17 October 2021

Review: Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *

Having thoroughly enjoyed Never Have I Ever last year, I thought I'd give Joshilyn Jackson's newest domestic thriller Mother May I a try. When the novel opens, Bree is happily married to a lawyer, they have three kids and a nice house. Life is great, until her infant baby boy is kidnapped.

There have been many thrillers of a similar nature released in the last few years, all posing the same question for the reader, 'how far would you go to protect your family?' I received Mother May I unsolicited from the publisher, but based on the strength of my own 5 star review for Never Have I Ever, I thought there's every chance this could be one of the best of the sub-genre.

I liked our protagonist Bree, and thankfully she didn't make any stupid or groan inducing mistakes when the kidnapper, an old woman who looks like a witch, gets in touch to tell Bree how she can get her son back.

Themes of motherhood, guilt and revenge dominate this book, and I enjoyed this character insight from well into the book.
"The mind revises... As time passed, events became mutable. People justified their actions, and the more shame they felt about a memory, the more they chewed it over, fretting and defending and editing, until they could live with it." Page 227
I think that's very true, and perhaps if I was a parent myself I would have found Bree's predicament more frightening. Mother May I was an enjoyable read, but nowhere near as gripping and engaging as Never Have I Ever, which was a clear standout for me last year. Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson is recommended reading for those who enjoy domestic noir and domestic thrillers.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

11 October 2021

Review: Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso by David Sedaris audiobook cover
I'm new to David Sedaris and despite being well aware of his many books and essay collections, this is the first time I've dipped a toe into his literary ouevre, and let me tell you, this guy makes me laugh! Calypso is a collection of essays published in June 2018 and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him narrate the audiobook.

Sedaris is a humourist (which I've learned is different to a comedian) and he shares his observational humour and revelations of varying degrees of importance about a range of topics, but largely including his family, upbringing with five siblings, ageing of his parents (and himself), and comments on society.

I loved the quirky family jokes and insights and each essay is delivered in an intelligent, yet self deprecating and insightful way that often made me laugh out loud or chuckle to myself. His wry sense of humour certainly isn't for everyone, and I was only too aware of Sedaris' white privilege shining through in many of his stories. That said, Sedaris seems to be extremely self aware in a way that made it easy for me to let this go and just enjoy the ride. Besides, who can hate on a guy for his white male privilege when his hobby is picking up litter by the side of the road.

There were many moments I stopped to repeat a phrase or enjoy a sentence again, like this one from half way through the book.
"There was never any problem making conversation with my mother. That was effortless. The topics springing from nowhere, and we'd move from one to the next in a way that made me think of a monkey gracefully swinging through the branches of a tree." Chapter 11, 3 hours and 20 minutes remaining
Employing a droll sense of humour and acerbic wit, Sedaris successfully maintains the balance between serious topics, like the death of his sister by suicide, to lighter moments like toilet troubles or the engagements he has with readers in the signing line of his shows. (I'd love to see him perform live if he comes back to Melbourne).

I enjoyed Calypso by David Sedaris so much that I've decided to go back to some of his earlier work and continue listening. Have you read any David Sedaris, seen him on talk shows or even perform live? Do you enjoy his sense of humour? If so, I'd love to hear about it. In the meantime, I recommend his work with caution. I don't know if I'd have enjoyed Calypso quite so much if I'd read his work instead of listening to it, and his humour is an acquired taste. But I can't get enough, so take from that what you will.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 October 2021

Review: The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous

The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous book cover
I loved reading The Au Pair by Emma Rous in 2019, and I was really excited to read The Perfect Guests this year, hoping for more buried family secrets, plot twists and flawed characters.

In 2019, Sadie is a struggling actress and receives an invitation to play a role at a murder mystery event at Raven Hall. In 1988, Beth is a 14 year old orphan sent by her aunt to Raven Hall to be a companion to a girl the same age, Nina.

The dual narrative in The Perfect Guests keeps the story flowing although I preferred Sadie's coming-of-age timeline at Raven Hall and the sinister undertones in the complex relationships between the characters.

I was worried the murder mystery setting might have been to cliche for my liking, but it totally worked and was the perfect platform for the 'reveals' at the end. I didn't guess at any of the character connection reveals or twists, and they were cleverly written and satisfying to uncover.

Just as in The Au Pair though, the cover design for The Perfect Guests wasn't representative of the novel for me. It's a scene from the book, however the UK cover design totally nails the atmosphere and setting and I wish this had been the cover chosen for the Australian market.

Raven Hall almost feels like a separate character, and once again, the author was able to bring the manor house and grounds to life in the way Stacey Halls does in Mrs England, and other authors like Laura Purcell and Kate Morton do that keep me coming back for more.

The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I can highly recommend it.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

28 September 2021

Review: As Swallows Fly by L.P. McMahon

* Copy courtesy of Ventura Press *
As Swallows Fly by L.P. McMahon book cover

In As Swallows Fly by L.P. McMahon, Kate is a plastic surgeon living in Melbourne and Malika is an orphan from a remote village in Pakistan. Their lives unexpectedly converge thanks to the well meaning intentions of an uncle and priest and each of the women seem to directly - and sometimes indirectly - help one another with their struggles.

Malika's childhood upbringing in rural Pakistan was tough, yet full of love and her joy of learning and mathematics was a pleasure to read about. I learned that the author volunteered as a medic in Pakistan and his experience definitely shines through in his writing.

Malika struggles with a facial disfigurement after an horrific assault and insists on keeping her face concealed by wearing a veil and hijab. Arguably one of the most moving scenes in the entire book should have been the moment Malika reveals her face to Dr Kate for the first time. I was eagerly anticipating this moment, but the conversation between the characters is held 'off stage' so to speak. In my opinion the author missed an opportunity for these characters to experience a powerful scene and without it, I felt bereft.

Meanwhile, Kate is hardworking and overworked and she's constantly running late for things which really irked me. I know the author needed to demonstrate the demanding nature of Kate's job and how 'busy busy' she is, but it just made me roll my eyes.

I was enjoying the growing trust between Kate and Malika, but by the close of the book there were too many unanswered questions for my liking. There were unresolved character arcs and a glaring oversight right at the end. (Find me on GoodReads for more on this where I was able to hide my questions via a spoiler warning).

As Swallows Fly is the debut novel for Melbourne surgeon L.P. McMahon and will be an enjoyable contemporary read for those who don't mind an ambiguous or unresolved ending.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

23 September 2021

Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab book cover
I loved this book! Adeline LaRue is born in France in 1691, and at the age of 23, her family have decided to marry her off to a widower with three children. Adeline refuses to be 'gifted like a prize sow to a man she does not love, or want, or even know'. In sheer desperation to avoid this fate, she prays with every fibre of her being. A spirit of the woods eventually answers and Addie explains she wants to be free and doesn't want to belong to anyone. In making a deal, her soul is cursed.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is a character driven story about how our main character comes to terms with her curse and the way in which she learns to navigate life now that she is forgettable. Addie is invisible, unable to leave a mark on the world or even say her own name. The unexpected ache of losing her family and everyone she's ever known is tough. Addie is completely and utterly alone and must find a way to survive.

Addie struggles and learns innovative ways in which to get by as she experiences life through the years, decades, and eventually the centuries and I loved it. It also reminded me a little of The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Through the series, Rice imagines what it's like to outlive everyone else, never age and yet witness so much change in the world over time. The elements I love from that series (relationships, the changing culture over time and the evolution of art, architecture, travel and technology) are evident here, yet in Schwab's own style.

Full of evocative writing and passages that made me pause and reflect, this was my first time reading anything by V.E. Schwab, but it certainly won't be the last. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue manages to straddle the genres of historical fiction and fantasy (owing to the curse) and I just loved the writing style. It's clear the author loves books and stories too, here's a quote from Addie early on in the novel:
"What she needs are stories. Stories are a way to preserve one's self. To be remembered. And to forget. Stories come in so many forms: in charcoal, and in song, in paintings, poems, films. And books. Books she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives - or to find strength in a very long one." Page 31
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is a slow burn character study that makes you reflect on the past, the present and the future and ponder what really matters in the world. The book also made me wonder 'what if' and is a serious contender for my Top 5 Books of 2021 list. The ending was powerful and had me cheering for Addie and I can't wait to read more from this talented writer.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

18 September 2021

Review: How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain by Ruth Goodman

How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain by Ruth Goodman audiobook cover
I managed to leave the frustrations of Melbourne lockdown behind me while visiting Renaissance Britain with one of my favourite historians Ruth Goodman this month. In How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain, Ruth Goodman covers the many ways in which a person could offend, upset, aggravate and disrespect others in Renaissance Britain, which includes the Stuart and Tudor period. Interestingly, the book has been published under a different title in America, How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts.

The book draws on a range of reference materials, including court records, letters, books, pamphlets and more, and Goodman describes the etiquette and manners of the times, and the way in which those who deviated from what was deemed acceptable or expected behaviour were rude, crass and unpleasant company.

Your dress and bearing immediately indicated your class and social standing, with everyone expected to respect their 'betters'. I continue to be fascinated by the changing fashions and the way in which garments and trends often altered a person's bearing, from the way they held themselves to the way they walked or entered a room. I especially enjoyed the chapter on bowing and curtseying but dearly wished for accompanying images or video footage to demonstrate the movements being described.

The insults were cutting and occasionally amusing, especially the author's favourite "turd in your teeth". Goodman provides interesting insights into the changing meaning of descriptions like knave and swashbuckler and I enjoyed other words from the period including: wastrel, fool, strumpet, drunkard and stinkard.

Chapter 5 covered Disgusting Habits and not much has changed over the centuries when it comes to personal hygiene and revolting habits. Slurping or eating with your mouth open was just as gross then as it is now, and I enjoyed this quote shared by Goodman:
"Sup not loud of thy pottage no time in all thy life.” Boke of Nurture by Hugh Rhodes (Published in 1577)
Having enjoyed watching Ruth Goodman in Tudor Monastery Farm, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm and Full Steam Ahead, I opted to listen to the audiobook after learning it was narrated by the author herself. Goodman's style and sense of humour flows through the book, however, I noticed that when she's quoting a reference, her voice is louder (and almost shouty) before resuming the regular volume again. At other times, she speaks more softly to emphasise a point, and as a result, I had to continually adjust the volume which greatly impacted my level of enjoyment.

I love learning new things about daily life in different eras, and in How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain, it was the importance of shirt tails. How did I not know that the long tails of shirts once acted as a barrier between the body and the trousers, essentially performing the role of underwear (or drawers) for men. Men's shirts reached down to just above the knees with a slit at both sides, so they could be tucked around one's nether regions without impeding movement. As a result, to see a man with his shirt tails hanging out was 'disgusting' and now I understand why!

I enjoyed reading How To Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by Ruth Goodman back in January 2018 and How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain by Ruth Goodman is recommended for those with an interest in social history, etiquette and manners.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

15 September 2021

Review: Nineteen Days by Kath Engebretson

Nineteen Days by Kath Engebretson book cover

* Copy courtesy of Atlas Productions *

Genevieve and her husband Peter are recovering from a family trauma and have decided to go on a cruise in an effort to heal the rift between them. Genevieve strikes up a conversation with another passenger by the name of Thomas. Morbidly obese and seemingly lonely, Thomas has a number of health concerns but he's a great listener and their friendship starts to take root.

Throughout the nineteen days of the cruise (informing the title of the book), their conversations begin to deepen and we learn about Thomas's complicated family history, and more about Genevieve and Peter's loss.

Genevieve and Thomas are on a cruise from Sydney to Honolulu via New Zealand and I loved the realistic descriptions of life at sea on a cruise ship. The variety of activities and happenings on sea days and port visits made me long to go cruising again after this pandemic is over. Some of you might recall that I recently read another book set on a cruise ship, and you'd be right, however The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton was a thriller and quite different to Nineteen Days.

Nineteen Days is a book about friendship, loneliness, the power of listening, the importance of family and the strength of love in the world. A poor decision by the main character at the very end of the book jerked me out of the story at a critical point, and while it didn't impact the characters or the ending at all, it ultimately cost a star in this review. Nineteen Days is written by Australian author Kath Engebretson and it was an entertaining read that made me long for the high seas again.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

13 September 2021

Review: Silence by John Biguenet

Silence by John Biguenet book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *

It's time for another book from the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury Academic and this time it's Silence by John Biguenet. By far, the most enjoyable of the series for me to date, John Biguenet is a playwright and novelist and in Silence he explores many aspects of sound and the lack of it, and I enjoyed his observations.

As a human race, we generate and consume sound in the form of communication, work, travel, music and entertainment, and much of what we do generates noise; think cars, appliances and general day-to-day living. Ironically, we're also seeking to quieten our lives through the purchase of sound cancelling earphones and whisper quiet kettles. Quiet carriages on trains are available for passengers not wanting to be disturbed by the sounds of phones chirruping, people talking or music playing.

Silence is often a luxury, it can be expensive and is richly sought after in wellbeing retreats and meditation. In contrast, silence can be used as a form of punishment in cases of solitary confinement. In silence, some of us find peace and tranquility, where others experience fear, loneliness and perhaps even the stubborn ringing of tinnitus.

We live in a world full of noise but most of us have our own tolerance levels regarding what constitutes good noise, loud noise, unacceptable noise, and irritating noise. Writing this from lockdown in Melbourne, I was excited when a neighbour began playing his electric guitar from a balcony a few nights ago. However other neighbours were quick to complain about the noise on social media. It's clear that what can delight some, is intrusive to others.

Some of us might relate to the frustration of being unable to find peace and quiet when working from home. I've had to tolerate construction noise at all hours for years here in Southbank, however this struggle isn't entirely new. I loved discovering that:
"The men whose labors brought forth the Constitution of the United States had the street outside Independence Hall covered with earth so that their deliberations might not be disturbed by passing traffic." Page 20
I love tidbits from history like that. Biguenet also comments on another of my favourite topics, the nature of silent reading and the auditory voice - or inner voice - we experience when we read to ourselves.

It turns out our forebears weren't so different from us, and that 'infernal racket' has troubled human beings for centuries. As such, I enjoyed following Biguenet's reflections on silence and sound and learned that:
"The quietest place on earth, an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota, is so quiet that the longest anybody has been able to bear it is 45 minutes." Page 19
The closest I came to achieving complete silence was in a sensory deprivation tank or float tank and the experience was illuminating. 

Silence by John Biguenet is full of interesting observations in this collection of essays and I highly recommend it.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 September 2021

Review: The Lost Girls by Jennifer Spence

The Lost Girls by Jennifer Spence book cover
The Lost Girls by Australian author Jennifer Spence is a family mystery with a time slip at its core. Stella gets on a bus in Sydney in 2017, however when she steps off, it's 1997. Without knowing how, Stella has 'travelled' 20 years back in time, and I enjoyed following her around as she tried to make sense of her surroundings.

Accepting her newfound circumstances rather quickly, Stella wonders if she's been given a second chance to alter events and in doing so, avoid a family tragedy. Visiting her family home, she sees her younger self which is usually a 'no-no' in time travel. However the author provides a refreshingly different take on the time slip and Stella introduces herself as an Aunt who disappeared many years ago and is still considered missing.

The usual themes in time slip novels and movies arise, such as whether the slightest change can alter the future, or if the future is already set. Stella starts to record her memories so that she can determine if she's making any headway on changing the future. Here's where it starts to get a little too 'timey-wimey' for this reader. If Stella is successful in changing her past, then surely her memories will also change to reflect this, right? And shouldn't 2017 Stella, remember her long lost Aunty turning up and staying with her family in 1997? Things get hazy for Stella and the reader, and I found that I couldn't quite let go of the attempt to stay on track with the science fiction nature of this particular angle of the time slip narrative.

The Lost Girls is set in Sydney Australia and I enjoyed the setting in both time frames. Incorporating key historical moments within the narrative was interesting (the death of Diana, Princess of Wales for example) as were some of the internal observations Stella makes along the way. Most entertaining of all was the cold case mystery within the family.

Published in 2019, this has got to be one of my favourite cover designs of that year, don't you agree? As for whether Stella was successful in her endeavours or whether she made it back to her 'own time' in 2017, you'll just have to read the book to find out.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

03 September 2021

Guest Review: The Super Adventures of Ollie and Bea by Renee Treml

James Harris holding two books for his Carpe Librum review
Guest reviewer James Harris, aged 9

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *


It's a pleasure to welcome James Harris back to Carpe Librum with his review from The Super Adventures of Ollie and Bea by Renee Treml. It's Owl Good is Book 1, and Squeals on Wheels is Book 2 in this junior fiction series and James really enjoyed them. Over to you James, what did you think?

James' Review

I was so lucky to get a copy of these graphic fiction books to review. They are aimed at young readers 4-7. I am 9, but I thought I would read them anyway and I really liked them. They were funny and I liked the illustrations. I think they would be very good for kids who maybe are scared of reading or who find a page of words hard to read. There were not too many colours and they had chapters also, which I think young kids would really like. They also both told a story which is important for young kids to know.
It's Owl Good (Book 1) in The Super Adventures of Ollie and Bea by Renee Treml
It's Owl Good (Book 1) in
The Super Adventures of Ollie
and Bea by Renee Treml
Allen & Unwin

It's Owl Good sets the scene for how an owl (Ollie) and a rabbit (Bea) they become friends, and Ollie wears glasses and they try to find their superpowers. In Squeals on Wheels, Bea is a bit scared of looking silly on roller skates, but Ollie shows Bea that you should just be having fun and not worrying about things like that. I think these type of lessons are important and kids will like them.

I really enjoyed these books, I think other young kids would too. I will be donating these copies to the junior library at my school for the kindy and grade 1 kids because I think they will love them! Best of all, the author lives in Australia! I give them 4.5 stars each.

You can seize these books at Booktopia.

James' Rating:

01 September 2021

Review: Medieval Bodies - Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell

Medieval Bodies - Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell book cover
Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell was a great follow up after reading Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies in July.

Medieval Bodies is structured with chapters dedicated to different parts of the body (e.g. head, heart, hands, feet and so on) from the head to foot in order to provide the reader with an overall picture of the body in the middle ages and the approach to medicine at the time. Of course, this includes the four humours (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm), and if a person was unwell, this was attributed to an imbalance of the humours. The appropriate treatment was then prescribed, which might include blood letting, leeches, poultices and more.
"Lauded above sweat or urine or spiritus, blood was the medieval body’s most vital substance." Chapter 7
Occasionally the author drifted off topic and while still maintaining my interest in the content provided, it weakened the overall structure of the book in my opinion.

Jack Hartnell is an Associate Professor of Art History specialising in the art of the Middle Ages and it shows in this book. There was a clear focus on the Art in the Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages subtitle, and by listening to this on audiobook, I missed out on the illustrations which might have lifted this from a 3 star to a 4 star read. My natural curiosity led me to seek out the artworks mentioned online and my efforts were rewarded.

Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell is recommended reading in print form for those with an interest in history, art, medicine and the middle ages.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

26 August 2021

Guest Review: Hyphen by Pardis Mahdavi

Hyphen by Pardis Mahdavi book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *


It's time for another instalment in my series of book reviews from the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury Academic. This time, Neil B√©chervaise takes a look at Hyphen by Pardis Mahdavi.

Neil's Review

What a pleasure to meet an object that is, at once, informative, entertaining and insightful. Pardis Mahdavi’s Hyphen is a delightful relief from the ‘full-court press’ of the publish-or-perish academic approach of several other ‘Objects’ I have tried to read. Her personal narrative as an academic who strongly identifies with her students confirms both the power of the hyphen as a point of connection and as a reminder of the potential difference that the punctuation mark commands.

Identifying Dionysus Thrax, the second century Greek student of Aristarchus, as the scholar who invented the hyphen and the apostrophe, Mahdavi provides an easy-to-understand outline of the value of his punctuation innovations for reducing the reader’s/speaker’s difficulties in separating and providing intended emphasis on words which were written without any spacing at all. 
“…[clarifying] for the speaker [how] the words should be understood – and spoken – as a single entity.” Page 16
By the time she introduces the 1440’s role of Gutenberg’s bible as probably the next-most significant development in clarifying our ability to read written text with the emphasis that the author intended, Mahdavi has already established her own identity as dependent on the role of the hyphen in twenty-first century America.

Weaving the backgrounds and college-formative experiences of several of her ‘hyphenated American’ students into her own Iranian-American-feminist-activist narrative, including her arrest and interrogation as an American spy when she speaks in Tehran, Mahdavi provides a chilling insight into the difference between multi-cultural inclusivity and multi-racial bigotry.

Drawing on the first generation Chinese-American, Mexican-American and African-American origins of three of her students at Arizona State University, Pardis Mahdavi foregrounds the issues that both she and they encounter in locating the fine line between being accepted as Americans and maintaining the integrity of their birthrights. Ania, identifying as Latin-American is called out for daring to represent her fellow Latinx students while being unable to speak her mother’s Mexican Spanish. Nigerian-American AdeChike’s ‘bending a knee’ while the national anthem is played before his football game leaves a football crowd with no memory of the final game score but an enduring memory of the un-American coloured player's action. Chinese-American Daniel adds outrage at their homosexuality when they seek to have their sperm preserved before undergoing sex-change therapy – and changing their pronominal identity to she. The ‘hyphenated Americans’ seek acceptance into what appears to be an unapologetically racist society, their skin colour no more an issue than their hyphenated identity.

Supporting her beguiling social narrative with the historical refusals of successive American Presidents and supportive power figures across the nation to accept any identification except ‘American’, Mahdavi identifies establishment efforts to remove the hyphen from the naming of the New-York Historical Society. She compounds her observation with infuriated reactions to the removal of the hyphen from over 1600 previously conjoined ‘words’ in the 2007 edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. The response, she argues, denies recognition of the evolutionary role of the hyphen as a grammatical bridge – as exemplified in health care becoming health-care before morphing into healthcare.

While unapologetically admitting that this review contains ‘spoilers’, I have to assert that Hyphen has broken all my resistance to the Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. I can readily accept that hyphens and dashes are different -
“The dash divides. The hyphen connects. Brings together.” Page 129
So maybe there will come a ‘dash’ but that may be pushing my luck a step too far.

More importantly, more emotionally, I feel that I have a better understanding of how, 
“Living in the gap – or embracing the hyphen, as I like to refer to it – is important because there is great strength in being able to bridge, connect and birth new things.” Page 142
Through her own and her students’ lived experience as ‘hyphenated Americans’, Pardis Mahdavi’s has given a scope and a depth to both the grammatical and the lived meaning of the hyphen – not only for Americans but for everyone who sees themselves as a more complex being than the tick-a-box descriptions with which society too often labels and dismisses us.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

23 August 2021

Review: The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton

The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

In The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton, married couple Charlotte and Sam work together on cruise ships to befriend rich guests and con them out of their money. They only target those who can afford it, and spin elaborate tales of woe to convince their targets to donate to fundraising pages. These 'worthy' causes are entirely fiction, and the pair line their own pockets as they aspire to lead the lifestyles of their wealthy targets.

Unfolding in dual timelines (then and now), Charlotte has broken up with Sam and is trying to live a good life when she starts receiving threats. She learns Sam is missing, but can't help wondering if this is just another one of his scams. Is he the one behind the threats or has a victim of their fraud tracked her down, looking for justice?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton back in March 2018 and have been keeping my out out for Hamilton's books since then. There are some similarities between Juliette (of The Perfect Girlfriend) and Charlotte in The Ex-Husband. They're both slightly dysfunctional main characters who regularly overstep the boundaries of what we would call acceptable, however in this case, Charlotte is a con-woman and a criminal. Charlotte's complicity and avarice made her a less enjoyable protagonist than Juliette, but I was still caught up in trying to solve the mystery before Charlotte did or it was too late.

The Ex-Husband is a thrilling mystery and I enjoyed uncovering the full scope of Sam and Charlotte's deceptions while trying to work out who was behind the increasingly dangerous threats. The Ex-Husband is recommended for thriller readers and those who miss being on the high seas.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

18 August 2021

Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summers by Stephen King book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Stephen King is at the top of his game and Billy Summers is an unforgettable character, as well as the title of his latest book. A war veteran and one of the best snipers in the world, Billy has become a killer for hire renowned for disappearing as soon as the hit has been made. Billy has been hired to do one last job and despite his immaculate planning and convincing back story, there's no accounting for bad luck, or is it destiny?

Billy is a likeable anti-hero with his own code and an admirable set of values. His relationship with Alice is touchingly complex and Billy's actions and decisions left me aching for him to find his place in the world. The scenes with Billy's neighbours also made me nostalgic for a time and place that often only exists between the pages of a Stephen King novel.

There's plenty of humour to keep the pages flicking by, and reading this observation while in another Melbourne lockdown made me laugh out loud.
"Billy doesn't care if it rains, sleets, snows, or shits bananas. He's going to be in this basement apartment no matter what the weather is." Page 203
As we learn more about Billy's background, King manages to set the scene in what feels like a very American book. In doing so, the reader is able to pick up on the author's politics and view about the country in which he resides and in which the book is set.

According to Billy:
"There aren't just 2 kinds of people, good and bad, like I thought when I was a kid who got most of his ideas on how people act from TV. There are 3. The third type of people go along to get along... Those are the most people in the world and I think they are gray people. They will not hurt you (at least on purpose) but they won't help you much, either. They will say do what you want and God help you. I think in this world you have to help yourself." Page 101
King is on fire in this novel, combining deep character insight with tension, action and plenty of danger. There's also a few instances where the writing is very meta. The first comes when Billy is engaged on a long haul hit and needs to pose as a writer hiring an office space from which he'll make the hit.

Another meta moment comes when a person is reading Billy's work.
"Billy understands he's downplaying her intelligence to protect his ego in case she doesn't like it, and he understands that's stupid because her opinion shouldn't matter, the story itself shouldn't matter, he's got more important things to deal with. But it does." Page 249
I thought this was incredibly insightful from Stephen King, and I think a few emerging and established authors would do well to take note of this insight.

The ending of the book was brilliant and very meta, but don't worry, you won't find any spoilers here. All in all, Billy Summers is another outstanding novel in Stephen King's considerable oeuvre and I highly recommend it.

For those who have already read this, I have just two words for you.... Fucking Marge!

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

12 August 2021

Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy a science fiction novel about an Artificial Friend, but I did! Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF) with extraordinary observational skills who studies the behaviour of people and learns from their interactions. When we meet Klara she's on a shop floor waiting to be purchased and I really enjoyed this period of the novel. Klara is soon purchased to become a companion to teenage girl Josie and the novel explores their complex relationship.

Narrated by Klara, I was captivated by her speech, thought processes, observations, and unwavering drive to look after Josie.

Ishiguro presents themes of loneliness, love, privacy and sacrifice and of course the complexities around treating Klara like a person, an AI, or something in between. The interactions between Klara and the Housekeeper were an amusing touch.

The book is set in a futuristic and somewhat dystopian setting that I could never really understand or fully comprehend. Having said that, I wonder if the author intended to make the setting vague to focus the reader on the family unit instead, rather than what/where/how we came to be where we are.

Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Klara and the Sun was an enjoyable read for me and a slight diversion from my regular reading choices. I'm giving it an extra star for the way in which Ishiguro manipulates the reader into considering whether an AI can 'feel' and prompting in me an unexpected reaction to Klara and Josie's ending.

I enjoyed reading The Remains of the Day back in 2008 and I'm glad I have a copy of The Buried Giant waiting for me on my TBR from this Nobel Prize winning author.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 August 2021

Review: The Inner Self by Hugh Mackay

The Inner Self by Hugh Mackay book cover
Australian Hugh Mackay is a psychologist, social researcher and bestselling author, and is known for studying attitudes and behaviour. In 2015, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to the community for this work, and I see him pop up on TV from time to time.

In this book, The Inner Self - The Joy of Discovering Who We Really Are, Mackay outlines our top 20 hiding places where we hide from the truth about ourselves. An interesting concept, these hiding places can include busyness, victimhood, nostalgia, anxiety, perfectionism and work, just to name a few.

Mackay provides case studies to throw light on each of the hiding places, and I found them insightful and sometimes quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on perfectionism and the case study of Helen dealing with her husband George's pedantry. Throughout the book, I was able to recognise some of these 20 hiding places in the traits of people I know, and of course, within myself, which is the whole point.

Mackay has a great way of speaking and I enjoyed listening to him reading The Inner Self on audiobook. Each chapter can be enjoyed independently of the others, but listening to this over a long period as my reviewing schedule picked up, no doubt diminished the overall impact of the book for me.

I do miss listening to Mackay's pearls of wisdom and I'm sure I'll be seeking out another of his books on audio before too long.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

04 August 2021

Review: The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville

The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

The premise of this book completely hooked me in. Ev has an ability to feel the emotions attached to objects. She uses this gift - or is it a curse? - to find objects infused with positive emotions, and sells them at the Chinatown Night Market in Vancouver. Ev refers to objects like these as being stained, and she knows that people can react to a variety of emotions contained in stained items. Objects stained with love and nurturing emotions give off a positive feeling, while objects imbued with negative emotions like jealousy, despair or hate can have a detrimental impact on those owning, or even holding the object.

Harriet is a hoarder and has been collecting treasures her whole life. She collects items made bright by the emotions of previous owners, and the sheer volume of her collection has been making other residents in her building feel sick with headaches and other maladies. As an aside, if you've ever wondered what it might be like to navigate through a hoarder's house, you're going to find out here.

Bright and stained objects can be anything that has been infused with intense emotion from the previous owner, a baby blanket, a scarf, a jar of buttons, sewing scissors, a gun or even a wooden spoon.

Harriet dreams of creating a carefully curated museum of memories, where members of the public can come and view these treasures. She wants to organise them into positive themes like motherly love or childlike joy and invite guests to seek out the section of the museum that feels 'right' to them, and leave the exhibition feeling that their sense of wellbeing has been nourished and their spirit replenished.

Both Ev and Harriet have troubled histories, and Ev's dark past in particular and the relationship with her sister forms the mystery of the book. The Memory Collectors is emotionally charged (pun intended) and I enjoyed learning more about our two protagonists and seeing how they used their gifts and interacted with each other.

Despite the darkness, The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville is ultimately a hopeful and inspirational read and an outstanding debut. Highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

02 August 2021

Winners of Blood Trail by Tony Park Announced

Blood Trail by Tony Park book cover
Thanks to the readers who entered my giveaway last week to win one of two signed copies of Blood Trail by Tony Park. Everyone correctly answered that the book is set in a South African game reserve.

The giveaway closed at midnight last night, and the winning entries were drawn today. Congratulations to:

Claire Louisa Holderness & Crystal Rudd

Congratulations Claire & Crystal! You've both won a signed copy of Blood Trail by Tony Park valued at $32.99AUD thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia. You'll each receive an email from me shortly with the details of your win, so start thinking about how you'd like your book signed and inscribed.

Carpe Librum!

30 July 2021

Blog Tour and Review: The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Today I'm participating in the Penguin Random House Australia blog tour for The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell, who signed more than 6,500 tip-in sheets (title pages) while in lockdown in the UK. Oh, and she also wrote this book.


The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell book cover
"Mum, there's some people here from college, they asked me back to theirs. Just for an hour or so. Is that OK?"

Midsummer 2017: teenage mum Tallulah heads out on a date, leaving her baby son at home with her mother, Kim.

At 11pm she sends her mum a text message. At 4.30am Kim awakens to discover that Tallulah has not come home.

Friends tell her that Tallulah was last seen heading to a pool party at a house in the woods nearby called Dark Place.

Tallulah never returns.

2018: walking in the woods behind the boarding school where her boyfriend has just started as a head-teacher, Sophie sees a sign nailed to a fence.

A sign that says: DIG HERE . . .


The start of The Night She Disappeared had me by the throat immediately, with a skin crawling prologue about arachnophobia.
"Arachnophobia. It's one of those words that sounds as bad as that which it describes. The hard 'ack' at the end of the second syllable suggestive of the repulsive angles of a spider's legs; the soft sweep of the the 'fo' like the awful wave of nausea that washes through your gut at the suggestion of a sudden movement across a wall or floor; the loud 'no' at its centre the sound of your brain screaming, in disgust, nononono. Tallulah suffers from arachnophobia. Tallulah is in the dark."
Wow, what a way to start a book! From there, the reader is introduced to Tallulah, a young teenage Mum who is missing along with her boyfriend after attending a friend's party. Living on the school grounds, Sophie is the head teacher's girlfriend and a cosy crime author suffering from writer's block who chooses to distract herself by looking into the cold case of the missing teenagers. Tallulah's mother Kim is left literally holding the baby, and we have access to all three character perspectives throughout the novel.

The Night She Disappeared is part domestic noir, psychological thriller and mystery and I was heavily invested in finding out what happened that night. Following Sophie's enquiries felt like the cosy crime she is famous for (in Scandinavia anyway) and the psychological games deployed by some manipulative characters in the book kept me on the edge of my seat. There was even a police procedural style section towards the end which kept the pace flying along towards a satisfactory conclusion.

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell has a little bit of everything and is highly recommended for thriller fans looking for a little variety from the genre.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

27 July 2021

Giveaway and Interview with Tony Park, author of Blood Trail

Tony Park, author (Credit - Annelien Oberholzer)


Australian author Tony Park is an Army veteran who has also worked as a reporter, PR consultant and press secretary. Tony has written 6 non fiction books and 18 novels set in Africa and his latest book Blood Trail is being published on 1 August 2021. Passionate about wildlife conservation, Tony's latest book is set in a South African game reserve, and you can enter the giveaway below for your chance to win 1 of 2 signed copies of Blood Trail thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia. Tony joins me today to answer a few questions.


Thanks for joining me Tony. If you had 25 words to entice a reader to read Blood Trail, what would they be?
Escape the COVID blues with a virtual trip to Africa to explore wildlife, witchcraft, action, adventure and men and women behaving badly.

In Blood Trail, poachers in a South African game reserve use witchcraft in the belief it'll protect them and make them bulletproof. This blows my mind. Can you tell us more about the witchcraft practices in that area?
Traditional beliefs are widely held in every strata of African society, even among people who identify with ‘mainstream’ religions. Belief systems – some people would call them superstitions are also very important in any society where people are involved in high-risk, high-reward pursuits. The easiest of these to understand is – people become more religious, more superstitious and cling to rituals when the stakes are, literally, life and death. I’m working on a non fiction book at the moment about a RAAF air gunner in WWII who suffered 50 per cent deafness all his life because he flew in a bomber when he had a very bad head cold. There was no way he was going to sit the mission out as his crew all firmly believe, as he did, that crews that flew with a replacement member were always shot down. The war on poaching in Africa is high-risk, high-stakes and the people involved will use any talisman, potion or charm they can to improve their chances.

I read that Blood Trail was written while you were in lockdown. Was the writing process vastly different to your previous 18 novels set in Africa?
Absolutely. Normally I live half the year in Africa, in the bush, and I can immerse myself in the places I write about. The writing comes easy and the research is mostly by osmosis. I wrote Blood Trail in the spare bedroom of a two bedroom flat in Sydney! It forced me to take a different approach – as the book is largely about personal belief systems I talked to people – academics, park rangers, police, safari guides and an African friend abut the situation on the ground in the war against rhino poaching and their personal beliefs. We chatted via Zoom and messenger. It was actually quite rewarding, and fascinating.

Given you and your wife usually live in Africa for 6 months of the year, is this way of life for you now threatened? Are you optimistic about being able to return to Africa in the near future?
As we have residency and property in Africa – we are also part owners of Nantwich Lodge, a safari lodge in Hwange National Park Zimbabwe, we’re hopeful we can get permission to leave Australia early to get back to Africa. Whether or not that comes through, I’ll be on the next possible plane to Africa. We were first in line for our vaccinations.
Blood Trail by Tony Park book cover

Where do you like to do most of your writing? Do you have any writing rituals?

Normally I’m in an upstairs loft in our house in a game reserve in Africa. Even here in Australia, in my flat, I follow the same ritual as in Africa. I try to get an early start and clear my head – with a drive in the bush in Africa looking at wild animals, or an early run in Sydney! I then get stuck in. I have a daily quota of four pages about 1600 words, which I must complete five days a week – no more, no less. Even if I’m on a roll I like to stop and keep something in the tank for the next day. I never finish my quota at the end of a chapter – I sneak on to the next page. There is nothing more confronting at the start of the day than a blank page.

How do you feel about being compared to Wilbur Smith?
I like Wilbur’s earlier books, when he was writing about contemporary southern Africa. If there are any similarities between us, I’d say they relate more to those books from the 1960s and 70s. I’m flattered to be compared to someone who has provided so much entertainment to so many. I hope I’m still writing when I’m in my 90s!

Is there a book by an African writer you believe deserves more attention?
My favourite author of books set in Africa was the late John Gordon-Davis. His book Hold My Hand I’m Dying, set in the bush in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) is still the best novel ever set in Africa.

Having served 34 years in the Australian Army Reserve, do you find many veterans forming part of your readership base? (I'm a veteran too, and I'm imagining your books being shared in messes all over the world).
Increasingly so, yes. Social media has been a great tool for veterans to support each other and it's really encouraging seeing that manifest itself in sites such as Brothers 'N' Books, which promotes reading. I’ve also taken on a voluntary position as the inaugural Veteran Writer in Residence at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, in Sydney, to help veterans interested in writing. There’s a growing groundswell of veterans who want to tell their stories.

What are you reading at the moment?
An old novel from the 1970s, KG 200, by J.D. Gilman and John Clive. It’s about a German squadron that flew captured allied aircraft on secret missions in WWII. It was a favourite of mine as a teenager and I found it in a street library – I want to see if I still like it. I’m also reading Duty Nobly Done, a non-fiction book by Adam Holloway about his family’s several generations of service. I’m looking forward to Peter Watt’s The Colonial’s Son, set in Afghanistan in the 19th century.

Has the pandemic changed your reading habits in any way?
Book sales have boomed during the pandemic and like other people I’ve found that staying home and not going out in the evenings has given me more time to read. I’ve also been trying out some new authors, which has been rewarding.

What are you working on now?
I’m nearly finished the first draft of a 20th novel. It will see a return of one of my more popular characters, retired mercenary Sonja Kurtz. This time she’s fighting abalone poaching in Africa – this is a little known but highly lucrative area of organised crime. I also have a couple of co-written non fiction books in the pipeline.

They sound great, anything else you'd like to add?
Thanks so much for your support for Australian authors, and thank you for your service!

Thanks so much Tony! You can find out more about Tony Park at www.tonypark.net 


Evil is at play in a South African game reserve.

A poacher vanishes into thin air, defying logic, and baffling ace tracker Mia Greenaway.

Meanwhile Captain Sannie van Rensburg, still reeling from a personal tragedy, is investigating the disappearance of two young girls who locals fear have been abducted for use in sinister traditional medicine practices.

But poachers are also employing witchcraft, paying healers for potions they believe will make them invisible and bulletproof.

When a tourist goes missing, Mia and Sannie must work together to confront their own demons - which challenges everything they believe in - while following a bloody trail that seems to vanish at every turn.


This giveaway has now closed and the winner will be announced soon.

23 July 2021

Review: The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird

The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird book cover
I can't tell you how much I adored this book. Reading The Emporium of Imagination was like sending nourishing warm hot chocolate straight to the soul.

The Emporium of the title is a shop, and Earlatidge is the store's custodian. The shop travels the world to where it's needed and at the start of the book, it's opening in the small town of Boonah. When it magically appears, and the shopkeeper has been found, the store will sell vintage gifts to revive broken dreams, repair relationships, ease grief, soothe broken hearts and more.
"The Emporium is a bustle of a place. People come and go. Some see magic everywhere. Other people see less magic and more a commonplace shop selling quirky vintage wares. It depends on what they expect to see. A person looking for the impossible will find it. One who isn't cannot." Page 215
Set in Boonah in Queensland, this book contains magical realism and even the streets named after weeds seem wonderfully magical. Who wouldn't want to live in Milk Thistle Street, Ragweed Place and Mustard Hedge Road?

Early on in the novel, we learn Earlatidge is gifted with:
"a sight and senses that others don't possess. He can hear other people's grief, an ability that is not only auditory, he can also see those moments as clear as motion pictures in his mind. Often, he can smell the event. Hear the sounds. Sometimes he can taste or even feel things relating to their sadness. He will use this gift to understand people's sorrow and extend invitations to visit the Emporium..." Pages 6-7
The Emporium of Imagination is an incredibly uplifting and life affirming novel delivering messages about regret, lost opportunities, guilt, smothered dreams, love, loss, sorrow, grief, duty, hope, redemption and more to the reader. The Emporium is able to provide just what each customer needs at that point in their life to heal and I think the book does the same for the reader. Some character backstories will resonate more than others, but all are heartwarming and moving.

While touching on such important and deep themes, the novel somehow manages to be quite funny in parts, and I loved the dialogue between the brothers. It's also incredibly creative and I haven't experienced that level of stimulating imagination on the page since reading and falling in love with Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor in 2019. That book easily made my Top 5 Books of 2019 list and I'm positive The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird is going to be on my Top 5 Books of 2021 list. That's how much I enjoyed this book.

Tabitha Bird is an Australian author, and this is the first book I've read of hers, however you better believe that her debut A Lifetime of Impossible Days is now on my TBR pile.

The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird was an absolute highlight of my reading year so far and I highly recommend it. (You can read a FREE extract here).

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating: