Review: THE GOLDEN CHILD by Wendy James

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Events which occur towards the end of the book are discussed in some detail in the 6th paragraph below. It doesn’t reveal the plot’s surprise twist but it is a pretty major reveal all the same. I tried but could not manage to discuss my thoughts about the book without revealing more plot spoilers than I am normally comfortable with.

thegoldenchildjamesUsing the philosophy that underlies the advice about ripping bandaids off quickly, I’m going to get the hard part of this review out now: I didn’t like THE GOLDEN CHILD. I wanted to like it. Very much. I have read most of Wendy James’ other books and thought them all very good, with THE MISTAKE having a firm place on my ‘go to’ list of great book recommendations for any sort of reader. I bought this one on pre-order, even before I started seeing all the good reviews it has garnered. But though I kept reading and hoping my dislike was a temporary thing, the book never really grabbed me at all. I imagine the Germans have a great word to describe the particular kind of disappointment that follows the non-enjoyment of a much anticipated book. In the absence of their superior linguistic skills I’ll just say I am sad.

The book – which falls within the suspense genre at its broadest definition – is centred on the Mahoney family. Well the Mahoney women really; engineer Dan Mahoney’s role in this story is to act as the plot device for moving the family from one place to the next. Dan’s wife Beth is the 40-something mother to teenagers Lucy and Charlie, or Charlotte as she decides she will be called when the family moves from the US to Australia where Dan and Beth were both born. Beth has a blog – where she presents an idealised version of her family life to the world – but has not worked outside the home since the kids were born. Though, as she reminds us often, she was not legally allowed to work while they lived in the US, it wasn’t like she chose just to stay home. Lucy, older than her sister by a year, is a pretty average daughter and student while Charlie is the alpha female in any group. Popular. Gifted. Ambitious. Troubled?

Beth makes friends with Andi, mother of Sophie who is one of Charlotte’s classmates at the prestigious private school the girls attend in their new home. Although musically gifted Sophie struggles socially so Andi is keen to help a potential friendship develop and gets the two families together as much as possible. Alas neither Andi nor her husband notice that Sophie is being subjected to more than the usual teenage meanness. She’s being seriously bullied, both online and in real life. Readers see it all along but the fact is only revealed to Sophie’s parents in a very frightening way.

One of the things I didn’t like about this book is its treatment of its male characters. Neither Steve (Andi’s husband) nor Dan have much agency in their own right let alone as fathers or husbands. In a different book written in a different era Steve and Dan would have been the female appendages to more charismatic, important male characters so emotionally stunted and two dimensional were they. I don’t know if this was a deliberate kind of ‘turning the tables’ on gender issues in literature or there wasn’t room to flesh either of these characters out or James just wasn’t interested in their stories but this just didn’t strike me as terribly realistic for a story unfolding in the present day.

Perhaps I would have found this treatment of the male gender more forgivable if the female characters had been stronger than they were. I don’t mean I didn’t like them (that is true but not my point) but that they didn’t develop. Even when their respective worlds fracture neither of the adult female characters changes in any meaningful way nor does any of the deep soul searching that is, surely, to be expected. There’s a fluttering of angst from both and some surprisingly short-lived anger from Andi and then it’s back to the average parenting and self-absorption they were both engaged in prior to ‘the event’.

[Spoiler alert] But the aspect of the book that most disappointed me was its handling of the central thematic issue. The way that Sophie lets on to the adults in her life that things are not going well is a suicide attempt. For some days she lies in a coma and there is uncertainty about whether she will have brain damage even if she does survive. During this period her parents are appropriately angry and vengeful. Her teachers are lining up for a proportionate response and even Beth and Dan are at least slightly invested in doing something about ‘the issue’. But when Sophie pulls through with no adverse health effects things revert almost to ‘normal’. As if nothing had ever happened. Sophie herself appears to have no memory of a suicide attempt (and no mention is made of her having any kind of treatment which in the health system I work in is just entirely unrealistic for a 12 year old who has seriously attempted suicide), both sets of parents appear eager to pretend that everything is fine and the school goes out of its way to whitewash the whole affair. I could have bought one, or perhaps two, of those but the notion that everyone involved is prepared to play make believe just stretched the bounds of credibility beyond breaking point for me. I know it’s fiction but in other aspects – such as its descriptions of the escalating cruelty towards Sophie – the book has presented itself in a realistic style and I don’t think this kind of thing can be turned on and off quite so easily. [End spoilers]

Although its depiction of the bullying teenagers can dish out seems perfectly, and scarily, accurate that wasn’t enough to make this book a good read for me. I thought its characters lacked depth and its story too contrived and unbelievable. For me the central question posed by the book’s premise – how might someone cope when they learn they are the parent of a bully – is never dealt with in any substantive way. However THE GOLDEN CHILD has been getting rave reviews just about everywhere but here so, as always, other opinions are available.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 2nd book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Harper Collins [2017]
ISBN: 9781460752371
Length: 338 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: THE LOST GIRLS, Wendy James

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 956 KB
  • Print Length: 268 pages
  • Publisher: e-penguin (February 26, 2014)
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00H8ARVG6

Synopsis (Amazon)

From the bestselling author of The Mistake comes a hauntingly powerful story about families and secrets and the dark shadows cast by the past.

Curl Curl, Sydney, January 1978.

Angie’s a looker. Or she’s going to be. She’s only fourteen, but already, heads turn wherever she goes. Male heads, mainly . . .

Jane worships her older cousin Angie. She spends her summer vying for Angie’s attention. Then Angie is murdered. Jane and her family are shattered. They withdraw into themselves, casting a veil of silence over Angie’s death.

Thirty years later, a journalist arrives with questions about the tragic event. Jane is relieved to finally talk about her adored cousin. And so is her family. But whose version of Angie’s
story – whose version of Angie herself – is the real one? And can past wrongs ever be made right?

The shocking truth of Angie’s last days will force Jane to question everything she once believed. Because nothing – not the past or even the present – is as she once imagined.

My Take

A cleverly written book, told mainly from the point of view of Jane, who was just twelve when Angie died. Jane’s story is told partly in first person, particularly from an observer’s point of view, and partly through the interviewing of Jane and other family members by Erin, a journalist wanting to make a radio documentary. Of course, at twelve, there are aspects of real life that Jane really doesn’t understand, but now, thirty years on she can bring a more adult perspective to her teenage memories.

The focus of the story is who killed Angie and why, and also the impact of her death on the immediate members of Jane’s family. What Jane did not understand at the time of Angie’s death is that there were big secrets.

I managed to get part of the “real” story worked out easily enough but the final piece slotted in only a few pages from the end.

My rating: 4.7

I’ve also reviewed
4.8, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
4.8, THE MISTAKE

Review: THE LOST GIRLS by Wendy James

TheLostGirlsJamesWendy21952_fThe first book of Wendy James’ I’d heard of was 2012’s THE MISTAKE and the fact it came with a Women’s Weekly Great Read sticker on its cover guaranteed I would never read it. Whatever their intent, to me those stickers say “here’s a book you know is inferior because we do not anticipate any man ever reading it“. But I was participating in the inaugural Australian Women Writers Challenge that year and promised myself I would read outside my comfort zone a little so picked up a copy and prepared to be underwhelmed. It’s a measure of James’ skill and creativity that the book ended up on my list of favourites for the year, prompted me to seek out her earlier publications and ensured I eagerly anticipated her next release. Which brings us to THE LOST GIRLS, James’ latest tale about the secrets people keep and the lies we tell ourselves just to get by. The latest of her books to get under my skin.

Set in the northern beachside suburbs of Sydney its central figure is Angie who in 1978 is 14 and staying with her cousins Mick and Jane during the summer holidays. Jane hero-worships her older cousin, Mick is besotted in a different way and everyone else seems to be at least a little awe of her. Angie is all too aware of the ripples she causes but her violent death has consequences for those left behind that last much longer than her short life.

In the present day Jane is a middle-aged mum on the verge of closing down the family business when their daughter meets a journalist interested in talking to the family members of murder victims. Via a series of interviews with the journalist and some flashbacks we learn about the events leading up to Angie’s death and its immediate aftermath from multiple perspectives including Jane’s, Mick’s and their mum’s. This gives the books one of its interesting slants by demonstrating how elastic the concept of truth can be when everyone has a different take on events and conversations.

This is not a novel of psychotic killers and genius detectives but one of average people going about their lives. We’ve all known an Angie (or perhaps you were one), or been desperate to be someone else, or reeled from the sudden collapse of a relationship or situation we’d thought impenetrable, The crimes (it is not a spoiler to let on there is more than one), the events surrounding them and their lingering aftermath are all easily imagined. These are people you’ve known, situations you’ve been in, decisions you could easily have been forced to make yourself and it is this ordinariness that got under my skin. Unlike most crime writers James doesn’t allow readers the luxury of believing that awful things happen elsewhere. Far away. She wants you to know they can just as easily rip your own world apart.


awwbadge_2014This is the sixth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Publisher: Penguin [2014]
ISBN: 9781921901058
Length: 270 pages
Format: paperback
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This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Notable Novel: OUT OF THE SILENCE by Wendy James

history of womens bodiesI am forever grateful to the softly spoken, American professor who introduced me to the study of ordinary people (as opposed to that of kings and generals and politicians which had previously been my lot) during my second year at University. If someone hadn’t done it I suspect I’d have stopped being interested in the subject all together. One of the first books he had us read was Edward Shorter’s A HISTORY OF WOMEN’S BODIES and if it didn’t change my life it is certainly one of the few books that has fundamentally changed the way I view the world. Having plucked my copy from its latest home I see that the first of many passages I underlined (with two exclamation marks in the margin) was from the first page of the preface

If we ask why it was that women weren’t demanding the vote in the seventeenth century, one of the answers is their own acceptance of [their] inferior status. Because they were sicklier, more at risk of dying, and generally more enervated by things like anemia than men, they accepted their subordination as part of the natural order.

Little wonder it got 18 year-old me all fired up.

OutOfTheSilenceJamesWe17472_fThe reason I have taken you on this jaunt down memory lane is that I could not help but be reminded of this favourite book when I started reading Wendy James’ OUT OF THE SILENCE. For, although it is ostensibly a novel about a crime, it is, at least for me, more a novel about how inhabiting a woman’s body has, for the vast bulk of history, been something considerably less than a barrel of laughs.

The book was, reportedly, the only début novel published by Random House Australia in 2005 which, having now read it, I can at least conjecture was due to the fact that other submissions paled in comparison. Even if the reason for it being the publisher’s sole risky investment that year was more prosaic it was certainly a good choice, offering something for fans of history and mystery and having a good few facts – in the form of real people and events – interspersed with the fiction that James has created.

It is the story of two women living in Victoria at the turn of the last century. Our country’s six separate colonies were still a year or so away from federating as the Commonwealth of Australia and only two of those six colonies allowed women to vote. At the outset of the story Maggie Heffernan is a teenager living in the country. She is happy enough with her lot, although the lack of any genuine affection from her mother puts a strain on her young shoulders, but becomes radiant when she falls in love with the nephew of one of her neighbours. Elizabeth Hamilton is a thirty(ish) English woman who has moved to the colony on her own, following a personal tragedy that has demanded she be more independent than she had ever thought she would need to be. She is engaged to be a governess for a local family but when that situation proves unsuitable she heads to Melbourne to stay with some cousins, one of whom ultimately provides the mechanism for the paths of these two women to cross.

It wasn’t until that cousin, Vida Goldstein, cropped up that I realised this book was based on real-world events (I never read blurbs before reading the book and picked this one to read simply because I enjoyed James’ most recent novel and wondered what her first, which won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for best first fiction, might be like). In the novel, as in real life, Goldstein was one of Australia’s leading campaigners for women’s suffrage and the general improvement of women’s lives which is how she became involved in the story of the real Maggie Heffernan who was convicted of a very real, and truly awful, crime. Elizabeth, who is an entirely fictional character, provides an interesting counter-balance to Maggie in terms of the roles women of different classes are expected (and themselves expect) to play in society as well as allowing the author to tease out some of the fictionalised details of the events which might have led to Maggie’s fate. Most reviews and discussions of the book provide a lot more detail than this but in case, like me, you want to come to the novel with fresh eyes, I shall say no more about the plot.

Maggie’s story is told with a straight-forward, first-person narrative while Elizabeth’s unfolds via a mixture of extracts from her diary and letters to her journalist brother as he travels the world. There are also, towards the end, a few extracts from newspaper articles (I’m unsure if these are actual reproductions or a product of James’ imagination but it doesn’t matter – they add a nice detail either way). Differentiating the storytelling in this way helps the reader quickly and easily adjust to each switch from one woman’s narrative to the other’s as well as allowing the widest possible scope for the novel to have a personal aspect about the main characters and a wider, more public one about the role of women in the society being depicted. I thought the novel worked well on both levels and James achieved the right balance between these two elements. For example from what little I know of her I suspect an entire book devoted to good works of Vida Goldstein might make for somewhat…earnest… reading but her strategic placement at key parts of this story adds a necessary layer of social context and some fascinating glimpses into the local movement for women’s suffrage.

The characters here are highly nuanced and do not always behave as the reader expects. Both of the two central women are presented with options that, if chosen, would have changed their ultimate fate. For Maggie in particular this would have been hugely significant and I really liked the way neither she nor the author took the easy route. Of course James was driven in part by the facts of the case but if she’d wanted to present a less thoughtful but perhaps more socially acceptable storyline for Maggie she could have neglected to create such forks in the road for her fictional version of the woman.

As you can probably tell I thoroughly enjoyed OUT OF THE SILENCE. The historical detail provided via a mixture of fact and fiction, the thoughtful consideration of the roles women were given or, in some cases, made for themselves, at this time in history and the thoroughly engaging story are all equally strong elements to recommend the novel. And although it is not the classic whodunnit beloved of crime fiction fans, it is a very good example of the far more thought-provoking, and ultimately more satisfying whydunnit.


awwbadge_2013

I suppose it is fitting that I read this book as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge as it embodies everything the challenge represents for me. Of course it’s a book written by an Australian woman but it is also a good example of the kind of under-recognition of great work that seems to happen to writing by Australian women. The fact that its subject matter is itself concerned with the role and place of women in an Australian society that isn’t so very long ago is a further element to recommend the novel to challenge participants looking to ponder this issue as part of their reading experience.

I decided that as part of my participation in this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge I would highlight some older novels of the crime genre that are notable for some reason or other, having won an award or contributed to the genre’s development in some way. It’ll be an eclectic mix, largely based on what I can get hold of via my library but if you have any suggestions for books that might make good features please leave a comment.

OUT OF THE SILENCE is the fourth book I’ve read for this year’s challenge.


Publisher: Random House Australia [2005]
ISBN: 1740513835
Length: 351 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: THE MISTAKE, Wendy James

  • Published by the Penguin Group Australia 2012
  • ISBN 978-1-921901-04-1
  • 280 pages
  • Source: my local library

Synopsis (Penguin Australia)

We all have secrets . . . 

Jodie Garrow is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks when she falls pregnant.
Scared, alone and desperate to make something of her life, she adopts out the baby illegally – and tells nobody.

Twenty-five years on, Jodie has built a new life and a new family. But when a chance meeting brings the adoption to the notice of the authorities, Jodie becomes caught in a nationwide police investigation, and the centre of a media witch hunt.

What happened to Jodie’s baby? And where is she now? The fallout from Jodie’s past puts her whole family under the microscope, and her husband and daughter must re-examine everything they believed to be true.

My Take

This is another fascinating read from Australian author Wendy James. (I read WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? last year).

Jodie Garrow kept a secret about her first baby, Elsa Mary, for twenty four years. When her teenage daughter Hannah breaks her leg on a school excursion she is hospitalised by chance at the very hospital where Jodie gave birth to her first child. Hannah shares a genetic characteristic with the earlier baby, and by chance a nurse at the hospital recognises this and then recognises Jodie. Thus begins the chain of events that leads to the investigation of what happened to baby Elsa Mary Evans.

Wendy James really enables the reader to see events from Jodie’s point of view. When the hospital nurse searches the records for Elsa Mary’s birth certificate and fails to find it, she notifies the authorities and then it becomes a police matter.  Jodie and her husband take the step of publicly searching for the baby and so Jodie’s story becomes public knowledge. What happens to Jodie and her family is frequently compared to what happened in real life to Lindy Chamberlain in the disappearance of Azaria.

As I said earlier, a fascinating read, well worth your attention.

My rating: 4.8

See Bernadette’s review

Review: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? Wendy James

  • first published in 2010 by UWA Publishing
  • 250 pages
  • ISBN 978-1-921401-46-6
  • 250 pages
  • Source: my local library

Synopsis (from author site)

Susan and Ed Middleton are perfectly content with their lives. Two kids, two cars, a solid brick bungalow in a respectable Northern beaches suburb. They’re good people, model citizens. There’s barely a ripple in the surface of their happy existence. But when Susan’s older sister, who vanished as a teenager, reappears to claim an inheritance, everything is set to change…

My take

What would you remember about her if your sister, who is ten years older than you, simply walked out one night and never came back? Would you know her if she reappeared twenty years later? Would you know if the person was an imposter? What if she didn’t have any evidence of her old identity? What if she had changed her name? What questions should you ask?

And what if there was more at stake? What if you had to share your mother’s estate with her?

Sure, you’d remember the impact her disappearance had. But even that would be seen from a child’s point of view. Adults would shield you from the worst knowledge. And she would be dead to you.

Wendy James has taken an interesting scenario and explored it in an engaging way, taking the reader deep into the life that Susan and Ed Middleton have established. There are many variants of this scenario that readers will be familiar with: the abducted child; the mother or father who deserts the family; or daughter or son who simply leaves home. We all know someone or a family that this has happened to. Sometimes the “lost” returns, sometimes never appears again.

I guess the book isn’t really crime fiction in a way, but is the prodigal sister really who she says she is, or is a crime being committed as we read? I found the suspense in the novel well done, the characters for the most part well drawn.

Wendy James is certainly an author I’ll look for again. I’m not sure why I haven’t come across her before, especially as she has now published 4 novels and a short story collection, and won the Ned Kelly Award for best first novel in 2006 with OUT OF THE SILENCE.

Thanks to fellow blogger Bernadette for pointing her out to me with a review of THE MISTAKE.

My rating: 4.8

Other links to explore:

About the Author

Wendy James is an Australian author of crime and psychological thrillers. She currently lives in Armidale, New South Wales with her husband and two children.

Review: THE MISTAKE by Wendy James

As a child Jodie Garrow’s dreams were modest: to be one of the normal grown-ups she sees in town, with high heels, a station wagon and a handsome husband. But even modest dreams are hard work when you are the neglected child of a poor family in a small community that confers worth and status only to people with the right background. When THE MISTAKE opens Jodie has achieved that dream but her world starts to crumble when her teenage daughter Hannah breaks her leg on a school trip to Sydney and by chance is taken to the same hospital where Jodie once had a baby that none of her family knows about. When she goes to pick up Hannah Jodie meets a nurse who had been present at the earlier birth and she is forced to tell the woman that she had the baby adopted out. However the nurse follows up and learns the adoption, if it took place, could not have been a legal one and she alerts the authorities. Jodie is forced to share the secret of her mistake with her family and all their lives are irreversibly affected as she is effectively put on trial by the media and the community of her small New England town to the north of Sydney.

To say I enjoyed THE MISTAKE would not be quite accurate but only because I spent a good deal of my reading time either spluttereringly angry at some of the horrid, judgemental characters in it or deeply sad at the realism of the wider society the book depicts. But to say I didn’t enjoy the book would give entirely the wrong impression too because I found it so engrossing that at several points I had to be physically dragged away from it in order to attend to real life obligations. There is a lot to both like and admire about this book.

The complex characterisations are one of the standouts, particularly Jodie Garrow who steadfastly refuses to conform to people’s expectations of her. At first she won’t remain in the poverty-stricken life she was born to, then she won’t become the beaming mother those at the hospital assume she will want to be and finally she won’t be the crying, forgiveness-seeking, soul-bearing woman that the media demands when her past is revealed. For all of these refusals she is pilloried by strangers and friends alike, portrayed as uncaring and murderous in the media and misunderstood by almost everyone, even by her family.

Several comparisons are made in the book to the real-life case of Lindy Chamberlain (whose baby daughter Azaria’s disappearance in 1980 prompted truly vile media coverage primarily because Chamberlain was not a ‘typical’ blubbering mess on camera) but as I was only 12 when that took place the events this book reminded me of were more recent. In 2001 two English tourists were kidnapped in the Australian outback and while the woman of the couple, Joanne Lees, escaped the man has never been found (though someone has been convicted of his murder). Local media coverage quickly moved from sympathy for Lees to scathing commentary to all but accusing her of nefarious involvement in events and all because she didn’t cry and appear suitably emotional on camera. In THE MISTAKE James depicts a similar kind of non-conformance from Jodie and her community’s brutal retribution for that failure to conform is also shown with saddening perfection. For, not surprisingly, Jodie’s harshest critics are other women.

Perhaps because I have been reflecting for the past few weeks on the sad reality that in this National Year of Reading only one of eight books voted to represent Our Story was written by a woman, I was struck by what a wonderfully Australian story this book by an Australian woman is. I don’t just mean that it mentions notable locations and so on but it is a story that I think would play out differently if it were set elsewhere. Here aspirations of the sort held by the young Jodie Garrow, for a different life to the one she was born to are not really admired in the way they would be in other places (America for example) and, again, I think James has encapsulated this reality into the book very naturally and credibly.

The book is also about secrets; what happens when they’re kept and what happens when they’re revealed. And Jodie isn’t the only person to have them. Her husband Angus and daughter Hannah have their fair share of things they don’t want anyone else to know. It is quite fascinating to see whether or not the characters will realise that their own desire to keep secrets is the same thing that has been motivating  the actions of the wife and mother that both have struggled to forgive for visiting such tribulations upon their family.

THE MISTAKE is a cracker read, almost guaranteed to generate discussion and disparity of opinion amongst its readers, perhaps depending on their own life experiences. For example I was particularly cross at the meddling, busy-body of a nurse who prompted the revelation of Jodie’s past but a colleague who has read the book thought the nurse did exactly the right thing! It is one of those books I know I will recommend over and over again, especially as I think it only dances around the edges of the crime genre so it will be palatable even to those of my friends who profess not to like crime fiction at all.


Thanks to Angela Savage whose review of the book prompted me to buy it. You might also want to check out Book’d Out where Shelleyrae gave the book a glowing review and then interviewed Wendy about her writing.

I’m counting this as my fifth book towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge for the year.


My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Michael Joseph [2010]
ISBN: 9781921901041
Length: 277 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it
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