12 June 2024

Review: Happy Go Lucky by David Sedaris

Happy Go Lucky by David Sedaris audiobook cover

Hard to believe, but Happy-Go-Lucky is my sixth book by David Sedaris. I've listened to all of them on audiobook and I just love his sing song rhythm of reflection and storytelling. After a while, I find myself yearning to hear more of his stories and this time - thankfully - I wasn't disappointed.

I've acknowledged in previous reviews that David's white privilege is on full display but it doesn't get under my skin in the same way it does - or has - for other readers. We already know he's white and wealthy and gay, so taking offence with his privilege isn't quite fair. What other lived experience can he offer?

My key takeaway from listening to Happy-Go-Lucky was a chapter called A Speech to the Graduates which comprised a commencement address Sedaris gave to graduates at Oberlin College. Recorded in 2018, you can watch it for free here. I found the speech so entertaining I listened to it twice and asked my husband to listen to it with me. If asked to choose between Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman (a renowned speech to graduates if there ever was one) and this one, I'd be hard pressed to choose between them. They're completely dissimilar in style, but what they share in common is an ability to inspire young listeners to take risks, make mistakes and make the most of life.

The chapter entitled Active Shooter documents the author's experience going to a firing range for the first time with his sister Lisa.
"This was a niche market I knew nothing about until I returned to Lisa's house later that day and went online. There I found websites selling gun concealment vests, t-shirts, jackets you name it. One company makes boxer briefs with a holster in the back which they call compression concealment shorts, but which I would call gunderpants." Chapter: Active Shooter
Definitely more entertaining than David Thorne's reminiscences about hunting in the USA for the first time in That's Not How You Wash a Squirrel.

As he mentions in his speech to the graduates, Sedaris recommends the practice of having a few jokes up your sleeve at any given time. In a chapter entitled Themes and Variations, the author proceeds to tell some of the best jokes he's heard from fans on book signing tours which had me laughing out loud and often. The two most memorable included a snail's reaction and two priests in a car, while the anecdote offered regarding two rolling pins and falling down the stairs had me laughing so hard I was red-faced with tears streaming down my face.

Sedaris always manages to deliver both light and dark and in Happy-Go-Lucky he bravely discloses his father's declining health, surprising personality changes and eventual death:
"... our natures, I have just recently learned from my father, can change. Or maybe they're simply revealed, and the dear cheerful man I saw that afternoon at Springmore was there all along, smothered in layers of rage and impatience that burned away as he blazed into the home stretch." Chapter: Happy-Go-Lucky
Sedaris has previously written about living in France and learning the language, and in this offering published in 2022, he remembers what it was like during his first few visits, smiling and pretending to know what was going on.
"It was so humbling being robbed of my personality like that. I was never the smartest guy in the room but I could usually hold my own. In Normandy though, I was considered an idiot. Worse still, I couldn't get a laugh to save my life. In America, that was my thing, my identity." Chapter: Bruised
Books that can make me laugh until I cry usually earn an automatic 5 stars from me, but two chapters bothered me a little. The first was about a young male and the second was a chapter entitled Lady Marmalade where the author shared a controversial view about his sister Tiffany's accusations of abuse by their father. While these views were shared by other family members, it's not a topic I was comfortable hearing about or thought was appropriate to share with the public. Nevertheless, I'm not surprised Sedaris chose to work through these questions in the way he knows best, writing.

My Rating:


10 June 2024

Review: The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey book cover

The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey is a cute little pint sized hardback packed with bibliophilic facts and fictions. Quirky chapter titles include: Movies That Started Life As Books, Identifying a First Edition, The Twenty Most Influential Academic Books of All Time, Oddest Title of the Year, Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts, Famous Last Lines and more.

Some of the chapters are short and snappy at just a few paragraphs while others are in listicle format making this perfect for dipping in and out of. If you're a traditionalist like me who wouldn't dream of 'dipping in and out' of a book and insists on reading a book 'properly' - front to back - then you'll find a mix/combination of topics that didn't seem united by chronology or subject matter.

The content in The Book Lovers' Miscellany is definitely of a miscellaneous nature, which even extended to bookish gossip in the form of a supposedly well-known estrangement between A.S. Byatt and her sister Margaret Drabble.
"According to newspaper reports, the sisters have apparently been estranged since childhood due to their intense sibling rivalry and are said not to read each other's books due to the autobiographical elements in their work." Page 31
I didn't even know these talented and accomplished authors were sisters, so learning that they don't share their literary success together as they should was sad.

Reading the chapter on Most Prolific Writers, I was shocked to learn Enid Blyton wrote more than 800 books, and while I was aware of Barbara Cartland's prolific writing career, seeing in print that she produced 723 novels in her lifetime was seriously impressive.

I love stationery, but in a chapter about Quills I found this astonishing:
"John of Tilbury, a scholar in the household of Thomas Becket in the twelfth century, described how a scribe taking a full day of dictation would need between sixty and a hundred quills sharpened and readied." Page 41
Wow! I'm presuming you'd need a trunk or sack for the quills. And what did they do for the assizes during that period? The Book Lovers' Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey is full of facts and trivia, much of which I've read about elsewhere*, yet still managed to be entertained by again.

Recommended for trivia junkies and readers who love books about books. You know who you are!

