Stuck without a good book to read this month? The Australian Women’s Weekly has you sorted with our selection of best reads for September.
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 Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt, 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 Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt, HQ
It is 1479 and with plague swirling in the city, cloth maker Vincenzio Fusili has arranged for his wife, Giulia, to have their first born in a grand villa in the hills above Florence, safe within the walls of the Medici country estate.
He is hoping for a boy, an heir to the empire he is building. The birth is tricky and when Leornarda Lunetta is born crippled, Giulia immediately shuns her, telling her friend Elisabetta to take the swaddled screaming bundle to the convent. “The day was to be my glory and it has ended most monstrously,” Giulia cries, exhausted and desperate. But when husband Vincenzio arrives soon after the birth, he immediately falls for his baby girl, accepting God’s blessing.
Cut to 17 years later and Luna, now an inquisitive young woman, has concocted a romantic picture of her mother in her head – Giulia actually died hours after Luna’s birth – and is devoted to her learned father, who remarried and has indeed grown in eminence.
Luna is a captivating heroine, excited by learning, brave and bold and yet also vulnerable. Her malformed leg has actually gifted her a freedom rare for her gender, and in Renaissance Florence Luna is in her element. Her passion is astronomy and when she meets Copernicus with his heretical beliefs about the universe, her spirit is ignited.
But the big problem for Luna is that while her intellectual prowess is lauded when she is a girl, as a woman it’s considered immodest to be overtly smart. “We have a society that embraced educating young girls, but if and when they grew into eloquent women who wanted to remain single, there was no place in traditional, patriarchal Renaissance society,” notes author Emma Harcourt.
The result is a page-turning read and an historic armchair travelogue, taking us on a delicious wander through ancient Florence. There’s also something very topical about The Brightest Star. “The book’s tagline ‘it’s a dangerous time to be a clever woman’, fits perfectly for Renaissance times, but sadly, it’s still relevant in parts of the world today; consider the plight of women in Afghanistan since the Taliban have taken control,” says Emma, who had her own children in mind when writing.
“I have two teenage daughters and an adult son. I want all my children to be curious, brave and respectful. Luna questions everything and in the process she discovers her own voice and embraces it.”
Born in Sydney, Emma Harcourt spent her gap year in Florence, the inspiration for The Brightest Star. “It was the most extraordinary time, waking up as an adult in one of the most historical, creative, romantic cities of Europe, first time away from home, first foreign language, first boyfriend.” Emma ultimately became a journalist in London and then Australia, where she has raised her three children. Her debut, The Shanghai Wife, was published in 2018.
“Journalism felt like a job, writing fiction feels like an escape,” she says.
Mary Ann & Captain Piper by Jessica North, Allen & Unwin
Magnificently researched true story of Mary Ann, daughter of two convicts, wife of Captain John Piper – commandant of Norfolk Island, later Naval Officer of Sydney. In 1805 Piper, 31, had relations with Mary Ann,14, who gave birth to his son, John Junior. Everything about this remarkable woman was of her own doing.
She asks a woman of social standing for lessons in deportment and elocution. And at 20, travelling to London, Piper puts a ring on her finger – they actually wed in 1816. In 1834 Mary Ann, 42, gives birth to her 14th child. Three months later she and her surviving nine children celebrate Piper’s 60th birthday. After entertaining on a scale never seen before in the colonies at Henrietta Villa – the most lavish house in Australia – the family makes a merry home at Bathurst.
Bone Memories by Sally Piper, UQP
If you’ve yet to catch on to soulful Aussie author Sally Piper, this is a great place to start. It’s her third novel and deftly combines a meaningful meditation on our connection to land and place with a spine-tingling story of grief, loss and ultimately hope. As the novel opens Billie is cleaning the memorial plaque set into a tree where her daughter Jess was murdered 16 years ago.
The tree saw it all, along with Jess’s son Daniel, just three at the time, and it is here Billie comes to drench herself in memories. Daniel is haunted by the trauma of his loss but has no recall of the incident.
His stepmother, Carla, is also caught up in the legacy of a woman she never met. What follows is powerful and deeply thought-provoking.
Lily Harford’s Last Request by Joanna Buckley, HQ
An emotionally challenging opening as Lily, 86, awakes to the sound of lorikeet song and the sun’s rays pushing into her room – two of life’s few remaining pleasures since dementia set in. Single mother, successful business owner, she’s asked someone to help her die. As the cushion covers her cheeks, nose and mouth, she doesn’t
need to know who the assailant is.
“It is the person who was kind and brave to agree to perform this ultimate unselfish sacrifice.” Mother to Pauline, grandmother to Rachel, great gran too; leaving her Queenslander to move into Blue Vista care home was a wrench, farewelling treasured belongings. But aide Donna and Lily click on sight.
The Golden Couple by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, Pan Macmillan
Washington D.C.’s maverick therapist Avery Chambers, 41, lost her licence for rigging up a video to catch out client Cameron’s wife berating him. Now she is a “consultant”, using a unique 10-session system – starting with confession, concluding with promises.
Camel-coated Matthew, partner in a law firm, and wife Marissa, owner of Coco, a bijou candle and perfume boutique, arrive to talk, Matthew believes, about son Bennett’s school bullying. But Marissa announces she has been unfaithful.
There’s a menacing sideline of henchmen from Avery’s first “10” client’s whistleblowing on the faulty trials of the pharmaceutical firm she worked for.
Stepping Up by Sarah Turner, Penguin
Self-deprecating Beth is the fun friend who doesn’t take herself too seriously – drinks too much the night before her work review, calls in sick. Except instead of a day doing nothing, her switched-off phone carries life-changing messages. Sister Emmy and brother-in-law Doug have been in a terrible car crash. Doug is dead, Emmy in a coma.
They have two children, teen Polly and toddler Ted. Interfering Mum has no confidence in Beth; she still lives in her childhood bedroom at 30. “Can’t hold the fort, never held any fort,” fears Beth. Except she can, with bells on. Prepare to fall in love with the pal who plays it down, but steps up to the plate with panache. A real guardian angel, Beth turns Holly’s “I hate you looking after us” around.
Six Days In Rome by Francesca Giacco, Headline Review
Artist Emilia was supposed to be having a glorious romantic escape with Michael, the married man she had lost her heart to, but instead she’s here alone, the union over. But as she explores the ancient winding streets and majestic piazzas, Emilia surrenders herself to the music, the food, the history, and the Italian passion for life.
Then she meets John, an ex-pat American who is adoring his version of Rome, and a new intimate relationship unfolds. Told in a rather delicious stream of consciousness, prepare to sit on Emilia’s shoulder as we get a heart’s eye view of her relationships past, present and maybe future set against Rome’s beauty.
The Natural History of Love by Caroline Petit, Affirm
Inspired by the true story of 19th century French naturalist Francois, Count de Castelnau, and Brazilian heiress Carolina Fonceca’s forbidden relationship. Carolina fell for the ageing Count – who she later discovers had a son and wife in Paris – at 16 when he “stumbled out of the Amazon jungle onto the veranda” of her family’s plantation in Brazil.
The pair finally reinvented themselves in Australia but never married. We meet their sons, Charles and Edward, in 1901 at the Melbourne property where diplomat Francois ended his days. “Mad” Eddie, 15, “exuberant like a child”, is cared for by a servant. Carolina has died and left Eddie everything. But elder brother Charles is contesting the will.
Words for Lucy by Marion Halligan, Thames & Hudson
Eighteen years in the writing, this tender tribute to the author’s daughter, Lucy, who died aged 38 in 2004, is a precious reel of cherished moments. Lucy was born without a pulmonary valve, which would require open-heart surgery. “We were at a children’s [no animals] circus when we realised Lucy was ill. After her operation her memory was bad, as though a lot of life had been erased.” People loved to confide in artistic, individual Lucy.
She sent postcards with extravagant, comforting sign-offs: “Lots of woolly cardigans and pots of tea.” On November 10, 2004 Lucy lay on her bed for a sleep with her cat, Josie, beside her. “It was [her death], I like to think, of her own manner and choosing, though I doubt she did this consciously,” says Marion, whose wise, dignified words light up unforgettable Lucy moments.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, Pan Macmillan
This virtuoso time travel storytelling spans logging camps, Canada, 1912, to the Last Book Tour on Earth, 2203. Author Olive leaves her husband and daughter, five, on Second Moon Colony for the airship terminal to hovercraft to Earth on a book tour. She passes the robot foundries on the way to Mum and Dad’s town, her feelings of desolation obvious. Her handler’s, who she does not trust, hologram blinks out as she arrives to sign books.
A woman shows her a dedication: “Harold, I enjoyed last night, xoxo, Olive Llewellyn.” A shadow Olive on a parallel tour?
The story begins with Edwin St John St Andrew embarking on a new life in Canada, the youngest son, cast out by his father for his radical views on the Raj at a family dinner – “Why do we assume these places are ours?” Eldest brother Gilbert replies, “We won them.” The dilemma of middle and youngest sons: ill-prepared for working life and inheriting nothing. In 2401 an investigator is sent back in time.
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