What We’ve Been Reading

As you can imagine, we do a lot of reading here at the Words on the Waves Writers Festival HQ. Not only do we have to in order to program the myriad events that take place over the festival (browse what 2023 entailed here), but of course we also want to. Many of the festival committee members are also publishing professionals or authors, and of course, all of us love to read. So, here’s a little insight into what has been keeping us up late at night.

Adult Fiction & Non-Fiction

The Watchful Wife by Suzanne Leal

“I nodded.  Of course I could wake him, I didn’t want to, but certainly I had the capacity. And for a moment, irritation at the inaccuracy trumped my fear of those women. For that brief moment, I was not the wife of a man in trouble but simply an English teacher.”

This is a domestic noir novel where we meet Ellen Wells just as the police arrive at her home to interview her husband, Gordon. We drop into Ellen’s life at what would be a terrible moment for anyone, hearing terrible allegations against their partner. This present drops away as we find out more about Ellen and her sheltered upbringing in an authoritarian church group and we wonder: about her choices; about her trust and about her judgement. The novel is cleverly plotted as Ellen’s childhood unfolds and we see her leave her parents and the church for independence after training as a teacher; realising she could not marry one of the two available yet unsuitable men at church, or care for her parents instead of a career.

The Watchful Wife is Suzanne Leal’s third adult novel (her middle-grade fiction also released this year) and her skill in plotting is evident as we wonder if Ellen’s husband has done the terrible thing he has been accused of and if Ellen is too naive and blindly supportive. With both Ellen and Gordon working in schools, this setting and the characters of both teachers and students are well-drawn. The novel highlights the perils of the court system for both the victim and the accused and Leal’s legal background in child protection and criminal law lets her show us this effortlessly.  

This novel is a gripping read that is devoured quickly – a perfect winter read that gets us to think: Who do we trust and how far should that trust go? (Mandi)

The In-Between by Christos Tsiolkas
Christos Tsiolkas is one of my very favourite writers. Bold, compelling, courageous and insightful, the stories he crafts perfectly render light and shade, and hold a microscope up to human behaviour of all kinds – capturing small moments that reveal character, and illuminating how our histories, motivations, experiences and emotions shape actions in all manner of ways. His new book The In-Between is on one level a simple story of two men, both scarred by previous relationships, who have come to the idea of seeking companionship and love again, and trying, and sometimes failing, to move on from their pasts. It is this and so much more. Christos’ writing is as exceptional as ever – the various points of view, the moments, the spice, the fiery emotion, the turns of phrase. Those for whom The Slap was a defining reading experience, will find succour here again. (Mary-Jayne)

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai

“It was easier to believe she was lying than that lightning loves a scarred tree.”

When 40-something podcaster and film studies professor Bodie Kane returns to her prestigious New Hampshire boarding school two decades after graduating, her life is at an impasse. Her marriage has fallen apart, and she is co-parenting her two kids with ho-hum functionality. The man she is currently having an affair with is handsome and charismatic, sure, but also married and aloof. Her podcast Starlet Fever, reappraising the lives of women in film, has been met with fanfare, but now Bodie can only summon lethargic interest in her research into the blighted history of Rita Hayworth. In short, Bodie needs a break and when her best friend from The Granby School days calls to offer her a short film studies and podcasting teaching stint, Bodie agrees.

But when she steps back onto the icy campus grounds, it’s not just the ghosts of adolescence past that rise up to meet her, but an actual spectre. In 1995, when Bodie was a senior, classmate Thalia Keith was found murdered in the school pool. Gym instructor Omar Evans, a young Black man, was convicted, with rumours swirling of an affair, weed dealing and desperate stalking. In embarking on a ‘school history’ podcast project with one of her students, she realises that the case was not as open and shut as she remembered. Was the wrong man sent to jail?

This book cannily juxtaposes the things we think we know as teenagers, with what we come to realise as adults, and draws parallels between what was acceptable thinking in the 90s to what we are grappling with now. Sexual politics, personal responsibility, class and race are threaded throughout the murder mystery narrative. Makkai also (mostly) manages to skewer the true crime fascination so prevalent in podcast circles by referencing a number of horrific murders and crimes against women while withholding key details; a gentle nudge to the reader that while we may crave the gritty particulars, we have to wonder why. There’s a #metoo storyline in there too, involving Bodie’s ex and her own ambivalence about the alleged victim. A lot to chew on.

And, if some of the broad strokes sound a little like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, you’d be spot on. With an elite group of self-absorbed, deeply complex young people, whose travails cast long shadows beyond school grounds, this is a brilliant and contemporary addition to the campus novel canon. (Angela)

Finding My Bella Vita by Pia Miranda
This is a charming memoir that lets us meet Pia Miranda’s family, follow her to ballet class and gives insight into her life in film, the starting of her own family and winning Australian Survivor. It is fitting that the book opens with the story of Miranda’s Italian Nonna’s life before Australia, as it is as an Italian girl that we first fell for her in the iconic film Looking for Alibrandi.  This is a story of growing up in Australia in the 80s and 90s, of the love of an Aussie Nanna and an Italian Nonna, overcoming disappointments and finding your way in the world. (Mandi)

Love, Just In by Natalie Murray
Rom com tragics, this is the homegrown best-friends-to-lovers sizzler you didn’t know you needed. Aspiring news reporter Josie Larsen takes a ‘sideways’ promotion at a news desk in Newcastle… or is it a demotion, after experiencing an embarrassing on-air freeze? Either way, it means she can reconnect with former bestie and paramedic Zac Jameson. Zac experienced a serious tragedy two years earlier, and ever since has iced Josie out… and she has no idea why. This is her chance to find out, and maybe even work her way up to fronting the newsdesk to boot. That is, if she can get past her debilitating health anxiety first. Dripping with red-hot sexual tension but also full of believable characters (manbaby flatmates with a penchant for nudity, anyone?) and unafraid to tackle serious topics, this is a cracking rom com with all the right ingredients for success. Out January 2024, just in time for your summer beach getaway! (Angela)

Book of Life by Deborah Conway
Deborah Conway has been an iconic Australian musician for over 40 years. She is an innovator, role model and entrepreneur, and has always fearlessly pushed boundaries and challenged expectations. Deborah has released multiple studio albums and played a frankly overwhelming number of live shows, and continues to tour. She has been a producer, festival director and actor, and has now added author to her long list of achievements. Book of Life is an honest, engaging memoir, spanning Deborah’s life and career. Her writing is revealing and open, down-to-earth and self-reflective. She shares many behind-the-scenes stories from the Australian music industry, and stories behind her songs. Her persistence and resilience are remarkable. A great read. (Mary-Jayne)

Pet by Catherine Chidgey
W.O.W. Just wow. This book sent literal goosebumps up my neck as page-by-page the horror and deception intensified. Twelve-year-old Justine just lost her mother, and is now navigating a Catholic school classroom riddled with intrigue and manipulation. Everyone wants to be the teacher’s pet, and even unpopular and unpretty Justine will go to great lengths to secure her favour. However, it soon becomes clear that Mrs Price’s glimmering facade masks a sinister truth. Penned by feted New Zealand novelist Catherine Chidgey, this is unsettling, in all the best ways. (Angela)

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
What parents do their kids! This book is both funny and disturbing. Funny because McCurdy holds no punches describing her dysfunctional family, I often laughed out loud. Disturbing because McCurdy, as a young girl heading into her teenage years, was ambushed by the woman who was meant to protect and cherish her. MuCurdy’s mother abused and exploited her daughter for her own ambition. I was deeply moved by McCurdy’s courage to tell her story.  I really enjoyed this book … there were quite a few twists and turns and I do hope she writes a sequel. (Benny)

Junior Fiction 

Scar Town by Tristan Bancks
A drowned town, a buried secret, a missing father and a Goonies vibe to boot. If you think you’ll just dip into this book be warned! From the instantly gripping opener to the suspense packed conclusion, you won’t want to put it down for a second. Scar Town delivers an action packed teen mystery exploring questions of friendship, broken family and masculinity. Scar Town took Bancks 13 years to create and it’s certainly worth the wait! (Fiona)

The Lonely Lighthouse of Elston-Fright by Reece Carter
Reece Carter imagined up the most creative world and characters in his first book A Girl Called Corpse, and he returns again to Elston-Fright in this second book, The Lonely Lighthouse of Elston-Fright. It is compelling and engrossing and so wholly constructed. With themes of friendship, courage, adventure, and the confronting of uncomfortable truths, this is a fantastic read for the intended audience of 8+ readers, but delivers for readers of all ages. This adult reader loved it. (Mary-Jayne)

Being Jimmy Baxter by Fiona Lloyd
Please note: the author is our own Ripples Program Coordinator!
This book made me laugh, cry and want to find my own kind of shiny. What a heartwarming and heart-wrenching middle-grade story about 12-year-old Jimmy who finds the courage and strength to help other people, even when his own life is less than shiny. Set in the 90s, Being Jimmy Baxter is about a mother who escapes her abusive husband and runs away with her son (Jimmy) to a rural Australian town. Here Jimmy has to face starting a new school, making new friends (and enemies) along the way. Lloyd captures the voice of a child perfectly – inner and outer – and I just adored how she interweaves Aussie phrases, euphemisms and slang. Lloyd explores some important issues around domestic violence and loneliness with subtlety and care too. I dare you to read this book and not fall in love with Jimmy. (Marie)

Words on the Waves 2024 will take place May 29 – June 3, on the scenic Central Coast. The program will be revealed in April 2024. Sign up to the mailing list here.