22 September 2023

Review: Don't Hang Up by Benjamin Stevenson

Don't Hang Up by Benjamin Stevenson audiobook cover

Don't Hang Up by Benjamin Stevenson is an Audible Original available for free with my membership at the moment. Coming in at just over 3 hours in duration, this is a fast-paced Australian domestic thriller and I loved it! Usually I'm unable to concentrate on fiction in audiobook format, but I took the chance given this was written by Australian writer and comedian Benjamin Stevenson, author of Greenlight, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone and more.

In Don't Hang Up, Adam Turner is a radio host assigned to the overnight shift after a career limiting move several years ago. One night an anonymous caller breaks the monotony and phones in with a threat. If Adam hangs up the phone, the caller will murder a kidnapped woman live on air.

I was immediately engaged by the tension, twists and excellent narration by Luke Arnold and Sibylla Budd, and my attention was held until the very last words; which were a clever touch by the author by the way!

Benjamin Stevenson is the author of one my favourite books last year, and Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone made it onto my Top 5 Books of 2022 list.

Thankfully we haven't had to wait too long for a sequel, and the next in the Ernest Cunningham series is released next month. It's called Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect and it's a locked room murder mystery set on a train. Sounds fun and I'll be picking it up to read next.

Don't Hang Up by Benjamin Stevenson was a perfect primer, and I'm looking forward to enjoying more work from this talented Aussie author in future.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

20 September 2023

Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby book cover

I totally fell in love with the creative process behind the embroidered cover design for Miss Austen by Gill Hornby after watching this video created by Chloe Giordano.

I've been stitching - mostly cross stitch - on and off for years and Miss Austen was a complete cover buy. I hardly ever pre-order books, but went all out to pre-order this Waterstones signed hardback edition, with dust jacket showing the reverse of the embroidered fabric (so clever), sprayed edges and stunning endpapers. You can see a flip through of the book here.

Chloe Giordano went on to design and stitch the embroidered cover for Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby and I really admire the publisher for seeking a different design style and process for these historical fiction novels.

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby is a novel of the Austen sisters, focussing on Cassandra Austen. Being unfamiliar with the members of the Austen family and in-laws, the handy family list at the beginning of the novel was immensely helpful and I constantly needed to flip back to refer to it.
"And she decided that other families must be one of life's most unfathomable mysteries. It was no use sitting as an outsider and even trying to fathom them. One could have no idea of what it must be like to be in there, on the inside. She would share that thought later in her letter to Jane." Page 69
The primary thrust of the novel is discovering why Cassandra Austen burned so many of her sister Jane Austen's letters, thus depriving future readers and scholars from reading her words. The dialogue is witty and enjoyable, and despite only having read one book by Jane Austen, felt authentic to her writing style.
"Half of Caroline's story was plainly ridiculous. The girl had always had a strong imagination, as well as a talent for embroidery, and was employing both quite liberally here." Page 161
'Well, what a lovely confection of nothing at all that was, my dear,' she began... 'Most charming, indeed; so charming I almost wish it had happened.' Page 161
The bond between Jane and Cassandra ran deep, with both seeming to sacrifice their happiness and future prospects for one another. The lack of female agency, the bonds of family and the relationships between women formed the base of this historical fiction novel:
"Now, here, in this vicarage, Cassandra had found another; most unexpected, excellent woman. She had quite forgotten the feeling, that deep, joyful and satisfying feeling brought by good feminine companionship. What a blessing to enjoy it once more." Page 170
In reflecting on Jane's death, the author highlights the importance of inheritance and legacy, noting:
"... these are the things by which most of us are remembered, these small acts of love, the only evidence that we, too, once lived on this earth. The preserves in the larder, the stitch on the kneeler. The mark of the pen on the page." Page 20
Jane's temperament and moods were mentioned throughout Miss Austen, although I'm lacking any opinion as to how close to her true medical history the author was steering us. Having only read Pride and Prejudice, I felt somewhat ill prepared and poorly equipped to enjoy all of the subtleties and easter eggs no doubt on offer here in Miss Austen.

Fans familiar with the Austen canon or the author's life in any detail, will no doubt recognise plot points, locations (Godmersham Park, Chawton House), family members, engagements, marriages and deaths mentioned throughout, however these were unfortunately lost on me.

Not knowing how much of the narrative in Miss Austen is based on history and fact and how much was fictionalised, I wasn't able to enjoy the novel at the level it was intended. Instead, I chose to read Miss Austen as a stand-alone novel of sorts, knowing as I did so that I was missing many layers by being unfamiliar with the Austen canon. 

The constant moving of the family members was a surprise although I did enjoy Mrs Austen's dialogue, especially when it concerned her own health:
'My bowels feel much steadier now, thanks be to the Lord, after what was, as you of all people know, Cass, the most frightful evacuation. I think I shall like this apothecary. He has a good feel for my system.' Page 198
Love it! Miss Austen by Gill Hornby will be remembered by this reader for having one of the most attractive cover designs I've seen and was an enjoyable read.

My Rating:

18 September 2023

Review: The Book of the Raven by Caroline Roberts and Angus Hyland

The Book of the Raven by Caroline Roberts and Angus Hyland book cover

The Book of the Raven - Corvids in Art & Legend
by Caroline Roberts and Angus Hyland is a beautiful collection of artwork, poetry and short chapters about corvids and ravens in art and legend.

Beginning with an introduction and first chapter written by Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster, HM Tower of London was a master stroke. You might remember I thoroughly enjoyed his memoir The Ravenmaster - My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London.

If you're not terribly knowledgeable about birds, corvids include crows, ravens, rooks and magpies; although technically not Australian magpies, due to a lack of nasal bristles.
"When ravens get together it's an unkindness, but get a bunch of crows together and it's murder..." Page 109
I enjoyed learning more about corvids and their appearance in art and literature across time, with some memorable mentions including: Charles Dickens and his beloved raven Grip; The Lord of the Rings; Edgar Allan Poe and his famous poem The Raven; Alfred Hitchcock; the curse of The Crow movie; of course the Brothers Grimm; and A Game of Thrones.
"It may come as a surprise, especially given the often fairly dark myths that surround them, that ravens are very playful creatures, having fun with their fellow birds or sometimes just amusing themselves." Page 79
I mean, who hasn't seen the footage of a raven sliding down a rooftop on a piece of plastic over and over?

While enjoying the gothic graphics and moody artworks included, I was frustrated many times trying to locate the applicable captions, concluding that many of the pages lack adequate credits. This is a real shame for those artists lucky enough to have their artworks included in this collection.
"Ravens have a long association with both war and death - they are carrion birds, often picking over the remains after battles had taken place. The Vikings considered a croaking raven outside a house to be a warning of the imminent death of its occupant." Page 98
The author goes on to explain that Viking raiders used ravens to help find land, inspiring the raven banner flown by Viking warlords. These banners remained in use long after the Vikings had departed and can be seen in two panels of the Bayeux Tapestry. Fascinating!

My reading highlight enjoying The Book of the Raven was without a doubt reading The Raven poem by Edgar Allen Poe aloud at home for my husband. Having only read it to myself in the past, I have renewed respect and appreciation for the rhythm of the language and complexity of the lines, in the same way I enjoy the lyrics of The Phantom of the Opera.

Presented in an A5 sized softcover, I dearly wish Caroline Roberts and Angus Hyland were given more scope to expand this collection and delve deeper into the historical significance in the way author Michel Pastoureau was able to in Black - The History of a Color.

Conceived and designed by Angus Hyland and written by Caroline Roberts, The Book of the Raven - Corvids in Art & Legend was an enjoyable read and also the first book I've read from my 8 Books on my TBR with Birds on the Cover post, earlier this year.

If you'd like a sneak peak at the artwork inside, you can do so via the author's design studio website Pentagram. Enjoy!

My Rating:

15 September 2023

Review: The Boy Under the Table by Nicole Trope

The Boy Under the Table by Nicole Trope book cover

The Boy Under the Table
by Australian author Nicole Trope is about Tina, a homeless young girl living on the streets of Sydney's red light district, King's Cross. Tina's struggle to survive the Cross is contrasted with the grief and worry in outback New South Wales, as farmers Doug and Sarah desperately seek the return of their young son Lachlan, who disappeared at Sydney's Royal Easter Show.

Tina's day-to-day life on the streets as a sex worker and living a sober yet meagre existence in a squat were shocking and compelling, thankfully with a ray of hope Tina will work through her grief and reclaim her life.

There were countless times the author could have taken a misstep in this narrative, resulting in some serious eye-rolling from this reader, but she didn't! In fact, I was actually waiting for a disappointing turn in the narrative, fully expecting Tina to do something unbelievable or for Lachlan to act contrary to his age or character, but again, it never happened.

Instead, I found myself worrying about the two characters during the day, and wondering what their futures held in the remaining pages. We're given multiple character perspectives, and the plot kept me engaged the entire time. I was relieved to find a satisfying ending filled with hope without once glossing over any of the trauma that had passed beforehand and the healing still ahead.

Ultimately The Boy Under the Table by Nicole Trope is a story of hope and courage and I couldn't help but be moved by it. Highly recommended for fans of Australian crime writing, or those seeking a refreshing take on the missing/kidnapped child trope in fiction.

For more, check out my review of Forgotten by Nicole Trope, a domestic thriller about a sleeping baby kidnapped from his car seat when his mother ducked into a shop to buy milk.

My Rating:

12 September 2023

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle book cover

I thoroughly enjoyed this young adult fantasy novel and it may even be a Top 5 contender for 2023. Published in 1968, The Last Unicorn by American author Peter S. Beagle has become a modern fantasy classic. Included in my copy of 501 Must-Read Books and voted by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of all time, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is a new favourite and exceeded all of my hopes and expectations.

This quest novel features a unicorn who is worried she may be the last of her kind on earth. As she leaves the serenity and sanctuary of her wood to venture forth and find the truth, she meets fellow travellers along the way who join her in her quest.

While I'm generally not a fan of anthropomorphism (talking animals) in books, I have been known to make the odd exception (Watership Down by Richard Adams), and here it seemed natural and endearing.
'He ran,' the unicorn said. 'You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention.' Her voice was gentle, and without pity. 'Never run,' she said. 'Walk slowly, and pretend to be thinking of something else. Sing a song, say a poem, do your tricks, but walk slowly and she may not follow. Walk very slowly, magician.' Page 53
The unicorn isn't the only immortal or mythical creature in the novel, we also have magicians, curses, an evil King, a hero Prince and even a harpy!
"I am a hero. It is a trade, no more, like weaving or brewing, and like them it has its own tricks and knacks and small arts. There are ways of perceiving witches, and of knowing poison streams; there are certain weak spots that all dragons have, and certain riddles that hooded strangers tend to set you. But the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock at the witch's door when she is away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story." Page 249
This quest novel was a real adventure and definitely gave me the feel-good fairytale vibes I was seeking when turning to The Brothers Grimm earlier this year. The writing also made me chuckle at times, with observations like this one in the face of immediate danger:
"The magician stood erect, menacing the attackers with demons, metamorphoses, paralyzing ailments, and secret judo holds. Molly picked up a rock." Page 130
As you can see, the author's writing is sublime and the descriptions are incredibly evocative and refreshing:
"So they journeyed together, following the fleeing darkness into a wind that tasted like nails." Page 105
Wow, such a punchy description! Reading and enjoying The Last Unicorn, I couldn't help wondering whether the book influenced Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro in the writing of his quest novel The Buried Giant. In my opinion, The Buried Giant falls well short of The Last Unicorn, but I couldn't help noticing some similarities between the two.

Rich in allegory, The Last Unicorn has aged exceptionally well, but I'll leave you with one last quote I especially enjoyed, and which reminded me a little of Harry Potter:
"An old man in a dark, spangled gown and a pointed, spangled hat was standing there, and no one could say surely that he had not been standing there in plain sight since they entered the throne room. His beard and brows were white, and the cast of his face was mild and wise, but his eyes were as hard as hailstones." Page 163
Having sold more than 6 million copies, I can definitely see why The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle is so beloved by children and adults, and why it continues to find new readers this past half century.

If you'd like to discover the magic for yourself, you can read the Introduction by Patrick Rothfuss and the first chapter and a half here for FREE.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

07 September 2023

Review: The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman

The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Mia Jacob was raised in a puritanical cult known as the Community in Massachusetts where contact with the outside world is non existent and books are forbidden. Selling produce from their farm in town, Mia sneaks into the local library and is met by a kind librarian who lets her borrow books, guessing she's from the nearby Community.

I read this during the time I was also watching the TV adaptation of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart based on the book by Holly Ringland, and saw so many connections. In particular, libraries providing a safe haven and refuge of sorts and the books inside opening doors to a new life, or helping the reader cope with their existing one.

The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman is a book of two halves, first, the tough life at the Community, and second Mia's love for The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. You don't need to have read the book to enjoy The Invisible Hour, and it isn't a retelling. I read and enjoyed The Scarlet Letter in 2008, yet Mia takes it to the next level and falls in love with the author, obsessively learning all about his life and even spending time at his grave.

In the second half of The Invisible Hour, Mia's love takes her back through the centuries to the time of Nathaniel Hawthorne, before he wrote The Scarlet Letter. I enjoyed Mia's dilemma about time travel, her observations, fears about changing the future and jeopardising the writing of the novel that changed her life. The heartbreak of love when measured against the harsh reality of the day, or the past, was also convincing.
"Nathaniel laughed at such nonsense, and he never told his friends about the curious things that happened to him, for it appeared that he was fated to have an appointment with the forces of magic. Twice he had seen ghosts, a matter he kept to himself." Page 132
The nature of love and the complications of time travel were foremost in my mind while reading this, as I was also watching the new season of Outlander based on the series by Diana Gabaldon. In that series similar questions arise, the grief and pull of separating years, the fear of altering the future and the desire of two people to be together at all costs.

The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman is a love letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne and a short and quick read. Hoffman's characters are an excellent example of the ways in which reading and stories can change your life and transport you elsewhere and on this, I heartily agree.

My Rating:

05 September 2023

Review: And Away by Bob Mortimer

And Away... by Bob Mortimer book cover

My path to this book began with an unsolicited copy of The Satsuma Complex by Bob Mortimer earlier this year. Unfamiliar with his work, I came across some very funny skits on Would I Lie To You? and decided to give his book a chance.

You'll remember I absolutely loved it, and having instantly warmed to the dynamic between Bob Mortimer and David Mitchell, went on to read Back Story by David Mitchell. I should have left well alone, but the re-runs in my head of Mortimer and Mitchell making each other - and me - laugh kept returning and I imagined they must be friends. I found myself wondering what it might be like to hang out with them and join in on the intellectually stimulating, outrageously funny and cleverly witty merriment. I wanted more!

And Away... is Bob Mortimer's autobiography, and it does what it says on the tin. This is Bob Mortimer's story, including his younger years living at home with his Mum with older brothers, school days, playing football, university days, starting out as a solicitor, first stand up, small gigs and a steadily growing career on stage and screen, despite finding out he's not a good actor.

Mortimer's sense of humour that had me chuckling along in The Satsuma Complex is also here, but reading about working on various radio shows, comedy gigs and TV shows was a little less interesting to me, and I should have expected this. Mortimer doesn't spend much time talking about Would I Lie To You? at all in this outing, which was a little disappointing (for me) but he does include a bunch of stories - a few of which aren't true - just to leave the reader guessing.

Mortimer is a qualified Solicitor with a Masters in Welfare Law, yet I was surprised to find out just how much of a regular, down to earth guy he is. The author seems to identify with the working classes, loves a beer and cigarette at the pub, hanging out with mates and being a couch potato in front of the TV. His love of food was another highlight, but does he really carry cured meat in his pocket at all times?

The author openly shares the health scare which led to open heart surgery, his struggle with depression and his discovery of the meditational nature of fishing. Fans of the show Gone Fishing featuring Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse will enjoy discovering how the show came to be and I really enjoyed this section, despite not being terribly interested in fishing.

The insightful reflections on friendship were the highlight of the autobiography for me, and I listed to the audiobook read by the author which I believe added to the enjoyment:
"For whatever reason, my friendships over the years have been based purely on the quest for laughter. This was different. Nature and silence had tricked me into talking to Paul about everything under the sun. The banks of the river Test had become my therapy couch. Two men talking and helping each other out. It's very refreshing if you've been starved of it." Chapter 23 Upwards and Onwards
After listening to David Mitchell's autobiography and now Bob Mortimer's, I can see these two comedians are from very different walks of life. Their ability to make comedic magic when they work together probably stems from their professionalism and talent, more than the deep friendship of the kind Mortimer shares with Paul. I had no business building the Mortimer/Mitchell bromance in my mind, and the crash down to earth was a rude awakening.

Needing a laugh and something light after reading true crime and historical fiction based on true crime recently, And Away... certainly delivered.

My Rating:

03 September 2023

Review: Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper

Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper book cover

A quick check tells me Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper was published in 2008, added to my virtual TBR pile back in 2016, and it has taken me until now to finally get around to requesting it from the library. Thankfully books wait for us no matter how many years it takes, and the premise that caught my attention in 2016 still appeals today.

Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper is based on the true story of Anne Green who was hanged for committing the crime of infanticide, and later woke up on the dissecting table at Oxford University.

In 1650, and aged 22, Anne had been concealing her unwanted pregnancy when she went into labour early and gave birth in the privy to a stillborn baby. Anne hastily concealed the body, not wanting to lose her position as a domestic servant. The baby's body was later discovered, and after accusing Sir Thomas's grandson, Master Geoffrey of being the father, Sir Read abused his position as Justice of the Peace and ensured Anne was charged with murder - infanticide - and sentenced to hang.
'Infanticide is a cruel law which only applies to the lower classes,' Wilton continued. 'When was one of the aristocracy last hanged for such a crime? Can you tell me that?' Page 160
Life is often stranger than fiction, and Mary Hooper does a splendid job of taking us into the mind of Anne Green before the pregnancy, during the birth, her subsequent arrest, time in prison and right up to her hanging. The reader is even privy to Anne's thoughts as she waivers between life and death.

In bringing this true story to life, the author also gives us a look at the confusion and uncertainty when scholars preparing to dissect Anne's body in the name of science, notice her eye flicker and are able to detect a faint pulse. She was sentenced to hang, so is her revival a sign from God of her innocence? Or should justice prevail and the sentence carried out a second time?

When considering how best to 'help restore her to the world' a number of remedies are discussed, including:
'Cut pigeons in half and apply them to her feet?' Norreys suggested, but this being a method regarded as rather old-fashioned, all three doctors shook their heads. A powdered burned swallow and the dripping from a roast swan evoked similar responses. Page 183
The remedies discussed were amusing and Hooper confidently brings 17th century England to life. Here a character remarks on the fact it's so cold in Oxford that they can't make notes in the theatre room because the ink is frozen in the bottle.
"There's such a hard frost that the Thames has frozen over and hucksters' tents have been erected on it. The ice was so solid that a coach and six was driven right across it without so much as a creak being heard!" Page 45
I don't know why, but the fact that the Thames river regularly froze over - more than 20 times between 1400 and 1831 - is a favourite history factoid of mine and I love when it pops up in whatever I'm reading. The river was wider and slower then and artworks depicting the Frost Fairs really ignite the imagination.

Having recently finished reading The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes, I couldn't fail to notice the similarity between the protagonist's plight in this book with that of Harriet Monckton; also a true story. It would seem the lack of agency for young women with unwanted pregnancies in 1650 wasn't much improved for Harriet two centuries later in 1843.

Fortunately for Anne, she was eventually given a pardon and went on to marry and have 3 children before dying 9 years after her execution.

Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper is a young adult novel and a quick read that will appeal to fans of historical fiction.

My Rating:

01 September 2023

Review: Eartheater by Dolores Reyes

Eartheater by Dolores Reyes book cover

August was Women In Translation (WIT) month and this year marks the tenth year of the project designed to encourage more readers to pick up books written and translated by women. I don't always participate, but I was in the mood to pick up Eartheater by Dolores Reyes so this fit nicely into my reading schedule.

Eartheater is a Latin American novel set in a slum in modern-day Argentina. Our protagonist has a compulsion to eat earth, but when she does she often sees disturbing visions of people who are missing or have been murdered. Troubled by her gift and the violence against women she witnesses, she prefers to remain withdrawn, playing computer games and drinking beer. Meanwhile, news of her gift spreads and family members - desperately seeking answers about their loved ones - start leaving bottles of earth at her gate, in the hope she can help them.
"I knelt down ... and put the bottle next to the others for company. There were plenty of blue ones. No blue was the same and no earth tasted alike. No child, sibling, mother, or friend was missed like another. Side by side, they were like glimmering tombs. At first, I used to count them and arrange them tenderly, sometimes stroking one until it let me savor the earth inside it." Page 59
The thought of all of those bottles and the despairing loved ones who were desperately hoping she might be able to give them some answers immediately stressed me out. This expectation and pressure made me feel uneasy, and I wanted the character to bring the bottles in and start working through them systematically. Maybe teaming up with a policeman to do it in a neat and tidy 'crime-meets-magical-realism, told from a feminist perspective' kind of way.

But this isn't that book, or like the TV show Medium. Instead, Reyes successfully highlights the fact that having this ability doesn't automatically equip the receiver with the necessary life skills to overcome their individual circumstances and become a community hero. Life just isn't like that.

Translated to English from Spanish by Julia Sanches, Eartheater has a dark and haunting atmosphere and I enjoyed the note from the translator at the end of the novel. You can read the first 17 pages for free here.

My Rating:

30 August 2023

Review: Badness by Gary Jubelin

Badness by Gary Jubelin audiobook cover

After dipping my toe back into the true crime pool again recently, I've roused an old curiosity regarding how people can become capable of hurting others emotionally, psychologically and in some cases physically. I was hoping a retired Homicide Detective might have some answers, and decided to listen to Badness by Gary Jubelin with Dan Box.

Retired NSW Homicide Detective Gary Jubelin was charged with recording conversations with a suspect in the disappearance of William Tyrrell. I've got a lot of time and respect for the author after enjoying his podcast I Catch Killers, which is up to 300+ episodes now. Those familiar with the podcast or the book I Catch Killers will easily slide into his latest offering.

Jubelin takes a look at badness, what it is, what causes it and what separates the guilty from the innocent. Along the way, I think he finds that it's not all black and white.

There's quite a bit in here about Jubelin's responses to developments in the William Tyrrell case, and I guess I shouldn't have been shocked to hear the sheer number of people who reach out to Jubelin every time there's a shift in the case. This has included the search of the home and bushland in Kendall and charges against the foster parents, and I did enjoy hearing Jubelin's perspectives. I'll admit, every time there's a new development, I wonder whether Jubelin might have been able to secure a result by now if he had been left in charge of the investigation.

Working now as an investigative journalist, it was interesting to find the author describes himself as having a foot in both worlds. He still sees himself as a cop deep down, but he's also a criminal and he seems to really struggle with this dichotomy. This reader will never consider Jubelin a criminal, quite the opposite, we need more homicide detectives like him.

But don't worry, this isn't a misery memoir and Jubelin doesn't scream at the skies like I would. While admitting being full of rage, he directs his energy into commencing a new career as a journalist with a passion for helping victims of crime.

Jubelin takes up boxing to release his pent up anger and frustration, and quite a bit of time is spent exploring the different people he's met in the early morning sessions, and what they've each taught him. The most memorable for me was the discussion with bank robber and serial prison escapee Bernie Matthews.

Jubelin seems to have found a kind of affinity with Matthews, who - after his days of law breaking were over - also became a journalist. I'll never forget the story of Bernie and the button he found in the darkness.

Unable to see or hear anything in solitary confinement, one day Bernie was down on his hands and knees feeling around his cell when he found a button. By touch he could tell it was plastic, and:
"To him it was a treasure, more valuable than anything that he possessed, which wasn't much, because it could save him from the mind numbing ordeal of solitary confinement. I'd flick the button in the dark and I started searching for it." 6hrs 46 mins
Bernie said sometimes it took minutes to find the button and other times it would take him hours, but the button gave him purpose and he did this for days at a time. It's easy to understand how Jubelin formed a friendship with this convicted bank robber turned journalist, his story moved me too.

In Badness, Jubelin includes the stories of many people as he reflects on the nature and nurture of badness and how we can learn from the past. Narrated by Rob Carlton, Badness by Gary Jubelin is recommended for fans of I Catch Killers and readers interested in true crime.

My Rating:

22 August 2023

Review: The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes

The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes book cover

This Victorian historical crime novel is based on the true story of young Harriet Monckton, who was murdered in Kent in 1843. Harriet was 23 years old and was found poisoned in the privy behind the chapel she regularly attended in Bromley, Kent. Sadly, Harriet's murder remains unsolved, however Elizabeth Haynes has attempted to show us who Harriet was, why she may have come to harm and who might have been responsible for her untimely death.

Elizabeth Haynes is better known for writing psychological thrillers, and you might recall my reviews of Into the Darkest Corner (5 stars) and Human Remains (4 stars). With many more crime novels under her belt, writing historical fiction is a first, and I think she nailed it! Drawing on historical records and archives, including the content of two inquests, coroner's report and witness testimonies, The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes is a convincing historical fiction novel by an author who has clearly done their Victorian era research.

The novel is presented in alternate chapters from several character points of view, and it took me a number of chapters to adjust to the regular shift in narration as a relatively large cast of characters began cycling through. One of the characters appeared guilty from the get go, but some of them aren't telling the truth:
"Trouble is, the truth is plain and easy to remember. Lies, though, that's different. You lie once, you have to remember the lie, the truth doesn't fade when time passes, but a lie does." Page 242
Harriet seems charismatic and is loved by many and envied by some, with characters seeing different sides to her personality:
"I felt my heart twist a little, at that. It reminded me of something Harriet had said to me once. That she should not meet anyone she loved as well as me. But that was the old Harriet, of course. The good, kind Harriet. Not the hypocrite, the harlot, the betrayer." Page 301
In the novel, we learn Harriet was pregnant, despite being single and unwed. Identifying the father of the child is a mystery just as compelling as the guilty party behind her murder. Are they one and the same?
"If I am spared, of course. It is at this time of night that I feel the most afraid; it feels that death and damnation lurk all around us, in the darkness, waiting to claim us. In the morning I shall feel foolish for these thoughts, of course, but now it seems that nothing good lies ahead for me." Page 405
Coming in at just over 500 pages, it was a little long, and Harriet's chapters did start to become a little tiresome as she fretted about her situation. A suspect is revealed by the end of the book, although of course we have no way of knowing if this is truly what happened.

If you'd like to give The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes a try, you can read a free excerpt of the first 21 pages on the publisher's website here. You might also like to check out my 2014 interview with the author.

The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes is a slow burn, historical whodunnit based on a true story. Recommended!

My Rating:

16 August 2023

Review: The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge

The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge book cover

Walcha (pronounced like polka) is a small town in NSW, located half way between Sydney and Brisbane with a population of approximately 2,475 people. In 2017, Natasha Darcy murdered her partner Mathew Dunbar and tried to make it look like suicide. Australian journalist Emma Partridge is the Senior Crime Editor for Nine News, and has won several awards for her court reporting.

In The Widow of Walcha, Emma Partridge tells Mathew Dunbar's story, and in doing so, exposes the greedy and despicable behaviour of one of the most cold and calculating females in Australia.

By all accounts, Mathew Dunbar was a kind, quiet, generous and successful sheep grazier who owned a multi-million dollar farm called Pandora. Actively involved in the community, Mathew was looking for love and wanted to have a family, making him the perfect target for Natasha Darcy.

After drugging her ex-husband Colin Crossman and burning down their house with him still in it, Natasha Darcy was charged with attempted murder in 2009. Serving time in jail, Natasha was later released, yet bizarrely remained in close contact with Crossman. They were unable to claim the insurance money for the house and were in serious debt when Natasha Darcy shifted her sights to Mathew.

With a ruse to meet the wealthy grazier and instigate a speedy romance, Natasha was soon spending Dunbar's money freely, while spending months online obsessively researching the best ways to kill him.

There were hundreds and hundreds of damning search terms, but here's a sample:
'how to commit murder', 'poisonous spiders', 'murder by injection,' 'can Police see search history?' and 'does helium show up in autopsy?' Other searches included: 'lethal dose of oxycodone', 'can Police see deleted messages' and '11 toxic wild plants that look like food'.
Thoroughly investigated by Emma Partridge, the case, arrest and subsequent trial showed Natasha Darcy to be a compulsive liar, and an evil and manipulative woman. At the time of the victim's death, the entire town believed Natasha had murdered Mathew, and locals couldn't understand why she was walking around free. Darcy was eventually arrested 4 months after Dunbar's death.

There was so much damning evidence in this case it was quite mind-blowing. Most shocking (to me) was why in hell ex-husband Colin Crossman - a Paramedic, no less - who had been drugged by Darcy and nearly died when she set his house on fire, was still actively involved in the children's lives. Darcy even took out a life insurance policy on Colin, this woman was bad news.

In an odd twist of fate, Crossman was the first Paramedic on the scene when Natasha 'discovered' Mathew unresponsive and frantically phoned for an ambulance. Partridge doesn't allege they were 'in on it' together, but this reader certainly wondered. Especially when you consider that when the author first sees Natasha, she and Colin are transporting a fridge from Pandora to his house. She was even interviewed by Police at Crossman's house. What is Crossman thinking? 

Worth millions, Darcy repeatedly asked Mathew to change his will to leave Pandora to her and her children if anything happened to him. Denying it later, Police were able to retrieve deleted text messages and evidence of her repeated nagging about the will.

Darcy had been in and out of jail for various charges including theft, and even had the nerve to ask another inmate if she'd lie to Police and inform them Mathew had been contemplating suicide days before his death. Darcy promised to pay her friend $20,000 for the lie when she 'automatically' inherited Pandora on her release. Fortunately the friend was already wise to the toxic manipulation and cut all ties, later coming forward during the trial with her information.

Narrated by Jo Van Es, this case was a shocking glimpse into the sordid mind of a self-serving, unfeeling, greedy and manipulative woman, prepared to do anything to further her financial position in life at the expense of all others.

Darcy finally settled on her method to dispatch Mathew, despite previous unsuccessful attempts which left him on crutches just days before his death. Mixing a cocktail of different drugs (including her son's medication and ram sedatives purchased under an assumed name), Natasha blended them in a Nutribullet to sedate Mathew. She then put a bag over his head and pumped helium gas into it, which eventually killed him.

I was gripped the entire time I was listening to The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge and found it hard to fathom the fact a woman could be so cold and evil. Recently finished, this book was very much in mind when I learned of the recent mushroom poisoning by Erin Patterson in the town of Leongatha where my parents live. Originally an intervention / mediation lunch, Erin's ex in-laws and family relative passed away after eating lunch at Erin's house containing fatal death cap mushrooms.

In this new case, the ex-husband Simon Patterson was supposed to attend the lunch and pulled out at the last minute, and just as well. Last year, he was in ICU for 16 days and underwent multiple operations to treat an undiagnosed gut illness. What's the bet this was Patterson's first attempt?

I see similarities in the early days of the mushroom poisoning case and the hideous behaviour of Natasha Darcy. If guilty, I hope Police find enough evidence to convict her and that she is brought to justice for killing three people with another still clinging to life at the time of writing. I hope the investigative journalists on this case are as dedicated to their jobs as Emma Partridge, and choose to put the truth and justice ahead of sensationalism and click bait.

No-one expects to live alongside a female murderer in their small town, and the family and friends of Mathew Dunbar in Walcha still mourn his loss. Taking advantage of a wealthy middle aged man with the promise of providing an instant loving family is the lowest of blows, and I only wonder why she couldn't be content living that life. Sentenced to 40 years in prison with a non-parole period of 30 years, Natasha Darcy's black widow days are well and truly over.

The fate of Pandora hadn't been legally settled when The Widow of Walcha was published in May 2022, but thankfully the author gave me peace of mind when she pointed out that regardless of the outcome, Darcy's children cannot legally inherit Pandora. Thank goodness for that!

The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge is one of the best Australian true crime accounts I've ever read!

My Rating:

14 August 2023

Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill book cover

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill has many layers, some of which I'm still untangling while trying to write this review. This mystery novel contains a book within a book and so many layers I had trouble counting them.

Hannah is writing a novel. In it, her protagonist Freddie is sitting in the Reading Room of the Boston Public Library trying to write a novel when The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill opens. Freddie decides to take inspiration from the people seated around her, and when a woman screams, and is later found dead, the strangeness of the situation brings about the meeting of Winifred Kincaid (Hannah's protagonist Freddie) with Cain McLeod, Marigold Anastas and Whit Metters. Bonded by trauma these four characters become fast friends, although one of them is a killer and we don't know who.

The character of Freddie is written in the first person, so my first mistake (I think) was assuming Hannah heard the scream, met the others at the library, and decided to write a novel inspired by these new friends. I later realised this all must be happening in Hannah's Freddie's manuscript, as Hannah is living in Australia, not in Boston.

Chapters from Hannah's book feature alongside letters from a correspondent called Leo although we never see her replies. Based in the USA, Leo is a beta reader providing feedback on each of the chapters and it starts to get complicated when Hannah writes him into the book as a friend to Freddie.

Australian author Sulari Gentill has convincingly set her tale in Boston and I loved Leo's comments and advice regarding the differences between Australian and US readers and the terms they know and recognise. It was amusingly meta!

The Woman in the Library contains clever literary mechanisms that seemingly moved up, down and behind me and I got a sore neck trying to keep track of everything. Reading this stand alone was a little like watching Inception and I'll admit being confused by the two Leo characters. The ending wasn't clear cut for me and I'm not quite sure if it was one last little twist or an exclamation point on the plot.

To unearth the gems in this deeply layered mystery I needed to concentrate harder, so perhaps this was a case of the wrong time for me and this book. Don't be fooled by its brevity as I was, The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill definitely packs a punch.

For more from this author, check out my review of Chasing Odysseus by S.D. Gentill.

My Rating:

11 August 2023

Review: Zero Days by Ruth Ware

Zero Days by Ruth Ware book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Discovering The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware was a reading highlight of 2019 and the book made it onto my Top 5 Books of 2019 list. I've been chasing that high ever since, so when Ruth Ware's latest Zero Days arrived from the publishers, I dove right in with the hope this would be a return to previous top form.

Our protagonist, Jack and husband Gabe expose the security risks and weaknesses of companies who pay them to break in to their premises or hack their systems online. They're penetration testers or 'pen testers' and Jack is one of the best. Early on in the novel - it's on the cover, so not a spoiler - Jack comes home from a job to find her husband has been murdered and she's the primary suspect.

The trope of the wrongly accused fighting to prove their innocence or clear their name is a familiar one and I think I'm beginning to tire of it.

Jack goes on the run to try and work out what happened to her husband, who killed him and why. I love a kick-arse main character, but I did have to roll my eyes at Jack's extraordinary ability to soldier on in the face of injury and illness to the extreme that she did. 

Zero Days
by Ruth Ware was an enjoyable standalone crime thriller with good pace, but didn't give me the high I experienced at the end of The Turn of the Key. As I said, I loved that book so much that it made it into my Top 5 list that year. Since then, I followed up by reading One by One (4 stars in 2020) and The It Girl (3 stars in 2022) but Zero Days hasn't captured my heart, or snatched the breath from my throat.

Have you experienced this phenomenon? I feel like a novel junkie (yep, I did just say that) chasing that first gasp of surprise and elation Ruth Ware gave me and I think I'm still chasing. Luckily for me, I have plenty from the author's back catalogue to discover, and in the meantime, I hope Ruth Ware is given carte blanche to write her heart's desire, free from pressure so that she can steal our hearts once more.

My Rating:

07 August 2023

Review: The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs

The Puzzler - One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A.J. Jacobs audiobook cover

This audiobook was a sheer delight! With a smooth and uniquely distinctive voice, author and puzzler A.J. Jacobs takes us on a tour of puzzles and the people who love them in The Puzzler - One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. The author's first love is crosswords, but he succeeds in taking us on a balanced and thoroughly satisfying tour through the world of puzzles.

A solver is a person who does puzzles, and in the book Jacobs interviews many who dedicate their lives to creating or solving a variety of puzzles. He covers a broad range of puzzles, including: anagrams; ciphers and codes; crosswords and cryptic crosswords; chess; jigsaw puzzles; riddles; Rubik's cube; logic problems, sudoku and more.

Jacobs shares his experiences with each of the puzzle types and I especially enjoyed his story about entering an international jigsaw puzzle competition with his family. This led me down a jigsaw rabbit hole, watching a short documentary about the mind blowing jigsaw competition that sees solvers given a series of brand new previously unreleased puzzles from Ravensburger as they compete to solve them. There are solo events, pairs and team events and it's a fascinating sub-culture.

When defining what a puzzle is, Jacobs declares a puzzle will almost always:
"... cause the solver to experience a period of difficulty and struggle, followed by relief. They provide an a-ha moment, tension leading to, an almost, well, orgasmic ending." Chapter 2: The Puzzle of Puzzles.
Jacobs involves the reader at every opportunity, creating a bonus puzzle time for audio listeners, and providing a PDF with 100+ pages of puzzle examples and supporting material for the book. Some of the puzzles mentioned sent me on a nostalgic trip down memory lane, or inspired me to seek out more info. Did you know the world's largest puzzle is from Ravensburger and contains 40,320 pieces? It's estimated that if a solver spends 2 hours per day working on the puzzle, it will take an entire year to complete it!

The author is serious about his puzzling, checking every night without fail for the online release of his favourite puzzles, and volunteering to tackle some of the hardest puzzles in the world. The Japanese puzzle box desk sounded incredible and I longed to see it in person.

Jacobs explores why so many of us love puzzles, concluding that the art of puzzling is 'bafflement, wrestling and solution'. Some of us become bored or frustrated and give up at the bafflement or wrestling stage, but Jacobs discusses the pleasure to be had from the mental and intellectual effort and the sense of accomplishment that follows when a puzzle has been solved. His enthusiasm for the topic is infectious and I enjoyed this tantalising look into the puzzle world.

I enjoy a puzzle myself, and am still doing the daily Wordle and - thanks to this book - occasionally taking on the Spelling Bee by The New York Times. I've asked myself how I can give an audiobook about puzzles my top rating of 5 stars, because that's what I'm about to do.

All I can say is that I had such a great time reading this. I was inspired to share some of the riddles and puzzles with my husband and we had a good laugh solving them (or not) together. As I said, The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs was an absolute delight. I looked forward to listening to a chapter or so each day and was sorry when I 'solved' the last one.

Highly recommended!

(For more like this, check out my review of It's All A Game - A Short History of Board Games by Tristan Donovan).

My Rating:

02 August 2023

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern book cover

"The circus arrives without warning."
The opening lines of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern draw the reader into a whole new world, where magic is real and those with the gift disguise their talent as illusionists or magicians. Two magicians are pitted against each other as youngsters in a challenge that lasts their lifetime, eventually converging at the circus.

Beginning in 1873, the travelling circus of the title is known as Le Cirque des RĂªves (The Circus of Dreams) and is only open at night. The magic deployed by performers at the circus is to delight, entertain and astonish those who visit, and the circus is a wonderland more than the centre of any magic battle.

Elite circus personalities regularly attend an exclusive midnight dinner party when they're not working, and my mouth was watering at the tasty morsels and decadent cuisine described, but check out the desserts:
"The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage." Page 69
It was here in the book that I noticed the prose reminded me of the descriptive writing style I enjoyed in The Starless Sea; momentarily forgetting that it's by the same author!! While at the same time patting myself on the back for noticing the similar descriptive style, should I be concerned that I failed to remember the same author penned both urban fantasy novels?

The circus performers are talented and Padva was a terrific character, impeccably described here:
"On this evening, Mme. Padva wears a dress of black silk, hand embroidered with intricate patterns of cherry blossoms, something like a kimono reincarnated as a gown. Her silver hair is piled atop her head and held in place with a small jeweled black cage. A choker of perfectly cut scarlet rubies circles her neck, putting forth a vague impression of her throat having been slit. The overall effect is slightly morbid and incredibly elegant." Page 70
Wouldn't you give anything to see her? The Night Circus is begging to be adapted for the big screen, and a quick search confirms the TV and film rights were optioned years ago. The alluring black and white striped tents, the incredible illusions and the otherworldly clock are ripe for cinematic interpretation, all that's missing is the smell of caramel and popcorn.

The power of The Night Circus is the circus itself, held together with evocative writing and the power of description. Not a lot happens between the characters, with an overarching theme driving the plot but without much action. I was expecting a dramatic showdown, denouement or climax that never arrived, thinking perhaps this would happen in the next book. Not so.

I've punched my ticket to The Night Circus later than most, with the success of the book at its peak in 2011. I remember deciding whether or not to request a copy for review, however I'm not really into circus settings or young adult romance, so decided not to. After enjoying The Starless Sea, I'm glad I decided to give this urban fantasy meets historical fiction novel a chance.

A word about editions. I love seeing hardbacks with a sprayed edge, and The Night Circus has produced some of the most stunning editions of any book I've ever seen and I still drool over the deluxe editions and fan art readers have come up with.

Previous visits to the circus on my reading calendar include:
If you want to read about magic showdowns, battles and duels, you won't find it here. If you want to have your imagination stretched and your senses stimulated in a light young adult romance set in the Victorian era with magic, then you will be entranced by The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Just don't forget to wear a red scarf. 

My Rating:

31 July 2023

Review: Care Packages by Michelle Mackintosh

Care Packages by Michelle Mackintosh book cover

A few years ago, I adored reading Snail Mail: Rediscovering the Art and Craft of Handmade Correspondence by Michelle Mackintosh so much that it made my Top 5 Books of 2015 list. Snail Mail is all about re-discovering the art of sending cards and letters in the post and is chock full of inspirational ways to beautify your mail. It really is a love letter to snail mail and my review struck a chord with other readers.

A year later, the author published Care Packages - Celebrating the Art and Craft of Thoughtfully Made Packages by Michelle Mackintosh and I've been happy in the knowledge this book has been out there in the world waiting for me. Do you ever feel like that?

The recent overhaul of the inter library system at my local library has reinvigorated my determination to make better use of the resources and finally get to some of the books lingering on my virtual TBR list. Surprisingly, a total of 85 of the 186 books on my TBR list are available via an inter library loan which is terrific news. However, the nature of inter library loans means books can take a few weeks/months to arrive and with a limit of 3 at any one time, it's going to take quite a while to get through this list, but what fun!

Do you read books from the library? Do you have a system or preference for which books to borrow and when? Okay, back to the task at hand.

Care Packages is beautifully presented in a delightful hardback cover, and the content is enticing for lovers of snail mail, mail art and gifts in general. I did find the ideas presented started to sound a little 'samey' and those photographed all demonstrated a very similar aesthetic with a clear Japanese influence. If you're a stationery lover like me, you'll know that the Japanese love their stationery, specialty paper, stickers, washi tape, mini printed paper bags and cute stuff. If I ever get back to Japan, stationery stores and an owl cafe will be top of my list, but must everything be wrapped with string?

The author has lived in Japan and as well as being a writer, she's an illustrator and designer with her own range of wrapping paper, how about that! I understand Michelle Mackintosh lives in my home town of Melbourne, yet her Japanese influences are clearly evident in this book.

Care Packages by Michelle Mackintosh is bursting with attractive colour themes and plenty of care packages on show, but it didn't inspire me in the same way as Snail Mail. The layouts and designs included were appealing with plenty of vintage paper and creativity on show, but the unifying design aesthetic didn't lend itself to plenty of variety in colour palette or ideas.

If you are new to the topic, I highly encourage you to check out Snail Mail: Rediscovering the Art and Craft of Handmade Correspondence by Michelle Mackintosh first. My copy still sits proudly on my shelf having survived multiple bookshelf culls and I'll never part with it.

My Rating:

27 July 2023

Review: Bizarre by Marc Dingman

Bizarre - The Most Peculiar Cases of Human Behavior and What They Tell Us about How the Brain Works by Marc Dingman book cover

I was in the mood for another engaging audiobook experience like Gory Details by Erika Engelhaupt recently, when I picked up Bizarre - The Most Peculiar Cases of Human Behavior and What They Tell Us about How the Brain Works by Marc Dingman.

The best chapter of the book by far was the chapter on Obsessions and the prevalence of pica, an eating disorder that makes patients eat things that most people would find unpalatable. Dingman includes cases where patients have eaten cigarette ashes, raw potatoes, burnt matchsticks, toothpaste and hair. It reminds me of the TV show Strange Addiction I once watched where an American woman was eating 'cushion' (foam from the inside of cushions and mattresses) and another was eating cigarette ashes.

Chapter 10 Out of Time included an interesting case of time agnosia, and Chapter 10 No Imagination reminded me of a case in my own family of a person unable to visualise in their mind's eye. The inability to produce mental imagery is known as aphantasia and it's estimated only 1-3% of the population have it.

Many different forms of agnosia and neurological disorders were covered, but none seemed bizarre or peculiar at all. Perhaps the title was too sensational, or I've been desensitised over the years having already learned about these conditions elsewhere and they're no longer strange and engrossing to learn about.

An annoying overuse of the word 'thus' at the start of sentences and 'such as' throughout the audiobook were draining and I felt for the narrator, who must have been hanging for the author to change up their opening lines.

Bizarre - The Most Peculiar Cases of Human Behavior and What They Tell Us about How the Brain Works by Marc Dingman was an informative listen and is recommended for those with an interest in neuroscience and/or brain science.

My Rating:

25 July 2023

Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis book cover

Published in 1992, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is now considered a modern science fiction classic. I'm not usually a fan of time travel novels, however the premise for Doomsday Book is me to a T. This was a gift from a dear yet distant friend who knows my reading tastes and I trust her implicitly. I don't know why it took me 5 years to get to it, but some books rest patiently on our shelves waiting for the right moment, and that moment finally arrived.

In the not too distant future, historians can travel back in time as observers forming part of their field study. Unable to influence much or make any significant changes to history, we join a band of students and scholars at Oxford university where time travel for a few weeks at a stretch is not shocking.

Sounds amazing doesn't it? Kivrin wants to travel back in time to 1300s Oxford and is in a rush to do so, but the preparation usually takes years as Professor Dunworthy explains:
"And I want you to learn Church Latin, Norman French and Old German, in addition to Mr Latimer's Middle English. You'll need practical experience in farming - milking a cow, gathering eggs, vegetable gardening" he'd said, ticking them off on his fingers. "Your hair isn't long enough. You'll need to take cortixidils. You'll need to learn to spin, with a spindle, not a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel wasn't invented yet. And you'll need to learn to ride a horse." Page 9
Despite some detailed planning, Kivrin is still ill-prepared for what greets her when she arrives and this was the best part of the book. While Kivrin is trying to establish her whereabouts on arrival, the story splits into a dual narrative, with Kivrin in the 1300s and Professor Dunworthy in the 21st century.

Dunworthy's setting was dominated by a health crisis unfolding at the university in a seemingly unending number of phone messages, missed and unanswered calls. Many of the characters in this part of the story were hampered by an inability to talk to each other on the regular due to the phones being engaged. This was an incredibly frustrating plot device (if it indeed was that) and seemed so petty and small when compared to what Kivrin was encountering, and I longed to return to the action unfolding there, 700 years in the past.

This book has been out for more than 20 years now, so I don't think it's a spoiler to point out there is an unfolding influenza pandemic as part of the novel and it was a little close to home so soon after our own. In fact, I wonder if academics and scholars will write about the shocking similarities between fictional pandemics and the real deal some day. In Doomsday Book, Dunworthy and his colleagues and students in Oxford ran out of toilet paper, crazy when you think Willis wrote this 20 years ago and couldn't begin to imagine - yet she somehow did - how true to life her characters really were.

When villagers in the town start becoming sick, they will need to decide if Kivrin is an angel of hope or responsible for bringing the sickness to the village. Will she survive long enough to return to her own time?

Professor Dunworthy did his best to dissuade Kivrin from making the journey in the first place, being sure to tell her of the dangers:
"Life expectancy in 1300 was thirty-eight years," he had told her when she first said she wanted to go to the Middle Ages, "and you only lived that long if you survived cholera and smallpox and blood poisoning, and if you didn't eat rotten meat or drink polluted water or get trampled by a horse. Or get burned at the stake for witchcraft." Page 39
The title of the book is a reference to the Domesday Book - this is how they spelled 'Doomsday' in Middle English - a manuscript recording the results of a land survey conducted in England and Wales and completed in 1086. When Kivrin visits the 1300s, she has a recorder designed as a bone spur in her wrist and she can 'record' by bringing her hands together in prayer and talking into the concealed microphone. I loved the ingenuity of this! If Kivrin dies unexpectedly, the technology won't be exposed or look out of place. Not even if her body is skeletonised and discovered in the next few centuries.

Thankfully the novel didn't get too timey-wimey (if she doesn't make it back to the rendezvous, then should they start excavating the local cemetery looking for her remains and all important recorder?) and there was a satisfying conclusion, although I did want more.

This combination of science fiction and historical fiction is right up my alley, and I suspect that's why my friend chose this for me and the reason I enjoyed Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. Thanks Kel, I loved it!

Highly recommended.

My Rating:

22 July 2023

Review: The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg

The Dirt on Clean - An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg book cover

The Dirt on Clean - An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg takes us through our delightfully dirty and grubby past, as we meander through the ages taking stock of attitudes to dirt and cleanliness and examining the drivers for the vast changes along the way.

Ashenburg explores many aspects of dirtiness, cleanliness and bathing and makes this observation early in the book:
"The archetypal link between dirt and guilt, and cleanliness and innocence, is built into our language - perhaps into our psyches. We talk about dirty jokes and laundering money." Page 8
In the Roman Empire, cleanliness was an important part of life, work and leisure, with many Romans spending up to two hours at the public baths every day. The use of strigils - a curved blade used to scrape the skin - as part of the ancient greek bathing process wasn't new to me, but get this:
"Greek athletes, who exercised in the nude - gymnasium literally means 'the naked place' - first oiled their bodies and covered them with a thin layer of dust or sand to prevent chills. After [exercise] the men and boys removed their oil and dust, now mingled with sweat with a curved metal scraper called a strigil." Page 24
I knew athletes competed nude and oiled their bodies after bathing, but didn't know they applied dust or sand to prevent them getting cold; or the meaning of gymnasium for that matter! A little later in the book, we learn:
"The accumulated sweat, dirt and oil that a famous athlete or gladiator strigiled off himself was sold to his fans in small vials. Some Roman women reportedly used it as a face cream." Page 38
While this might make us recoil with disgust, it's really no different to social media influencers today selling their bath water or sending their socks to eager fans willing to pay big bucks.

It's fascinating to me that personal hygiene habits and attitudes to bathing have changed so dramatically over time. From the bathhouse traditions that date from the Middle Ages, Ashenburg gives us a broad overview of the relationship between cleanliness and religion. Muslims perform ritual ablutions and their cleanliness has been one of the culturally defining points of difference between Christians and Muslims. If the Muslims were meticulously clean, then the Christians were known for being dirty. When it comes to saints though, the dirtier the better.
"For ordinary Christians, cleanliness was a [sic] good, bringing comfort, a sense of well-being and a measure of healthfulness. Humility and charity demanded that the most scrupulously filthy saints help others to clean." Page 63
It's ironic that human suffering, poverty, abstinence and lack of washing demonstrated religious devotion with many only washing the parts of the body that could be seen, like the hands and face.

During many plagues, it was thought dirt blocked the pores of the skin which prevented the plague entering the human body. Washing or having a bath would strip a person of this protective layer and many were certain they'd die as a result. A shortage of firewood also contributed to the decline in popularity for bathing, as resources to heat water became scarcer.

Many will know the famous quote from Elizabeth I who bathed once a month, "whether I need it or not", but did you know:
"Elizabeth's successor, James I, reportedly washed only his fingers." Page 99
Ashenburg includes many familiar and well worn quotes about cleanliness, bathing and odours from history, and some of them never cease to shock, like this one:
"Shortly before Louis XIV died in 1715, a new ordinance decreed that feces left in the corridors of Versailles would be removed once a week." Page 116
Once a week! In addition to immersing the reader in the moral dangers of bathing and bathing in public, it was also interesting to read about the debate between cool and warm water bathing, with some of the opinion that warm baths made boys and men soft.
"But cool water had never been considered as dangerous as hot water. To immerse yourself in hot water, you had to be foolhardy, German - or ill. ... Because water could infiltrate a healthy body and disturb the balance of its humours, doctors and patients hoped that a carefully designed and monitored bath might also restore the humours' equilibrium in a diseased body." Page 114
It's unthinkable to us to wear the same singlet or underwear for a week without changing or even removing it, but in the 1700s, the Marquis d'Argens wore a flannel under-waistcoat to keep warm and wouldn't take it off for fear of catching cold. It was revealed he'd worn the waistcoat for four years, but when he finally agreed to take it off, it had "so fixed itself upon him that pieces of his skin came away with it." Page 127 Eeek!

Ashenburg examines how our notion of privacy has changed, the relationship between bathing and sex and she even makes the history of soap absorbing for the reader. Although I wouldn't want to try washing clothes with a mix of animal fats and ashes. Later, toilet soap was made with olive oil:
"...(where the soap made in Castile was so prized that eventually all fine white soap made with olive oil was called Castile soap), but it was a luxury and beyond the budgets of most people in the Middle Ages." Page 32
And did you know the brand name Palmolive came about because the soap they made contained a combination of palm oil and olive oil. Who knew!

The introduction of the rain bath, or shower as we know it today was a little dry - sorry, couldn't resist. Rain baths took off in America, however older dwellings in Europe took much longer to embrace the technology, as it had to be adapted to existing conditions. The rich were loath to change their habits, preferring to bathe in their rooms, and with servants to bring the water the impetus for change wasn't pressing. The poorer classes didn't have time to carry the volume of water, the fuel required to heat it in their homes or even a tub to sit in, and so the class divide remained, demarcated by cleanliness.

If you lived in Paris in 1819, you could have ordered a service called a bain a domicile:
"....bain a domicile, delivered to the client's house or apartment, even on the top floor, all the necessities of a bath - a tub, a robe and sheet, and hot, cold or tepid water as ordered. When the bath was over, everything was whisked away, including the water, which was usually removed by a hose..." Page 187
How's that? You could basically 'uber' a bath in 1819! Ashenburg covers a lot of ground, and the number of times I've recalled facts from this book since finishing it, has persuaded me to increase my star rating from 4 stars to a full five stars.

Let me leave you with Seneca describing the cacophony of noise he has to tolerate living above a bathhouse:
"Now imagine to yourself every type of sound which can make you sick of your ears: when hearty types are exercising by swinging dumbbells around - either working hard at it or pretending to - I hear their grunts, and then a sharp hissing whenever they let out the breath they've been holding. Or again, my attention is caught by someone who is content to relax under an ordinary massage and I hear the smack of a hand whacking his shoulders, the sound changing as the hand comes down flat or curved. If on top of all that there is a game-scorer beginning to call out the score, I've had it! Then there's the brawler, the thief caught in the act, the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, the folk who leap into the pool with an enormous splash. Besides those whose voices are, if nothing else, natural, think of the depilator constantly uttering his shrill and piercing cry to advertise his services: He is never silent except when plucking someone's armpits' and forcing him to yell instead. Then there are the various cries of the drink-seller; there's the sausage seller and the pastry-cook and all the eating-house pedlars, each marketing his wares with his own distinctive cry." Pages 41-42
Highly recommended!

My Rating: