Posted in Netgalley

The Seawomen by Chloe Timms

The memory of that day is a part of me now, tough like hardened skin. You never forget your first. You hope and pray it will be the last you ever see. You already know. Deep down. It’ll happen again and you will have to watch. The screaming, the waiting, watching her body tied down, the boat rocking and shunting, capsizing. Drowning. The point where you can see with your own eyes what it means to be a woman.

Wow! This book was so evocative, from the author’s descriptions of the island’s landscape to the way of life followed by it’s inhabitants. It felt oppressive and bleak, but also strangely mystical. On an isolated island with no access to the ‘Otherlands’ beyond, a religious community observes a strict regime policed by male ‘Keepers’ and female ‘Eldermothers’ under the guidance of their leader Father Jessop. There were shades of The Handmaid’s Tale in this community, that polices it’s borders and it’s women. Women must not go near the water, lest they be pulled into the wicked ways of the Seawomen, seemingly a species of Mermaid. The water can breed rebellion in the women and cause bad luck for the islanders. Any woman could be singled out by the Eldermothers, so they must learn to keep their heads down and stay away from the water. Any bad luck – crop failure, poor fishing quotas, storms, pregnancy loss – all can be blamed on the community’s disobedient or disloyal women, influenced by the water. Each girl will have their husband picked out for them and once married, the Eldermothers will assign her a year to become a mother. If the woman doesn’t conceive she is considered to be cursed and is put through the ordeal of ‘untethering’ – a ceremonial drowning where she is tethered to the bottom of a boat. Esta is a young girl who lives with her super religious grandmother, but often asks questions about the mum she has never known. Her grandmother insists she sees a darkness in Esta and is constantly praying and fasting so that Esta doesn’t go the same way as her mother. The sea does call to Esta and she goes to the beach with her terrified friend Mull, to feel the water. There they see something in the waves, something semi-human, not a seawoman, but a boy. Will Esta submit to what her community has planned for her or will she continue to commune with the water?

The book opens with a description of an untethering ceremony, throwing us directly into the brutality of the Keepers and the terror of the drowning woman. It’s a visceral opening and cleverly leaves the reader very aware of the fate our heroine could face. I felt this really added to the atmosphere of the book, raising the tension and our trepidation for this bold and intelligent young woman. We don’t want to see her life mapped out for her with all the restrictions it implies, but we equally don’t want to see her become the next victim of this barbaric, patriarchal society. I also felt strangely unmoored by the setting. I saw in my mind’s eye, a rugged and weather beaten Scottish isle, miles from it’s neighbours, yet I couldn’t pinpoint it’s place in history. The clothing and the attitudes are strangely old-fashioned. The religion is very puritan in tone: a personal relationship with God is encouraged, along with modesty, industry, male domination and of course obedience. Having been brought up in an evangelical church I can honestly say these attitudes and expectations, especially the pressure on young women, is still alive and well in those types of communities. So we could be in the 19th Century or it could be yesterday. Father Jessop’s preaching is that that Otherlands are toxic, their land contaminated and their ability to produce wholesome food curtailed by their inability to listen to their God. This gave me the sense of a dystopian future, where perhaps global warming has decimated most of the planet and only these remote outposts survive. Adding to this sense of disorientation are the islander’s names, more like surnames than forenames the men have names like Morley or Ingram whereas the women have names like Seren and Mull. I felt genuinely uneasy about the island and felt something evil lurked under the piety and the fatherly control, something far uglier, that a rebel like Esta might awaken.

Esta’s questing mind is what drives the story forward. There are too many secrets in her background. She knows that the burn scarring on one side of her face happened when she was a baby and the house burned down killing her mother and whoever else was inside. Only Esta survived and her grandmother’s negativity surrounding her only daughter is excessive and this doesn’t allow Esta to ask questions or hear about a different side to her mother. She knows that there’s more to her history than she’s been told. Another conundrum is her grandmother’s cousin Barrett, a fisherman who lives by the harbour, as close to the water as he could be. He lives alone after the death of his wife and is possibly the only islander to have come across a Seawoman up close and was injured in the process. However, he doesn’t talk about his wife or where he went in the sea after her death. There are too many questions for a girl who’s already unsure whether she believes in the dark myths of the Seawomen, or the darkness she is potentially harbouring at her centre. Despite her upbringing there is a part of Esta that does question, that challenges and most importantly can accept that those in authority might be wrong. It’s a self belief and confidence that will stand her in good stead for what’s to come.

I had so many suspicions and theories of my own as the story unfolded, not just about Esta’s past, but about the patriarchal society itself. The last third of the book really did pick up the pace and we see the iron will of Father Jessop and the cruelty he is prepared to inflict in order to stay in control. I was so deeply pulled in by Esta’s will and her instinct to get away, that I felt anxious. I wanted her to have something in life that most of us take for granted, another person who truly cares for her and loves her. This feeling intensified as she is promised in marriage and goes to live with her husband’s family; a family who have a very low opinion of her and a husband who loves someone else. The way the author opens up the truth of the island is by using one of the older women who has some of the answers and also shows Esta that there are others who think the way she does, they just fly under the radar so they remain safe. To Esta this is unthinkable, to know the truth but continue to live under the false tyranny imposed on them feels cowardly to her. What will happen when the Esta’s story reaches its conclusion, when she might face the very ceremony she feared so much at the beginning? Will these free thinking individuals stand up for her? Even more important to me, was whether or not Esta reaches the Otherlands and the freedom she longs for, or whether she is fated to be forever one with the sea.

Published 14th June 2022 by Hodder Studio

Meet The Author

Chloe Timms is a writer from the Kent coast. After a career in teaching, Chloe studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent and won a scholarship for the Faber Academy where she completed their six-month novel writing course. Chloe is passionate about disability rights, having been diagnosed with the condition Spinal Muscular Atrophy at 18 months old, and has campaigned on a number of crucial issues. The Seawomen is her first novel.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall.

To keep her children safe, she must put their lives at risk …
In suburban Australia, Mim and her two children live as quietly as they can. Around them, a near-future world is descending into chaos: government officials have taken absolute control, but not everybody wants to obey the rules.
When Mim’s husband Ben mysteriously disappears, Mim realises that she and her children are in great danger. Together, they must set off on the journey of a lifetime to find Ben. The government are trying to track them down, but Mim will do anything to keep her family safe – even if it means risking all their lives.
Can the world ever return to normality, and their family to what it was?

Every time I read a new dystopian novel I end up feeling a little disturbed about how close it is to the world we’re in now. Especially with the extreme weather events, potential for WW3 and the lingering pandemic all competing for our attention. Yet for some reason I’m drawn to them and when they’re done well they blow me away. There have been a few dystopian novels sitting high on my ‘Books of the Year’ list for the past two years running.

This was another novel set in the near future, where severe climate change events and continued terrorist attacks have made the government take drastic action. They now have a totalitarian government, run under the sinister title of the “Department”. Humans have been installed with the type of microchips anti-vaxxers are terrified by, allowing the government to keep tabs of every single citizen. All civil liberties and freedoms have been swept aside for the false promise of round the clock security provided by their privacy being invaded. Any dissent is dealt with quickly and without mercy, and there are purpose built compounds ready to house anyone who speaks out. Many go in, but nobody comes out again, a though that fills me with dread considering I’m writing this as Russia is dismantling any left-wing TV or radio station and announcing new laws to curb anyone even labelling their invasion of the Ukraine as a war instead of a ‘special military operation.’

So when officials from the Department tell Mim is tell Mim that her husband Ben is missing, she has to think quickly and tactically about the best plan of action for her and their children Essie and Sam. When officials arrive at her home to department to “help and advise’ she knows that she’s being trapped. Their advice warns her to stay home and they offer her some official looking forms to sign, but without giving her a chance to read them. Finally, they’re asked to surrender their Passports. This might be run of the mill stuff in a dictatorial regime, but Mim isn’t so easily controlled or fobbed off. Ben had been working in Indonesia, at a gold mine, so Mim is used to him being away from home, but he’s never been unexpectedly delayed or kept at his place of work without some notice. However, his return ‘in the next few days’ allows Mim time to think and delay telling anyone they know. The only other person who. knows the truth is Raquel – a foreign, independent journalist who had happened to ring because she had heard Ben had disappeared on the grapevine. Mim decides to run, knowing that officials will take them as security to lure Ben to them if they don’t already have him.

The story of this family on the run makes a great thriller, the pace is mostly superb and I was rooting for this family. The Department are relentless though, and Mim finds her way blocked, not just by the confiscated passports, but by frozen bank accounts and phone calls where her children are threatened if she doesn’t return home. I felt torn about Mum’s decision making. I applauded her for sticking to her principles and the belief that her children are in more danger living within this totalitarian regime than by running any. The other half of me was thinking she was crazy to risk their lives this way. An old friend of Mim’s takes the family on a treacherous sea voyage to find Ben, but I kept wondering whether she could trust her friend or if there are ulterior motives. I found some of Mim’s choices here difficult to understand and the story seemed to slow as they tried to reach Borneo. However, once there and towards the end the pace changed suddenly and my only criticism of the book would be that this huge change in pace made the final section feel like it passed too quick, giving me a bit of an anti-climactic feel. I thought the Big Brother elements of the novel were well established and the government felt truly terrifying in their scope and methods of punishment. I enjoyed the fact that it made me think, not just about the politics, but about being a mother in this oppressive situation and the decisions I would have made for my children. Was it worth putting their lives in immediate danger to avoid the potential future consequences of staying put? I found it involving, intelligent and eerily prescient, with the ability to start a few dystopian nightmares of my own.

Published in paperback by Harper Collins on 3rd March 2022.

Meet the Author

Kate Mildenhall is a writer and education project officer, who currently works at the State Library of Victoria. As a teacher, she has worked in schools, at RMIT University and has volunteered with Teachers Across Borders in Cambodia.

Skylarking was her debut novel. She discovered the story while on a camping trip and she wishes for more such fruitful adventures. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in Hurstbridge, Victoria.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Last Woman in the World by Inge Simpson

Fear is her cage. But what’s outside is worse…

It’s night, and the walls of Rachel’s home creak in the darkness of the Australian bush. Her fear of other people has led her to a reclusive life as far from them as possible, her only occasional contact with her sister.

A hammering on the door. There stand a mother, Hannah, and her sick baby. They are running for their lives from a mysterious death sweeping the Australian countryside – so soon, too soon, after everything.

Now Rachel must face her worst fears to help Hannah, search for her sister, and discover just what terror was born of us. . . and how to survive it.

I felt slightly breathless reading this story of destruction and apocalypse. So much so, that by the end I had very mixed feelings. I was glad to have finished the book, because I’d been feeling a low level panic and despair. However, it was so prescient and close to our current existence that I felt it needed to be read, however uncomfortable. This is a book borne of a fury that we treat our world the way we do. I write this as I’m laid on my bed – I’ve been unwell this week – watching Storm Eunice attempting to tear the roofing felt from the neighbour’s shed. It was only yesterday that I watched in disbelief as a town in Brazil was completely engulfed by a massive landslide. As I think of the state of our politics, the dreaded virus and the scenes from the Australian bushfires that left me distraught I know that the world Inga Simpson is writing about isn’t something far off future Armageddon. This could happen tomorrow. It is our now, not our future.

Yet still I veer between thinking I must do better and feeling that whatever I do will never count while those who actually have power can hold a ‘landmark’ climate change summit and not decide on anything worth the paper it’s typed on. Simpson has clearly felt a need for change for a very long time and this novel is her retort to our complacency and really does hit home. She uses the medium of the thriller to make our hearts race, our fears run rampant and spells out that this is our future if we don’t change right now. Where the films and books of my childhood concentrated on possible threats from outside – nuclear war in War Games, aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien. Here the threat is so real, because it’s already coming true. It comes from within. We are killing our own planet.

The setting is the city of Canberra, but it’s the incredible and unique flora and fauna of the Australian bush that’s so powerful in the novel. The author’s love for her homeland is so evident in her descriptions of the bush and it’s clear that the basis of the novel comes out of those terrible bushfires and the pandemic. I felt her pain at the loss of wildlife and their habitat. There are themes that flow through all of the authors writing – solitude, the need for quiet, a dislike of large crowded spaces and a total mistrust of elements of modern culture such as social media. The way Rachel feels as one by one these aspects of modern life disappear shows exactly how dependent we’ve all become on constant information and confirmation of events, beliefs and what other’s think.

‘It was a world gone silent. Silenced. There was no help. No news. No advice. No solution.’

I know people who might implode if they were left by themselves without a constant echo chamber of validation. Who do we become when our self is not reflected back to us? Already we can all see people’s standard of living slipping, their security eroded, their sense that someone is in charge and knows what to do about this, is shattered. We have all slipped down the scale from trying to be fully self-actualised beings, to being unable to keep ourselves warm. If there is no one to tell us how to cope we become very basic versions of a human – scraping by to survive and without the tools we once had to be self sufficient or alone. These are the aspects Simpson considers between the action and the conclusion the reader draws might be confronting and upsetting for some. At the very least it will make you think about the way you treat the world and your fellow humans, especially those who have to live in the future we’ve created. I have to say I felt like a product of capitalism when I read the following section:

‘Now it was too late and Isaiah, if he survived, would never see half the things she had seen, taken for granted, gulped down.’

There’s a great thriller here that is addictive, frightening and full of heart-stopping moments. Underneath is just as powerful, but quietly so. For this reader, that made it even more profound.

Published 24th Feb 2022 by Sphere.