Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

Congratulations, Louise O’Neill – you managed to create a dystopian future even more horrifying and chauvinistic than the one in Margaret Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale. That took talent. And a dark, twisted mind.

Sometime in the nearish future (near enough I could visualise a timeline) hormone therapy meant girls have been bred out, because who wants a girl when you can have a boy? Except, didn’t think that through didja, because now there are no women left to have boys with. So girls are genetically engineered and for sixteen years, follow strict beauty and health regimes to better their chances of attracting the right partner. Each year, three times as many girls are bred as boys were born, so the boys can have their choice and the left over girls can just… fend for themselves, I guess. One third become ‘companions’ (like wives, except closer to chattel, and it has the bonus of continuing with O’Neill’s ‘c’ theme) one third become concubines (which frankly, sounded like the best option, with some element of agency, relatively speaking) and one third become chastities, which is like a teaching nun, but with more horrific implications, to raise the next group of girls.

This is about as pleasant as it sounds.

Naturally, depending on how high the boys rank, they get their first pick of girl. Towards the end of their sixteenth year, they start the selection process with which boys they will end up with, and who ends up a concubine or chastity. The stress these girls are under to maintain an ideal weight, to always appear happy, so they might attract a man who wants her as his companion, is palpable. The behaviour of some of the boys towards the girls is revolting, as you would expect from a society that rewards even the most sub-par of boys with his choice of women to be his slave. Also palpable is the resentment some of the lower-ranking boys that they never get their ‘pick’ of the most beautiful girls, a sentiment reminiscent of the incel movement, despite predating it (or at least its current incarnation).

The story centers around Freida and her bff Isabel. Freida and Isabel used to be the highest-ranking girls in their class, but as their final year starts, Isabel has become more withdrawn, gaining weight, looking unappealing, while the stress of the situation is causing Freida to slip down the rankings herself. The inclusion of Darwin, the good looking, well spoken son of a high-ranking man (I assume Darwin is a dig at evolutionary theory?) as one of the available boys throws the thirty women into a spin of even greater competition with one another. He initially seems to favour Freida, but of course, O’Neill wouldn’t have earned her reputation as the second coming of Atwood had there been a happy ending.

My one critique is that Freida’s actions were her downfall, and entirely preventable, within the context that no-one should be expected to perform under those conditions, of course. Her inability to keep a confidence and her desire to be friends with a reptile of a mean girl are her undoing, and I often wanted to scream at her idiocy. I would have liked that better explained by stress or a desire to be liked; instead, she came across as someone who was so close to being one of the most powerful women in the land, albeit a land which placed very little value on women, and blew it by her inability to keep her mouth shut.

They get back to Isabel, and her story initially has a hope spot, then descends into tragedy, with hints of paedophilia and the only escape she had. Except for the introduction of Darwin, and Isabel’s hope spot, both of whom serve to make things even worse in the end, this book is an unrelenting bag of horror and chauvinism, all the worse for how well O’Neill portrays it. There are references, such as Isabel’s supply of gifts to Freida that she (Isabel) hates and wants to offload, that seem to be throwaway lines but actually make a lot of sense at the end, that would be worth rereading the book for, if not for how gut-wrenching the book is. It’s not as graphic as Handmaid’s Tale (another book I could never reread) but it is more hopeless. It’s worth a read if you an stomach it, but not something many of us could reread, I suspect.

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The Wife Between Us – Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

What a disappointing novel.

I was hugely looking forward to this book because of it’s comparisons to The Last Mrs Parish, a book I absolutely loved for its delightfully satisfying ending. I can see why the comparisons between the books are made, but it’s just such a let-down. Vanessa, Richard’s ex-wife, is plotting to stop his remarriage. Interspersed with Vanessa’s story is that of Nellie, who we assume to be Richard’s new love. Only nothing is as it seems.

Part of what made Mrs Parish so enjoyable was to realise the ‘weak’ character was actually immensely far-sighted and deploying every weapon in their limited munitions supply to devastating effect. The weak character in Wife is just weak. In another story, it could have been an interesting illustration of how abuse can so break down a person that even ‘victory’ over their abuser fails to grant them much peace (the recent movie Unsane did this to terrifying effect), but that’s another story. There is no satisfaction out of revealing the kind of man Richard was; again, in another story, it could have been an interesting exploration of cycles of abuse.

