Stuck without a good book to read this month? The Weekly has you sorted with these nine recommendations for May.
Starting out with our top pick, The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, we have something for every kind of reader, from romance to crime.
So settle in with one of these great reads, all available through Booktopia.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, Hutchinson Heinemann
“We have your daughter.” So starts Jessamine Chan’s engrossing dystopian drama. Frida Liu is driving back from work when she picks up the message that summons her to the police station. It’s a call that would strike fear into the heart of any parent and for Frida kickstarts a terrifying spiral of repercussions.
Quickly we discover that her 18-month-old daughter, Harriet, was found crying at home alone after a neighbour notified the police. Right from the get-go Frida is treated as a “bad mother” who has failed at the most basic of female requirements. That she was exhausted, working for a demanding boss while minding her daughter; that her husband, Gust, had left her for a younger woman; that she was alone in an unfriendly city struggling financially and emotionally … all this matters little.
Frida had left Harriet safely strapped into the ‘Exersaucer’ contraption while she dashed into the office. She wouldn’t be long. Frida knows she messed up, she’d had “a very bad day” and her punishment unfolds at a startling pace.
Harriet is taken from her, custody given to her husband and his girlfriend. Cameras in her house now monitor her every move and supervised encounters with Harriet are scrutinised. In court she is found guilty of neglect and abandonment. If she submits to a year at an experimental reform school to learn “motherease” she may be reunited with her daughter.
At the school Frida meets other “unfit” mothers, each paired with a robot doll with uncannily human reactions to learn the “Fundamentals of Care and Nurture”.
“When I began this project in 2014, I was consumed with anxiety about whether or not to have a baby,” says author Jessamine. “In the midst of wrestling with my ambivalence, I read an article about a mother fighting to regain custody of her son after leaving him home alone and her nightmarish experience with the family courts. The clinical language used by Child Protective Services, and the keen sense of injustice I felt on that mother’s behalf, lodged in my memory. Mothers are judged even before their babies are born. And those judgements come from everyone. It’s hard to tune out the cultural message that mothers should always be striving to do better.”
The novel’s future world has an aura of possibility and we ache for Frida. Can she make it back to Harriet?
The Social Lives of Animals by Ashley Ward, Allen & Unwin
Professor in Animal Behaviour at the University of Sydney, Ward takes us on a fascinating journey revealing the hierarchy and habits of animals. Long-living elephant families are built around a single female matriarch. “The rest of her family choose to follow her for the good judgement she brings to her leadership.” A pride of lions has at its heart generations of lionesses, often great-grandmothers. They adopt orphans whose mothers were killed in confrontation. The kamikaze female honey bee dies, protecting her nests, when her sting snags in its target, pulling away her entrails. “Take locusts, surging over the land in their millions, unable to slow down for a moment because the hungry ranks behind will bite their legs off if they don’t stay ahead.” Superb!
Strangers I Know by Claudia Durastanti, Text
Part novel, part memoir, this coming-of-age story plunges us into the complex childhood of the author and her brother, born to deaf parents. Her father preferred people to “enunciate clearly”, slapping away their hands if they tried to use sign language, which in the family home was never used. Her mother became deaf following childhood meningitis and her parents sent her to a boarding school where the nuns recognised her artistic talent. “Deaf girls are funny – they’re wild,” her mother once declared. The author’s dedication is “to a girl and a boy [her parents] who lived through their deafness with recklessness. While I was trying to be brave or good, they were teaching me how to be free.”
The Plant Hunter by T.L. Mogford, Allen & Unwin
A splendid adventure in the fantastical Victorian plant-hunters’ world, whose bold travel and oft frowned upon removal of species resulted in exotic displays in London’s hothouses. Prestigious plant nurseries, such as Josiah Piggott’s Plant Emporium in this tale, attracted the influential in droves. Our protagonist, Harry Compton, is a fine horticulturist, but chosen as one of the dandy salesmen in top hat and frock coat for his handsome face, which makes wealthy women swoon. But a plant-hunter’s dream is an expedition. Harry is left a rare Icicle Tree flower by opium-addicted botanist Lorcan Darke and a map of its location in China. Harry risks all for his specimen and a green-eyed, red-headed artist.
The Maid by Nita Prose, HarperCollins
Prepare to fall in love with Molly. Abandoned by her mother, raised by lifetime maid, granny Flora. Molly can’t believe her lofty position at the Regency Grand Hotel. She knows people think she is a lowly nobody but she loves her trolley’s “cornucopia of bounty”, and is proud to leave rooms in a “state of perfection”. Gran’s “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life” attitude bathed sheltered Molly in sunshine. But Gran died, unaware Molly’s bad egg romantic “date” emptied their bank account. Naïve Molly now believes the grill bartender is her boyfriend, unaware he’s using her as a mule to supply empty rooms for nefarious drugs activity.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea by Axie Oh, Hachette
Tender, precious feminist retelling of Korean The Tale of Shim Cheong. Mina was born an orphan. Her grandfather says, “Nothing seemed to comfort you.” But then her gentle brother, Joon, insisted he held her. “When you opened your eyes, the smile that lit your face was the most wondrous I’d ever seen.” Joon loves Shim Cheong, but she has been chosen as sacrificial bride to the wrathful Sea God. Mina wraps the red ribbon of fate around her wrist and plunges into the sea in place of Shim. The village girl enters the bedazzling Sea God’s City, where immortals celebrate and feast, while humans suffer. An enigmatic, epic achievement.
Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale, Hachette
A fictional novel loosely based on author Gale’s fascinating discovery in his twenties that British poet Charles Causley [Eden Rock] lived up the road. Charles, five, meets his father, Charlie, for the first time when he comes home from WWI a shattered man. Laundress mother Laura recognises her son is a prodigy. At five he counts the four syllables of the word “temperature” as she takes his father’s “tempritcher”, confused it has but three. A top scholar, he is beaten up at school, Mum observing, “[the boy] won’t be the last to be maddened by his brilliance”. Father dies of TB and Laura feels she and Charles are “all in all” to each other. But his prize-winning poem at grammar school reveals his true self, “safely in a place where only those granted the key access”. He begins hiding himself from Laura. At male bathing spots, Charles’ closet life reveals. In WWII he signs up with the Navy as a coder and Laura is alone. Devastatingly dignified.
Only Birds Above by Portland Jones, Fremantle Press
Uniquely crafted tale of two world wars, seen through Jones’ tender horse trainer touch, as man and animal sweat, suffer and support each other in terrible times. Blacksmith Arthur Watkins weds horserace crazy Helen, before he leaves WA to join the 10th Light Horse Battalion in the Middle East. “We’re shipping out soon, not all of us and some poor bastard’s got to stay behind to feed and shoe [the horses].” When the regiment returns, Arthur counts the losses by the number of riderless horses. “Herbert, 19, the best of him left at Gallipoli.” War over, silent, sealed Arthur, “His heart behind his ribs, like a dog behind a fence.” In 1945 Arthur’s son, Tom, is taken prisoner in Sumatra and forced to build the infamous “death railway”.
The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan, HarperCollins
Like her protagonist Hannah Rokeby, author Dervla McTiernan studied law at university and says she’s still fascinated by “its nooks and crannies and deep injustices”. This twisty thriller was sparked by a newspaper article about a law student working for the Innocence Project, which finds new evidence in cases where the accused continues to protest their innocence. Here, Hannah manages to secure a place on a project to free a convicted rapist and murderer currently on death row. The subterfuge is because Hannah believes he’s guilty, if not of this crime, certainly of another and she is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure he stays in prison. Her evidence – scribblings she has found in her alcoholic mother’s diary.
Joan is Okay by Weike Wang, Text
Joan-na, 36, as her mother likes to call her, breaking her name into two syllables, is an attending doctor at a New York hospital intensive care unit. Her parents returned to China 18 years ago; businessman brother Fang living in Connecticut luxury. At 18 Joan was dropped off at Harvard. “The speed of [my parents’] exit reminded me of those old cartoons, ‘That’s all, folks!'” Joan is a wonderful character – she doesn’t want to stand out but she is different. She has never had a boyfriend, she’s not interested; work is everything. When their father suffers a fatal stroke, Fang flies them first class for the funeral. Joan is back at her work station the next day, but forced on bereavement leave. “I relish being [an anonymous] cog. What I was experiencing now was the reverse crisis. No person-y things to do.”