*You may also enjoy these books for booklovers:
The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski
The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching

My Rating:


04 June 2024

Review: Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor

Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor book cover

* Courtesy of Harper Collins *

Growing up and living in Victorian era London, Tatiana Caldwell is unexpectedly orphaned after losing both her parents in quick succession. It's 1864, and at the age of just seventeen and with very little to her name, Tatty (as she calls herself) emigrates to Australia for a fresh start. Driven to acquire and operate her own business one day, Tatty is hard working and far from squeamish when she begins working for Titus Crowe at Crowe Funeral Services.

I've always been deeply interested in Victorian funeral and mourning etiquette* and I loved reading about any and all aspects of Crowe Funeral Services in Sydney.
"Henry and Robert prepared the hearse - a very beautiful vehicle with four glass sides embellished with gold accents and otherwise painted a gleaming black - and the two magnificent horses pulling it. Their names were Spirit and Phantom, which Tatty thought were splendid names for funeral horses, and they were cloaked in black velvet drapes and wore tall head-dresses of thick black ostrich plumes. They were Belgian Blacks and had, according to Henry, cost Titus an absolute fortune to import to New South Wales from England." Page 44
It's disturbing to imagine Belgian Black horses being transported and confined below decks for the gruelling passage to London but they must have been an incredible sight to see on the streets of Sydney at the time.

Titus Crowe is a terrific character who came across as very Dickensian to me and I can easily see him on screen in a TV adaptation. (Miss Scarlet & The Duke comes to mind here, love that show!)

Here's an excerpt about mourning jewellery from Black Silk and Sympathy:
'Here you have your rings,' Mr Coverdale said. 'For ladies and men, black enamel on eighteen-karat gold, inlaid with In Memoriam perhaps, or we can add the deceased's name and date of passing. Alternatively, those details can be engraved on the inside of the band. We also have black enamel and seed pearl rings - they're considered very fashionable at the moment.' Page 68
Tatty attends funerals in the newly created cemetery and it was exciting to be reminded of Sydney's history when it comes to cemeteries, mortuary trains and mortuary train stations. In 2020 I started listening to the Grave Tales Australia podcast, and it was so engaging I went on to read and review their book Grave Tales: Melbourne Vol.1 by Helen Goltz and Chris Adams. 

Back to the book and my favourite section by far was Tatty's visit to the draper and haberdasher Mr Rodney Burton. Tatty discovers his store is three times bigger than the other stores, all the better to house his huge range of fabrics and notions including buttons, trims, nets, ribbons, beads, lace, artificial flowers and more. Tatty is thrilled to discover that at least a third of the well-stocked emporium is dedicated to selling materials associated with mourning the dead.
"As well as the ubiquitous black crape there was also bombazine, parramatta silk, merino, delaine and velvet, and for half-mourning a head-spinning range of fabrics with a little more lustre and life in black, grey, purple-mauve, lavender, violet and white. Burton's also sold a huge selection of handkerchiefs edged with black lace, black gloves, umbrellas and sunshades, black lace fans, black shoes and boots, and a good selection of shawls." Page 73
I'd love to browse that store, wouldn't you? In spite of the funereal backdrop of Crowe Funeral Services, the author has given us an engaging main character in Tatty to cheer for and a relatively light narrative that skips along at a leisurely pace in an early Sydney streetscape.

I haven't read any of Challinor's extensive backlist but I was pleasantly surprised - given the Sydney setting - to discover the author is a Kiwi residing in New Zealand. Better still, Black Silk and Sympathy is just the first in a series and I'm looking forward to some terrific funereal adventures with Tatty at the head of the funeral procession.

If you love Victorian or Edwardian era London and become excited when a mortsafe is mentioned, or you're seeking a light and enjoyable read that happens to be set in the colonial funeral industry this is for you. You can read the prologue and first chapter of Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor here.

My Rating:



*For books on London cemeteries and death, check out my reviews for:
- Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold
- This Mortal Coil: A History of Death by Andrew Doig

The following books about Victorian mourning are on my TBR:
- Fashionable Mourning Jewelry, Clothing, and Customs by Mary Brett
- Mourning Art & Jewelry by Maureen Delorme
- Death in the Victorian Family by Pat Jalland
28 May 2024

Review: Butts by Heather Radke

Butts - A Backstory by Heather Radke audiobook cover

Butts - A Backstory by Heather Radke is just that; a history of butts, bottoms, bums and backsides. Heather Radke is an essayist and journalist and makes it clear early on that this exploration will focus on her own individual interest in the topic.

Published last year, the fact this wasn't going to be a - presumably dry - dull academic offering on the topic with the occasional interesting factoid was the primary appeal.

Don't take my word for it, let's hear it from the author in her own words:
"Ultimately though, this book is an idiosyncratic one. It stems from the questions that most interest me about the butt. Questions of race, gender, control, fitness, fashion and science." Introduction
I enjoyed setting expectations aside and following Radke as she covered various changes in fashion and the perception of women's butt size across history. A large derriere was once a sign of sexual deviance or sexual appetite which ironically led to the women's fashion for bustles. (See my review of Pockets - An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close by Hannah Carlson for more on bustles.)

All that aside, I was very shocked to discover:
"In the early nineteenth century, there was a new mania for butts spreading through the British capital. Londoners were obsessed with butts. There were fart clubs where people gathered and drank different juices to see what sounds and odours they would produce." Chapter Life
Really? I wonder how prevalent this was. Black female bodies and sexuality were discussed and those who know their history won't be surprised to learn this included the case of Sarah Baartman. In the past, the butt had become a proxy for female genitalia, but like all fashion, the tides eventually turned.

After WWI, the art deco movement emerged which accompanied a significant change in women's beauty. After the lean war years of food rationing, women with curves were no longer desired and instead the flapper trend was born. Corsets and foundation garments were out and flappers were all about lean lines, straight sleeveless dresses with minimal bust or backside.

In France at around the same time was the dancing sensation Josephine Baker. Unfamiliar with her stardom and infamous banana dance - and putting this audiobook aside to watch it - I was struck by how similar the banana dance is to the provocative dance styles, hip shaking and twerking we saw emerging in the 1980s and 1990s and still today. Don't believe me? Check it out.

In the 1930s, women had difficulty buying clothing that fit off the rack due to a lack of a regulated and uniform sizing system. A study sent government employed measurers in multiple US states to measure the girth, length and height of the American woman. Later a statue of a man and a woman was created that were said to represent the average American - despite only white women being measured - and were named Norma and Normman. Radke takes the time to point out that the Norma statue doesn't have a thigh gap and how ridiculous the ideal of having a thigh gap is.

Moving on, in the 1980s Jane Fonda kicked off the aerobics craze and the infamous Buns of Steel movement. Prior to this, women didn't often work out as athletic bodies weren't considered attractive. Then Jane Fonda arrived and the rest is history. Just as Jane Fonda changed how women - and men - saw their bodies, more recent changes and influences were also included.

I greatly enjoyed learning about the influence Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce and Kim Kardashian had in popularising the return of bootylicious curves, which were a response to the 'heroin chic' look of Kate Moss. Entire chapters were devoted to Jane Fonda, Beyonce, Kate Moss, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus and an entire chapter dedicated to the Twerk. My favourite chapter focussed on the work and opinions of Sir Mix-a-Lot and 'that' song Baby Got Back. ("Look at that butt Becky").

Those looking for commentary on butt lifts, butt implants and the BBL won't find any plastic surgery content here. Knowing in advance Radke was going to be following her interests, I can only assume this aspect of butt enhancement wasn't as engaging as the other topics.

Butts - A Backstory by Heather Radke primarily focusses on the female butt while covering a range of interesting topics: science, eugenics, fashion, history, music, celebrity culture, race, sexuality and female empowerment.

Highly recommended.

My Rating:


23 May 2024

Review: To the River by Vikki Wakefield

To the River by Vikki Wakefield book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

It's been a while since the last time I found myself totally gripped by a psychological thriller written by an Australian, but To the River by Vikki Wakefield was a blast.

Growing up in a caravan park, Sabine Kelly has been in hiding since the age of 17 when her mother and younger sister were killed in a fire. Accused of being responsible for lighting the fire that led to their deaths, Sabine escaped custody and hasn't been seen since.

Rachel Weirdermann is a recently divorced journalist living in a swanky house on the river and has been investigating the caravan murders for the past 12 years. The narrative kicks off when Rachel believes she sees Sabine in the local area, fuelling hopes of bringing her in and telling the story of the decade.

A fugitive for 12 years, Sabine has had plenty of time to reflect on being blamed for the death of her sister and mother:
"A reputation is a strange thing, Sabine thought. It can grow without you feeding it. You will shrink to fit it. It allows you access to some places, keeps you out of others. It will define you if you let it, and there's no control, no second chances, no escape." Page 189
I enjoyed the distinctly Australian setting on the river of the title and it brought to mind many scenes from my childhood spent on or near the Darling River in NSW.

The local community believe Sabine is guilty, but Rachel starts to entertain the distant possibility there may be more to her story:
"Where the media saw a lack of grief and remorse, Rachel had kept her mind open. Lindy Chamberlain, Joanne Lees, Kate McCann - all women who were judged for not responding the way society believed they should, women who were condemned because they did not share their trauma and grief with the world." Page 251
This is so true and I appreciated the references to Joanne Lees and Lindy Chamberlain in particular here, adding to Rachel's journalistic experience.

Living on her own for years, Sabine has severe trust issues and a soft spot for a loyal companion in a blue heeler aptly named Blue. I'm not often moved by dogs in books but Blue significantly added to the character development of Rachel and Sabine and aided in moving the plot forward in a refreshing way. Big tick!

To the River by Vikki Wakefield includes themes of domestic violence, poverty, corruption, fear, trust and loyalty and sets a cracking pace. If you enjoy Australian crime or find yourself in the mood for a psychological thriller, then I highly recommend To the River by Vikki Wakefield. It's a cracking read!

My Rating:


20 May 2024

Review: The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager

The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager book cover

* Copy courtesy of Dzanc Books *

Our main character in The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager is a striving radio astronomer living in an unspecified future. This is a future where birds are extinct, you can no longer see stars from the surface of the earth and driverless buses are on the verge of replacing human ones.