Part of the problem is that Hendricks and Pekkanen have tried to cram too much into one book. Richard’s, Vanessa’s, Nellie’s and Emma’s stories felt like 3-4 different stories which each deserved their own novels that Henricks and Pennanen were trying to stitch together. Too many cooks and all that. Avoid. Go read Mrs Parish instead.

Saints by the River – Ron Rash

Twelve-year-old Ruth Kowlasky goes wading in the Tamassee river in a small town in South Caroline, near the Georgia border. She gets caught up in what’s called a ‘hydraulic’, described as a spin cycle but with white water, and drowns, her body trapped in the hydraulic, beyond the abilities of traditional retrieval methods. The Kawlaskys want to get in a portable dam, but the Tamassee is federally protected as a pristine river, forbidden by law from human-made changes. And so starts off a acrimonious debate about the rights of the Christian Kowlaskys to bury their child versus the rights of the river to be undisturbed by humans.

Photographer Maggie Glenn tells most of the story and is fairly even-handed in her portrayal of both sides, although as an environmentalist with little truck for religion – or at least the belief that religious rights should supercede the laws of men – I found Herb Kowlasky to have a superior air, referring to the Tamassee locals as ignorant hillbillies. One ‘hillbilly’ responds by saying at least they knew not to let their children go wading in such a dangerous spot; cruel, but an understandable reaction given Herb’s assessment of the population.

A valid point is made that once a pristine, federally-protected river has man-made changes to it, no matter how minor or noble the reason, it opens the floodgates for develops to say ‘it’s not pristine anymore’, and before you know it, it’s an industrial area with a bit of sludge that used to be river running through it. I found the environmental points to be much more valid than that of the Kowlaskys, and their willingness to expose to river to development down the track, as well as their willingness to send others down to such a dangerous spot to retrieve the body (you didn’t see Herb or Ellen Kowlasky willing to go) as deeply selfish despite their grief. Perhaps this was Rash’s point, perhaps that’s just me being an environmentalist, I don’t know.

The mayor and the man responsible for the portable dam, Bannon, demonstrate increasing arrogance that makes you just know that this claim of ‘done in a day’ and ‘no lasting damage’ is at best, going to be an epic failure and at worst, a tragedy. Frankly, I would have liked to have seen some backlash against the Kowlaskys for bringing further tragedy to the town and their willingness to risk the lives of others while they stay on the bank.

Despite that, this has been my favourite of Rash’s books. Serena, while interesting, was rooted in a thoroughly unlikeable, though sometimes sympathetic lead character (the point of the book, I believe). Above the Waterfall deals with the meth pandemic in the Appalachian area,  something that makes it  difficult read. Saints at the River has is moments of unsympathetic characters and difficult reading, but I found the concept of religious freedoms vs environmental protection to be fascinating.

Flawed – Cecilia Ahern

In a world where members whose actions have deemed them ‘flawed’ (such as those whose business have failed or who broke laws to help their sick children or cheat on their spouses) are not deemed criminals, but branded and not able to enjoy the freedoms of being a ‘non-flawed’ member of society. In effect, this creates a lesser class of citizens despite not having broken any laws that is reminiscent of past decrees against women, Jews, Catholics etc. In one particularly scene, a ‘Perfect’ woman’s attitude swings from ‘how can I help you, dear’ to outrage at having to mildly inconvenience herself in order to save a Flawed man’s life; this is the ‘less than’ view the Perfect see the Flawed through.

Celestine North (whose name translates to ‘north star’, ie, guiding light – I assume that’s not a coincidence) witnesses an incident with a Flawed man that sets off a chain reaction with consequences that no-one could have forseen. It’s not until Celestine herself is branded as Flawed that she sees just how badly Flawed are treated and just how corrupt the so-called ‘justice’ system is.

I found it a fascinating insight to how the best of intentions (for example, wanting to exclude people who have proven untrustworthy to run big business, ie certain bankers) end up being the ruin of people who had done their best with circumstances under their control, and asks the age-old question of ‘who polices the police?’

Flawed is part of a duology, and while I’d recommend its sequel, PerfectPerfect in particular drags on (I, for one, had worked out how the love triangle would be resolved halfway through Flawed) – a good editor could have gotten it down to one book. There’s some great themes about how power corrupts and the road to hell being paved with good intentions. A discussion on bookclub led us to the conclusion that, if not set in Ireland, it is written from the perspective of an Irish writer (most of Ahern’s novels are Ireland-based) and this makes a lot of sense in the context of that country’s financial difficulties (and difficulties with the financially irresponsible) as well as with the Catholic Church, itself revealed to be quite corrupt and abusive in the last few years.

A very intriguing concept that I found quite believable, and could see a society so exploited by irresponsible and unethical people having had enough to going to far in the opposite direction towards intolerance of anything but unimpeachable actions.

Dorothy Must Die – Danielle Paige

Young Adult writer Danielle Paige brings a dark, steampunk element to the story of Dorothy Gale and The Wizard of Oz. White trash Kansas teen Amy Gumm finds herself swept away in a tornado to Oz, where she finds she only heard half the story. At some point, Dorothy, sick of the mundane life on Kansas after the technicolour magic of Oz, returns, is crowned princess, and becomes a power-hungry, magic-siphoning dictator(ess?) whose lust for power and magic has turned Oz into a miserable place. And it’s up to Amy to rectify the situation, ie, kill Dorothy.

Much of what we know from L Frank Baum’s beloved creation is turned on its head, as Glinda becomes a Perma-Smiling sociopath and the ‘wicked’ have become the resistance. The idea of Dorothy being a cruel tyrant initially seems unbelievable, but when members of the resistance explains, the idea of a nobody from nowheresville, Kansas wanting more for herself… and more…. and more… not only makes sense, but it makes you wonder if white trash Amy is just as susceptible to corruption as her predecessor.

Oh, and Dorothy’s sidekicks have become just as terrifying; the Lion King a monster who feeds on fear that could easily have come from the mind of Guillermo del Toro; Scarcrow has become a mad inventor to rival Jonathan Crane from Batman Begins. (And probably just as insane.) Tinman is relatively sane, but only compared to Scarecrow.

Dorothy Must Die is the first in a quadrilogy (plus nine digital novella prequels, from the looks of it explaining how characters such as the Scarecrow, Lion Man and Tinman went from the aw-shucks heroes of the 1939 film to their current incarnations) and so far, very well paced. I can definitely see this having enough story to make a trilogy, so watch this space for updates as to weather or not it deserved to be a quadrilogy.

The Paris Seamstress – Natasha Lester

I’m a fan of fellow Perth girl Natasha Lester, whose recent foray into historical fiction has shown a love for vintage glamour and strong women – just my cup of tea. She didn’t disappointed with her latest offering, The Paris Seamstress. It follows the lives of two women, Estella in Paris in 1940, a dress designer whose talents are wasted in ripping off big-name French designers like Chanel for American knock-off brands.

(There’s a hilarious scene where Estella meets a woman wearing what is clearly a Chanel knock-off, though everything that made it an exquisite dress has been modified into something, well, garishly American, and the American lady is well aware of it and treats Estella with appropriate disdain for calling her out on her cheap knock-off. What can I say, I have a soft spot for truth-tellers.)

It is also told from the perspective of Estella’s grand-daughter Fabienne, as her beloved grandmother, who created the iconic Stella line, is dying, leaving more questions than answers about her life in France and America during WWII. I’m generally not a fan of this split perspective, as it tends to spoil the story – well, duh, we know now that Estella ended up a ranging success with a happy family and lots of descendants – but Lester makes it work by piquing our interest, not so much in weather or not she made a success of herself, but how she did.

After cutting things too finely with the French resistance for her mother’s liking, Estella flees to America, where she meets an array of characters, including a doppelganger, Lena, and the story’s nemesis, Henry Shaw, who may or may not be insane, but seems to have found a new hobby in destroying Estella for little more than shits and giggles. If I have one criticism, it’s that Lester tends to write her antagonists in quite a two-dimensional way. There is nothing redeemable  sympathetic about Harry, and he comes across more as a sociopath than insane, which may have been Lester’s intention. I had this issue with Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret, although not so much that it seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the book. And when I guessed the parentage of a character that was central to the book in Secret quite early on, I had no idea until said parent informed Estella in Seamstress.

Lester is clearly a fan of vintage fashion (in her author talks, she bemoans the responsibilities of an author in creating authenticity and having to travel to Paris to look at clothes – some people have all the luck!) and her love of glamour and attention to detail show in her exquisite descriptions of some of the clothes, including the abovementioned example with the knockoff Chanel. Like Lester, Estella is clearly a woman who knows her work, as demonstrated in her ability to get fired from fashion house after fashion house for being too opinionated about how awful said knockoffs look. Even though I knew who she ended up with thanks to Fabienne’s narrative, I was still hooked, wanting to know how she gets from bottom-of-the-ladder, talented-but–opinionated-designer constantly getting fired for her honesty to creator of an icon fashion line, how she ended up with one man when she was clearly in love with another and how much damage Harry Shaw will ultimately do before being vanquished. A thoroughly enjoyable read and one that kept me up past my bedtime because I had to know all the answer to those questions.

The Last Mrs Parrish – Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs Parrish follows the plotting of Amber Patterson, a woman of no importance who craves wealth and privilege, and the influence that comes with it. She schemes her way into the life of Daphne Parrish, who has everything Amber wants – that wealth, privilege and influence, not to mention devoted husband Jackson.

The lengths Amber goes to in order to make herself indispensable to both Parrishes is impressive in her ambitiousness, and makes you wonder why the hell Amber didn’t just go create her own successful business, since she certainly has the motivation, ambition and persistence for it. The efforts she goes to in creating plausible lies and twisting herself into pretzels to be the kind of person Daphne, and then Jackson, want could just have easily been invested in more productive pursuits that could have accomplished the same goals. I guess some people are just born rotten.

What makes The Last Mrs Parrish so intriguing is that halfway through, it switches to Daphne’s perspective, and everything we thought we knew from Amber’s perspective (admittedly, she’s not the most reliable of narratives) is blown out the water. This is a short review as I don’t want to give too much away, although the ending was highly satisfying. Let’s just say that everyone gets what they deserve… although most of the main cast don’t believe they deserved it.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa

Something tells me I’m going to like my new bookclub, having suggested Jane Harper’s Forces of Nature as well as this month’s offering, The Travelling Cat Chronicles (translated into English from its original Japanese). An enchanting book, it follows the travels of Nana, a stray cat adopted by Satoru. The novel is told from the perspective of Nana, a strong, wise, insightful cat who understands humanspeak and dogspeak as an absolute minimum of his linguistic abilities. Nana and Satoru are happy for a few years before Satoru takes them on a road trip, attempting to find a new home for Nana that never quite works out. Nana is Satoru’s and Satoru is Nana’s, a state of being as strong as any force of nature, like the waves of the sea that so frighten Nana at one point.

The story is peppered with Nana’s impressions of life, from the silver car bonnet he loves so much (always warm, even in winter – and this is a Japanese winter, not a Perth winter!) to the abovementioned ferocity of the sea. He is witty and insightful, stripping away any of humanity’s pretensions as well as our collective inability to say what we mean. He is honest about his nature as a hunter, and his descriptions of hunting birds, mice and cockroaches (anything smaller than him not fast enough to get away, really) feel oddly noble, as if he were more panther than stray cat. And I rather enjoyed his frank assertions of humanity’s hypocrisy when it comes to killing things.

Much like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, part of what makes this book such an engaging read is the element of loss and tragedy in it, reminding us that love is love because of these things.

Force of Nature – Jane Harper

It’s difficult to write a novel where none of the characters are unlikeable, an yet the story is still engaging enough that you’re hanging on til the end. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas was one such novel, and I was pleasantly surprise (after I was done loathing the characters) to discover another Australian author capable of such a feat.

Harper’s The Dry established Federal Detective Aaron Falk via his hometown in rural Australia, his history, his motivations, his demons. The books do not need to be read in order, but I would recommend it as Force of Nature makes passing references to the events if The Dry that help flesh out Falk.

The main story evolves around five women, all employees of BaileyTennant, a family accounting firm. Alice, Lauren, twins Beth and Bree and family member Jill Bailey all go into the woods in a team-building exercise for the ‘troubled’ employees; all but Alice come out, and all significantly worse for wear.

Naturally, sending ill-equipped staff who are already on tenterhooks out into the Australian bush goes about as well as you would expect it to, with basic mistakes being made from people who have limited-to-no experience in bushcraft. You know it’s not going to end well, and it speaks as much about BaileyTennant and its management as it does about the psyches of the five main women, none of women are particularly likeable. Beth, a recovering addict with a black mark that needs to be legally declared against her name is the immediate stand-out, although as time goes by, a lot of the shine goes off Bree, although I did find myself sympathising a little with her in terms of the forced interactions working with her sister engineered. It seemed incredibly problematic to have hired Beth, given her history with her sister (Bree was there first, the idea being that her stellar performance was a good idea to get a literal clone of her) and I wonder if this was an oversight of Harper’s or an intentional plot point, intended to demonstrate the poor management going on at BaileyTennant.

As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Jill, the so-called ‘team leader’ is ill equipped to handle the situation, either as a company boss or someone who can take control of a situation as things deteriorate. Alice quickly takes advantage of Jill’s poor leadership skills, although Alice herself lacks them; more aggressive than assertive, domineering than actually productive. Her actions are consistently selfish, using up resources for her own gain so when they’re actually needed, they’ve been used up.

The book switches back and forth between the women’s trials in the woods and the search and rescue efforts a few days later when four women have come back and Falk is on the case. Falk explores the antagonistic relationship Alice had between the four women, who all had a reason to, well… not exactly be sorry if something happened to her. As the book goes on, we see that all four women are deeply flawed, unlikeable even, although Alice and Beth are the initial contenders for ‘bad guy’. All five women bring a truckload of issues to what is a challenging situation to begin with, and all of them contribute to the terrifying circumstances they find themselves in, and worse, an utter lack of acknowledgement or remorse as to the havoc their actions have wreaked.

As I said earlier, it’s difficult to write a novel where all the main characters are unlikeable (this was a bookclub pick, and when discussing it with another member, she said she ‘had kinda hoped they would all die in the woods’.) And yet, I devoured it, wanting to know what happened and the consequences of five women who were weak or aggressive but never strong. The Dry was an engaging read and I had no idea who dunnit til they were named, but Force of Nature showed a sophomoric maturing of Harper as a writer, and an instalment I would highly recommend.

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

Wow, what a twisty ride!

Louise is a single mum stuck in a rut who goes out to a bar one night and meets a man, David. Sparks fly, they fool around, and ooops, turns out he’s her new, married boss. She then manages to become friends with David’s wife, Adele, while getting more deeply involved with David. You just know it’s not going to end well, and it’s hard to decide who you dislike more – the controlling David, the clingy Adele or the homewrecking Louise. All broad characterisations, of course, but no-one is hugely likeable, although I could sympathise with Louise, as a single mother whose baby daddy was disinterested in providing much maintenance. ‘The other woman’ trope doesn’t play well with me – both morally and because I don’t understand why women keep thinking it’s going to work out well for them – and Behind Her Eyes only does above average in that regard.

But…

The plot twists as Louise investigates first David’s and then Adele’s behaviour are edge-of-your-seat stuff, and just when you’ve worked out who is the good guy and who is the bad guy (relatively speaking – these are all nuanced, and deeply flawed characters) BAM, Pinborough hits you with the ending. One of the best twist endings I have read in the book and one that had me thinking about for days.

I’ve put this in ‘Family Issues’ because it’s centred about David and Adele’s marriage and Louise’s involvement with both of them, as well as her son, and I created a new ‘Thriller’ category. But this book really feels like it defies categorising.