget about his mother. He feels as if he’s wearing “a rubbery Halloween mask”, a potent metaphor for the dystopian world author Celeste Ng has created in her terrifying and enthralling new novel.
There is no return address on the letter but it has to be from her and Bird knows he must hide it, even from his father. The letter has been inspected “for your safety”, notes the sticker from PACT – the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act. This law was set in place a decade earlier in response to “The Crisis”, a period of violent protests.
One of its central tenets is to protect children from “environments espousing harmful views” and most dangerous are those promoting Asian culture. Bird’s mother, a Chinese American poet, disappeared. Since that day Bird and his white Harvard academic father have tried to lie low, but with Bird’s recognisably Asian features they are walking a tightrope.
“Everything in the novel has a real-life precedent; nothing is wholly made up,” Celeste says. “Libraries being forced to remove books, schools demanding displays of ‘patriotism’, children taken away as leverage – all of these were based on things that have happened, and now they’re happening again. It’s less of a dystopia and more America as it might be in a few years’ time.”
It’s a world the author grew up in and one she says still prevails. “I wish I could say this is no longer the case, but I think every Asian American knows what it’s like to be deemed ‘not American enough’. No matter how long you or your family have been in America, you’re often still seen as a foreigner because of your face.”
Bird feels compelled to find his mother and in doing so he is also searching for the heart and soul of his country and humanity itself. “I never come to fiction with a lesson to impart – but I do hope the book opens up questions,” says Celeste. “What would you do if you saw wrongs happening to other people? Would you stand up for what was right, even at personal cost? Can the actions of one person make a difference?” Yes … Please, yes!
About the Author
US novelist Celeste Ng, 42, was raised in Pennsylvania and Ohio and as a child was encouraged to read. “Stories were always how I made sense of the world,” she tells The Weekly. “I was a shy kid, so I would stay to the side and just observe everything. That helped me a lot [later] as a writer: I learned to listen and watch and figure people out.”
Our Missing Hearts is her third novel. Her second – Little Fires Everywhere – was a New York Times bestseller and adapted into a TV series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Penguin
Reid serves up a pretty much matchless sporting comeback novel, when Carrie Soto, 37, holder of 20 Grand Slam titles, is ousted from the top spot by Brit player Nicki Chan, winning her 21st title. Sitting next to her is dad and trainer Javier “el Jaguar” from Buenos Aires, who wrote a bestselling tennis manual.
Carrie’s mother died in a car accident, and she still sleeps with a photo of the dance teacher under her pillow. As photographers watch for Soto’s reaction as the richest female athlete ever and number one ranked player, the angry “battle-axe” feels her jaw tense as Chan “is at her heels”. Not a wasted word – and no translations for Dad’s Spanish encouragement, which makes for cleverly rich reading.
Pod by Laline Paull, Hachette
Lyrical Paull takes us to the ocean depths in the story of Ea, a spinner dolphin of the peaceful Longi tribe, who feels like an outsider. She’s a good hunter, but her deafness to the sounds of the ocean means she cannot spin. Still she is inundated with suitors, for her beauty is exceptional.
Below the equator is an archipelago but there is a gap in the chain, where an atoll was vaporised during nuclear testing. “Times goes so fast now, barely weaned calves mating.”
These troubled waters shelter two estranged tribes. The bottlenose dolphins of the notorious Tursiops megapod drove the Longi from their home. Each pod thinks it knows the ocean – only Ea knows it’s no longer a sanctuary.
Nimblefoot by Robert Drewe, Penguin
Champion storytelling from Drewe in this fact-filled, daring reimagining of the life of Johnny Day, Australia’s youngest international sporting star. Starting out at 10 as a pedestrian (walker), as launched by his Ballarat butcher father Tom Day (the two spoke in “srehctub klat” – a unique Australian butchers’ language, speaking words backwards) – the sad lad missed his mum who died after loss of babies; including a boy from a botched circumcision.
At 14, in 1870, he became the youngest winner of the Melbourne Cup, but disappeared off the map and wild stories began. Drewe’s depiction of an innocent, upstanding boy’s wretchedness after a forced brothel night out with Prince Alfred’s royal party, who watched the race, tugs at the heartstrings.
Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare, HarperCollins
Every word is crafted with care in this hedonistic mystery set in Soho London’s Canary Club and on board a first-class Queen Mary cruise cabin, 1936. Lena Aldridge, 26, is of dual heritage, left by her white mother to be brought up by her black pianist father Alfie. Her best friend in London, Maggie, is married to Canary’s philandering boss Tommy Scarsdale, who wants a divorce.
Just before Lena leaves to take up a starring role on Broadway, he is poisoned. On board Queen Mary’s Starlight Club, black pianist Will Goodman reminds Lena of her late father, lost to TB in the dying moments of New Year 1935. Goodman assumes she’s staff like he, but loveable, appealing Lena has just dined with aristocracy. A heady mix of its prejudiced time.
The Couple Upstairs by Holly Wainwright, Pan Macmillan
A bold departure for Wainwright as she tackles the dangers of young Brit girls travelling to Australia, partying and mushroom tripping on beaches. Mel, 40, is separated from husband Simon; their children Eddie, nine, and Ava, seven, live with her. Upstairs a “beautiful” boy called Flynn becomes a grisly ghost of Mel’s twenty-something love Dom, who she met as an English traveller.
Backpacker Lori, 21, has moved in with Flynn upstairs. “She was so eager to let loose. He [Flynn] could feel it, had seen it before. Girls who’d been travelling just long enough to feel safe.” When Lori begins babysitting Mel’s kids, the descent and abuse is clear. An important read for naive travellers in search of hedonism.
Managing Expectations by Minnie Driver, Manilla Press
A cinematic march through English countryside with “keeper of curiosity”, Minnie’s late mother Gaynor, and “dear, kind, capable sister Kate”. Challenging her daughters, “Find me a stick shaped like a letter!”, this is a magnificent memoir. When Gaynor left the girls’ father in 1976, moving from their Barbados home to the UK, she was told she would have to marry, own a house and get them in school to be awarded custody. She did, and now Minnie’s own son Henry attends the same school, where “free-range children” combine beekeeping and ‘save the countryside’ protest concerts alongside academia.
The sisters go to stay with their father and his new girlfriend in Barbados, where a week of “boiling temperatures” resulted in 11-year-old Minnie being flown to London via Miami on her own, where she stays at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Dad’s credit card. Graduating from drama school, but not getting any offers, she sings in restaurants. Always-funny-at-auditions Minnie soon finds herself asking if she really has to put on a fancy dress for the buzzards (paps)?
The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner by Grace Tame, Macmillan Australia
“Many of you will know my name because of the abuse I suffered when I was a 15-year-old girl, but even though it was incredibly traumatic and permanently life-altering, it is not the defining element of my life. It really is just a chapter.” In this extraordinary memoir, Grace Tame lets us into all the chapters of her life. It is, as we have come to expect from the 2021 Australian of the Year, raw, honest and profound.
Grace knows the “childlike openness” that is probably connected to her autism is a blessing and a curse, but she also has a purity of vison that unmasks the monsters and the angels in her life. The power of this book is that you really do hear Grace’s unfiltered voice – funny, warm, angry, sarcastic and often lost. But she is also a teacher unpacking research and her own lived experience – “the devil in the details” – to save lives.
Forty Nights by Pirooz Jafari, Ultimo Press
Iranian-born photographer Jafari migrated to Australia 20 years ago. When Ayatollah Khomeini became Iran’s Supreme Leader in 1979, “it was like a total eclipse; the whole country fell into darkness,” he says. It’s no surprise then that his deeply affecting novel is a story of diaspora, the fight for human rights and above all, finding your home. It spans three timelines and begins at the start of Iran’s 40-night winter solstice, Australia’s summer solstice.
“But my body and soul are still in sync with the northern hemisphere,” says protagonist Tishtar. His brother arranges a family video call with their Maman and Baba. Tishtar has bought the traditional ingredients – pomegranates, walnuts for the celebration supper – but loses his appetite. He has retrained as a lawyer in Australia to help refugees seeking asylum and his head is saturated with the tragedies of the humanitarian cases he has taken on.
Habiba, who left Somalia but spent three years in a camp before being accepted to Australia, fears for her two nieces, trapped in Kenya. Tishtar will need documentation to help her. “Many of us don’t know when we were born. When they filled out our applications, they put January 1 for all our birthdays,” Habiba explains.
The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre by Natasha Lester, Hachette
When Alix St Pierre moved to Paris in 1946, she knew she had found where she was always meant to be – working for the great fashion designer Christian Dior, surrounded by glamour and gowns, and away from the dark wartime experiences that haunted her.
But of course, the past has a way of catching up with you and in the hands of page-turning Australian novelist Natasha Lester, that past is always going to be rich with intrigue and laced with secrets.
In 1943 Alix was enlisted as a spy by the US government, her task to get close to a Nazi officer and learn vital information to help the Allied Forces. What could go wrong?!
Q&A With Nancy Lester
Is any of The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre based on fact?
Yes! All the Dior gowns are real, as are most of the facts about life at the House of Christian Dior in 1947.
What was so special about Christian Dior?
No other designer, except perhaps Coco Chanel, changed fashion so radically at a point in history. I think Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection is often misunderstood. People think it required corsetry and thus made women take a step backwards. But many women believed their Dior dresses gave them the armour to face the conservative and inequitable world they found themselves in. The gowns let women dream at a time when dreams were often all they had.
Is there a message you would like your readers to take away from the novel?
Alix says at one point in the book, “one woman alone can’t change the world”. But she does just a little bit, and for the better. I like that idea. So, my message is: keep fighting your good fight, whatever that is.
You can read this story and many others in the November issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – subscribe here.