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Review: The Accusation by Wendy James

The Accusation 
Wendy James
Harper Collins AUS
2019, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A bizarre abduction. A body of damning evidence. A world of betrayal.

Eighteen-year-old Ellie Canning is found shivering and barely conscious on a country road, clad only in ill-fitting pyjamas. Her story of kidnap and escape quickly enthrals the nation: a middle-aged woman with a crazy old mother has held Ellie in a basement, chained her to a bed and given her drinks from an old baby’s sippy cup. But who was this woman and what did she want with Ellie? And what other secrets might she hide?

When the accusation is levelled at local teacher Suzannah Wells, no one seems more bewildered than Suzannah herself … to start with. The preposterous charge becomes manifestly more real as she loses her job and her friends. And the evidence is strong: a dementia-affected mother, a house with a basement, a sippy cup that belonged to her long-dead daughter. And Ellie Canning’s DNA everywhere. As stories about Susannah’s past emerge, even those closest to her begin to doubt she’s innocent.

And Ellie? The media can’t get enough of her. She’s a girl-power icon, a social-media star. But is she telling the truth?

Wendy James has been one of my favourite authors since I read The Mistake quite a few years ago now. She writes these Australian domestic thrillers with incredible twists and I always find myself gripped from the first page until the last. And The Accusation is no different.

Suzannah Wells hasn’t been in the isolated town of Enfield Wash very long. She moved from Sydney in order to get her mother closer to a care home that has a shorter waitlist. Mary isn’t well, suffering from something a bit like Alzheimers but is more alcohol abuse related. There are times when she’s lucid and docile and you wouldn’t realise she has an illness. And then there are other times when she’s forgetful, abusive and disruptive. Suzannah undertakes the bulk of Mary’s care, hiring a local nurse to look in on her when she’s teaching drama at the nearby high school.

Ellie Canning is discovered almost unconscious by a farmer in one of his outbuildings. She claims that she was drugged and kidnapped in Sydney, held in a room by two women and escaped after several weeks of captivity. She doesn’t know the identify of her captors but given where she was found and her weakened state, it must be within a certain radius and the local police search quickly through houses deemed most likely within a location Ellie would be capable of fleeing from. Suzannah is shocked when the police return to her house, claiming that Ellie has described the basement-style room of her new house perfectly.

Who is telling the truth? Is it Ellie, whose story has captured the nation? She has spent a large portion of her life in foster care, with her mother constantly relapsing into a drug addiction. She was in Sydney to interview for a position at a university residential house and the public are taken with this determined young girl, struggling to overcome the disadvantage of her background and get herself educated by sheer hard work. Who would kidnap her and why? Especially when Ellie claims that her kidnappers were women, which pretty much goes against everything of the ‘type’ of crime. Suzannah claims to have never met Ellie, never heard of her until her story broke on the news. And what possible motivation could she have for kidnapping her and holding her hostage in the basement? And if she did do it, as Ellie claims, how did no one notice that Ellie was downstairs? Suzannah has a carer coming in to check on Mary, she’s struck up a friendship with a woman who grew up in the town and now comes back on occasional weekends and she’s also struck up a friendship of sorts with Chip Gascoyne, who owned the house Suzannah purchased. Chip is her neighbour and has wandered over many times for a meal and to share a bottle of wine. Surely he’d have noticed if she had to keep disappearing to the basement or if there were any weird noises coming from there…..right?

This is based on a true story, something that happened in England over 260 years ago. I’d never heard of it before reading this book and I did a little bit of reading on it after and Wendy James has adapted that historical event brilliantly into a modern day rural Australian setting. Suzannah is in her forties, recently new to the town and has already kind of made some waves. She’s a former soap star from the 1990s, acting in a sort of Paradise Beach or Home And Away type of show and then dropped off the public radar after her time on the show ended. However when she’s accused of this terrible crime and identified by Ellie Canning, her history is all dug up and splashed across the gossip pages for people to pore over and judge. Things that she did when she was in her 20s, whether they be real or mostly fabricated press stories anyway, were rehashed and a tragic life event was reshaped as something more sinister. There’s a lot of really current relevant stuff in here, such as the rise of instagram and social media ‘influencers’ including people who use something that happens to them to spin that into a career. Ellie is hailed as something of a hero after her escape, with interview offers pouring in, she has to hire a media manager type person in order to control and handle everything. She is seen as the epitome of a survivor, raising herself up in spite of her poor background and the lack of people who cared about her (no one even really noticed she was missing) and also freeing herself from a gross captivity, speaking about it with poise and grace. She’s the perfect interview, her popularity surging…..but is it all real? There’s also the ‘fake news’ exploration, which has risen to popularity in the era of Donald Trump, who denounces anything negative about him or positive about someone else as ‘fake news’ and now it’s become the catch cry for anything that someone doesn’t want to believe. In fact it’s been used so much it’s almost ceased to have any legitimate meaning in some ways, because it’s not always about what’s fake, it’s also about what people don’t want you to believe. You can also create a narrative that suits you, be it real or not, with some clever usage of social media, which ties back to the influencers and how much of what they show is real and how much is artfully constructed to portray a certain image to best boost their profile and garner the best offers and attention.

I really enjoyed the way this was told, in three parts and with excerpts from a Netflix style documentary, which is being produced after the conclusion of the investigation and trials. I was engaged from the first page and the predicament of Suzannah’s guilt or innocence was something I thought I was right about but…..Wendy James made me question pretty much everything I believed at one stage or another in the story. This is full of clever writing and excellent character work.

8/10

Book #94 of 2019

The Accusation is book #43 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

 

 

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Review: The Golden Child by Wendy James

golden-childThe Golden Child
Wendy James
Harper Collins AUS
2017, 334p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Blogger Lizzy’s life is buzzing, happy, normal. Two gorgeous children, a handsome husband, destiny under control. For her real-life alter-ego Beth, things are unravelling. Tensions are simmering with her husband, mother-in-law and even her own mother. Her teenage daughters, once the objects of her existence, have moved beyond her grasp and one of them has shown signs of, well, thoughtlessness …

When a classmate of one daughter is callously bullied, the finger of blame is pointed at Beth’s clever, beautiful child. Shattered, shamed and frightened, two families must negotiate worlds of cruelty they are totally ill-equipped for and Beth must face the question: Just how well does she know her children?

This novel made me never want to have high-school aged children.

Obviously that’s not an option. My children are 8 and 5, they’re going to get there at some stage. Probably far sooner than I would like. But this book made me desperately want to slow time to a crawl, to put off that inevitable stage. It terrifies me, how much bullying has escalated in this day and age of social media and anonymous keyboard warriors. It terrifies me that schools make all the right noises but struggle to really understand what is happening and effectively control it, now that so much of it happens out of school hours and grounds.

At the beginning of the story, Beth lives in America, her husband having been transferred there for work. Her girls seem a dream – younger daughter Charlie is pretty and popular. Older daughter Lucy doesn’t have Charlie’s popularity and circle of friends but is smart and sweet. When Beth’s husband Dan gets a transfer back to Australia, there are mixed feelings. It’s to Newcastle, his home town and where his mother still lives. Not Sydney, Beth’s town. Beth’s home. For Beth, coming back to Australia isn’t going the way she had it planned out in her head.

Unable to work in America as she doesn’t have a greencard, Beth runs a sort of “Mummy blog” and I think this novel pokes gentle fun at the “image” of blogging – the light, breezy posts about life, the quirky antics of children, the effortlessness of it all as well as the regular band of people offering comments in the form of unsolicited advice, their personal experiences/opinions or criticisms. As “Lizzy” on her blog, Beth is able to portray her life the way she wants and I suppose that’s the thing about blogging. There are a plethora of them out there, each one more beautifully constructed than the last. Away from “Lizzy”, Beth’s life is slowly coming apart at the seams. She feels Dan becomes a different person when around his mother, a capable woman that Beth feels doesn’t like her. It’s in that way that many of us feel about our in-laws I suppose….a “feeling”, more on what isn’t said than what is. The children are resentful about leaving, find their new house which is in need of renovation, unappealing and are going through the awkward stages of beginning a new school, of being outsiders. For Charlie, now wanting to be known as Charlotte, it’s a cool assessment of the social hierarchy and mentally calculating how to fit in where she wants to.

Reading a book like this makes me examine my own behaviour as a teenager in high school. There’s no doubt I did some things that, looking back now, I wish I hadn’t. I experienced taunting by other students – I wouldn’t call it bullying because it wasn’t prolonged and overall, I had a mostly positive experience with good friends. But there were definitely times I wished I could change schools (briefly) or that someone else would change schools to make my life a bit easier! I think that sort of stuff is normal – put a few hundred teens together in a relatively small environment and you’re going to get personality clashes and people who fight for dominance. It’s when it goes beyond that, the systematic and relentless targeting of someone, coupled with horrible messages like “kill yourself” that it’s a whole other level. Kids have a pack mentality too, which can lead to people participating in things because others are, for recognition, for a desire not to be singled out themselves and when they isolate a weakness in someone, they can be utterly brutal. Saying things they don’t mean, just words unaware of how seriously they will be taken. I also find that at that age, they don’t seem to connect very well with serious events, which may perhaps explain a few offhand reactions to the serious event that happens in this book.

I’ve read Wendy James before, so I know there are always more layers to the story. The way in which the perspectives build a story here, construct something that you think is true and then tear it down is quite masterful. It made me question what I know about my children as their parent, what I know about their character. How much is what I see because I want to? If my kids ever got involved in bullying or taunting someone at school, how much would I know about it and would I be able to believe it? I look at them now, they have very different personalities. My oldest is incredibly social but a bit sulky and resentful when he doesn’t get things his own way and a typically dominant older brother. My youngest is heartbreakingly shy and lacks the self-confidence his older brother has in spades. I think about how I’d feel if they were a bully or one being bullied and this is the stuff people never tell you about when you have kids! About how you might stop worrying about if they’re feeding ok or sleeping enough or growing right or developing on pace but you worry about other things and honestly, it doesn’t get much better!

This was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of 2017 and I’m so impressed that it lived up to (and perhaps exceeded) all of my expectations. It’s a truly brilliant book both for discussion…or to reflect on yourself.

9/10

Book #15 of 2017

aww2017-badge

The Golden Child is book #5 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

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Review: The Lost Girls – Wendy James

Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls
Wendy James
Penguin Books AUS
2014, 280p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

When the journalist approaches her, Jane doesn’t want to talk and she’s not happy that her daughter gave out her contact details. But Erin, the journalist, is quietly persuasive and Jane finds herself believing that there might be some value in talking about her experiences. It’s to help others, she tells herself. Erin is making a radio documentary on the impact on a family when a member is murdered. It’s supposed to be a tool to help others work through their grief.

Jane finds herself talking about a time long ago, when she was 12 and her cousin Angie 14. Angie was on the cusp of being truly stunning, already beautiful enough to turn heads everywhere but with the promise that she was going to blossom even more in the years to come. Both Jane and her brother Michael worshiped Angie and battled for her attention during the summer holidays when Angie was spending time with them. Angie reserved a little time with Jane, watching a movie or something but then they would walk up to the shop a couple of blocks away under the pretense of needing to buy cigarettes or milk or bread for one of Jane’s parents. Jane would linger as long as she dared and then make her way home with the items. Angie would stay and play pinball with Michael and some of his mates. She was older, the boys wanted her hanging around them. They didn’t want Jane.

Then one day, Angie never comes home. A massive search turns up her body several days later in bushland nearby. It sends shockwaves through not only Jane’s family but also the small and tightly knit northern beaches community, who believe that such things don’t happen in their area. Although Jane tells herself that she dealt with what happens to Angie, that they all did, she begins to wonder when Erin questions them all, Jane, her husband Paul, her brother Michael, her mother Barbara, about what happened to her and how they felt. Each of them have a different version of Angie that they remember, but which was the real one? And after all these years, will they finally find out who killed her?

A couple of years ago I read The Mistake by Wendy James which cemented me as a fan of her books. I also read one of her earlier novels, Out Of The Silence which was an entirely different setting but rife with the same sort of complex relationships and mystery that marked The Mistake. When I heard about this one, I couldn’t wait to read it. And right from the beginning, this story had me utterly engaged. Blended in a mix of past and present, it gives you Jane’s perspective of that summer, one that is tainted with how she felt for Angie, how much she admired her and wanted her attention. Jane was 12, on the edge of being a teenager but still just that little bit left behind, that much younger than Angie, Michael and all of Michael’s friends. Angie was granted more freedom, something that she had absolutely no problem taking, hanging around with the boys, playing pinball, occasionally stirring them up a bit with her good looks and incredible body. Angie partially inhabits a world Jane doesn’t understand yet, won’t understand for a few more years. She wants to go home and watch Elvis movies, not sure why Angie wants to do something different.

Angie’s disappearance affected her whole family deeply. Jane was devastated, Michael inconsolable. Jane and Michael’s mother felt a crippling guilt that this had happened on ‘her watch’ when she’d convinced Angie’s parents to come and let her stay for a while. Jane’s father was a cop and they believe he was probably privy to far more information than the rest of them. Jane’s feelings for Angie and the way that she seemed to draw admiration from men even coloured her relationships, including the one with her husband when she first began seeing him. For a while Jane almost tried to become Angie, dressing the way that Angie had and lightening her hair. It is undoubtedly cruel when someone so young has their life snuffed out, doesn’t have the potential to become someone, life a full life and I think Jane tried to compensate for that.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the character of Erin in the beginning, unsure of what her motivations were. They become quite clear throughout her own part of the story – Erin is seeking a justice she feels that no one cares about and she thinks that Angie’s relatives might hold the key to her getting the answers she needs. What she doesn’t expect is to find herself liking them (and perhaps vice versa too) and that maybe knowing all of the answers is going to be more difficult than she imagined. I enjoyed where this one went because I love a book that presents an interesting moral dilemma – there are two sides in this one and it would be fun to argue the debate with another person who’d read the book! There are some who would find it black and white and others who would be able to see all of the shades of grey.

The Lost Girls shows Wendy James’s true gift with exploring family dynamics and the subtle ways in which tragedy can wreak havoc, ways that may not even manifest until years after the fact. The writing is deft, the story easy to sink into and the setting is so quintessentially Australian that so much is recognisable from just about any childhood, even in a different decade. Another great story and now the countdown starts again to the next release.

8/10

Book #58 of 2014

AWWW2014

The Lost Girls is book #22 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

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Out Of The Silence – Wendy James

Out Of The SilenceOut Of The Silence
Wendy James
Momentum Books
2013 (originally2005), eBook
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Maggie Heffernan is a country girl, raised by a strict and never satisfied mother on a farm in country Victoria at the turn of the last century. She’s a hard worker and has often escaped the farm to go and work for family members, looking after them while they’re in the last stages of pregnancy or doing housework. She meets a young man named Jack and is immediately drawn in by his handsome features and easy going manner. With her sister as her accomplice, it isn’t long before Maggie is sneaking out to meet Jack every weekend. He promises her love, undying devotion and the eventuality of marriage. When Jack moves on for work, Maggie finds herself a position where she can be near him. Although she attempts to remain strong until they are married, Maggie does eventually succumb to Jack’s charms (and sulks) and it isn’t long before she finds herself pregnant with his child. And instead of announcing a wedding like she thought, Jack seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

Elizabeth Hamilton lost the love of her life some time ago. She has left her brother on the other side of the world and traveled to Australia in order to become a governess. However, her first position doesn’t work out exactly as she planned – it’s in a very remote location and although the three children are well behaved, Elizabeth soon finds herself heading back to Melbourne where she lodges with her cousin and attempts to secure teaching work at one of the nearby schools. Through her new life she meets Vida Goldstein, a suffragist who is campaigning heavily for equality and rights for women. Vida is passionate and full of life and Elizabeth dallies on the fringe of this group, listening to their talk.

When Maggie’s hard life becomes unbearably harder and the most terrible of things happens, her world collides with that of Elizabeth and Vida, both of whom show her kindness, sympathy and are interested in helping her to negotiate the perils of a judicial system. Elizabeth and in particular Vida prove that in a society still prejudiced against women, that the most powerful show of persistence and persuasion can help unleash all manner of possibilities.

I was first introduced to Wendy James last year, when I read her most recent novel, The Mistake. It had a huge affect on me and the last line still sticks in my mind to this day so I was always intending to go back and read some of her earlier work. Momentum Books are republishing two of these titles, Out Of The Silence and The Steele Diaries in eBook form and I was keen to read both of them. I chose this one first because in a recent interview I did with Wendy’s sister Rebecca, also an author, she chose this as one of her favourite books.

It’s set around the turn of the 20th century and revolves around three women, although the narrative heavily focuses on only two – Maggie and Elizabeth. Maggie is a simple country girl who just wants to marry the boy she loves, Jack and escape the rather tyrannical presence of her perennially unsatisfied mother. Elizabeth is still mourning the love she lost and through letters to her brother, on the other side of the world, she details her new life in Melbourne and how she comes to cross paths with Maggie.

Maggie’s plight is probably not an uncommon one to begin with – she falls in love with a boy that she thinks loves her back. She tries to hold out against giving up something precious but eventually is talked into it and then not long after that, she is promptly abandoned as Jack moves on to greener, richer pastures. Alone, searching for Jack who she doesn’t think capable of leaving her, Maggie doesn’t discover that she is pregnant until she is quite significantly far along. She mostly manages to conceal her pregnancy from her employers until baby Jacky is about to be born. After his birth, accommodations are secured for her but once again believing that Jack is nearby and coming for her, she leaves these in order to pursue him. And it’s after that where Maggie’s situation really becomes dire. It is hard to articulate my feelings for Maggie – she was so blinded by her love for Jack that she couldn’t allow herself to choose anything else but to be with him. These unfortunate choices that she made led to her downfall. A young girl, alone, too frightened of going home for the reception she’d receive, no money, no where to go, heartbroken by rejection and a baby that wouldn’t settle. It’s a disastrous equation and the result is horrific and yet strangely unsurprising. It was almost like Maggie’s whole life moved her down a path to this one moment where she did a desperate thing.

Out Of The Silence is a fascinating blend of history and human nature resulting in a terrible crime. It’s done without censure, without judgement, with a gentleness that doesn’t justify Maggie’s actions but seeks to explain how she may have been so far pushed to end up at this point. How as a young, single woman, her options were so few and that for her, what she did was the only solution to her problem. Her story is written with such sensitivity. Although Elizabeth and Vida respond to her story in different ways and for different reasons, they champion Maggie for the fact that she was pushed to such a limit by the ways in which society constrained her. It’s the struggle to have a voice and a choice.

Wendy James continues to deliver thoughtful reads that make me want to examine every line and I’m looking forward to getting to The Steele Diaries soon.

8/10

Book #118 of 2013

AWW2013Yay, milestone reached! Out Of The Silence is the 50th book read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013.

 

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The Mistake – Wendy James

The Mistake
Wendy James
Penguin AU
2012, 280p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Jodie lives a very comfortable life. Married to her childhood sweetheart Angus with two children, she is a well-preserved woman in her 40s with a lovely home, new car and a very good social standing. She helps out with local events and has an active social life and Angus, a lawyer, is thinking of running for mayor. Jodie’s carefully-cultivated life is about to come crashing down all around her when her teenage daughter Hannah breaks a leg on a school trip to Sydney and is inadvertently sent to the one hospital that Jodie never, ever wanted to set foot into again.

Twenty-five years ago Jodie was a scared and pregnant teenager and Angus was on a year long working stint in London. She chose a small hospital far away from where she lived, where the likelihood of running into anyone she knew would be non-existent and gave birth, choosing to put the baby up for adoption. This was quietly -and illegally- arranged by the Matron and Jodie received a small compensation for ‘recovery’ purposes. She’s devoted little time to thinking about that baby since, until one of the nurses notices that Hannah has the same medical condition (webbed toes) as the baby girl Jodie gave birth to all those years ago. A quiet inquiry in case Jodie wanted to reconnect leads the nurse to discover no records of the child exist and she is forced to report it to the authorities.

Jodie now finds herself at the centre of a scandal. Unless they can track down the child – who would now be a woman of 24 – then things could get very serious for Jodie. Without someone coming forward to say they are that child, or that they adopted that baby, then there’s no proof that that the child didn’t meet with foul play, even at the hands of her own mother possibly. Jodie finds herself slowly ostracised from her  peer and social groups as they attempt to run a pre-emptive strike on the investigation, doing several  carefully constructed media interviews and placing ads requesting information. Before long it’s open season in the media for anyone to say what they like about Jodie and speculate on what may have happened to that little baby so long ago. Nothing is off limits and her background is examined, her reputation cut to shreds and her family harrassed and followed. She is spat on in the streets of her small town where she was once so well liked and finds that her friends fall by the wayside, not even interested in what she might have to say.

As the search for the missing child intensifies, the pressure and strain on all of the family members is taking its toll. It’s just a matter of who is going to crack first.

The Mistake is set in what seems to me,  a well known town in NSW with the name loosely changed to Arding. A lot of the details remain the same (boarding schools, local university, hippy population etc). Jodie grew up in a town slightly out of Arding, in a poor family. She scored a scholarship to one of the better schools in Arding and was determined to use that as a way to escape her disadvantaged roots. Angus, in contrast, was part of a wealthy Arding family, well connected and well entrenched in the ‘old boys’ network of the male boarding school. Angus’s mother disapproved and that was enough for Angus to be firmly interested in Jodie. They married young and are both relatively happy, even though they’ve had their issues over the years. Angus supports Jodie when the news comes out, at great personal cost as he has to pull out of the mayoral race.

Where I believe this book excels is its portrayal of the media. At first Jodie and Angus are advised to make a plea for information before the media can dig up a story on their own, but it doesn’t take long before the tide turns and there are editorials, letters to the editor, web comments and sensational headlines. Jodie becomes a recluse after the town starts to alienate her, sitting at the computer clicking through news sites, blogs and comments, reading opinions of people who have never met her and are putting out there whatever they want. It’s a great showcase of how, armed with little information and a big opinion, anyone can get online or write a letter to the editor and say basically, whatever they want with no facts to back it up. Jodie is not personable, doesn’t strike the population as desperate or upset enough which is all the ammunition they need to tear her down as a murderer and worse. Jodie becomes obsessed with reading the things people are saying about her and it’s something I can definitely sympathize with. I think the temptation would be overwhelming, impossible to resist. The articles and opinions printed about Jodie are so realistic (given it’s happened before in Australian society and will no doubt happen again. The book even references numerous times, Lindy Chamberlain who was jailed for the murder of her young daughter Azaria before being exonerated and compensated). It’s such a slow building of the tide turning too, with snippets of newspaper articles and copies of the plea Jodie and Angus’s lawyer places before slipping in editorials, letters from the public and then Jodie finding the blogs. Jodie’s mother even goes on a current affairs show, lambasting her daughter and painting herself in an overly-flattering light.

What I really admired about this book though, apart from the well constructed story, the faultless pacing and the depth of the characters was the fact that it carefully, gently, makes you think that you know what has happened before it cuts you off at the knees. It’s hands down one of the best endings I’ve read in a book, possibly ever. It packs a huge emotional punch – the last line was running through my head for a long time after I finished the book. In fact that was a week ago now and I am still thinking about it constantly. Amazing.

A fabulous read – hard to “love” given the subject matter but well written and very powerful.

9/10

Book #47 of 2012

The Mistake counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. It’s the 12th novel read and reviewed for the challenge so far.

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