A surrogate mother to triplets, she became their primary carer after the sudden death of their biological parents in an accident. Doing her best to raise the triplets despite lacking a guiding maternal instinct, I enjoyed her perspective:
"It's a bit unsettling, but children as a rule are unsettling, so I find a way to be both unsettled and also proud." Page 15
Also unsettling is the distant future the author creates, remarking early on:
"I believe when we reached the end of birds - birds, whose genetic code outlived dinosaurs - people realized we were at the precipice of a whole new paradigm of being." Page 27
Gosh I hope I never see that day. Taking place during this unspecified future is The Crisis, which isn't named or described but which divides the population in their isolated settlement into Yes/No camps. Our protagonist is undecided and the reader can readily substitute their own cause or crisis in order to relate to the narrative:
"I have a thought that perhaps we have mistakenly identified as sides what are in fact two responses to the same threat and if only we really sat down and talked about it, maybe cried about it, perhaps made art about it, we would come to realize this fact." Page 27
The Crisis and what it might symbolise is left to the individual reader, yet my perspective shifted from climate change to religion and our protagonist soon realises there could be more than one crisis. Ain't that the truth!

What is clear is our protagonist's love of stars and the night sky and her dream to become an astronomer. As the protagonist studies for the admittance test, there's plenty of space content. This has earned the phrase 'an elegy of space' in the blurb but let's hear from the woman herself:
"I will be a radio astronomer because I want it so much that the blood inside me aches. If you want something enough, in this world, in this town, I believe that you can get it. It's about hard work and real want. It's about never giving up." Page 39
Inspiring stuff! Just as our author is exploring on the page what life might be like in the future (no birds, no stars), our main character does so too. And while considering her three children could live beyond the end of this millennium, the reader is still not clear on when in time this novel is set.
"I would not understand who it was staring back at me and the fact of me being made of skin and bone and blood on a planet that rotates around a sun and in a world where most things crawl but some swim and billowing vapor lives overhead and there is divorce and soda and we move around in vehicles fuelled by liquified dinosaur and there are picnics but there is also murder, and chocolate but also hate." Pages 99-100
Reading The Avian Hourglass is an ethereal experience and I frequently found myself visualising the text, pausing to daydream or consider a description. This lead to a drifting attention and typically this signifies a lack of engagement but I wonder if that's what Drager intended.

The author seems to paint her worlds with wisps and suggestions, so readers who enjoy a fully fleshed out world with clearly defined parameters will find the time period, characters and world building terribly hard to pin down.

One chapter simply reads:
"There is a sign in my grandfathers' workshop that says this: 180 degrees is half a circle, but also a line." Page 156
The Avian Hourglass reminded me of the kind of D&Ms (deep and meaningful conversations) I had in my twenties and here Drager includes discussions about memory, grief, murmurations, the concentric circles of home, the ever changing globe, the march of technology and nostalgia.

It also reads like a fever dream at times, touching on the surreal, including: recurring déjà vu, a sentient planetarium who wants to see the night sky and the ghosts of birds.
"Luce says that my father believed we were all part of a very great fabricated reality, that we have been placed here strategically, as part of a way of knowing what kind of patterns humans will discover and what kind of patterns humans will invent." Page 160
As well as demonstrating for both sides of The Crisis on alternate days, our main character still faces the conundrum and it's one the reader should immediately relate to, but not necessarily have an answer for:
"The conundrum being how to get out of bed each day knowing all the cruelty and horror of the world is unfolding around you, knowing humans are hurting humans in small and large ways in the house next door, the next town over, across the ocean on another continent.
The conundrum being bringing three new humans into the world knowing there are problems in this life that will still exist long after they are dead and gone, problems they cannot escape, that they may participate in - unconsciously - because the problems are bound to the way the world has been shaped.
The conundrum being that there are no longer birds, that the stars are no longer visible." Page 191
In The Avian Hourglass, Drager is offering us a glimpse into a future I think we'd all like to avoid. A future devoid of stars and birds is inconceivable and I feel an uncomfortable tightness in my chest allowing myself to consider this reality just for a moment. The novel demonstrates moments of beauty, love and connection in the world while simultaneously serving as a warning to the modern reader.

This is my second book from this author, having read The Archive of Alternate Endings last year and The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

My Rating:


17 May 2024

Review: Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova

Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova book cover

Elaine Khosrova had cooked and baked with butter for years yet she'd never given the dairy staple much thought until she was assigned an editorial project to "taste, describe, and rate about two dozen different brands from creameries around the world." It was then that she did a double take on butter and thank goodness she did.

Early on, she tells us:
"Even for me, a food professional with more than two decades of experience as a pastry chef, test kitchen editor, and food writer, butter had long lived in the culinary shadows." Page 4
That project kicked off the author's interest in butter which took her all over the world and culminated in this offering. Here are a few tasters of the interesting encounters she experienced on the fringes of dairydom:
"I met with a former Buddhist nun to learn about the intricacies of Tibetan butter carving, and with various scientists to understand udders, soil, and fat metabolism. I spent a week in a large fridge with the artist who sculpts the Iowa State Fair butter cow each year, and I met with a New Jersey man to see his vast personal collection of vintage butter making equipment and ephemera. I've toured the Butter Museum in Cork, Ireland, the Maison de Beurre in Brittany, and gazed up at the infamous Butter Tower in Rouen, France. And in bakeries, restaurants, and culinary schools, I've watched chefs work their magic with butter." Page 8
This micro history went on to deliver all of this thankfully devoid of personal tangents and material better contained in a memoir. Butter - A Rich History touches on a range of topics, including: history; sacred ceremonies and modern traditions; economics; manufacturing; politics; trade; nutrition and food preparation.

One of my favourite butter facts was that of bog butter. A naturally cool and airless bog was an ideal storing place to preserve butter in the warmer months and the perfect hiding place for the valuable produce.
"For thousands of years, Irish wetlands (and to a lesser degree, Scottish, Finnish, and Icelandic bogs as well) were used as butter mines, where covered wooden buckets, or firkins, packed with butter and wrapped in moss were sunk into the earth." Page 47
Accidentally discovered years later, scientists are able to analyse and study the contents but I wonder if they're ever tempted to have a taste.
"Because dairying was closely identified with female rites of fertility, birthing, and lactation, strong cultural taboos against men handling milk existed for centuries around the world, and so the business of butter making grew up squarely on the shoulders of hearty pastoral women." Page 66
I always wondered why cheese and milk were deemed women's work. The science of butter making is covered in great detail, sometimes more than I'd like and we're often reminded of the versatility of butter:
"Not just a delectable food on its own, butter could be used for cooking, as medicine, for lamp fuel, as a lubricant, to preserve meats, and even for waterproofing. No wonder that long-held customs exalting butter continue to endure." Page 58
Various methods of butter presentation were utilised, including embossing, wrapping in green leaves, cloth or parchment paper or presentation in a three foot long rod. In later years, you could even buy canned butter popularised by the Alaskan gold rush. Imagine that!

As you would expect, the industrial revolution changed the butter making industry and refrigeration was another change to the process. The design evolution of butter churns across history is covered in quite some detail, as is the difference between milks, creams and butters produced from a variety of animals, including: cows, sheep, goats, yak, buffalo and more.

The introduction of margarine was an eye opener, and it was useful to be reminded that margarine was originally made from beef caul fat and is naturally white. I didn't realise there was so much controversy surrounding the colour of the new product, when in fact thirty US states introduced legislation to prohibit the use of yellow food dye to fool customers into thinking they were buying butter.
"Some legislatures even demanded that margarine be dyed a different color altogether, such as red or black; five states passed laws requiring margarine be dyed pink!" Page 112
Manufacturers weren't deterred by the hefty restrictions, dodging later tax regulations by selling their margarine with little packets of food coloring for customers to mix at home. Can you imagine eating pink, red or black margarine or mixing yellow food colouring at home?

Those seeking a career change may do well to look into becoming a butter grader.
"Bradley is also a trained butter grader and technical judge. He has the where-withal to detect twenty different flavor defects in a sample of butter, as well as nine texture defects, three more for color and appearance, and two salt-related defects." Page 122
Impressive stuff and so much more interesting than wine tasting; I'd love to attend the types of butter tastings Khosrova writes about. The author does well to remind us about the health benefits of butter:
"In every pound of butter (especially organic and grass-fed brands) there's a payload of fat-soluble vitamins and other constituents that support good health. Vitamin A and its precursors, which are critical to many functions in the body (good vision, a defensive immune system, and skin health), are abundant in butter, but it's the concentration of Vitamin D, E, and K2 content that have been most recently lauded." Page 155
I certainly don't need any encouragement to add an extra dollop of butter to my potatoes but it was a good reminder - for me - to continue choosing butter over margarine. The health debate between fat and sugar was outlined but far less interesting.

In the latter part of the book, my stomach really began to grumble when the author included various cooking and food related information:
"In fact, it's hard to think of another ingredient that boasts as much versatility. As a flavor-lifting cooking medium, butter can be put to work in the saute pan and on the griddle as well as in the saucepan. It can be browned, whipped, smoked, clarified, salted, spiced, or herb-seasoned. And then there is butter's stupendous role in baking. Because it can be creamed, rubbed in, cut in, or layered with other ingredients, we get to choose from a vast range of sweets and desserts. Tender cakes, flaky delicate pastries, chewy bars, snappy and soft cookies as well as luxurious buttercreams all owe their invention to butter." Page 192
Doesn't that just make you want to jump up and make something buttery and delicious? The inclusion of iconic butter centric recipes at the end was an appetising treat.

Reading Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova has inspired me to look for artisanal butters at my local market and consider tasting other supermarket products. I'm a loyal consumer of Unsalted Western Star but hoping to expand my palate real soon.

If any of the above has whet your appetite for all things butter or whipped you into a frenzy, then enjoy this micro history because Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova is a tasty morsel. Bon Appétit!

My Rating:


13 May 2024

Suddenly Single At Sixty Winner Announced

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway last week to win a copy of Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck thanks to Text Publishing. All entrants correctly identified the book is an 'inspiring, witty and at times hilarious memoir'. Entries closed at midnight on Sunday 12 May 2024 and I drew the winner today, congratulations to: 

LOBROO!

Congratulations!! You've won a print copy of Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck valued at $36.99AUD thanks to Text Publishing. You'll receive an email from me shortly and will have 5 days to provide your AUS or NZ postal address. The publisher will then send your prize out to you directly. Cheers and hope you enjoy this inspiring memoir 💛
Carpe Librum image promoting the giveaway for Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck
11 May 2024

Review: Hello Sleep by Jade Wu

Hello Sleep - The Science And Art Of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications by Jade Wu book cover

Do you suffer from insomnia? Are you a night owl? A light or heavy sleeper? I've always enjoyed reading or hearing about the many factors that contribute to a good night's sleep. Author Jade Wu is a behavioural sleep medicine specialist and researcher and I can safely say Hello Sleep - The Science And Art Of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications has much to offer the many insomniacs watching their clocks and tossing and turning as I write this.

My key takeaway from the book is this: whether you fall asleep easily tonight comes down to where you are on the sleep drive versus arousal equation.

Sleep drive - or homeostatic sleep drive - is essentially your body's hunger for sleep, also called sleep pressure. You can build sleep drive by being awake and you can increase sleep drive by being physically and mentally active while you're awake. Put another way, sleep drive is:
"The sleepiness you deposit into your sleep drive piggy bank during the day and use to buy quality sleep at night." Page 94
However, sleep drive is only one part of the equation, the second is arousal. Essentially, arousal is akin to being razzed up, and can be physical, mental or emotional. Arousal works directly against sleep drive and we've all experienced this. Our minds might be racing after an argument with someone or before an important work meeting, holiday or interview. Or, we might experience negative thought patterns that fuel our arousal and make it impossible to turn our brains off or physically relax enough for our body to take over and fall asleep.

Thankfully we can take some control back and Wu steps us through her Hello Sleep program, providing explanations along the way to help readers understand what's happening in their bodies and what to do to change existing sleep patterns.

Narrated by Susannah Mars, there were plenty of helpful facts along the way, and previous learnings I enjoyed rediscovering here, like this one:
"A healthy adult of about thirty-five to sixty-five years old wakes about ten to sixteen times per night, though they don't remember most of these brief awakenings." Page 21
I read Hello Sleep by Jade Wu at the same time as watching Michael Mosley's new documentary Australia's Sleep Revolution with Dr Michael Mosley on SBS. The information contained in the 3 episode documentary reinforced much of Wu's content and vice versa, and I can highly recommend the program.

I experience regular sleep issues related to chronic pain so I was very interested in the chapter entitled Other Medical and Psychiatric Conditions That Affect Sleep:
"When it comes to sleep, it's not a pretty picture: those with chronic pain tend to have worse sleep by every measure, and a majority have insomnia. It's not hard to imagine why: it's difficult to find a comfortable position, the pain is distracting, and the body and brain are generally more stressed, causing hyperarousal. This is an unfortunate vicious cycle because having worse sleep can also exacerbate pain by increasing inflammation and perception of pain, as well as making it harder to emotionally cope with pain during the day." Page 304-305
I felt really seen by the author, who goes on to explain that the Hello Sleep program still applies and that there's plenty within your control that you can do to improve your sleep quality, regardless of any medical conditions you may have.

Hello Sleep - The Science And Art Of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications by Jade Wu is recommended for anyone wanting to understand and improve their own sleep quality, or that of a loved one.

My Rating:


07 May 2024

Review: The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

Intro

You're not seeing things, what follows is a review of an historical fiction novel set during WWI. I know I've said here on Carpe Librum that I'm - mostly - on a break from WWI and WWII historical fiction, however such is the power of Katherine Arden that I made an exception.

Last year I reviewed The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and fell in love with the writing style of this YA urban fantasy / historical fiction series. The Bear and the Nightingale earned a glowing 5 star review and I'm still looking forward to reading the next book in the Winternight trilogy The Girl In The Tower. Therefore I was surprised to see the author pop up in a publisher's catalogue with an adult title The Warm Hands of Ghosts. Seeing it was an historical fiction novel set in WWI, I was keen to see how - or if - the author would bring her love of Russian myths and legends and sense of 'other' to a bloody war and now I have my answer.

Review

I shared this back story because I didn't know what to expect - other than great writing - reading The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden. It's quite possible that if I'd known just how dark the book was going to be, I might not have requested it for review. Having said that, going in blind was the best approach for me and I'm glad I read it.

Laura Iven is a Canadian nurse providing medical care to the soldiers on the Western Front during WWI when she is injured during the bombing of a hospital, discharged and sent back home to Halifax in Canada to recover.

The snappy writing and depth of character was immediately present in the author's writing. Here's one of my favourite observations by Laura:
"Laura tried not to look cynical. Pim appeared simultaneously flattered, delighted to make his acquaintance, and innocently unavailable. She'd probably practiced that expression in a mirror." Page 91
Laura's brother Wilfred (Freddie) is a soldier serving in Belgium and after receiving contradictory news and fearing he might be missing, she risks another deployment and travels back to Belgium in search of him. Volunteering at a private hospital in Flanders, Laura and her colleagues struggle to stay on their feet working for days without rest in the gruelling conditions. Laura speaks to the men as she tends to their wounds and starts to hear strange stories about the Fiddler.

The novel is set in alternate chapters with Laura in present day January 1918 and Freddie's point of view from several months earlier enabling the reader to discover what happens to him. Incorporating elements of the Halifax Harbour explosion from history was a refreshing angle I hadn't come across in WWI literature and it was interesting to learn more about this disaster from the character's perspective.

Laura's brother was named Wilfred in the novel and every time I saw his name on the page I reacted with 'oh, I thought that was going to read Wilfred Owen.' I studied the works of WWI poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves in a War Literature course at University so I felt rewarded when I noted the following in the Afterword:
"Her brother's name, Wilfred, is a hat-tip both to Ivanhoe and to Wilfred Owen, whose poem "Strange Meeting" was the starting point for Freddie's story." Afterword, Page 378
What a terrific tribute to the poet and for those interested, you can read Wilfred's short poem Strange Meeting in full on the Poetry Foundation website.

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden is difficult to read at times. It's brutal and graphic yet also tender and achingly beautiful while accurately conveying the destruction and hopelessness of war without flinching away from the horror. Reading this in the lead up to ANZAC Day enhanced my sense of gravitas while reading but the kiss at the end was one step too far for me.

Highly recommended for experienced readers of WWI historical fiction with a strong stomach looking for a new story that stands apart from the rest. Not sure? Read a free EXTRACT.

My Rating:


03 May 2024

Giveaway: Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck

Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck book cover

Intro

It's time for another giveaway and today you have a chance to WIN a print copy of Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck thanks to Text Publishing. Valued at $36.99AUD, this giveaway is open to eligible entrants with an address in AUS or NZ. Entries close at midnight on Sunday 12 May 2024, so good luck!

About the author

Jo Peck grew up in Healesville, Victoria and worked in advertising for thirty-five years. She lives in Melbourne with her new partner. (Is that a spoiler alert?)

Blurb

Dumped by her husband of twenty-five years, Jo Peck—smart, successful and sixty—is totally floored.

There’s the complete bombshell of the news, the cliché of a younger woman—a much younger woman—there’s the disappointment of cancelled retirement travel plans, and there’s the foundation-rocking loss of her sense of identity—if she’s no longer Rex’s wife, who the hell is she?

She’s lost and angry and hurt and confused.

But not for long!

There’s the comfort and support of excellent friends and newly forged connections with extended family, there’s therapy. And there’s internet dating.

This inspiring, witty and at times hilarious memoir tells the story of the road from shock and despair to an unexpected new life, of friendship, romance and racy sex—proof that being suddenly single at sixty is not the end, it’s an opportunity for a fabulous new beginning.

Giveaway

This Carpe Librum giveaway has now closed.

02 May 2024

Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg book cover

Earlier this year I saw Charles Duhigg was releasing Supercommunicators - How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. Keenly anticipating the pearls of wisdom within yet frustrated by the future dated release, I noticed he had an earlier title The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change. 

Every now and again I feel ready for some self improvement and self help literature, so I decided to try The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I'm always hopeful I'll experience an 'a-ha' moment or discover a new insight that'll help me achieve my goals.

In retrospect, I should have just waited for Supercommunicators, but I had one particular habit I wanted to change by mid year and was optimistic this book might give me a new perspective or strategy to try. Instead Duhigg didn't offer this reader anything new.

There were plenty of examples of workplace habits and habits embedded in a range of companies and industries which I interpreted as mere company culture. Examples highlighted the benefits of changing individual habits for better practices across the workforce, but this just left me feeling like I'd read a business book on change management.

Listening to the audiobook, I also began to notice a repetition in the text read by the narrator that I might not have noticed in print; in fact I'm sure I wouldn't. When recounting pretty much anything - an anecdote from a worker or employee for instance - the author would say the person "told me". Well, I'd love to be able to count the number of times the author/narrator said "she/he/someone told me" because I'm sure it'd be impressive, but perhaps it's better I don't. Besides, it's time better spent reading anyway.

Ultimately The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg didn't offer me any new insights into habits and behaviour, but perhaps that's not surprising given this isn't my first time reading a book about habits. Perhaps it's becoming a habit? (pun intended).

The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg is a solid read recommended for readers new to the topic.

Check out my reviews of:

My Rating:


29 April 2024

Review: The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé

The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette *

It's 1896 and Florence Granger is helping her father in the family business Granger's Bookbinders in Manchester. Florence is disowned when she brings shame upon the family but before her father kicks her out onto the street, Grace intercepts a request from a valued client in Lancashire.

Florence travels to Rose Hall in Lancashire in her father's stead and talks her way into restoring the many rare books held in Lord Francis Belfield's personal library. Her position and standing is precarious, but her secret soon pales against the goings on at Rose Hall. Lord Belfield is a widower and it's not long before Florence becomes curious about his wife's untimely demise, convinced it wasn't an accident.

What transpires next in The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé is a gothic mystery and upstairs/downstairs whodunnit and I was entertained the entire way. Early on, Florence is attending church when she gains her first real inkling about her local community and standing of the household she now resides in:
"In the first five pews sat the landed gentry with wives in black or navy satins and velvets, the most ostentatious in deep sapphires, emeralds and violets. All the husbands in the same uniform of morning suit with their hats laid next to them beside their well-trained children praying piously or with their eyes fixed ahead. I knew enough to avoid wearing anything made from loud rustling material, but I felt plain and shabby in my grey dress and threadbare shawl. We sat among the staff. Governesses, footmen, maids and gardeners; all clearly sat in order of importance within the small village, and then their own households." Page 20
Florence then goes on to acknowledge with some surprise that the social standing of her household in the area must be middling, given their pew position so far back in the church.

I'm a sucker for historical fiction novels about governesses (Mrs England by Stacey Halls) and I'll be loath to shelve this book because then I won't be able to enjoy seeing the cover design on my desk every day. (This happened with The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell too!)

In fact, The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé definitely gave me Stacey Halls and Laura Purcell vibes, but the writing was definitely unique:
"In my experience, men of the cloth were quite learned folk, but something about him irked me. The smell of him, first of all, was somewhere between offal and the dank emissions from the corners of a pond that got no light." Page 86
What a description! I really enjoyed the setting at Rose Hall, Florence's relationships with the staff and of course Lord Francis. I love a good upstairs / downstairs tale however Shenjé somehow manages to keep the relationships relatable to today's sensibilities without disrespecting the historical setting. 

I loved this description, and immediately felt like it could describe the relationship I enjoy with my husband:
"The jocularity between them was so well-grooved, it made me think of a carpenter bevelling the edges of wood, and the peels of wood curling up, making smooth laughing sounds along the way. They jostled and poked each other with the jokes that only they could make." Page 203
The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé has a stunning cover design (the second absolute stand out design this year; the first being The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown) and delivers an historical gothic mystery about secrets, class, race, friendship, love, grief, female agency all wrapped up by a bookbinder poking about and asking questions. Perfect.

It's hard to believe The Library Thief is the author's debut novel, but Kuchenga Shenjé has definitely become an instant auto read for me, easily up there with Laura Purcell and Stacey Halls, highly recommended!

My Rating:


23 April 2024

Review: That's Not How You Wash A Squirrel by David Thorne

That's Not How You Wash A Squirrel by David Thorne book cover

Residing in USA, David Thorne is the Australian author behind the notorious Missing Missy and despite a scathing review of Look Evelyn Duck Dynasty Wiper Blades. We Should Get Them in 2020, I still owned two more of the author's books. At the time I expressed my irritation at the fat phobic content and uncertainty around whether Thorne uses creative licence in a self deprecating manner in an ironic attempt to further his unlikable persona in the pursuit of entertainment; or if he's just a dick.

Four years have passed and many books have been read since then and I believe enough time has elapsed for me to tackle the next one on the pile. Did it make me chuckle or frown? Short answer, both!

The author does write humourous dialogue, and I enjoyed this excerpt from an exchange with partner Holly:
"No, you're supposed to say something nice back."
"Your hair looks nice today."
"Thanks. I used your conditioner in the little red tube."
"That's foot cream." Page 20
The title story about rearing a baby squirrel was my favourite from the collection and it was very cute. But then the author churns out a comment like this one that left a sour taste in my mouth for a few pages:
"We did visit my sister a few weeks later but there were no secret passageways in her house and neither Seb or I gave a fuck about her origami owls or potplant hangers. Any halfwit with a roll of string and a few sticks can set up an Etsy shop." Page 39
There's no context about Thorne's sister and she isn't referred to often. That particular comment came off the back of a reunion with his estranged father who had a secret passageway in his house, but without context or knowing anything about the author's sister, it's hard to interpret that comment as anything other than rude. Who writes like that publicly about their sibling anyway?

If he's joking, then it's not a joke I can join in on. I found it rude and insulting and it made me wonder if this guy means every word he writes or if he's just an arsehole. I'm starting to lean towards the latter, but you be the judge:
"I fully support discrimination against fat people but if one sat next to me on a plane I wouldn't move, ask them to move, or talk to them. I'd just be quietly annoyed the whole flight and try to breath through my mouth." Page 52
Seriously? Is this guy the real deal? Published in 2015, thankfully That's Not How You Wash A Squirrel contains fewer fat phobic references, but the fat shaming was still there. At one point he refers to a 'crazed looking flabby woman in her thirties named Rian', but it's not just fat people and fat women who irk our author:
"Penguin represent my first book but my marketing person there is a small angry Asian woman who yells a lot so I have her number blocked." Page 147
Wow, blocking the Marketing Rep from Penguin on your phone when you depend on their representation, hilarious! Hopefully you could hear the drip of my sarcasm there. It's just not funny.

The occasional fat phobic content was off putting and while I enjoyed a somewhat amusing story about hunting for the first time in the USA, I can't tell if the content has been inspired or lifted from the author's lived experience or whether it's all fiction. Is this self deprecating humour written by a humble guy unafraid of being judged harshly? Or is he just a run of the mill arsehole, wandering aimlessly around a camp site so that he doesn't have to help his mates pack up? He sounds like a tool, but that's also what used to make his writing funny.

There's a fine line and I'm never sure how close to it we are, but it feels like we're getting further away from the author's core talent for entertaining the reader. In a different example, Thorne shares a section detailing the passing of a friend after a dramatic car accident that was incredibly moving, yet I'm not sure if he's 'taking the piss'* or not.

I decided years ago not to purchase any more of David Thorne's new work, but I still have Walk It Off, Princess on my TBR pile. I can hear some of you thinking 'don't read it if you don't like his work' but have you ever decided not to read a book you purchased? Published in 2018 three years after this title, I'm hoping the downward trend on insulting people continues and the sense of humour so prevalent in his earlier work resurfaces in fine form. There's hope yet!

Check out my reviews to some of the author's better books:
- The Internet is a Playground ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- I'll Go Home Then; It's Warm and Has Chairs - The Unpublished Emails ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Wrap It In A Bit Of Cheese Like You're Tricking The Dog ⭐⭐⭐
- Look Evelyn Duck Dynasty Wiper Blades. We Should Get Them ⭐⭐

My Rating:


 
*Australian slang term for 'having a lend'.
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: