17 April 2024

Review: The Miracles of the Namiya General Store by Keigo Higashino

The Miracles of the Namiya General Store by Keigo Higashino book cover

Translated by Sam Bett, The Miracles of the Namiya General Store by Japanese author Keigo Higashino has an enticing premise. Three youths seek a place to lay low after carrying out a robbery and they break into the Namiya General Store. Seemingly abandoned and run down, they're surprised when a letter asking the previous shopkeeper for advice drops through the mail slot.

The young men quickly realise this isn't an ordinary shop, but what advice could they possibly have to give? They're certainly not upstanding citizens leading a successful and rewarding life are they? What should they do? And if they choose to answer the letter, what advice should they give?

The narrative expands as new and old letters are referred to and advice is both sought and received. The plot does get a little timey wimey in that time stops inside the general store and a connection between past and present is established although never adequately explained. This reader hardly cared (see my review of Under The Dome to see how I can ignore the 'why' of the premise and just enjoy the fallout), instead delighting in the various interconnecting characters in a cleverly spun narrative web.

In fact, I'd love to see a character map representing the interconnecting characters and their various overlapping narrative arcs, I think it'd be a beautiful sight indeed. It certainly seemed as though the entire plot was connected with silvery gossamer thread and Higashino took the reader around the web pointing out different patterns and individual stories.

In assessing the advice requested and the advice provided, we're given a glimpse into how that advice was or wasn't followed and how it all turned out. In doing so, the author raises the notion that many people are experiencing challenges in their lives, facing choices they don't want to make or decisions they can't seem to reach or make their peace with.

Similarly, the author seems to suggest that even a lowly delinquent may have advice worth considering to offer a fellow human being in crisis. Every individual has value to contribute and the innate ability to make a positive difference in the life of a stranger.

Employing a combination of magical realism, urban fantasy and science fiction, The Miracles of the Namiya General Store is a heartwarming, uplifting, positive feel-good read and I highly recommend it!

My Rating:

15 April 2024

Review: The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O'Doherty

The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O'Doherty book cover

I'm a huge fan of Irish comedian David O'Doherty, and on seeing he'd released a middle grade book for kids I was immediately reserving the print copy and audiobook from my library.

When The Summer I Robbed a Bank begins, 12 year old Rex is sent to stay with his Uncle Derm on remote Achill Island for the school holidays. Rex is expecting to have a boring time, what with all of the sheep, but things don't quite go exactly to plan. Rex meets Kitty and their adventures together were amusing and heartwarming at the same time.
"We laughed so hard we had to lean on things." Page 21
I really enjoy O'Doherty's view of the world and it's also why I enjoy his comedy so much. His sense of humour and imagination work well with his observations of people and relationships in a unique and very appealing way. I was happy to find this talent translated well to his middle grade fiction too:
"I didn't want to look round, but I couldn't help myself, in the same way you can't not watch a football heading towards a window." Page 61
Read in the author's distinctive accent and endearing storytelling style, The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O'Doherty was an absolute pleasure to listen to and read. I did wonder about the target reading audience for middle grade books like these. I mean, if the protagonist Rex is 12 years old, is the target reading audience also 12 or a few years younger in an aspirational sense? 

Fortunately I had the pleasure of seeing David O'Doherty perform live here in Melbourne during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2024 just after I'd read this book. When the author spoke of relocating during the pandemic and living with his parents on Achill Island for six months I smiled in recognition.

I've since learned David O'Doherty has written a number of books for youngsters and while I haven't read any others, I can highly recommended this one for both kids and parents! I defy you to listen to this FREE sample on the publisher's website and not keep reading.

My Rating:

09 April 2024

Review: The Institute by Stephen King

The Institute by Stephen King book cover

The Institute by Stephen King will be akin to coming home for readers familiar with SKs oeuvre. A band of kids working together. An injustice of sorts. A clear bad guy / bad guys situation. A secret government facility. Check check check. Now throw in a touch of supernatural ability in the form of kids with telekinesis or telepathy and you have the basic ingredients of another solid King outing.

The story kicks off when twelve year old Luke Ellis is kidnapped from his home and wakes up at the institute of the title. Luke joins other similarly gifted kids being held at the government sanctioned facility against their will, and they've all been fed the lie they'll be allowed to return home to their families - with their memories wiped of course - after they've served their country.

A familiar pecking order is established as the kids adjust to their surroundings and try to understand what's going on. Naturally there's a little bit of bullying but ultimately firm friendships are formed in true King style, which includes amusing dialogue like this between two of the young characters:
"What if I don't?"
Nicky smiled. "Then I'll fuck you up, fat boy." Page 135
As with any King novel, character development is often the highlight and in The Institute a significant character named Tim Jamieson was established early on that I wanted to explore further. I thought he was the primary protagonist but after disappearing for a large chunk of the book, the character later resurfaces but the care factor had diminished by the intervening pages. This left me feeling a little irritated for investing so heavily in his character arc in the early pages.

The purpose of the secret medical facility is to measure and enhance the abilities of the children in a series of medical exams and terribly invasive tests. This definitely gave me Stranger Things vibes and I was surprised to learn The Institute was published in 2019, three years after the release of season 1 of Stranger Things in 2016. Whether either project was influenced by the other, kids being experimented on in the pursuit of harnessing their gifts for the greater good isn't new.

Ultimately King asks the reader to consider whether the sacrifices of a few gifted children and their families outweighs the potential suffering of hundreds, thousands or perhaps in extreme circumstances, even millions of people.

The big showdown at the end of the novel requires the reader to ball up their disbelief and peg it at the nearest oversized telephone and hope for the best. A solid outing from Stephen King.

My Rating:

05 April 2024

Review: The Beauties by Lauren Chater

The Beauties by Lauren Chater book cover

* Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster *

It's 1665 and Emilia Lennox heads to court to seek the favour of King Charles II after losing everything when her husband's lands and title were confiscated. Seeking to have them restored, Emilia begins a dangerous liaison where the lengths to which she'll go to have her status restored by the King will be tested. Meanwhile, Henry is a talented artist and assistant to the court painter commissioned to produce a series of portraits; the beauties from the title.

The Beauties by Lauren Chater contains multiple narrators with alternating chapters from both Emilia and Henry in the 'present' time period, and chapters from years earlier told by a younger Anne Hyde from the Hague.

Assuming The Hague was in France when in fact it's in the Netherlands and not noticing the Anne Hyde chapters were 6 years earlier than the primary timeline was a mistake on my part that generated some reader confusion and slight disconnect as a result.

Perhaps if I knew my history a little better, I'd have realised sooner that young Anne Hyde went on to become the first wife of James, Duke of York, making her the Duchess of York. The chapters that slip back in time a mere six or so years earlier to capture the Duchess of York commissioning the series of portraits was an odd choice to me. The narrative between Emilia and Henry was rich with compelling characters and there was plenty going on to hold the reader's interest without that.

That said, let's enjoy some of the descriptive writing that kept me engaged throughout:
"To distract myself, I poured all my energy into my new role as a lady-in-waiting. When the season changed, I travelled with the Princess to her home at Binnenhof Palace in The Hague. There I learned to dress the Princess's fine brown hair for stately occasions, pinning the curls tightly to her scalp so only the pearled tips of the pins peeked through. I learned how to sponge sweat out of a gown by daubing a mixture of vinegar and spit to lift the offending mark." Page 49
The setting at court was richly described and my feet ached along with Emilia's as she waited hours on end for a glimpse of the King. I thoroughly enjoyed the painterly setting at the artist's studio and the production goings on at the theatre.

It's somehow reassuring - although I'm not sure why or how - to see characters written today, yet placed in a novel set more than 350 years ago having the same struggles we do. The author convincingly captures the timeless nature of the worries that often plague us:
"At night, she lies awake staring at the roofbeams while the questions twist and twine, tying her in ever tighter knots of confusion. If only she could see the outcomes of her choices, then she could safely decide." Page 132-133
Emilia was trying to decide her future and I recently found myself wishing the same were true. Speaking of worries that often plague us, those who know their history well (which isn't me obviously) will recognise the year 1665 as being smack bang in the middle of the Great Plague of London and while only occupying a small section of the novel, I did enjoy the impact the plague had on the various characters. This was very well handled and I enjoyed the realistic portrayal of events and outcomes between characters as a result.

The Beauties by Lauren Chater is highly recommended for readers who enjoy a little art with their historical fiction, and if you enjoyed Beauty In Thorns by Kate Forsyth or The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal then this is for you!

My Rating:

27 March 2024

Review: Bizarre London by David Long

Bizarre London - Discover the Capital's Secrets & Surprises by David Long book cover

Browsing the shelves of my local library, I came across an attractive hardback copy of Bizarre London - Discover the Capital's Secrets & Surprises by David Long. I was convinced to take it out on loan after browsing the contents page and spying enticing chapter headings like: Gruesome London, Ghostly London and Dead London alongside Shopping London, Working London and Parliamentary London.

The content was short and sharp with plenty of easily digestible facts from history one after the other. Bizarre London is easy to dip into although I chose to read it straight through.

I think I've mentioned my fascination with the freezing over of the Thames river before, but I enjoyed this tidbit:
"Overall, London's coldest ever year was almost certainly 1684, when the Thames froze in central London from bank to bank, to a depth of 11 in., and remained that way for nearly two months. (Albeit for shorter periods this happened a further fifteen times, the last being in 1814, which was the year of the final 'Frost Fair'. Page 121
The introduction of better bridges means this no longer happens in central London, and in fact the last time the Thames froze over was the year 1963 and it happened at Kingston-upon-Thames.

Continuing with the theme of London's weather and another of my favourite London facts, the period of intensely dense fog in December 1952:
"Since then [1873's record-breaking run of seventy-four foggy days], the worst pea-souper was in December 1952, which led to as many as 12,000 deaths - from respiratory illness as well as accidents involving people who couldn't see traffic - and some 100,000 cases of medical illness." Page 122
These kinds of conditions are hard to imagine, although viewers of Season 1 of The Crown might remember the scene.

Some interesting facts from this century included the chapter entitled Eating by Numbers, where we learn that during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games:
"...deliveries to the athletes' village included 25,000 loaves of bread, 232 tons of potatoes and 82 tons of seafood, more than 100 tons of meat, 19 tons of eggs and 21 tons of cheese. Fruit and veg accounted for another 360 tons of deliveries." Page 137
Wow, now that's impressive!

Published in 2013, much of the content within Bizarre London - Discover the Capital's Secrets & Surprises by David Long was dry and factual but doesn't date, however I'm sure an updated edition will be of interest to future readers.

My Rating:

22 March 2024

Review: Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince book cover

Here's what I know for sure after reading this book. Robin Ince is extremely well read. Robin Ince knows a LOT about books. Robin Ince buys an extraordinary amount of books. Robin Ince is a bibliomaniac.

In his aptly titled book Bibliomaniac - An Obsessive's Tour of the Bookshops of Britain, author Robin Ince sets out to visit more than 100 bookshops in 100 days. The year was 2021 and bookshops were welcoming authors back for events. Reading this travelogue of sorts about his experiences along the way was interesting.

My introduction to Robin Ince came courtesy of attending the Professor Brian Cox Universal World Tour in June 2019 and a few years later, the Professor Brian Cox Horizons - A 21st Century Space Odyssey in October 2022. Robin Ince was the award-winning comedian and warm-up act for Cox and finding out he was an obsessive book lover piqued my interest.

Ince declares early on that books define him, books are the reason he stopped drinking heavily and that he sleeps with books piled on the bed and I'll admit I began to worry a little. In the Introduction he lays his bibliomania bare:
"At one stage my house became so swamped with books that I donated more than 1,000 of them to Leicester Prison and got rid of a further 5,000 more to charities. And yet I know that my house is still overrun, always on the cusp of being justifiable grounds for divorce." Page 4
This was another dual audio and print reading experience, and the occasional mention of an interesting sounding book or anecdote motivated me to put this down and head off to find out more. Here's one in reference to Charles Darwin in Chapter 6:
"There are no new tattoos to see after the show tonight, but I have a happy conversation with a shy young person who has recently become inspired to study horticulture. This leads to yet another conversation about Charles Darwin, this time about his earthworm experiments - any excuse to bring up the bassoon." Page 160
There were many in jokes along the way like this one about the bassoon* but I didn't understand many of them because I lacked the broad depth of knowledge on a variety of subjects required to chuckle along and marvel at the author's treasure trove of interesting and engaging facts.

Ince readily confesses that he doesn't read books end to end or sequentially, and instead he dips in and out of them in a fashion that started to stress me out. I have a completely different approach to reading and acquiring books, and despite our shared love of books and reading, I couldn't relate to his reading style:
"I am sometimes asked how I read so much. I commit the cardinal sin among some bookish people: I leave books unfinished. I hop in and out of them, grabbing an anecdote, an idea or a philosophy and then putting them on the teetering 'to be continued' pile." Page 4
I don't mind leaving a book unfinished, but I don't understand how a reader can grab an anecdote or philosophy in any detail with this approach and Ince readily confesses that in his desire to know everything, he ends up knowing nothing. Here's a taste of his reading style, can you relate?
"I have half a bottle of red, a packet of pistachio cookies and solitude. I spread out my books and read five random pages from each one. Short of focus, I decide not to focus and read erratically, bouncing in and out of books until, exhausted by other people's ideas, I fall asleep with a book across my face." Page 266
While that might sound like absolute heaven to some book lovers, it sounds haphazard and chaotic to me and I found it hard to relate to his specific type of bibliomania.

Some of the conversations Ince has with customers, event attendees and booksellers sound truly fascinating and I bet meeting him in person would be a stimulating experience. I love hearing how he curates a different pile of books in each bookshop and uses them to inform the topic of his speech. This is a terrific way to ensure his presentations are always unique and never become stale, they also enable a last minute, ad hoc approach to the event that made the organiser in me feel uneasy.

Often rushing for the train or running overtime during his events - albeit with permission, but honestly, who's going to say no? - Ince relies on lifts from friends, booksellers and agents to get him to and from train stations and the more than 100 bookshops visited; often staying the night wherever he can.

The author is the kind of guy who buys his own books (Page 194) and in one chapter, he recalls taking a half full bottle of wine from his event to drink on the train trip home (Page 203) while reading a new acquisition. Barely mentioning his wife or family, Ince does tell us his wife doesn't want him bringing books back from the book tour, so he sneaks home at one point to offload a tonne of books and then stealthily leaves again. What a guy!

Despite considering myself somewhat well read and reasonably knowledgable about books, I could probably count on one hand the number of books I'd actually heard of or read myself from the hundreds mentioned throughout the 300+ pages. While I focus on non fiction and relatively recent fiction, the author's interests seem to orbit around non fiction (so many memoirs) and horror novels.

Aspects of my reaction to Bibliomaniac reminded me of my experience reading Back Story by David Mitchell, in so far as I think I'd have been better off admiring the work of both authors and comedians from afar, rather than delving deeper and reading their memoir.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince wasn't the TBR expanding experience I hoped it would be. I didn't add a single book mentioned to my TBR although I did do some serious Googling. I never found myself looking forward to the next chapter, wondering, "oooh, I wonder what he’ll find in Leeds" or "I wonder what obscure title he'll discover in the 37th Oxfam charity shop of the tour."

I've concluded Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince has a somewhat limited reading appeal, so readers familiar with the bookshops on the tour and who are extraordinarily well read, love collecting rare and valuable books, enjoy horror and find almost any topic fascinating will love this. I find many topics interesting too, but I don't buy books with a plan to never read more than a few pages.

* Apparently Darwin tested the hearing of earthworms by having his son play his bassoon really loudly to prove they don't have ears or a sense of hearing.

My Rating:

19 March 2024

Review: The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy

The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy book cover

I didn't plan on reading two time travel books back to back, yet found myself in this position when reading The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy straight after The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown. Given to me by a friend, The Other Side of Night is David Asha's story told from multiple viewpoints and a series of excerpts and extracts.

Harriet Kealty is a disgraced police officer trying to clear her name when she stumbles across a plea for help and a potential kidnapping. Deciding to investigate, she soon recognises a familiar name, Ben Elmys.

At times reminding me of the TV show Fringe, the layers build to create a story-within-a-story covering big life themes, like this character insight about our very existence:
"In a hundred years our suffering and tears and laughter and happiness will all be forgotten, replaced by another generation whose existences are equally transient and meaningless, and yet deeply meaningful and significant to them and those they love. Our ability to know we are nothing while perceiving we are everything has driven some mad, and it almost broke me during those dark days." Page 275
The story-within-a-story structure began to grow thin for me as I struggled a little with the time travel aspects of the novel. In fact, I chuckled in recognition when I read the following line:
"I'm not sure she ever fully understood how to think in four dimensions, the idea that what happens had to have happened, but she smiled sympathetically..." Page 323
In hindsight, I should have taken some time (pun intended) before punching my time travel ticket again, yet I enjoyed untangling the mystery to reveal the clever twist at the end. Hamdy makes the reader question what we think we know about the past, the present and of course the future:
"Time is an illusion our minds create to give us a sense of direction." Page 331
The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy is a stand alone science fiction novel about love, loss, sacrifice, fate, the passage of time and memories and is recommended for fans of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.

My Rating:

11 March 2024

Review: The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown

The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown has the potential to take out 'best cover design' for 2024 as determined here at Carpe Librum. Let's just take a minute to soak in the beauty that is the dark blue Victorian damask wallpaper background, punctuated by the inviting bookish staircase made from gorgeous looking leather bound books with subtle gold detailing, echoed around the corners of the front cover.

In the design, the door is a book and this is The Book of Doors, what's not to love?

Astonishingly well written and structured for a debut, The Book of Doors immediately grabbed my attention with settings to tempt, tease and tantalise any book lover:
"Just like the store, the house was full of books - no shelf was bare, no book alone and seeking company - but it was more than that. The house was full of warm corners and quiet places, pleasantly creaking floorboards and draughts of air coming from unseen gaps. The lighting was soft, and the colours muted and warm, interrupted only by the shimmering dark green of the trees outside when glimpsed through windows in passing. It was a building that welcomed people who wanted comfort and silence, who wanted space to contemplate. It had an air of formality, but not stiffness, like a smartly dressed grandfather telling a rude joke." Page 135-136
Our characters fall in love with the house and I did too! Cassie works as a bookseller at a bookshop in New York and the story begins when a regular customer gives her a book with an inscription inside. Cassie is over the moon when she learns the book is a one of a kind with the ability to turn any door into a door to anywhere. Cassie then discovers there are more books with differing powers, actively being sought by eccentric collectors, nefarious actors and scary people who travel the world hunting the books for their own dark purposes.

You should know, this is a fantasy novel and there is time travel. In fact, in the words of Drummond Fox (one of the novel's characters), there is a little 'time-travel jiggery-pokery' to untangle but thankfully the author breaks it down by cleverly providing a detailed explanation of two types of time travel. There is the open model and the closed model, and they're explained to the reader in a conversation flashback as follows:
"In the open model, you can travel into the past and change events so that your present is consequently changed also. This is what you see in science-fiction stories. You go back and do something and history changes." Page 153
Yes! Reading this I was instantly reminded of 11.22.63 by Stephen King, where the main character (MC) goes back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of JFK. The flashback sequence in The Book of Doors continues to explain the closed model:
"You cannot change events from what has already happened. If you go back and do something in the past, then that already happened in the past and is part of history. It is part of what made your present be the present that it is, the present that you departed from when you went into the past." Page 153
It's the latter form of time travel experienced by the characters in The Book of Doors, and thankfully I wasn't too lost as it seemed the author maintained a tight grip on the reins of time-travel lore. The writing is rich and evocative and I loved learning about the other special books, the powers they held and the motives of those seeking them. The book of pain was the most intriguing as it has the power to cause and remove pain. I was most entertained during Cassie's early exploration using the book of doors and managed to keep up with the narrative when it otherwise could have been a tad timey-wimey. My only sticking point was the origin story for the books was a little too much for this book lover.

The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown is an impressive debut and the first possible contender for my Top 5 Books of 2024. Highly recommended for book lovers and readers who enjoyed The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow or believe books are magic portals, even when they're not.

Not sure? Read a free extract or listen to a free 5 minute sample of the audiobook on the publisher's website.

My Rating:

29 February 2024

Review: Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson audiobook cover

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson was an interesting read. I listened to the audiobook read by Stephanie Cannon and while I have a passing and somewhat shallow interest in the history of pockets, I was reasonably entertained here.

According to her bio, Hannah Carlson teaches dress history and is a conservator with a PhD in material culture, so she knows her subject matter.

After the medieval period when the purse was a separate item, men wore their purse hanging from their belt, while women wore theirs hanging around mid thigh, meaning that it swung when the wearer walked. In addition, the placement of one's purse could be provocative, and held a surprising (to me) amount of erotic appeal.
"How you wore your purse distinguished between masculine and feminine dress, but the purse itself did not belong to a single gender." Chapter 5
Carlson tells us the word 'pocket' is a borrowing of the French word for bag, and moves through history touching on the fashion for cod pieces, the dagger purse and the dangers of men carrying hidden weapons and pistols in their newly concealed pockets.

What about women's fashion? In Chapter 8, the author tells us that pockets for women have never been as popular in women's clothing as in men's. I was surprised to learn that in the 1800s, some dressmakers created hidden pockets in the bustle of ladies skirts. Located in the middle of the lower back in an early form of bum bag, women would turn themselves in circles trying to twist and retrieve items impractically stored in their bustle pocket.

I enjoyed the commentary about men and courtiers standing and walking with their hands in their pockets and the uproar and claims of indecency made by fellow citizens at the time. I couldn't help but smile in recognition here, as I recall ranting about the trend in the 1990s that saw baggy pants worn low enough to display the wearer's briefs/boxers/g-string and in some cases so low as to cause the wearer to adopt a ridiculous style of walking to prevent their pants from falling down.

The gender politics of pockets and fashion inequality don't really interest me, but the introduction 500 years ago of pockets sewn into men's pants had an unexpected impact on the way men walked and even the way that they stood, some choosing to put a hand inside their pocket or their waistcoat.
"In a pose promulgated by fashionable people, and upheld by professionals, the aristocrat standing at his ease appeared as if he had wrapped himself in a loose embrace. In Britain, painters seized on the hand in waistcoat gesture as a popular portrait formula, believing it depicted qualities of modesty and reserve." Chapter 7
It's interesting to see this pose now and not wonder what the 'portrait pose' is for our time; perhaps it's the flamingo pose or the bambi pose. (Both legitimate poses trending on Instagram right now, but that's 30 mins of valuable reading time I'll never get back after searching 'portrait poses over time').

Back to the book, and Carlson swiftly moves towards the present day, describing the shift from pockets to purses and handbags and the endless battle between functionality versus fashion.

I enjoyed the author's assessment of the explosion in pocket popularity in the 1990s with the resurgence of cargo pants, but perhaps my favourite line from the book was the optimism in going out without pockets or a handbag to carry necessities like keys, tissues, phone, lip balm etc.
"In pared down designs, the person announces their unconcern; their belief that nothing is required and that nothing will go wrong." Chapter 11
That's it exactly! I'm never that optimistic and always take more than I end up needing.

Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson is recommended for readers with an interest in micro history, fashion and gender politics. This 3 star rating is largely reflective of my interest level in the topic and not representative of the author's knowledge of the subject, which is deep. 

I still have The Pocket - A Hidden History of Women's Lives, 1660–1900 by Barbara Burman on my virtual TBR pile but I think I might have well and truly scratched that itch here.

My Rating:

22 February 2024

Review: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris audiobook cover

After a ripping introduction to the work of David Sedaris in 2021 via Calypso, his work has been hit and miss since then. Naked was a 2 star read, Me Talk Pretty One Day a 3 star read and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim earning a mere 2 stars despite the catchy title.

I decided at the end of 2021 to put the brakes on my Sedaris tear for a while, knowing I'd probably come back to his oeuvre at some stage in the future.

Years later and enough time has passed that I now miss listening to a good Sedaris story told in his unmistakable lilting voice with his white gay privilege proudly on display. So it was, that I picked up Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris published in 2013.

Immediately better than the last 3 books from him I've read, I was soon chuckling to myself and enjoying his inimitable style of storytelling. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris is a return to his droll sense of humour and genuine interest in other people that kept me engaged in Calypso.

Sedaris has previously written about health care in America and France and their differences, although I never tire of his content around dentists. Chapter 2 is entitled Dentists Without Borders and the reference to his 'good time teeth' and his doorbell response to being asked if he was okay was easily my favourite story in the collection.

The unflattering accounts that had me frowning with budding disapproval in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim were thankfully absent here. This collection was more self deprecating and even included a few live recordings with audience laughter and applause convincing me I'd also enjoy seeing the author live if he plans another tour Down Under.

While I live in hope, part of me wonders if all of Sedaris' stories and anecdotes are true - did he really holiday in a nudist camp or have that strange encounter at the taxidermist shop? - or are they cleverly constructed fiction presented by a humourist as fact for our entertainment or his amusement?

Either way, I've found myself firmly back onboard the David Sedaris train and there are still plenty of collections and books to discover. What should I read next?

My Rating:

20 February 2024

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite book cover

Two sisters live together in their family home in Nigeria. Korede and Ayoola. The older sister is a hardworking nurse in a hospital and her sibling is a killer.

Ayoola is beautiful and manipulative and when things go wrong she calls her big sister Korede to help her 'fix it'. Korede has a crush on a doctor at work, but when he meets Ayoola and falls for her instead, it creates a painful wedge between the sisters.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite has a brilliant and engaging premise but I'll admit reading it was a little stressful. Ayoola's conduct was incredibly frustrating and I really felt for Korede and the complicated relationship with her narcissistic sister; seething with sibling jealousy yet bonded by familial love.

Braithwaite successfully ramps up the tension and it seems as though she took out all the stops to make the reader squirm. I don't recall squirming so much for the main character since reading Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater and wanting to shout out some pointed life advice at one of the characters.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a quick read packed with dark humour as Korede must decide where her loyalties lie. Is she an enabler, an accomplice after the fact or her sister's willing victim? Will she choose family or justice? Can she choose both? The setting in Nigeria was refreshing and I enjoyed the scenes taking place in the hospital and in particular, the relationship Korede has with a coma patient.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was popular when it was published in 2018 and reading it more than 5 years later, I can see what all the fuss was about. If you enjoy your domestic thriller light with a dash of black humour, you'll enjoy this!

And if you like books about sisters, check out my post entitled 4 Books About Sisters on my TBR. One down, three to go!

My Rating:

17 February 2024

Review: The Madman's Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching

The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching book cover

The Madman's Library - The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a weighty yet stunning hardback book bursting with glorious images and plates showing the books - and their pages - described within. According to his bio, Edward Brooke-Hitching lives in London and is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, which may shed light on his interest in unusual books, obscure books, famous and forgotten books.

It's immediately clear that the author is a well-researched book lover and bibliophile, and it doesn't take much effort for the reader to match his enthusiasm for books and of course reading them.

The author gives us a tantalising sample of what we can look forward to early on:
"Invisible books, books that kill, books so tall that motors are needed to turn their pages and books so long they could destroy the universe. Edible books. Wearable books. Books made of skin, bones, feathers and hair. Spell books, shaman manuals, alchemist scrolls, sin books and the ancient work known as the 'Cannibal Hymn'. Books to communicate with angels, and books to summon treasure-hunting demons. The lawsuit filed by the Devil, and a contract bearing his signature. Books worn into battle, books that tell the future, books found inside fish or wrapped around mummified Egyptians. Leechbooks, psychic books, treasure-finding texts and the code-writing hidden in the Bible." Introduction Page 16
The writing strikes a comfortable balance between being well researched and well written while never tipping over into the dry and academic style of writing that often ruins my interest level in books like this. Brooke-Hitching really gets it.
"But these books breathe. They hold thoughts, knowledge and humour otherwise long gone. Their stories - and to a degree, their authors - are alive upon opening them, undiminished by the violence of time." Introduction Page 16
Tell me you haven't shared these thoughts too. The use of hornbooks pops up in my reading from time to time, and while I'd once Googled to clarify what they were, I don't recall ever seeing one, until now, which was a joy.

And while I knew what a hornbook was, I'd never heard of a xylothek or a wooden library, have you? According to the author, Xylotheks:
"... record arboreal biodiversity by forming a library from the trees themselves. Each volume is made of the wood of a different tree, their spines composed of the bark... and their contents containing specimens of the tree's leaves, seeds, branches and roots." Books that Aren't Books, Page 34
I defy any reader to view the accompanying photograph in the book and not instinctively want to reach out to touch and smell the volumes. Apparently xylothek collections of native flora can be found around the world and we have one here in Australia! Who knew?

I enjoyed studying the sheer ingenuity and variety in the emerging designs for the typewriter, and of course reading about the Voynich Manuscript; a book that has been studied around the world, but never been successfully decoded or deciphered.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Madman's Library and have already made plans to read his follow up published in 2022, entitled The Madman's Gallery - The Strangest Paintings, Sculptures and Other Curiosities from the History of Art. Here he turns his eye to the 'greatest curiosities from the global history of art' by gathering together more than a hundred 'magnificently eccentric antique paintings, engravings, illustrations and sculptures, each chosen for their striking beauty and the wonderfully bizarre story behind their creation.'

Colour me interested!

My Rating:

15 February 2024

Review: The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley

The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley book cover

If you love fairytales and historical fiction set in France, then The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley will interest you. Set in the salons of Paris and commencing in 1699 during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV, this story is based on the life of Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy and her friend, socialite and heiress Madame Nicola Tiquet.

Marie Catherine was a storyteller and author known for coining the term 'fairytale' and The Bee and the Orange Tree focusses on her life, in addition to that of her daughter Angelina and friend Nicola Tiquet. Those familiar with the fate of Madame Angelique-Nicole Tiquet may be interested in this fictionalised account of her life, while simultaneously finding the conditions of her circumstances hard to process.

Imagining the literary salons of Paris in the seventeenth century was intoxicating and the list of family and character names at the beginning of the novel was extremely useful. In this novel about female agency and the power of story, our characters struggle with overbearing males in their lives:
"She'd lost count of the conversations they had shared about brutish husbands. She repeated the advice she always delivered at their end: you are more capable - of creating meaning, of finding pleasure - than you allow yourself to believe." Page 22
While seeming more appropriate for today's characters than 300 years ago, this advice is freely given, yet has surprising and unintended consequences for our characters.

The writing in The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley is luscious and evocative and reading it felt like an indulgence. We're also treated to some striking moments like this one:
"As the only tree standing in the field of her mother's fury, she was preparing to be lashed by strong winds, vulnerable to a fiery lightning strike." Page 291
Written by an Australian author and published in 2019, the title of this book comes from a fairytale of the same name written by Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy and published in 1697 and it really works. My reading experience would have been enhanced if I'd known the book was based on real figures from history; that understanding only arrived afterwards with the Author's Note at the end.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to visit one of the literary salons of France in the 1600s or enjoy the work of Kate Forsyth with regard to fairytales, The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley is for you.

My Rating:

08 February 2024

Review: Vital Organs by Suzie Edge

Vital Organs - A History of the World's Most Famous Body Parts by Suzie Edge audiobook cover

Vital Organs - A History of the World's Most Famous Body Parts by Suzie Edge has a nifty concept to pull in readers eager to discover the quirky stories behind 'history's most famous limbs, organs, and appendages'.

With creatively titled chapter headings like Queen Victoria's Armpit (Chapter 16), King Louis' Fistula (Chapter 25) and Napoleon's Pen*s (Chapter 32), medical doctor and historian Suzie Edge grabs your attention and provides an interesting conversational style overview of each case, supported by history and science.

Listening on audiobook and narrated by the author, I enjoyed learning about Miss Emily Wilding Davison's Skull in Chapter 3, while cases I was already familiar with still entertained. Alexis St. Martin survived being shot in the stomach and after undergoing lifesaving surgery, the open wound failed to heal closed. This wound created a 'window' of sorts directly into the stomach, allowing an Army surgeon to study the digestive process for years afterwards.

Chapter 10 was a dazzling deep dive into dental health, looking at the famous Habsburg Jaw acquired after centuries of inbreeding; Marie Antoinette's early form of braces; George Washington's gum disease and false teeth made from ivory and stolen teeth from slaves; and teeth stripped from dead soldiers laying on Napoleonic battlefields known as Waterloo teeth.

If that wasn't suitably informative and enGROSSing enough for you, Chapter 38 Yao Niang's Toes was all about Chinese foot binding, yes please! I've always been fascinated by the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding, an interest recently renewed when I read Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See last year and further satisfied here.

In the author's own words, Suzie Edge tells stories about 'gory human body history' and this has made her a sensation on Tik Tok. I'm not a regular user of TikTok or BookTok - an online community focussing on books and literature - but this isn't the first time I've read a book or listened to an audiobook about medical history.

Some of you might remember and/or enjoy:

With a few books of this nature still waiting for me on my TBR, including Severed - A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson, I'm also keen to read the author's book on Royals in Mortal Monarchs - 1000 Years of Royal Deaths as well as her upcoming release, History Stinks! Poo Through The Ages.

In Vital Organs, Suzie Edge condenses vast amounts of history into short sharp chapters making the history engaging and digestible in a readily accessible writing style and I recommend it to non fiction readers with an interest in history, medical history and anatomy.

My Rating:

 * I'm not a prude but Carpe Librum has been the victim of censorship (outrageous) that I haven't been able to remedy, and two of my book reviews are hidden behind warnings for sensitive content. What's so sensitive about books and reading I hear you ask? In short, reviewed two books with the 'S' word in the title, so rather than leave out the mention of Napoleon's appendage, I've used an asterisk in the hope this review won't be flagged.

31 January 2024

Review: The Pulling by Adele Dumont

The Pulling by Adele Dumont book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Opening with a disclosure about her fingernails, readers picking up The Pulling quickly discover that Australian author Adele Dumont is extending an invitation to join her in exploring her deepest darkest thoughts, warts, fingernails and all. Dumont even tries to warn sensitive readers:
"Before I go on, let me say that the chapters that follow this one may be hard for you to bear; unless you are of my kind, doing what I do would hurt you." Page 49
In a deeply personal memoir that can also be read as a collection of essays and vice versa, author Adele Dumont shares that she has trichotillomania (from the Greek word for hair + pull + mania), however she never uses the word. Instead, she prefers to call it pulling in order to highlight the physical nature of the act and the mental pull of the urge; hence the title of this book.
"The whole process was mysteriously painless: the hairs on my head, I learned quickly, sit as shallowly as birthday candles in a cake, can be removed as effortlessly as a grape can from its stem." Page 49
As you can see, the writing is evocative, yet the private thoughts regarding her upbringing and relationship with her mother and sister often gave me pause on the page as I marvelled at her self awareness and deep level of disclosure. Many reminiscences were tough, but this one made me smile in recognition:
"She scorned the kind of parents who fed their kids anything too processed or frozen or coloured. When my sister wanted devon for her lunches like all the other kids, my mum would screw up her face and tell her: 'They make that stuff out of embryos.' She didn't seem to trust the kind of people who bought play-dough or birthday cakes from the shops instead of making them from scratch..." Page 24-25
The Pulling is an intimate self examination of habit, ritual, compulsion and obsession without slipping into pointless navel gazing or devolving into a pity party. In an intensely personal narrative, Dumont attempts to explain her detailed thought process before, during and after a session of pulling, the affects it has on her physical body, her confidence levels and self esteem.

When describing the feeling of being in the pulling state, Dumont shares:
"So captive is this state that from within it I have watched my phone ring on the carpet beside me, but been incapable of reaching across to pick it up. In my laundry, which adjoins the lounge room, once I accidentally forgot to unplug the sink that the machine drains into, and listened to the sink fill then flood, knowing - at some level - that it must be seeping into the carpet, but helpless to interrupt it. When I've been overtaken, I have stood and watched water in my porridge simmer away into the air, and then the oats turn black and crackle with dryness, and my ears fill with the smoke alarm's shriek." Page 72
I can't even begin to imagine how paralysing this must be and just how debilitating the condition is. Exploring a topic that brings us shame and examining the matter from all sides within the relatively safe confines of our own minds is admirable, but to put pen to paper and share them with the world takes immense courage and I was in awe.

At times reading like a diary or confessional, I did find myself wondering why the aspect of alopecia wasn't explored. If I noticed a friend or colleague with a patch of missing hair or an ill fitting hair piece, I would - incorrectly in this case of course - assume it was alopecia and move on. I wouldn't ask questions to clarify my assumption, judge the person negatively or bring attention to their condition in the same way I wouldn't comment if a person has visible vitiligo or male pattern baldness. I wish the author had considered this as a reason she was never 'confronted' or 'outed' by those close to her; although I'm prepared to accept that perhaps she has and it just didn't make the final edit.

The Pulling was hard going at times, strictly due to the intensely personal nature of the disclosures and the feelings they stirred up. In reading the author's accounts, I found myself better understanding the mental gymnastics underlying other compulsions like gambling which was insightful. Dumont is optimistic about the future, trying to reduce her triggers and pull less:
"Here is the basic truth: I wanted to stop pulling, but I also wanted to pull. And one of these desires was always stronger than the other." Page 183
I can certainly relate to the contradictory nature of our thoughts and how some desires are in direct conflict with others; the desire to be healthy and the desire to eat foods that don't aid in the achievement of that goal. The pleasing introduction of a life partner and their close relationship with the author gives the reader hope M will be able to provide the strength and support she needs:
"I had long thought of the hypervigilance and deception my condition required as being a barrier to intimacy. But now I saw another dimension to my secret: its disclosure could be a means of offering intimacy." Page 239
Dumont shares many personal epiphanies and self discoveries and I applaud her courage in making them public. I also found myself wondering how it will be received by those who know the author well while hoping it aids in her healing. This collection won't be for all readers, but there's much to be gained within the pages of The Pulling by Adele Dumont and I won't be forgetting it in a hurry.

My Rating:

P.S. The book also touched on a few of my favourite topics: Rapunzel Syndrome, bezoars, hair as identity, the religious and historical significance of hair and more. Those interested in hair might like to check out my review on Hair by Scott Lowe.

24 January 2024

Review: Magic Words by Jonah Berger

Magic Words by Jonah Berger audiobook cover

Magic Words - What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger was an interesting audiobook and the author's research promises to reveal 'how six types of words can increase your impact in every area from persuading others and building stronger relationships, to boosting creativity and motivating teams'.

According to Berger, digital language processing tools have revolutionised the social sciences, and after analysing countless movie scripts, customer service calls, academic papers, millions of online reviews, song lyrics and more, he has comprised a list of six types of words.

Listening to this audiobook and flipping through the ebook from my library, I'm not left with 6 specific words burned into my brain - like please or thank you - rather the book was more about how to use words more effectively. Here's more in the author's words.
"This book uncovers the hidden science behind how language works. And more importantly how we can use it more effectively to persuade others, deepen relationships and be more successful at home and at work." Introduction
The one magic word I will take away from reading this is the word 'because'. The author tells us of an experiment where the test subject asked if they could push in front of a queue of people waiting in line to print a document. First they asked nicely and then they made the same request and used the word 'because' and followed on with words to the effect they were in a hurry. I was surprised that the word 'because' resulted in the request being met more favourably because it's an approach I already employ. (Pun intended).

Having said that, I thought the success lay in spending more time talking with the person to make a case, hence lessening the rudeness of the request and explaining the reason in an attempt to mitigate blowback. You could argue the word 'because' is a magic word, or in the act of using it, you're also achieving the above.

The second key takeaway for me was the fact that some of us want to claim a desired identity and Berger uses an example whereby young children were asked two questions in order to determine the best approach. Children were asked "can you help clean up the blocks?" or "can you be a helper and clean up the blocks?" Those asked to be helpers were more enthusiastic to help in the task.

Rephrasing the request makes the task of helping seem like an opportunity to claim the desired identity of helper and being a helper is a useful and positive experience that reflects well on the child. This also taps into the naughty/nice and good girl/good boy language that recognises and reinforces good behaviour. Interesting!

Magic Words - What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger is full of small moments like this, although having read How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, the majority of the content wasn't new to me. Readers fresh to the topic of language, the art of communication and social sciences will love this!

My Rating:

19 January 2024

Review: The Strangers on Montagu Street (Tradd Street #3) by Karen White

The Strangers on Montagu Street (Tradd Street #3) by Karen White book cover

From one book with a creepy house at sunset on the cover to another, and this is my third visit to the Tradd Street series written by Karen White. Beginning with The House on Tradd Street (#1) and continuing with The Girl on Legare Street (#2), The Strangers on Montagu Street (#3) picks up with the same set of characters and moves us along with their lives and complex relationships.

Melanie Trenholm is a successful realtor in Charleston, South Carolina and continues to work on restoring her historic home. Love interest Jack is still on the scene but he's shocked early on to discover he has a daughter he didn't know about. Oh, and Melanie is also psychic but she keeps it on the down low.

Not sure why it is that I enjoy this series so much, is it the frequent mention of architecture, restoration and antiques? Melanie's ability to see/sense ghosts or the tension brewing between Melanie and Jack? I don't usually enjoy the romance elements of a plot but here it works. The Southern location and sultry heat along with unearthing family secrets containing betrayal and loss kept the pages turning with enthusiasm. And there's even a haunted dollhouse, need I say more?

With so much time elapsing since reading the first two books in 2011 and 2015 respectively and with the third in 2024, I'm surprised I was able to immediately dive straight back into the series with such ease and relish. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that while I was off reading other things, the author continued on with the series, ultimately choosing to end it with book #7 in 2021.

It's rare for me to be able to read a series right through to its conclusion - either losing interest, prioritising elsewhere or abandoning the task due to diminishing reading returns - but I'm excited to give it a try this time, and now have the following books to look forward to.

The remaining books in the series are:
  • Return to Tradd Street (#4)
  • The Guests on South Battery (#5)
  • The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street (#6)
  • The Attic on Queen Street (#7)
Any prediction as to when I'll finish reading the series? 😆

My Rating:

16 January 2024

Review: The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

An author struggling to write her next bestseller receives a request from a famous billionaire in Malibu to ghost write his family's story. Our protagonist Olivia Fitzgerald has enjoyed publishing success in the past although her latest re-telling of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier hasn't sold well and now she's struggling to deliver her next manuscript. Without any progress or prospects, Olivia is unable to refuse the offer and agrees to meet billionaire and People’s Sexiest Man Alive Henry (Ash) Asherwood to discuss the project.

Olivia isn't sure whether to believe the story that Daphne Du Maurier plagiarised the story of Rebecca, and that the 'original' story was a first person account written by Ash's ancestor.

Readers familiar with the plot of Rebecca should fall in love with The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor. We have multiple 'book within a book' references with a little of Olivia's Rebecca re-telling making its way into the novel, along with the story that inspired the original Rebecca novel that somehow seems to mirror Ash's life.

In this way, the book becomes a little like Inception with a layered plot containing multitudes of Rebecca references making The Fiction Writer novel itself seem like another gothic mystery in the making.

That said, some of the descriptions gave me pause for all of the wrong reasons, like this one:
"As I walked in the sand, staring off at the gray mist encapsulating the water, I grew more determined to focus on work, on the project today." Page 72
Last I checked, mist can't enclose the water or it ceases to be mist and these moments distracted me from the story at hand.

Olivia's work situation and attraction to Ash reminded me a little of Verity by Colleen Hoover, in that a writer is staying at their employer's house in their personal space with attraction sizzling and a growing sense of unease building.

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor is definitely recommended for fans of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which I enjoyed back in 2019 as much as this modern offering.

My Rating:

14 January 2024

2024 Reading Challenge Sign Ups

It's a new year and a fresh start for annual challenges and I'm signing up for two reading challenges this year.

Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2024

First up is the Non Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by fellow Aussie book blogger Shelleyrae at Book'd Out, but I'll be increasing the difficulty level this year.

Instead of committing to read 6 books from any 6 categories, I'm tackling the highest level of the challenge to complete the Nonfiction Nosher level. For this, I will need to read and review 12 books, one book for each category in the list below.
2024 Non Fiction Reading Challenge logo by Book'd Out

Here are the categories:
True Crime
The Future
Published in 2024

Some of these are going to be hard, so if you have any suggestions I'm happily accepting recommendations. In the meantime I have plans to read The Pulling by Adele Dumont for the biography/memoir or health challenge prompt.

You can join in too! Social media tags: #ReadNonFicChal @bookdout (Twitter) @shelleyrae_bookdout (Instagram).

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2024

Hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader, today I'm signing up to complete the Medieval Reader level of the challenge, one level higher than previous years. 
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2024 logo by The Intrepid Reader

Last year I aimed to read 10 books but this year I'll need to read and review 15 historical fiction books in order to successfully complete the challenge.

So far, I'm planning to read The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See.


Are you challenging yourself in 2024? Do you plan to borrow more books from the library, read more or less about a certain topic or spend more time reading? I'd love to know and feel free to track my progress through the year over on the Challenges 2024 page.

10 January 2024

Review: The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson

The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson audiobook cover

I didn't expect to close out my year of reading in 2023 with a book by Bill Bryson or a book about Christmas, yet both of these coalesced when I came across the irresistibly titled The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson last month.

Bill Bryson always manages to entertain me with curious facts from history and has a warm and merry narrating voice making this the perfect non fiction book for the month of December.

This Audible freebie was delightful and I enjoyed following Bryson through the history of Christmas and various yuletide traditions in this heartwarming yet brief spotlight on a very jolly time of year.

When it comes to gift giving, Bryson points out that some presents cost more to the giver than they are worth to the receiver, however he balances this by making the following counterpoint:
"The very act of giving a gift automatically adds value to the gift, because it expresses qualities of affection and friendship that cannot be priced. There's also value to the giver because it makes them feel loved or appreciated..." Chapter 6 - Let's Shop!
Yes, this is why I love gift giving so much! The effort and thought behind a gift means so much more than buying the item yourself. It adds sentiment and meaning to the recipient and serves as a reminder whenever you see/use/wear that item. The author goes on to mention that gifts include 'sentiment and good will and lots of other qualities that cannot be measured economically.' I couldn't agree more.

Along the way, Bryson bursts some festive myths and even goes as far as introducing the reader to a website dutifully listing the ever increasing number of Black Friday fatalities around the world. On a more positive and intriguing note, Bryson shares another surprising quirk of Christmas:
"One of the most endearing aspects of Christmas is how it has spread to other lands, often with a novel twist. In Japan for instance, it is now a fixed tradition among millions of people to have a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken at Christmas time." Chapter 6 - Let's Shop!
Don't believe me? Have a listen to this festive gem for yourself.

You can also check out my review of At Home - A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
or The Body - A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

My Rating:

08 January 2024

Top 5 Books of 2023

2023 was an excellent reading year overall, and I read a total of 76 books with (weirdly) the same amount of 5 star reads as last year, with 19 books earning a 5 star rating. In previous years, my top five list has covered a range of genres, whereas this year they're drawn from just two. Three of the books featured were requested from the respective publisher, one was my own copy and another borrowed from the library.

Here are my Top 5 Books of 2023 in the order I read them:

1. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell
The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell book cover

This is an atmospheric novel about class, ambition, loyalty, envy, power and obsession and I was truly gripped as I flipped the pages to witness the slow destruction of certain characters.

Set at the Mercury Theatre in Victorian London, Miss Jennifer Wilcox has been brought low by her circumstances and accepts a job offer from the wife of the theatre's owner in return for a favour she can't refuse. Jennifer will need to make and mend all of the costumes, style hair and organise the accessories for the leading actress at the Mercury while spying on her.

The theatre setting, the backstory and suspicious and deadly accidents at the Mercury along with nods to the era (a young brother pasting together matchboxes to earn his keep and another working in a hat factory) were the icing on this creepy Victorian cake. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell was a gothic triumph!

2. Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See
Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See book cover

Set in 15th century China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), this is the fictional account of the life of Tan Yunxian, a woman who became a practicing doctor in China at a time it was extremely rare and severely frowned upon. Yunxian was so successful looking after her female patients, she published a book of medical cases in 1511 and to date, it's the oldest known medical book written by a woman in China.

We follow Yunxian from 1469, through her Milk Days, Hair-Pinning Days, Rice and Salt Days right through to her Sitting Quietly days, which formed a wonderful structure for her story and life progression. The relationships Yunxian has with her mother Respectful Lady, mother-in-law Lady Kuo, her father's concubine Miss Zhao, and her friend Meiling drive the character development and plot forward in an unforgettable narrative.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See was a complete surprise and I loved the content around foot binding.

3. The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge
The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge book cover

Walcha is a small town in NSW and in 2017, Natasha Darcy murdered her partner Mathew Dunbar and tried to make it look like suicide so that she could inherit his multi-million dollar farm. Australian journalist Emma Partridge is the Senior Crime Editor for Nine News, and in penning Mathew Dunbar's story in The Widow of Walcha, exposes the greedy and despicable behaviour of one of the most cold and calculating women in Australia.

Mathew Dunbar was a kind and generous sheep grazier looking for love and a family, making him the perfect target for Natasha Darcy. The case, arrest and subsequent trial outlined in the book showed Darcy to be a compulsive liar and an evil, manipulative woman. There was so much damning evidence in this case it was mind-blowing and I found it hard to fathom how a woman could be so cold and cruel.

Narrated by Jo Van Es, The Widow of Walcha gives us a shocking glimpse into the sordid mind of a self-serving, unfeeling, greedy and manipulative woman prepared to do anything to further her financial position at the expense of all others. Sentenced to 40 years in prison with a non-parole period of 30 years, thankfully Darcy's black widow days are well and truly over. The Widow of Walcha is one of the best Australian true crime accounts I've ever read and I found myself talking to many people about it afterwards.

4. Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson
Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson book cover

After the events in the last book (Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, which made my Top 2022 list) Ernie Cunningham is enjoying his publishing success when he receives an invitation to attend a crime writer's festival held on The Ghan.

Ernie regularly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, like telling us up front that we can safely assume he survives the tour given he's writing about it. Openly giving us a list of suspects and divulging his findings, this is another brain teasing, mind stimulating laugh out loud slap to the face of a book and I couldn't get enough. Stevenson readily gives the reader clues the entire way, yet still manages to surprise us.

Full of insightful yet funny character observations - the author is also a comedian - booklovers will relish the publishing jargon and observations from the characters during their train journey on The Ghan.

5. Maphead by Ken Jennings
Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings book cover

Maps are such a big part of our lives and in Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings is the ultimate tour guide on this journey, readily providing all manner of info about geonerds and their love of maps. If you enjoy quirky facts in quick succession, this is for you.

The author has been an enthusiastic toponymist - a student of place-names - for as long as he's loved maps and it shows. We move on to the market for collectors of ancient maps and globes that stretches as far back as the Renaissance, but for readers who would rather leave history in the past, the section on maps in fantasy fiction was illuminating. Jennings weighs in on the 'map gap' between the genders, leading me to make peace with my map preference of 'forward is up' instead of 'north is up'.

I was excited to read about Roadgeeks - the highway scholars of mapheads - who take photos of road signs to clock their routes and discover more about systematic travel, while the chapter on geocaching had me checking for geocache locations near me. Maphead by Ken Jennings is endlessly engaging with sections on confluence hunting, Google Earth and street view being of key interest.

It's great to see a combination of my two favourite genres, historical fiction and non fiction dominating the list and two Australian authors represented. Honourable mention to The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs.

Have you read any of these or plan to?

Carpe Librum!
Top 5 Books of 2023 image by Carpe Librum