01 March 2021

Review: Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor book cover
Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art
by James Nestor starts off really well. I listened to the audiobook and early on in the introduction, the author states:
"The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts there."
With that kind of statement, I was an eager student, ready to learn. The first third of the book was the most informative and interesting in my opinion. I learned that the way in which we breathe and what we put into our mouths greatly influences the formation of our jaws and teeth.

Those who breathe through their mouths are more likely to suffer from a whole host of health-related problems, while the importance of eating a variety of foods that include chewing and crunching can greatly impact the formation of the jaw, teeth and facial structure.

I enjoyed the author's mention of visiting the ossuary in the Paris catacombs as he discussed the dental health of the dead. He noted that with the introduction of highly processed foods, humans suffer more now from crowded teeth and small jaws which shrinks our mouths and affects our breathing. This brought to mind a book I read in May 2017 entitled Built on Bones - 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death by archaeologist Brenna Hassett which made this case with more science and evidence to back it up.

The author himself suffers from dental and breathing problems and underwent an experiment where he and a colleague taped their noses shut for an extended period of time which forced them to breathe through their mouths. However, you'll need to read the book to find out what happened.

In the author's words: 
"This book is a scientific adventure into the lost art and science of breathing."
However, I'd lost interest by the time I reached the sections on breathing practices like Pranayama and the exercises towards the end of the book were uninspiring. Instead, my key takeaways were from the beginning of the book and now when I see a young child sucking their thumb or putting safety blankets in their mouths, I worry for their development.

James Nestor narrated the audiobook himself, however for reasons unknown, puts on a completely different voice when quoting other researchers or people throughout the text. Unfortunately I found this incredibly distracting and it considerably detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

I did enjoy the anecdotal evidence, but Breath is by no means a medical book. Nestor is a journalist, not a medical professional or a scientist, so readers do need to keep this in mind.

Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor is recommended reading for all parents (even if you just read the first half of the book), anyone suffering from dental difficulties and naturally anyone experiencing breathing problems, like asthma, snoring or sleep apnea.

My Rating:

26 February 2021

Guest Review: The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley book cover

Today it's my great pleasure to introduce a new guest reviewer to Carpe Librum readers. Silje Kinkead lives in France and loves to read, and I'm sure you'll enjoy her review of The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Over to you Silje.

About Silje

I’m 12 years old. I was born in Brisbane but I live in France, I love reading, history (but not the stuff I learn at school), and sport (especially skiing).

Silje's Review

The world is on the brink of war and nine year old Ada is abused by her mother for being physically deformed. But when the bombs start falling over London, it will change Ada’s life for the better.

Ada’s little brother, Jamie, is allowed to run around outside, explore the world, and have fun with other kids his age. Ada knows nothing of the world except the poverty of London’s East End before World War 2 except the stories her brother tells. She is locked inside her mother’s tiny London flat and forbidden to contact the outside world. But come the day of the evacuation, Ada has to make what will turn out to be a life changing decision - should she defy her mother and evacuate the city with Jamie.

In The War that Saved My Life Ada has to deal with overcoming her belief that she is “a monster” and “a disgrace”, and deal with the fact that their mother never really did love or care for her and Jamie. Ada has to learn to love herself and come to realise that she is much more than her clubfoot. But the dangers of wartime are ever closer. The germans could invade, a bomb could kill them, or for Ada especially, the intimidating reality of their mother taking them back.

This is one of my favourite books. A moving story about a girl during World War 2 learning to trust, care for, be cared for, and love people other than just her brother. Don’t be put off by thinking that this book is simply about stuff like that though. There is plenty of action and every page is engaging and interesting - and even my mum read and thoroughly enjoyed this book.

I highly recommend this book. You can really feel as if you’re part of the story yourself. It is very realistic and will appeal to anyone who is fond of a more serious children or young adult’s fiction book.


Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute - she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan - and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Silje's Rating:

25 February 2021

Review: Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble - Magical Poems chosen by Paul Cookson

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

Beautifully presented in an orange clothbound hardback edition, Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble is a collection of magical poems by Paul Cookson and is a delight to hold in the hand. Containing a selection of over 70 poems by different authors, there's enough variety in these poems for children to suit all reading tastes. Here's an example from page 33.

Witch's Wishlist by B.J. Lee *

beetle toe
Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble - Magical Poems chosen by Paul Cookson, and illustrated by Eilidh Muldoon book cover
Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble - Magical
chosen by Paul Cookson
Published by Bloomsbury
first snow
pig's feet
toad flax
dragon teeth
fairy wing
winter heath
wood ears
cypress oil
Job's tears
burdock root
mustard seed
eye of newt
jimson weed
black mallow
stirring crook
goat sallow
spell book

Lovely black and white illustrations complement the poems in the book, but the real shining light of illustrator Eilidh Muldoon's work is her magically evocative cover design. Don't you just love it? Perfect for Halloween and winter reading.

My favourite poem from the collection by far is Somewhere in the Library from page 112.

Somewhere in the Library by Stewart Henderson *

Somewhere in the library
there are fierce and friendly beasts.
Dragons, cowardly lions
enjoying midnight feasts.
Somewhere in the library
there are whirlpools and lagoons,
coves and crags and picnics
with pop and macaroons.

Somewhere in the library
there are smugglers' hidden caves,
and voyages and shipwrecks,
where adventures come in waves.
Somewhere in the library
there looms a Gruffalo,
and Twits and Gangsta Grannies
and a wardrobe full of snow...

... Where the White Witch turns the pages,
her icy fingers vexed,
as Voldermort is reading
what happens to him next.
Somewhere in the library
down a whizzing country road -
an amphibian with driving gloves...
the hapless Mr Toad.

There's a Stig, and Railway Children
all present and correct,
whilst underneath the floorboards
the Borrowers collect.
But somewhere in the library
there is someone very wise.
Her title is librarian
which is really a disguise...

... For she's a gatherer of magic
and a confidante of elves,
whose legends she has catalogued
and filed on ship-shape shelves
And she knows a thousand sagas
and ten thousand thousand tales,
she's heard the yarns of hobbits,
and the ocean dreams of whales

So, let me share her mystery,
one secret so sublime -
her special prayer that starts each day... goes...
"Once upon a time..."

This is a quick read, and other favourites from the collection include: The Magic Kitchen Carpet by Paul Cookson, Hatastrophe by Dannielle Viera and Something Down the Plughole by Neal Zetter.

Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble - Magical Poems chosen by Paul Cookson and illustrated by Eilidh Muldoon is recommended for children, teachers and parents looking for a magical and spooky read.

* These two poems have been reproduced here with the express permission of the publisher.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

22 February 2021

Review: The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

In my years spent enjoying books, tv shows and movies set in the Victorian era (1837-1901) I can't believe I've never come across the art of shadow portraits and silhouette artists before. Popular from the mid 1700s, profiles of a person were painted or cut by hand from black cardboard in order to retain their likeness and often worn in lockets or mounted as gifts. They were a cheaper alternative to painted miniature portraits but began to fall out of fashion with the introduction of photography.

The fact that Laura Purcell was the author to introduce me to a silhouette artist was more than I could hope for. Her novel The Corset was one of my favourite books in 2018, so naturally I had high hopes for The Shape of Darkness.

Agnes Darken is a silhouette artist living in Victorian Bath struggling to make ends meet. Left to provide for her mother and orphaned nephew, she works hard to make enough money from her trade of cutting shades to support her family. When a sitter of hers dies, soon followed by another, Agnes worries she has somehow unwittingly caused their deaths.

Pearl is an eleven year old albino girl and spirit medium, and along with her half-sister Miss West, they hold seances to commune with spirits. Their sickly father is dying from Phossy jaw (phosphorus necrosis of the jaw) as a result of working in a match factory and the girls are left to run the household as best they can.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the murders, Agnes consults Pearl but together they are frightened by what they discover.

The Shape of Darkness is a gothic tale full of references that let me know immediately I was in Victorian England. Seances, ear trumpets, reticules and plenty of mourning etiquette was on display within the pages, making this a real pleasure to read. Here's an example from early on in the novel.
"Agnes finds the Boyles' residence almost at once. There is the telltale straw laid out before it to deaden the sound of wheels and the windows are shuttered fast. She adjusts her grip on the package. Perhaps this was not a wise notion, after all.
Black material swaddles the brass knocker. It makes a muted, pathetic sound as she lets it fall. Some moments later, the door opens like a tender wound. Behind it is a squat woman dressed in mourning, but the expression upon her face is one of harassment, not grief." Page 32-33
And another from later on in the novel:
"The glass hearse displays a coffin suffocating in lilies. It travels feet first so that its occupant cannot look back and beckon others to follow.
Yet they do follow: mourners trail wearily behind on foot and the family creep along in their own elaborate carriage. They have not pulled the curtains for privacy. Each stricken and contorted countenance is on view.
Agnes knows she should lower her eyes in consideration of the family's pain, but she does not; no one does. Everyone peers into the carriage, eager to see the mark death has left on those it passed so closely by." Page 248
Laura Purcell has a gift for setting the scene in her novels and she does it so well. Author of The Silent Companions, The Corset and Bone China, I continue to enjoy the manner in which she conjures the hustle and bustle of her chosen setting. Here's another example if you haven't yet had the pleasure of her books.
"Everyone hurries: to the dyers, to the locksmith, to the grocers, to the chophouses that issue a malodour of hot beef fat. She cannot keep pace. And none of the men emerging from their work at the brewery possess enough gallantry to grant a lady a wide berth on the pavement." Page 96
This gothic delight of a novel is presented with a gorgeous cover design showing a character's silhouette on a visually stunning background of Victorian era scissors spotted with blood. A silhouette adorns the back of the book too and I believe this to be Pearl, with either Agnes or her sister on the front cover. If you've read the book, who do you think graces the cover?

Miss Darken must have one of the best character names of the year and she experiences her fair share of problems in the novel. Grieving the loss of her sister in a mysterious accident and recently recovering from ill health, her physician and brother-in-law Simon attempts to thwart her efforts to solve the case. Is she as emotionally frail as he suggests or is there more to it?

All is revealed in a surprising conclusion although I'm still chasing the absolute perfect ending that was The Corset and this fell a whisker short. Highly recommended for fans of Victorian era historical fiction and all things gothic.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

18 February 2021

Guest Review: Lana's War by Anita Abriel

Lana's War by Anita Abriel book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *


A regular feature here on Carpe Librum this year, Neil Béchervaise has recently read Lana's War by Australian born author Anita Abriel and shares his thoughts on the book below.


From the bestselling author of The Light After the War comes the unforgettable story of a young woman waging her own war against the Nazis as a spy for the Resistance on the French Riviera.

Paris, 1943: Lana Antanova is rushing to tell her husband she is pregnant when she witnesses him being executed by a Gestapo officer for hiding a Jewish girl in a piano. Overcome with grief, Lana loses the baby.

A few months later, a heartbroken Lana is approached to join the Resistance on the French Riviera. As the daughter of a Russian countess, Lana has the perfect background to infiltrate the émigré community of Russian aristocrats who socialise with Nazi officers, including the man who killed her husband.

Lana’s cover story makes her the mistress of a wealthy Swiss playboy, the darkly handsome and charismatic Guy Pascal, and her base his villa in Cap Ferrat. Together they make a ruthlessly effective team. Consumed by her mission, Lana doesn’t count on becoming attached to a young Jewish girl or falling helplessly in love with Guy.

As the Nazis close in, Lana’s desire to protect the ones she loves threatens to put them all at risk.


The return to popularity of wartime experience novels, as evidenced in Tania Blanchard’s facto-fictional Letters from Berlin, Anita Shreve’s Resistance, and Alex Miller’s Max probably signal a generational shift in perceptions of ‘the war’.

Perhaps starting with the fictional ‘biography’ of the fictional author, Helen Demidenko’s (1994) The Hand that Signed the Paper may actually have presaged this new range of wartime experiences with its focus on the roles of women, the conflict between their emotional responses and their physical reactions, their active involvement in resistance and the dangers they faced as they trod their duplicitous paths to saving lives while offering apparent support for the occupying Nazis.

Like Letters from Berlin and Emma Donahue’s Akin, Lana’s War takes the war away from its traditional focus on concentration camp survival and the impact of war in major centres to the decay of the carefree lifestyles of the rich and famous on the French Riviera.

Lana has seen her musician husband killed for attempting to defend a Jewish child from deportation, she has miscarried the baby she was about to tell him about and she is desolate in a Paris where the full brutality of the Nazi occupiers is becoming apparent. Convinced of the potential for saving children’s lives as a member of the resistance, Lana leaves her mother and moves to the Riviera where she will use her Russian nobility and her beauty to access Nazi secrets while living in luxury with the handsome Guy Pascal, a Swiss businessman and resistance leader.

The rest, as they say, is history – more or less. Effectively adopting the Jewish orphan child, Odette, falling in love with Guy and resisting the amorous advances of senior gestapo officers and an ambiguous Briton - who may or may not be a Nazi agent – Lana escapes with Odette to Switzerland because Guy has, inexplicably, disappeared. In Geneva, Lana resumes her Chemistry studies (she has always wanted to become a perfumer) and Odette’s schooling.

Lana’s War is a tough read emotionally. One can’t help but worry for Lana, the orphaned children and the Jews being savagely removed to their deaths as Europe crumbles under the onslaught and then the retreat of Nazism across the early 1940s. 

On the other hand, Abriel’s latest novel is seductively well written and even enjoyable in its compassion. Without detracting from its value and appeal to the adult reader, I suspect Lana’s War would make a useful addition to many senior school English booklists.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

16 February 2021

Review: Life with the Afterlife - 13 Truths I Learned About Ghosts by Amy Bruni with Julie Tremaine

Life with the Afterlife - 13 Truths I Learned About Ghosts by Amy Bruni with Julie Tremaine book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Have you ever looked at the title of a book and decided for yourself what it's going to be about? This happened to me when I saw Life With the Afterlife - 13 Truths I Learned About Ghosts by Amy Bruni, host of Kindred Spirits. I began a happy little assumption that being the host of a ghost hunter show like Kindred Spirits, Amy would be a medium or psychic of some sort, and here in her book she'd be sharing the 13 truths she learned from ghosts. Sound reasonable enough? Well, that's the book I wanted to read so I requested it from the publisher.

I've never watched an episode of Kindred Spirits, although from what Amy shares with the reader in her book, it's different from other ghost hunter books in that the hosts try to help those they come into contact with. Home owners are often disappointed to find their house isn't haunted and a lot of research takes place to determine the history of a house and who might be disturbing the peace.

You certainly don't need to be a Kindred Spirits fan or have watched the show in order to understand the contents of this book, however I do think the book is better suited to viewers of the program.

Amy Bruni saw her first ghost when she was a kid, but her skills as a paranormal investigator are what she draws on to do her work. She's not a medium or psychic and instead invites people like Chip Coffey on to her show when she needs a little additional insight.

Amy Bruni isn't like Debbie Malone, Belinda Davidson, Lisa Williams, and more whose books I've read and reviewed here on Carpe Librum over the years. If I'd read the blurb of this book properly and paid more attention to the actual title - not the title I wanted to see - this would have been clear to me from the get go.

Now that we've established my faults as a reader going into this, there were a few problems I encountered with the writing. Amy Bruni has written Life With the Afterlife with the help of Julie Tremaine, presumably because writing a book isn't her forte. However even with this expert assistance, the content of the book is disorganised, a little all over the place and repetitive in parts. Here's an example.
"The building, erected in 1892, had been a bank until it was converted into a restaurant in the late 1970s. Mike the owner of the Twisted Vine, had given us some items associated with the bank. Later on that day, when we used a banknote as a trigger object, Sam told us that he recognized the paperwork. From there, we were able to find a Samuel Lesseey, a longtime employee of what used to be Birmingham National Bank, who took his life in the building in November 1913. Lesseey had been tied to a theft there: A customer had modified a twenty-five-dollar check to pay out $2,500. The shame of the mistake and the ensuing scandal are believed to have led him to commit suicide. He walked to a local cemetary, laid down in a coffin box in a mausoleum, and shot himself in the head. The story spread as far as the West Coast, showing up in the Los Angeles Herald, albeit with his name spelled as "Lessep" and "Lessey" in the story." Page 226
This is the sort of investigation I enjoy reading about, but did Lessey take his life in the bank or at a cemetary? The story is either poorly written allowing for two interpretations or contains conflicting accounts of what happened to Lesseey.

The structure of the book around the 13 truths also made for a disjointed reading experience and allowed for repetition of places visited and cases worked.

The best part of the book came in the final few pages as Bruni shared her thoughts on the ways in which the current COVID pandemic might impact the world. She points out that major global events have resulted in a surge of spiritualism in the past, and I've been interested in that topic before, reviewing Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan's Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry in 2017. The author goes on to mention that people have been spending more time in their homes and are perhaps becoming aware of activity they were too busy to take notice of before. She also comments that some of the activity might be spiking as a result of the increased levels of fear and anxiety many of us are experiencing, not to mention the grief at losing loved ones.

Bruni is absolutely right that people have suffered and died alone of the Coronavirus. Loved ones haven't been able to say goodbye and we haven't been able to come together and grieve the way we used to. All of this has to have some kind of impact on us; whether this is an increase in death awareness, or a surge in spiritualism, I don't know. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

15 February 2021

Winner of The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez announced

Thanks to everyone who entered last week's giveaway to win a copy of The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez. The giveaway closed at midnight last night, and the winner was drawn today. Congratulations go to:

Bev Goldfarb!

The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez book cover

Congratulations Bev! You've won a print copy of The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez valued at $32.99AUD. You'll receive an email from me shortly with the details of your win and Penguin Random House Australia will send your prize out to you directly.

Enjoy and stay tuned for more giveaway opportunities coming soon.

Carpe Librum!

11 February 2021

Guest Review: The Dead Line by Holly Watt

The Dead Line by Holly Watt book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *


Imagine coming home and finding a note sewn to the dress you just bought, with the words: 'they take the girls'. That's the basic premise of The Dead Line by Holly Watt and guest reviewer Neil Béchervaise shares his thoughts on the book below.


If you are desperate enough to raise a family then the cost may seem irrelevant. IVF may seem to be the only way. Surrogacy may be the only solution on offer to maintain the genetic line. No matter the cost.

Holly Watt’s latest thriller challenges the innocence behind the ‘at-all-costs’ premise behind ‘having a baby’. Her team of investigative reporters are alerted to slips of fabric among designer clothes imported from Bangladesh. A quick whip-around of the publishing team at The Post in London suggests that the messages may be flagging a baby market centred on Rohinga refugee girls. The stage is set to expose a multinational conspiracy involving British politicians, diplomats and a top London medical specialist in supplying babies for a desperate elite of would-be parents with the money to indulge their desires.

As investigative journalist Casey Benedict sets up her team and opens her investigation, it quickly becomes clear that this must be a story of brutal kidnapping, slavery and murder at its initiation point and highly dubious moral standards obscured amongst conflicted intentions at its delivery point.

In The Dead Line, Holly Watt provides an emotionally compelling story of desperation amongst Rohinga refugees and Bangladeshi women in slavery to an international garment trade that so blithely provides us with the cheapest of clothing. Simultaneously, she offers a revelation into the questionable market for surrogate motherhood, the oh-so-slight bending of immigration rules to accommodate the wishes of the desperate rich couples who would be parents and the almost innocent – or is it ‘well-intentioned’ – group of basically unconnected specialists who collaborate with internationally connected criminals to profit from these crimes.

Watts’ novel is, all at once, highly readable, immediately familiar and morally challenging once it gets past the initial investigative team selection and journalistic context phase. In its closing stages, the pursuit through Bangladeshi slave factories challenges credibility – could this English woman really escape a criminal gang across the mudflats of Bangladeshi shipyards?

The final resolution, equally, left me with a feeling that the author was actually unwilling to apportion blame for the abuse of Rohinga refugees, the slavery and murder of Bangladeshi garment workers and the corruption of both respected diplomats and highly esteemed medical specialists on the self-seeking willingness of a rich couple to subjugate their morality to their need for a baby. With these few reservations, I believe that Holly Watts has produced a really interesting thriller with enough grist to feed the modern mill of those who are willing to explore the ambiguity of modern medical practice at its extremes.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

08 February 2021

Review: The Reach by B. Michael Radburn

The Reach by B. Michael Radburn book cover
* Copy courtesy of Pantera Press *

Taylor Bridges is back! We first met Park Ranger Taylor Bridges in Tasmania in The Crossing, then caught up with him in Gippsland Victoria in The Falls, and this time he's on secondment to the Hawkesbury River in NSW.

Bridges has earned a reputation as a remote crime scene specialist and this time he's heading into a remote logging community called Devlins Reach. With a population of only 320 people, Devlins Reach is accessible by ferry across the Hawkesbury River. Taylor has been asked to employ his unique set of skills to assist Detective Sergeant (DS) Ryan Everett in the investigation into the remains of three men discovered at an excavation site.

Radburn's skill at capturing the Australian bush is in full swing again and the isolated environment almost becomes a character of its own as the river swells and a huge weather event is on the way.

Small town characters feature throughout the book as DS Everett and Taylor Bridges attempt to identify the men and establish who may have wanted to harm them. The history of the island is full of secrets and unexplained disappearances and the locals are reluctant to talk; preferring to keep their secrets to themselves. Bridges shares his beliefs on energy and history which adds to the tension:
" I believe when something bad happens - and I mean something truly wicked - it can leave a stain, some kind of residue on the place; a memory that can't be wiped clean. Nothing to do with spectres, things that go bump in the night; it's more grounded than that, as if the energy sparked during that wicked deed remains burning somehow." Page 106
The Reach has a dark and otherworldly undercurrent, with an old logger's tale about a Hoodoo that takes on many forms and is responsible for men disappearing from the logger's camp. Taylor's daughter is channelling warnings from her deceased sister Claire that may or may not be relevant to the case. Many locals believe in a dark power and it's up to the reader to decide if any of it is real or not. I really enjoyed this duality and it certainly added to my reading experience.

With limited resources at hand and zero back up available, Bridges and Everett make a great team. We hear from them in alternating chapters that makes for an entertaining and convincing crime-solving endeavour. The Reach can be comfortably read as a stand alone with a few references to Taylor's background enough to inform the reader, however I do recommend you start at the beginning in order to enjoy the character arc and understand how Taylor has found himself with this unique set of skills.

This series continues to be cinematic, and I can easily imagine Bridges holding his own with many of the other single name crime and mystery solving specialists on our TV screens, like: Bones, Bosch, Cardinal, Castle, Chance, Dexter, Goliath, Harrow, House, Lucifer, Luther, Sherlock, Strike, River and Wallander. Okay, sorry, I think I got a little carried away there. Obviously single name TV shows are a 'thing' I enjoy and I totally think Bridges should be added to their company.

I really enjoy the continuity in the titles of this series, Glorys Crossing becomes The Crossing, The Falls is the location of the second book and Devlins Reach becomes The Reach. In listening to an interview with the author on the Good Reading podcast, I've learned the next book in the series is called The Wells which will be taking Taylor Bridges up north to the Northern Territory. 

What a terrific Australian crime series this is turning out to be; with each book set in a different state of Australia, readers are able to journey around the country with Taylor, solving crimes in national parks and rural and remote locations as they go. I'll definitely be looking forward to Taylor's next interstate secondment.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 February 2021

Review: The Swap by Robyn Harding

The Swap by Robyn Harding book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

If you're thinking this is going to be a book about two couples who throw their keys into a bowl and swap partners, you'd be wrong. The Swap by Robyn Harding isn't a book about a swingers party gone wrong. It's a story about a master manipulator and the damage she inflicts on those unfortunate enough to be drawn into her inner circle.

Freya is a charismatic, creative, attractive and charming social media influencer who inspires absolute devotion from her retired athlete husband. Offering pottery classes in her isolated community, Freya meets teenager and pottery student Low Morrison and middle aged gift shop owner Jamie.

Toxic relationships abound in this novel, both between the female characters as well as husband and wife. Jamie and Low try various ways to compete for Freya's friendship and affection, each wanting to be the 'best friend' and confidant and escalating their attempts in order to ensure their success.

I was reading this at the same time as My Best Friend's Murder by Polly Phillips (also by Simon & Schuster) and wanted to shake Jamie and Low by the shoulders and cry 'Get a grip, she's not worth it!' If by some miracle either of these two characters did listen to my advice and move on to healthier and more fulfilling relationships, there wouldn't be a story, so I totally get it.

Nevertheless, the tension escalates in The Swap until it reaches an unexpected conclusion, which was a satisfying end to the secrets, manipulation and outright obsession on display here. A good read.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

05 February 2021

WIN a copy of The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez

The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez book cover
* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia *

Deborah Rodriguez is the author of international bestsellers like The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, and to celebrate the release of her latest novel The Moroccan Daughter I'm running a giveaway. Check out the blurb and enter below for your chance to win a copy for yourself or a loved one. Good luck!


Morocco: a captivating country of honor and tradition. And, for these four women, a land of secrets and revelations.

From the twisted alleyways of the ancient medina of Fès to a marriage festival high in the Atlas Mountains, Deborah Rodriguez’s entrancing new bestseller is a modern story of forbidden love set in the sensual landscape of North Africa. 

Amina Bennis has come back to her childhood home in Morocco to attend her sister’s wedding. The time has come for her to confront her strict, traditionalist father with the secret she has kept for more than a year – her American husband, Max.

Amina’s best friend, Charlie, and Charlie’s feisty grandmother, Bea, have come along for moral support, staying with Amina and her family in their palatial riad in Fès and enjoying all that the city has to offer. But Charlie is also hiding someone from her past – a mystery man from Casablanca.

And then there’s Samira, the Bennises’ devoted housekeeper for many decades. Hers is the biggest secret of all – one that strikes at the very heart of the family.

As things begin to unravel behind the ancient walls of the medina, the four women are soon caught in a web of lies, clandestine deals and shocking confessions . . .


This giveaway has now closed.

02 February 2021

Review: #EntryLevelBoss: a 9-step guide for finding a job you like (and actually getting hired to do it) by Alexa Shoen

#EntryLevelBoss: a 9-step guide for finding a job you like (and actually getting hired to do it) by Alexa Shoen book cover
* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Some of you might not know this, but one of my side hustles is providing job hunting and job application assistance in the form of resumes, cover letters and interview coaching through my Extra Edge business. I like to stay up to date when it comes to job hunting and career changes and reading #EntryLevelBoss: a 9-step guide for finding a job you like (and actually getting hired to do it) by Alexa Shoen was like a shot of adrenalin to the system.

Alexa Shoen runs an online education company for job seekers and likens her approach to a fitness program for job hunting. Full of info geared towards graduates and school leavers but applicable to employees and the unemployed no matter what stage in their career they find themselves.

Shoen echoes much of what I've been sharing with my clients for years in terms of marketing yourself to the specific job and company. Here's her take on the job ad and job description.
"At its core, a job description is a CV, but in reverse. It is a marketing tool designed to pique interest from the right people. All any company is ever trying to say with a job description is: "We need someone who kind of knows about this kind of stuff, who could help us do something kind of like this. We think that's what we need, anyway. Is it you?" Page 30
Some candidates see one or two items in a job ad or position description that they've never done before or don't have much experience in and decide they don't qualify for the job. Wrong! Give it a go anyway, what have you got to lose?

Occasionally a piece of advice came as a shock, like the advice not to include your physical address on your CV. I'm not sure I agree with her on that one, but largely, I absolutely agree with her 9 steps and I've recommended many of them to my clients over the years.

#EntryLevelBoss is an up to the minute take on job hunting and Shoen's energy and enthusiasm almost leaps off the page. Her mission is straight forward: to help good people land great jobs, as quickly as possible. Sounds great doesn't it? She's confident and sassy and openly shares some of her own examples from cover letters and email interactions to provide real world examples; both good and bad.

Alexa Shoen is a careers expert worth listening to, so if your job hunting has stagnated or you need a confidence boost or a fresh approach, #EntryLevelBoss is well worth the read. Shoen is also active on social media and provides plenty of resources on her website to reinvigorate and focus your job hunting process, so get out there and go for it!

Highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

01 February 2021

Winners of A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox announced

A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox book cover
Thanks to all those who entered my giveaway last week to win 1 of 2 copies of A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox. No one was fooled by the Sherlock Holmes misdirect, and correctly identified Edith Piaf as Louise Wellesley's new best friend. The giveaway closed at midnight last night, and congratulations go to:

Brenda Telford and Daniella

Congratulations to you both! You've each won a print copy of A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox valued at $20.00AUD. You'll each receive an email from me shortly informing you of your win, and will have 7 days to provide a postal address.

You'll both receive your prize directly from the author and I hope you'll enjoy this historical fiction novel set during WWII.

For those who missed out, I'll be giving away a copy of The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez on 5 February, so stay tuned.

Carpe Librum!

28 January 2021

Guest Review: The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *


You might recall Neil Béchervaise's review of Fair Warning by Michael Connelly back in September 2020. Today he's back to share his thoughts on The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly, published in November 2020 and the sixth book in the Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller series.


If we were ever arrested, I imagine, most of us probably believe that we would be “innocent until proven guilty”. Connelly’s latest Lincoln lawyer thriller takes this presumption to court to reveal that there is no such thing as a “Law of Innocence”.

Mickey Haller, unexpectedly charged with murder, becomes his own defence lawyer. Briefly freed on bail, he manages to set up the shaky beginnings of a defence before he is jailed again on a more serious charge. More serious than murder? But Haller is defending himself, and, as has been well established in previous Lincoln lawyer novels, prosecutors do not like defence lawyers.

More seriously, before the trial has even begun, Haller realises that being found “not guilty” will be insufficient to maintain his reputation, probably even his registration as a lawyer. The shadow of possible guilt will hang over him. He must establish that someone else is guilty to determine that he is ‘innocent’. Connolly is playing us as readers, again. 
“Innocence is not a legal term. No one is ever found innocent in a court of law … The law of innocence is unwritten.” Page 105
Haller’s case quickly involves the FBI so it must involve some federal crime. The grease under the corpse’s fingernails tips us off to a scam involving recycled foodstuffs and a company named BioGreen Industries, but that only broadens the plot and, as Haller observes: 
“A trial often comes down to who is the better storyteller.” Page 190
Buoyed by the support of his two ex-wives, one a prosecuting lawyer (we remember Maggie McFierce), and his daughter, now studying law herself, Haller works from the dangerous confines of jail to establish his case for the defence. More importantly, maybe, he has to win his case in the face of a mysterious, impending virus which appears to have come from China – only one thousand cases at the time of writing. But that is not the issue, of course. Who hates Haller enough to want him totally discredited? Who would kill one man to get revenge on another? Sounds like organised crime. Yes, but …

Connelly’s latest novel maintains the complexity he has long since established, the fascination with flaws in the American legal system – every western legal system perhaps – and the almost stultifying antagonism between that multitude of law enforcement agencies which provide the basis for so many American crime novels. The Law of Innocence is a gripping thriller which, while hinting at a much wider platform for criminality, manages to explore these issues from the relatively local space of the Los Angeles legal system. 

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

27 January 2021

Review: My Best Friend's Murder by Polly Phillips

My Best Friend's Murder by Polly Phillips book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

My Best Friend's Murder is the debut novel by Australian author Polly Phillips.

Bec and Izzy are best friends but at the beginning of the book, Izzy's body is found at the bottom of the stairs in her house and Bec knows she's going to be considered the prime suspect.

Set in London, the book then takes us back to a time before the incident and we become acquainted with Bec and Izzy's close circle of family and friends as well as their home and work situations. With the title telling us to expect a murder, an accident seems unlikely so the book becomes a 'whodunnit' of sorts.

Both Bec and Izzy are vain, materialistic and unlikeable characters. Their friendship - if you could call it that - is toxic and unhealthy but they find themselves unable to move on in this unfolding domestic drama.
"Looking at Izzy is like looking through a kaleidoscope. Fragments of my childhood whirl around us. Her teaching me to smoke at a bus-stop when we were fourteen. The night she held my hair back when I vomited all over her parent's kitchen. The moment we laughed so hard during a Friends marathon that I snorted Diet Coke over the sofa. Her hair might be glossier and her face thinner but she's still the one I called the moment I lost my virginity. The guy had barely left the room before I picked up the phone. Then there's how she held me up after my mum died. We've got so much history that sometimes I wonder where Izzy stops and I begin." Page 130
I always have a couple of books on the go at the same time, however being in the middle of reading The Swap by Robyn Harding (a Simon & Schuster title from last year) probably impacted my reading enjoyment of My Best Friend's Murder. The unhealthy relationship between the women in both of these books made me want to shake all of the characters by the shoulders and yell 'Get a grip, she's not worth it!' 

Don't you hate it when characters don't behave the way you want them to? Bec did two things in this book that made me want to scream!

I'm not convinced My Best Friend's Murder has enough tension or suspense to be called a thriller. I was mildly surprised by the 'whodunnit' reveal, but too annoyed with one of the characters to be swept away by the revelation. My Best Friend's Murder is very readable domestic noir and a contemporary story about friendship, jealousy and envy. Friends or frenemies? You be the judge.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

26 January 2021

Winner of Dead Regular by Harry Colfer announced

Thanks to all those who entered my giveaway last week to win a signed copy of Dead Regular by Harry Colfer. All entrants correctly identified the main character's occupation as a paramedic. Well done! The giveaway closed at midnight AEST on Sunday 24th January 2021, and congratulations go to:


Congratulations Chrissy! You've won a signed print copy of Dead Regular by Harry Colfer valued at $16.99AUD.* (NB. If you live outside AUS & NZ, you've won an unsigned print copy). You'll receive an email from me shortly informing you of your win, and will have 7 days to provide a postal address.
Dead Regular by Harry Colfer book cover

You'll receive your prize direct from the author and I hope you'll enjoy this mystery set on the streets of Brisbane.

For those who missed out, I have another giveaway running at the moment so be sure to enter. I also have a giveaway of The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez going live on 5 February, so stay tuned or check out my Giveaways page for details.

Carpe Librum

25 January 2021

Review: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell book cover
I wish I'd read Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell last year. It would definitely have ended up on my Top 5 Books of 2020 list.

Hamnet is an historical fiction novel about the death of Shakespeare's 11 year old son Hamnet in 1596, and in particular how his wife Agnes and family deal with the loss. Shakespeare is never named in the book (not once!) and while the book is about his family, it's not all about him.

The reader is introduced to a young Agnes, learning about her mother and the gifts she passed on to her daughter before her passing.
"Agnes learnt to be agile, quick. She learnt the advantages of invisibility, how to pass through a room without drawing notice. She learnt that what is hidden within a person may be brought forth if, say, a sprinkling of bladderwort were to find its way into that person's cup. She learnt that creepers disentangled from an oak trunk, brushed against bed linen, will ensure no sleep for whoever lies there." Page 53
Later on, after the death of her mother, we're given an insight into Agnes' teenage years living with her stepmother Joan.
"Joan is not an idle woman. She has six children (eight, if you count the half-mad step-girl and the idiot brother she was forced to take on when she married). She is a widow, as of last year. The farmer left the farm to Bartholomew, of course, but the terms of the will allow her, Joan to remain living here to oversee matters. And oversee she will. She doesn't trust that Bartholomew to look further than his nose. She has told him she will continue to run the kitchen, the yard and the orchard, with the help of the girls. Bartholomew will see to the flocks and the fields, with the help of the boys, and she will walk the land with him, once a week, to make sure all is as it should be. So Joan has the chickens and pigs to see to, the cows to milk, food for the men, the farmhand and the shepherd to prepare, day in, day out. Two younger boys to educate as best she can - and Lord knows they will need an education as the farm will not be coming down to them, more's the pity. She has three daughters (four, if you count the other, which Joan usually doesn't) to keep under her eye. She has bread to bake, cattle to milk, berries to bottle, beer to brew, clothes to mend, stockings to darn, floors to scrub, dishes to wash, beds to air, carpets to beat, windows to polish, tables to scour, hair to brush, passages to sweep, steps to scrub.
Forgive her, then, if it is almost three months before she notices that a number of monthly cloths are missing from the wash." Page 84
Agnes meets and falls in love with the tutor (William) and neither family is pleased with the match. Leaving her childhood home and her brother Bartholomew, Agnes moves in with her husband's glove-making family and gives birth to a daughter and later on to twins, Judith and Hamnet.

I adored the study of relationships in this book, the complex marriage between Agnes and her husband and the strained family dynamics; relatable even centuries later. A highlight is Agnes' relationship with her mother-in-law Mary. Here's an example I just have to share with you.
"Whatever differences Agnes and Mary have - and there are many, of course, living at such close quarters, with so much to do, so many children, so many mouths, the meals to cook and the clothes to wash and mend, the men to watch and assess, soothe and guide - dissolve in the face of tasks. The two of them can gripe and prickle and rub each other up the wrong way; they can argue and bicker and sigh; they can throw into the pig-pen food the other has cooked because it is too salted or not milled finely enough or too spiced; they can raise an eyebrow at each other's darning or stitching or embroidery. In a time such as this, however, they can operate like two hands of the same person." Page 130
You can tell by the quotes I've shared that I was absolutely blown away by the evocative writing in Hamnet, and am thrilled to discover a new-to-me author in Maggie O'Farrell. What a talent! Hamnet was published in March last year and went on to win the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2020, and deservedly so in my opinion.

Those who have read the book will understand what I mean when I say my absolute favourite part of the novel was the story about the plague-infested flea and the detailed journey it took to reach Stratford. It was fascinating, gripping and perfectly written.

You don't need to know anything about Shakespeare to enjoy this novel. It's essentially the story of a 16th century family and the way in which they cope with life's choices and challenges. It's beautifully written and I know it's only January, but I'm certain Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell is going to be one of my top 5 favourite reads of 2021.

Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

22 January 2021

WIN 1 of 2 print copies of A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox

A Plum Job by Cenarth Fox book cover
* Copies courtesy of the author *

A Plum Job by Australian author Cenarth Fox is the first in his WWII series of books, and this week the author is giving away two paperback copies to lucky Carpe Librum readers located in Australia. Enter below and good luck!


It’s 1939. Germany’s military might is smashing through the Low Countries and the British, Belgian and French forces are trapped at Dunkirk. The Nazis will soon be in Gay Paree.

Louise Wellesley is a gorgeous and aristocratic young Englishwoman desperate to become an actress.
But her upbringing demands that young women of her class go to finishing school, the Buckingham Palace debutante ball and then remain at home until the right chap comes along.

Such young ladies most definitely do not cavort semi-naked upon the wicked stage. But war brings change. People tell lies. Rules are broken.

So when you’re in a foreign country and living by your wits while facing arrest, torture and death from the French police, Resistance, Gestapo and a double-agent, you bloody well better remember your lines, act out of your skin and never ever bump into the furniture. Oh and it helps if your new best friend is Edith Piaf.

Author Bio

Cenarth Fox is an Australian with a Welsh name pronounced Kenarth.

As a writer he has created: 48 radio scripts broadcast by the ABC, 37 musicals performed in 43 countries, a collection of non-fiction titles, a trilogy of plays, a novel and a series of five children’s books about Sherlock Holmes.

He's also written 15 novels including the World War II thrillers A Plum Job and A Plum Jam, and 8 books in the crime series, The Detective Joanna Best Mysteries. For more about Cenarth Fox's books and plays visit www.cenfoxbooks.com or www.foxplays.com


This giveaway has now closed.

21 January 2021

Interview with Nick Gadd, author of Death of a Typographer

Nick Gadd, author bio photo
Australian author Nick Gadd
I recently had the pleasure of reading Death of a Typographer by fellow Melbournian and Aussie writer Nick Gadd last month. Nick kindly agreed to let me grill him about his book and geek out on some font related questions, so welcome to Carpe Librum Nick! 

Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us about the research you undertook for Death of a Typographer? Has exploring the world of typefaces and fonts changed your perspective in any way?
Hello Tracey, and thank you for the review! I first became interested in fonts through my friendship with Stephen Banham, a Melbourne typographer. He introduced me to the world of type design and typography, and the wonderful language around it - swashes, glyphs, ligatures, kerning et cetera - and the marvellous characters - in both senses - that it contains. I realised that this is its own self-contained world of people who look at things in a very particular way, and for a fiction writer that is gold. So I went off and did my own research, sitting in the typography section of the State Library of Victoria, browsing through the books and letting them speak to me. The best of the books I used are listed in the Acknowledgements of Death of a Typographer. All of this has changed my perspective in that I am much more conscious of the impacts that different fonts make on our responses to text. The right font on a fancy wine bottle, for example, can add $20 to the price. I am hoping that readers will finish the book with similar raised awareness.
Death of a Typographer by Nick Gadd book cover

Are you able to recognise different fonts when you see them? What's your favourite and least favourite font? (I think my favourites are Garamond and Calibri, while my least favourite is Comic Sans).

I can’t recognise that many, actually. I’m certainly not an expert like the people in the book, who can pick a font by the shape of the dot over the letter ‘i’ (it’s called a tittle, by the way). But many fonts can be good or bad depending on how they are used. I like a stylish French display font called Peignot from the mid-20th century, but it has been much abused and can sometimes be seen in pizza shop signage where it looks terrible. In the printed word, I agree that Garamond usually looks great because it suggests centuries of learning and scholarship. Hence it is the right choice for literary writing, an essay or a thesis. I’m typing my answers to this in Times, which was designed for a newspaper - The Times - in the 1930s. It’s a tried and true working font that doesn’t draw attention to itself. The arch-villain font of the novel is Helvetica, which my hero Martin Kern hates because it is over-used - though Helvetica, too, is fine in places like hospitals and airports, it’s really a matter of typodiversity as Martin says. There aren’t too many fonts that are always awful, except perhaps Bleeding Cowboys.

I just had a look at the Bleeding Cowboys font, and it's exactly what it sounds like, what a hoot! How did you settle on the font for the cover design of Death of a Typographer? Was it a tough choice or a no brainer?
The cover design is by Stephen Banham, who chose Bureau Grotesque Extra Condensed for the title, and Typewriter for the author’s name - which I love, because it reminds me of the old Remington I used to type my first stories when I was a little kid. The text of the novel is set in Mercury Text, which you won’t find on your desktop - it’s a beautiful font we bought specially from the Hoefler type foundry in the United States. We also used more that 30 other fonts through the book, mainly for the chapter titles - each font selection is related somehow to the story, and they are all listed at the back for font nerds. By the way, Stephen won the Designers’ Choice Cover of the Year Award at the Australian Book Design Awards for the cover of Death of a Typographer.

I loved seeing the list of different fonts used for each of the chapters, and congratulations to Stephen on the award; you both must be thrilled. Was the character's name of Avery a typographical joke? Can you share one of the in-jokes that appears in the book? (I got the Roman reference, that was a good one!)
There are lots of font-related gags in the book - the most obvious is the name of Martin Kern, the hero. To ‘kern’ is a term meaning adjusting the spacing between letters. It’s one of those things that drives a type designer nuts - bad kerning! You spotted Roman, who also has a child named Pica - a pica is a typographical measure. There’s a pub the characters go to with a landlord named Tony Bodoni - Bodoni is a classic Italian font - where you can get a Palatino cocktail or a glass of Coopers Black (both fonts).  There are lots of other in-jokes which font nerds will spot, but you don’t actually need to know any of that stuff to enjoy the book - it’s just a cherry on top if you do. As for Avery, I needed a name for Martin’s antagonist, the black-clad, beret-wearing, arch-wanker corporate graphic designer. One day I saw the name Avery in a shop window in Helvetica Thin and thought, that’s it!

Oh Palatino and Coopers Black, of course! Tell us, what are you reading at the moment?
I’m enjoying Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, which goes deeply into another of my interests - psychogeography; and I’m also loving an old biography of Edie Sedgwick which is about the self-destructive scene of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the New York counterculture in the 1960s. I’m fascinated by the kind of alternative realities that people live in, I guess.

Has the pandemic changed your reading or writing habits in any way?
I don’t know if it was the pandemic, but I read more books by women writers last year - Olivia Laing and Vivian Gornick in particular, which led me to Jean Rhys and Colette, all of whom I think are marvellous.

When did you become interested in ghost signs? Do you have a favourite ghost sign in Melbourne?
I became interested in ghost signs through my friend Vin Maskell, the writer, who like me has an interest in things that are on the verge of being lost. A ghost sign is an old piece of signage, often painted but sometimes neon or some other material, which points back to a lost product or person or trade. They are evocative windows into social history, but also carry a lot of symbolic and metaphorical weight. I did sneak a few ghost signs into Death of a Typographer, but I discuss them much more extensively in my psychogeographic work. My favourite ghost sign of all time is the one reading ’Consult the Celebrated Specialist Dr King’ which appeared in Melbourne in 2013 - it was a painted advertisement from the 1890s for a ‘medical clairvoyant’, whom I write about in my new book. The sign is lost now, alas.
Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss by Nick Gadd book cover

I noticed you launched your new book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss last month, can you tell us a little about it?

Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss is my first non-fiction book. Part travelogue, part psychogeography, part memoir, it describes a two-year walk around and through the suburbs of Melbourne by my late wife Lynne and me. On the way we came across ghost signs, fascinating buildings, and odd traces of the past which led us to some weird and wonderful stories of lost Melbourne. Shortly afterwards, when Lynne died of cancer, I began to write about our relationship and the walk we took together as a way of investigating the relationship between people and places, and the ways that where we live gives meaning to our lives. So it’s a very personal book, but readers have told me that it speaks to them because over the past year in Melbourne many of us have only been able to travel around our own neighbourhoods, and there is a lot to discover on foot if you approach it with a sense of curiosity.

What's next? What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on some essays, thinking about a new novel, and preparing for some workshops I’m offering during the upcoming year on walking, writing and place.

Sounds like you'll be keeping very busy in 2021, so thanks for joining us Nick. To find out more about Nick Gadd's other writing, visit nickowriter.com or to learn more about his Melbourne Circle project, visit melbournecircle.net and Carpe Librum!

19 January 2021

Review: The African Lookbook - A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women by Catherine E. McKinley

The African Lookbook - A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women by Catherine E. McKinley book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

The African Lookbook - A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women is a sampling of the photographs author Catherine E. McKinley has managed to collect from all around the world and includes some of the earliest photographs ever taken of African women.

However this isn't just a book of photographs to peruse. McKinley educates the reader along the way on the styles of photographs and portraits, the importance of the sitter's dress and fashion, the interest in African women and some of the undesirable attitudes of the intended recipients of many of the photographs featured.
"In European studios spanning the 1860s to 1970s, images of African women existed as a preponderance of exotica in 'women's work' - women nursing children, pounding food with mortar and pestle, selling on the street, carrying water, or posing in front of the 'primitive' home. Cameras fixated on breasts and hair, on body cicatrization, and the suggestive and even pornographic possibilities of rites of puberty, polygamy, and lightly disguised prostitution. 
Many African photographers working at the same time would engage these tropes, as would later eras of African photographers (1950s - present), revisiting the images of a woman's back or skin or hairstyle but in a way that, however much a male gaze still mediated, the colonial gaze was removed." Page 31
"That gaze - that moment when the sitter meets the lens with the intent to author, or perhaps where coercion, or capitulation, or shyness or some other feeling is revealed - is what we look to for a countering narrative to the photographer's, or for assurance that the sitter still has the last word." Page 32
I'll admit to wanting to see that in the eyes of many of the women photographed, a sense of power or pride and a sense the sitter wouldn't be exploited. A refusal to be dominated, their spirit free and intact. Unfortunately, I think I'm projecting a resoluteness that might not be there in order to make myself feel better about the vulnerability or poverty the sitter might have experienced. It's interesting to ponder though. Is the viewer projecting, or is the sitter really communicating something of their spirit and their inner most thoughts to us through the lens of the camera and down the decades?

I wasn't expecting the focus and accompanying commentary on fashion and what the women were wearing in the photographs and it took me by surprise.
"The history preserved in fashion can be more resilient and revealing than what is stored or memorialized in other kinds of repositories." Page 86
Fashion throughout the decades encompassed the combination of traditional dress with styles that indicated a woman's background or religious beliefs and was invariably captured in the portraits (many unknown) obtained by the author and preserved in her collection.

I had little idea about the prominence of cloth and wrappers to African women, but learned that wrappers - referred to in the book as the 'foundation of African womanhood' on page 96 - are used for multiple purposes, including clothing, to carry a child, as currency, as a dowry, a shroud and sometimes even joined together to celebrate, protest or mourn. Some cloth designs are given a name and women or families might wear the same pattern to make a statement.
"Cloth that is beloved, that is named, is considered fine enough to be a dowry item, to be worn at weddings and funerals and baby-naming ceremonies, to become a 'heritage' item in a woman's cloth box and therefore a costly commodity for the ages, historically stored and respected like money, never devaluing over a woman's life-time." Page 92
Already upset by the popularity of fast fashion in the 21st Century, this certainly gave me something to think about. If women from cultures around the world could aspire to this level of value and respect for cloth and quality made garments again (I'm thinking of 1500s here), imagine the impact around the world.

The African Lookbook by Catherine E. McKinley isn't what I expected. Yes, it's a Visual History of 100 Years of African Women, but I was disappointed not to see any of the photography of African women I observed as a child growing up in Australia in the 1970s-1980s. Stunning photographs of African women featured in National Geographic magazine, adorned in body paint, or wearing lip discs or gold neck rings and arm bands. An exotic beauty unmatched anywhere in the world gave rise to the fear of colonisation and a sorrow for the ruination of small tribes and villages still practising their way of life largely oblivious to the Western world.

I understand this book to be based on the author's painstaking collection of rare and precious photographs that otherwise might have been lost to time, but surely this era of colour photography shaped the worldwide view of African women and deserved to be included or commented on here. Looking at the blurb while writing this review, I note that the 100 year arc spans from 1870-1970 but I dearly wish it had been expanded to incorporate 150 years. It'd be hard to do so if the author's expertise and interest doesn't extend to the last 50 years, but the average reader has likely been exposed to this photography and it has influenced our views, rightly or wrongly.

While I didn't get what I was expecting, I certainly walked away with more than I bargained for. An introduction to the trade and importance of indigo - one of the most financially and culturally valuable commodities, used in makeup, hair dye, body paint, tattooing and more - for one.

The African Lookbook by Catherine E. McKinley is an informative read, and I longed to speak to the women featured in each of the photographs as I looked into their eyes and wondered about their lives; just as I imagine the author does.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

18 January 2021

Review: The World of PostSecret by Frank Warren

The World of PostSecret by Frank Warren book cover
PostSecret began in 2004 when Frank Warren asked members of the public to anonymously contribute a secret to a community art project. The secret could be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire or even confession of childhood humiliation and contributors were encouraged to reveal their secret on a decorated postcard and send it in. His goal at the time was to receive 365 postcards.

Much to Warren's surprise, the project took off and he has received well over a million secrets. Frank Warren has published six collections of secrets from the art project, with The World of PostSecret being his sixth, published in 2014.

The secrets cover the full gamut of topics and feelings. Some make you smile, like these two.
"I wear an AC/DC shirt under my clergy robes." Page 78
"Sometimes, if my dog refuses to eat, I pretend to cook his food on the stove. Works every time!" Page 84
Some secrets plucked on the heart strings:
"My wealthy husband has been divorced 7 times because he found out they were only with him for his money. He married me because he thinks I'm different. I'm not." Page 48
Others blew my mind a little:
"Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I'm dead." Page 122
This secret stayed with me for days, and the author has heard from someone connected with large-scale tragedies, who claims that "in rare cases, people have been known to use a large disaster as an opportunity to start a new life and leave behind a looming divorce or escape imminent bankruptcy."

I find that astonishing to consider. I know some people voluntarily disappear to begin a new life, but presumably they plan to do so beforehand. A new identity requires money and a plan, so I can't imagine how a person could re-invent themselves after an unexpected event like 9/11. You couldn't pack a single thing and you'd never be able to travel again with facial recognition cameras everywhere for a start. Boggles the mind. Unless they chose a life of anonymity on the streets. I wish I knew more about this particular secret.

There were secrets that made me angry, like this one:
"I can't make you love me... but I can make something that you'll love." Page 245
And gross secrets, like this one:
"My husband and I shower together almost every day... He has NO idea that I pee in there EVERY TIME! Hehe :-) " Page 257
Firstly, that's disgusting! Secondly, of course he knows. How could he not know?

The scope of the PostSecret project is enormous and this particular collection comprises a great variety of secrets, including secrets from the short-lived PostSecret App that was closed down in 2011 due to malicious and uncontrollable content.

I was surprised to find that Frank Warren is looking for a new partner for the project and potentially someone to take over PostSecret for good. I wonder what it takes to run a project like this. I know I don't have the stomach for it, that's for sure.

The World of PostSecret is a look into the hearts and minds of everyday people like you and me, and I found pondering its pages produced a mixed bag of emotions. I think I'll be glad to return it to the library and be thankful I don't have any secrets like that. Or do I?

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating: