Farming, Medusa and new work from Kaz Cooke: our book picks of the week – Sydney Morning Herald

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Book reviewers Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and Fiona Capp have cast their eyes over recent fiction and non-fiction releases. Here are their hits and misses.
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FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Medusa, Jessie Burton, Bloomsbury, $27.99
The Greek myth of Medusa gets a revamp with this feminist young-adult retelling by English author Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist). Burton turns the tables to focus on the figure known culturally as a monstrous, snake-haired villain: here, the teenage Medusa is humanised through a rich, tragic backstory.
When the intriguing and kind Perseus arrives on the island where Medusa has been exiled by the gods, something within both awakens. Burton’s lyrical, fable-like prose suits the story wonderfully and is elevated by Olivia Lomenech Gill’s illustrations, which lend a storybook feel. Modern issues and concerns such as consent and misogyny are evident within the text, and Burton’s rendering of Medusa as a deeply complex character is moving and powerful. This is a stunning, compelling update on a classic story, with an ending that will make you cheer.
Wandi, Favel Parrett, Lothian, $19.99
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Award-winning author Favel Parrett (There Was Still Love) tackles children’s fiction for the first time with this short, minimalistic novel, told through the eyes of a young alpine dingo living in a sanctuary.
Based on the true story of a dingo cub that was snatched by an eagle and dropped in a backyard, this is a tale of love and strength told in spare yet arresting language that echoes the hallmarks of Parrett’s adult literary fiction. Wandi’s friendships with humans and animals are tenderly sketched, and Parrett demonstrates her deft hand at weaving together a story – though not a particularly plot-driven one – from simple elements.
A factual section at the end provides more educational detail for the keener little ones, making Wandi a well-rounded reading experience for kids.
We Are Not Like Them, Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, HQ, $32.99
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Riley and Jen have been best friends since childhood – it’s never mattered that Riley is black and Jen is white. Now in their 30s, Riley is a TV journalist, about to get promoted to anchor, and Jen has fallen pregnant via IVF.
When Jen’s cop husband is involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, the women’s decades-long sisterhood is put to the test. Told in alternating chapters from each woman’s perspective, this co-written novel attempts to tackle hot-button issues, including Black Lives Matter, police brutality, racism, media responsibility and misogyny – but it only skims the surface and is resolved far too neatly, overlaid with a heavy sheen of white guilt and didacticism.
Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and Angie Thomas’ excellent The Hate U Give offer much more rigorous and satisfying explorations of similar topics.
Wish You Were Here, Jodi Picoult, Allen & Unwin, $32.99

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Here come the COVID-19 novels. Diana O’Toole has it all figured out: on the edge of 30, she’s an up-and-coming art auctioneer about to close a career-making deal and has the ideal partner in surgical resident Finn.
A trip to the Galapagos can only mean a proposal – but then March 2020 hits, Finn has to stay back to work and Diana heads over alone. Stranded in paradise, she becomes close with a local family. It’s not a Jodi Picoult novel without a schmaltzy twist, and this one jolts Diana back to New York, where she’s forced to reassess her seemingly perfect life.
Depicting the grim realities of frontline work is the only thing this novel does well – it’s otherwise yawningly trite, with an insufferable protagonist whose predictable change of heart fails to elicit any real emotional pay-off.
NON-FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Why You Should Give a F*ck About Farming, Gabrielle Chan, Vintage, $34.99
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This attention-grabbing title captures a mindset prevalent among city-dwellers. Basically, that farming has nothing to do with them. It’s a mentality journalist Gabrielle Chan used to share until she fell for a farmer. In the decades since, she has come to realise that as eaters, food security affects all of us – and not just for what it puts on our plates.
Food production is inseparable from the big issues of our time: climate change, water supply, soil degradation, natural disasters, population displacement and trade wars. It’s vast territory to cover in one book, but Chan creates a propulsive narrative by focusing on the overarching need to grow and supply food while sustainably managing the land on which we depend.
Her earthy prose brings home the urgency of having a national master plan to ensure food security and of giving our politicians a boot up the bum to make this happen.
A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes, Rodriguo Garcia, Harpervia, $29.99
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I read Rodriguo Garcia’s memoir about the decline of his father, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and death of his mother, Mercedes Barcha, with the same unease that I read John Bayley’s account of his wife, Iris Murdoch’s descent into Alzheimer’s.
Both Marquez and Murdoch lived big, rich, productive lives. Their dementia was only a small fraction of those lives. To dwell, therefore, on the loss of their creative and intellectual powers feels like a betrayal. We see Marquez crying in the garden because “my head is now shit”. We see him “speaking with a deliberateness that makes you forget, in the happiness of the good moment, that he is years deep into dementia and that the man we are talking to is hardly there at all”.
Garcia, a fine writer in his own right, is clearly conflicted about the project. After he photographs his father’s dead body, he feels sick with guilt and shame and deletes the image.
You’re Doing It Wrong, Kaz Cooke, Viking, $34.99
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There is no end to the appalling things that have been said about women. That paragon of wisdom, Aristotle, regarded the female state as a “deformity” that occurs “in the ordinary course of nature”.
Such “deformity” needs constant correction, hence the endless advice books over the ages telling women how to behave: hearty laughter is disgusting but one should have a “pleasant countenance” – the historical equivalent of avoiding “resting bitch face”.
Contradictions abound, the perfect example being “frigid slut”, which is what Kaz Cooke was called in the schoolyard. She has a lot of fun with all this silliness while also exposing its darker side, from the belief that Aboriginal women didn’t feel maternal love like white mothers, to the notion that a post-baby body should look like it never had a baby in it.
Hippocrasy, Rachelle Buchbinder & Ian Harris, NewSouth, $32.99
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We all know someone who shouldn’t have had that back operation or who paid vast sums for treatment that didn’t prolong their life. The authors of this hard-hitting book, both doctors, describe our health system as “an inflated business rife with biases and perverse incentives that lead to too much medicine, delivered at great cost and causing great harm”.
At the book’s core is research suggesting that doctors overestimate the benefits of what they do and underestimate the harm. Trials show that even though certain kinds of surgery provide no additional benefit over non-invasive medical treatment, it continues to be performed. Then there’s the overdiagnosis generated by screening and testing for some conditions that may never become life-threatening. If you want to better understanding the risks and costs of healthcare, this is a good place to start.
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