15 February 2019

Review: Threads of Life - A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle by Clare Hunter

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

I've been enjoying cross stitch for many years now and while it will always remain secondary to my passion for books and reading, it's an activity I thoroughly enjoy. I find it relaxing and rewarding to watch a piece take shape, stitch by stitch and thread by thread.

After seeing some ecclesiastical needlework and medieval tapestries at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year, I was keen to learn more about the history of needlework. Threads of Life - A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle by Clare Hunter was a great place to start.

Packed with historical fact - sometimes a little too much - Threads of Life certainly does attempt to take on the history of the world.

I enjoyed learning more about the Bayeux Tapestry, the stitching completed by Mary, Queen of Scots and WWI soldiers suffering from PTSD. I was stunned to read about the Northern Ireland Game of Thrones® Tapestry, and put the book down to watch the 30 minute coverage of the entire tapestry on YouTube. It was impressive and I hope to see it one day.

In fact, I often had to stop reading to go and look up certain artworks and artists like Mary Delany, Mary Linwood and more. I dearly wished the publisher had considered including photographs of any sort to complement the content within. Needlework is such a visual art and without any photographs or sketches (colour or black and white) I felt the book was lacking.

Threads of Life is recommended for readers interested in any of the ways needlework has been used to communicate a message, create desirable artwork, delineate between the rich and the poor, raise women out of poverty, provide captives with hope and the damaged a way to heal.

My rating = ***1/2

Carpe Librum!

14 February 2019

Literary Map for Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is here and to get you in the mood Global English Editing has compiled this epic literary map showcasing the most romantic books from around the world.

Although I don't read a lot of it, romance continues to be one of the world's bestselling genres and whilst you may already know some of the books listed, hopefully there'll be a few new ones to discover.

Do you have a favourite book on the map? Are any of the books mentioned languishing on your TBR pile? If you want more info on the books, Global English Editing provide a brief synopsis of each story here.

Happy Valentine's Day!
100 Iconic Love Stories From Around the World

08 February 2019

Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

RRP $29.99 AUD
Published 4 February 2019
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

The Familiars by Stacey Halls is an historical fiction tale featuring Fleetwood Shuttleworth in the time of the Pendle witch trials of 1612. Based on real characters from history in Lancashire England, Fleetwood is 17 years old, married and and pregnant again after failing to carry her three previous pregnancies to term.

Fleetwood is mistress at Gawthorpe Hall and meets Alice Gray, a wise woman and midwife. Alice agrees to help Fleetwood deliver her baby safely but soon finds herself swept up in accusations of witchcraft.

Despite being fiction, I love that the characters, locations and events in The Familiars were based on historical fact. It was a fascinating insight into the period and the characters and I was instantly caught up in their stories. Fleetwood and Alice depend on each other for survival and their plight highlights the limitations placed on women at the time and the ridiculous accusations - and fear - of witchcraft.

If that wasn't enough, The Familiars is a physically stunning book. I adore the cover design with bronze foiling, forest foliage and the spot UV noose that encircles our main character. The title page and map immediately dropped me into the time period and the images of the fox and sprigs of lavender throughout the novel kept the level of enchantment full to overflowing.

It's not often that an unsolicited book from a publisher results in a five star reading experience, but The Familiars by Stacey Halls is an exception to the rule. I absolutely loved it!

Highly recommended.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

04 February 2019

Review: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Many of you will remember that The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma was one of my favourite books in 2015 and I couldn't stop talking about it. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and I was disappointed when it didn't win. Since then, Chigozie Obioma has been busy writing An Orchestra of Minorities and you can imagine how excited I was to read this; just holding it filled me with giddy anticipation.

Our main character Chinonso is a young poultry farmer living in Nigeria and his story is narrated by his chi or guardian spirit. The novel is bursting with Igbo cosmology and Chinonso's chi has come to plead the case of his host before 
Chukwu, Creator of All at the magnificent court of Bechukwu, in Eluigwe. In telling his host's story to the court, we learn about Chinonso and the foreshadowing that his life is is about to undertake a tragic turn.

Chinonso is a poor farmer and after thwarting Ndali's suicide attempt, they fall in love. Ndali is educated and from the upper classes and her family vehemently oppose the match. This is a powerful story of love, heartache, misfortune and tragedy and covers a multitude of topics, including the westernisation of Nigeria, the disparity between classes, the notions of revenge and forgiveness and the complexities of love.

The entire book is narrated by Chinonso’s chi, who is testifying to the ‘elders/spirits’ on behalf of his host because of a crime he may have committed. The chi goes into great detail to paint the picture leading up to the event, however by the end of the book we’re left completely hanging. We learn about the event that was foreshadowed early in the book, however we never learn the outcome for Ndali or Chinonso.

What I found even more baffling is that we never hear a response from the court of elder spirits to the testimony provided by Chinonso's chi. There is no judgement - or response - provided at all. Given the chi’s testimony (the book) goes into so much detail about Chinonso’s life, to have the entire situation completely unresolved at the end of 500+ pages was quite a shock.

In fact, I was so rattled that I asked the publisher if I was missing something, or if there was going to be a sequel. I received the following info which I think is worth sharing here: It is purposefully ambiguous and intended to play upon the reader’s mind. Fiction, much like life, has no easy, neat and tidy, resolution.

I understand messy and ambiguous endings, but this story was cut short before we found out where it was going to end up. I was looking forward to the wisdom of the elder spirits and Chukwu, but sadly this never came.

Ultimately, An Orchestra of Minorities was just too open-ended for me and the lack of a conclusion greatly affected what had been a 4 or 5 star read until that point.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

31 January 2019

Review: The Au Pair by Emma Rous

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

The Au Pair by Emma Rous is the perfect blend of atmospheric tension, mystery, twins, dark family secrets and folklore surrounding a large family estate on the Norfolk coast known as Summerbourne.

Unfolding in two narratives, present day Seraphine is a twin exploring the mysterious suicide of her mother the day she and her brother were born at Summerbourne. Seraphine believes the au pair - who disappeared after the suicide - may have information and seeks to track her down.

The second narrator is the au pair Laura and we read about the lead up to Seraphine's birth in the early 1990s from her perspective. This reads like an historical fiction novel, but given the alternate time line is set in the 1990s I guess it really isn't. 

There is an underlying feeling of menace as Seraphine is warned against digging into the past and questioning a photo she found of her mother holding just one baby the day of her birth.

This was the perfect read for me and my only criticism is the cover art. I'd go so far as to say I wouldn't have picked this up in a bookshop based on the cover alone. It just doesn't do the novel justice in my opinion.

The Au Pair by Emma Rous is described as perfect for fans of Kate Morton and I heartily agree. The author gently pulls the reader along on the mystery and I was heavily invested in the story.

Highly recommended!

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

21 January 2019

Review: In Miniature - How Small Things Illuminate the World by Simon Garfield

RRP $29.99 AUD
Published October 2018
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Miniatures always inspire awe and wonder and Simon Garfield has turned his sharp focus on the world of miniatures in his latest offering In Miniature - How Small Things Illuminate the World.

I've always admired the workmanship of modellers and creators of miniatures, whether they be doll houses, matchstick ships, micro sculptures or tiny models. In the 1990s I wore a treasured pendant that contained a grain of rice with my name on it. The skill, determination and creativity of miniature artists never ceases to amaze me.

Seeing Queen Mary's Dolls' House in 2012 was definitely a highlight, and reading here about the process of inviting the country's best artisans to contribute to the house was illuminating.

Simon Garfield covers some of my favourite topics in the world of miniatures here, including Rod Stewart's famous model train collection, the popularity of the YouTube micro cooking channel Miniature Space as well as the work of artists Slinkachu and Tatsuya Tanaka. I also love the lead pencil sculptures and art in the eye of a needle.

The clever cover design of this book is to be commended. The hardcover image is complemented by the creative and eye-pleasing partial dust jacket that transforms the image to make it look like an open box of matches. Brilliant! Having said that, I wish the photographs inside had been in colour, or at least of a better quality. The ink on the black and white photographs came off onto my fingers while reading and given I read in a bed with white linen, this was bad news.

In Miniature offers more than an overview on the world of miniatures. Garfield examines the world of miniatures in an essay writing style. This meant that I dipped in and out of it, sampling a chapter or more at a time. In Miniature is recommended reading for anyone interested in the world of miniatures. Whether you're an aspiring artist or hobbyist creator, a collector, an enthusiast or just in awe of the work, I think you'll enjoy this.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

Check out my review of Just My Type by Simon Garfield.

For more on dolls houses, check out my review of Dolls' Houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood by Halina Pasierbska, also courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

15 January 2019

Review: Dead Heat by Peter Cotton

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

When I learned Dead Heat by Australian author Peter Cotton was set in and around Jervis Bay and an AFP Detective would be liaising with a senior intelligence officer from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), I was hooked. Most readers here won't know this, but I served in the RAN and attended many courses at the 'nearby naval base' HMAS Creswell mentioned in the blurb. Naturally I thought this book would be an awesome cross-over between my love of books and Australian crime writing and my own personal history.

Unfortunately it contained far too many inaccuracies and inconsistencies and was a disappointing read for me. Here are some examples.

A Commander on Page 52 is described as having 'four gold stripes on each shoulder' and wearing 'five lines of ribbons on the right side of his chest.' 

It's clear to me the author hasn't done enough research. Firstly, a quick online search would have shown the author - and the proofreader or editor - that a Commander has three stripes and a Captain has four. Secondly, medals and ribbons are worn on the left side of the chest, not the right. Furthermore, Australians don't have rows or lines of ribbons, that'd be the Americans.

If that wasn't enough, our main character calls him Captain on the very next page. Argh! There were also several inaccuracies surrounding the landscape and terrain of the area.

Unfortunately, these errors continue all the way through the novel. A sailor mentioned on page 140 is called Sergeant on page 151. What the hell? Now we're confusing the Army and the Navy? Here's another tip: a Lieutenant going about his daily duties would not be 'dripping in gold braid' on page 227.

I'm of the firm opinion that this author would benefit from reading a couple of novels by fellow Aussie writer Matthew Reilly who is able to write the kind of fast-moving action scenes and military interactions Cotton seems to be striving for here.

The setting at Jervis Bay is what originally drew me to this book. The plethora of elements in the plot, including: aboriginal land rights, unrest in Indonesia, bikie gangs in the desert, nuclear weapons, Navy, AFP and spooks were just excessive and didn't gel together. 

It's always a pleasure to read a new-to-me Australian author, but sadly Dead Heat fell short for me. Dead Heat is the second in the Detective Darren Glass series and it can easily be read as a stand alone.

My rating = *

Carpe Librum!

11 January 2019

Review: 2,024 QI Facts To Stop You In Your Tracks by John Lloyd

RRP $24.99 AUD
Published October 2018
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

2,024 QI Facts To Stop You In Your Tracks by John Lloyd, James Harkin and Anne Miller is the seventh and final book based on the British TV show QI. This is the largest in the series and the completion of the author's seven year plan to create an archive of 10,000 interesting facts.

Here are some of my favourites from this one:

"There are more than 180 tonnes of rubbish on the Moon." Page 78

"A pluviophile is someone who loves rainy days." Page 71

"Hotmail is so named because it contains the letters HTML: it was originally HoTMaiL." Page 136

"People suffering from plague may not enter a library in the UK." Page 139

"The Queen is a fee-paying member of the Jigsaw Puzzle Library." Page 140

"Dinosaurs were living on Earth before Saturn got its rings." Page 225

"The mysterious green code that begins all the Matrix movies is in fact recipes for sushi." Page 238

"When astronaut Sally ride first went into space in 1983, NASA engineers asked if 100 tampons would be enough to last her a week." Page 254

"A zoilist is someone who gets pleasure from finding fault." Page 365

"Crytoscopophilia is the urge to look through the windows of someone's house as you pass by. " Page 365

Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed checking the facts on the QI website by entering the page number and exploring some of the facts further. It's very easy to dip in and out of and made for a pleasant and easy read over the festive season. 

This final book in the series is perfect for trivia buffs, inquisitive kids, curious adults and everyone in between.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

Check out my reviews of the other books I've read in the series:
1,339 QI - Quite Interesting - Facts To Make Your Jaw Drop
1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted

09 January 2019

2019 Reading Challenge Sign Ups

I had a terrific year of reading last year and nailed all of my reading challenges in 2018 so I'm excited to sign-up for the same three reading challenges in 2019:
  • Aussie Author Challenge 2019 
  • 2019 Australian Women Writer's Challenge 
  • 2019 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 

The Aussie Author Challenge 2019 is hosted by Booklover BookReviews and I'm signing up for the Kangaroo level again. This means I'll need to read and review 12 titles written by Australian authors.

To successfully complete the challenge, at least 4 titles must be written by female authors, 4 titles by male authors and at least 4 of the 12 titles must be new to me authors. I'll also need to read across a minimum of 3 genres.

You don't need a blog to join in, you can follow along on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm signing up to the Franklin level of the 2019 Australian Women Writer's Challenge this year and will need to read 10 books and review at least 6 of them in order to complete the challenge.

The challenge is run by writers and volunteers and encourages readers to discover more books by Australian women. 

Participants can can join in on Facebook and GoodReads.

I'm signing up for the Renaissance Reader level of the 2019 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge again this year, hosted by Passages to the Past.

I will need to read 10 historical fiction novels to complete the challenge.

You can follow my challenge progress here and I look forward to discovering some new favourite authors during the year.
Let me know if you're participating in any of these challenges in the comments below.

07 January 2019

Top 5 Books of 2018

2018 was an excellent reading year for me and I read a new personal best of 72 books, 20 of which I gave 5 stars. This made the selection of my Top 5 Books of 2018 quite difficult, but with so many great books to choose from it was a good problem to have.

Here are my Top 5 Books of 2018 in the order I read them:

1. Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

Annie Spence is an experienced librarian and writes a variety of witty and engaging letters to different books in Dear Fahrenheit 451. Some books she can't stand, others were all-time favourites as well as quirky and obscure books she discovered while weeding the stacks.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it in May (courtesy of Allen & Unwin) and found myself laughing along with her, agreeing with some of her comments and rushing to look up books that were new to me. I relished her clever sign offs at the end of each letter and her creative nod to the Dewey Decimal System.

Thoroughly original and full of bookish humour, I’ve been recommending Dear Fahrenheit 451 widely, making it an easy choice for my Top 5 list.

2. The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell 

The Peacock Summer by Australian author Hannah Richell is the perfect historical fiction novel replete with a crumbling mansion/estate that has seen better years. The novel is a story about family, secrets and regrets unfolding in a dual narrative and I just loved it!

The pacing was perfect without any dull periods and the writing was so atmospheric I could almost hear the peacocks in the garden and trace my finger through the dusty rooms. I flew through this in July (courtesy of Hachette) and felt as though it was written just for me. Don't you love it when that happens?

3. The Girl on the Page by John Purcell
This was the most surprising read of 2018 for me and the first of its kind on my Top 5 Books list. The Girl on the Page has everything: a setting in the publishing industry, ageing and eccentric authors, bestselling authors, publishing personalities, editing and proofreading, manuscripts aplenty, sex, ambition, literary debate and tragedy.

The plot contains intelligent debate on literature versus bestselling fiction and the writing is punchy, sexy, witty and entertaining. I read this in October (courtesy of Harper Collins) while on a cruise and I'm hanging out to see what Australian author John Purcell writes next.

4. Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Reading Once Upon a River was like sitting at the foot of a legendary storyteller on a wild and stormy night. Set in the 1800s on the river Thames, the story starts at an ancient inn at Radcot called The Swan. The identity of a girl found drowned in the Thames is the mystery gently driving this atmospheric novel forward, and the elements of myth and folklore kept me glued to the page. 

Just like the river itself, the story meanders along at times, sometimes appearing deep and dark and others sparkling with insight or forging destructive new paths.

I read this in October (thanks to Penguin Random House Australia) while in London which further enhanced my enjoyment. Once Upon a River is dark and gothic and reads like a fairytale re-telling at times. It was one of my favourite reads of 2018 and I was giddy with excitement when Diane Setterfield thanked me for my review.

5. The Corset by Laura Purcell 

Sometimes you just know when a book you've read is going to be your favourite book of the year. So it was with The Corset by Laura Purcell.

This Victorian gothic thriller unfolds in alternating chapters by two female narrators, a wealthy and charitable woman with an interest in phrenology, and a prisoner named Ruth awaiting trial for murder. Before her arrest, Ruth was a seamstress and claims her needlework has the power to kill.

The Corset is an absolute masterpiece with so many elements I enjoy in a book: secrets, friendship, Victorian England, needlework, gruesome hardship, betrayal, revenge, redemption, hope, poison and mystery. These elements in the Victorian setting and gothic atmosphere enhanced my enjoyment tenfold and I really didn't want this to finish.

It did draw to a close though and the subtle twist at the end made me gasp and is one of the most satisfying endings I can remember reading. The Corset is an intelligent, riveting and engaging story and I enjoyed every stitch on every page. Infinite thanks to Bloomsbury for my favourite book of the year.

I'm really happy with the variety in my Top 5 Books of 2018, and also glad to have two Australian authors in my Top 5 list. If I could add one more to my favourites list, it would have to be Hangman by Jack Heath. This was a ripping read and I'm looking forward to the next in the series in 2019.

Have you read any of the books in my top 5 list? What was your favourite read in 2018?

Carpe Librum!

03 January 2019

Review: Tombland by C.J. Sansom

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

Set in 1549, Tombland by C.J. Sansom is the 7th in the Matthew Shardlake series of historical fiction novels but can easily be read as a standalone. Shardlake is asked by the Lady Elizabeth (yep, the yet to be crowned Elizabeth I) to investigate the murder of a distant relative.

Matthew Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer and is investigating the murder with his assistant and friend when they're caught up in the peasant rebellion in Norwich. Being of the gentlemen class they're taken captive and need to use their wits to stay alive.

I didn't know anything about this country-wide peasant rebellion led by Robert Kett during the time of Edward VI, 2 years after the death of Henry VIII. I learned that the rebels sought to overthrow the landlords and address their unlawful and unjust practices and at the end of the novel, Sansom writes that it was a "colossal event that has been much underplayed." Page 806

Tombland is a chunkster of a book coming in at 866 pages, but with the last 66 pages containing an essay, acknowledgements, end notes and bibliography this was an enduring but rewarding book. The writing is excellent, the history and characterisation was top notch and I enjoyed the dialogue immensely. Here's an example:
"God's pestilence, lad, how on earth should I know? I have no idea." Page 34
The cursing was amusing, with contributions like: "God's bones", "God's blood" and "shut your clack box." That one was so immediately evocative and amusing, it's stayed with me. Shardlake is a memorable character too, his condition and how it is perceived in the mid 1500s as well as how the lifestyle of the period impacts his health was infinitely interesting.

My advice? Don't let the size of Tombland by C.J. Sansom put you off picking this one up. It was a 5 star read for me the entire way and I came to think of it alongside the ilk of Ken Follett.

Highly recommended.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

31 December 2018

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander and JK Rowling

I listened to the audio book of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them read by Eddie Redmayne in the car on the way to Sydney for Christmas this year. The book is nothing like the movie of the same name. What I found instead was a meta fiction style text book from Hogwarts Library written of course by the talented JK Rowling in the guise of Newt Scamander.

Published in 2001, this is a guide book to the magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe. After an introduction about the differences between beings and beasts and then being acquainted with their different danger levels we progressed through an A-Z of magical creatures.

JK Rowling's imagination really knows no bounds, and while the description for each beast was creative, informative and sometimes amusing, it was ultimately a dry read. I also think something was lost in the audio experience, as I've seen other readers who enjoyed the illustrations and margin notes from Ron Weasley that obviously weren't available in the audio production.

Overall, this was a great way to break up the monotony of the long drive, but didn't add all that much to my enjoyment of the Harry Potter series.

My rating = **

Carpe Librum!

2018 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge Completed

I successfully completed the Renaissance Reader level of the 2018 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge this year hosted by Passages to the Past.

Last year I barely scraped it in, but this year I comfortably read 10 historical fiction novels to complete the challenge, plus an additional 4 for good measure.

Here's what I read:

1. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
2. Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth
3. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir
4. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
5. Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader
6. The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

7. The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
8. A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer
9. The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton
10. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
11. Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
12. Melmoth by Sarah Perry
13. The Corset by Laura Purcell
14. Tombland by C.J. Sansom

I'm looking forward to participating again in 2019 so stay tuned for my sign-up post.

Carpe Librum!

30 December 2018

Australian Women Writer's Challenge & Aussie Author Challenge Completed in 2018

It's been a record breaking reading year for me and I've completed all three of my reading challenges. Two of them are Australian, so I thought I'd wrap them both up together here.

2018 Australian Women Writer's Challenge
To complete the Franklin level of the 2018 Australian Women Writer's Challenge, I had to read 10 books and review 6 of them. I outdid myself this year and read and reviewed the following 15 books:

1. Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth
2. The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton
3. The Flying Optometrist by Joanne Anderton
4. Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader
5. Ache by Eliza Henry-Jones
6. The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
7. A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer
8. The Yellow House by Emily O'Grady
9. Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner
10. Always With You by Debbie Malone
11. The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton
12. Paramedic by Sandy Macken
13. Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater
14. Stalked by Rachel Cassidy
15. The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Aussie Author Challenge Completed in 2018
For the Aussie Author Challenge I had to read and review 12 titles by Australian authors across a minimum of 3 genres. At least 4 titles had to be by female authors, 4 titles by male authors and at least 4 had to be new (to me) authors. I smashed the reading challenge this year and read the following 26 books:

1. The Commando - The Life and Death of Cameron Baird, VC, MG by Ben Mckelvey
2. Hangman by Jack Heath
3. Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth
4. Pentridge: Voices from the Other Side by Rupert Mann
5. The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton
6. The Flying Optometrist by Joanne Anderton
7. Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader
8. Ache by Eliza Henry-Jones
9. Cicada by Shaun Tan
10. The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
11. Australia's Most Unbelievable True Stories by Jim Haynes
12. A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer
13. The Yellow House by Emily O'Grady
14. Scrublands by Chris Hammer
15. Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills
16. The Nowhere Child by Christian White
17. Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner
18. Always With You by Debbie Malone
19. The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton
20. Long and Winding Way to the Top by Andrew P Street
21. Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
22. Paramedic by Sandy Macken
23. The Girl on the Page by John Purcell
24. Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater
25. Stalked by Rachel Cassidy
26. The Lost Man by Jane Harper

What books by Aussie authors did you enjoy this year?

Carpe Librum!

20 December 2018

Review: Book Love by Debbie Tung

* Copy courtesy of NetGalley *

Book Love by Debbie Tung is a graphic novel containing comics depicting everything there is to love about books. Rather than a linear story, this is a collection of images celebrating all things bookish, including: reading physical books, enjoying ebooks, browsing bookshops, borrowing books, smelling books and all manner of lifestyle related scenarios involving books and reading.

The artwork is appealing and the black and white illustrations are all postcard quality. I can easily see them being converted into bookmarks, t-shirts, tea towels and more and I'd certainly purchase some for myself. A cursory search tells me the author has an Etsy shop, so that's promising.

Book Love by Debbie Tung is best read a few pages at a time. While it can easily be read in a single sitting, I think it's best enjoyed at a slower pace. I recommend Book Love for bookworms, librarians, bibliophiles, readers and booklovers.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

13 December 2018

Review: The Ravenmaster - My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife

* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

Legend has it that if the ravens at the Tower of London should ever leave, the Tower will crumble into dust and great harm will befall the kingdom. It is the responsibility of the Ravenmaster and his team to ensure this never happens. Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder and the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London and this is his memoir.

In The Ravenmaster - My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, Christopher takes the reader through his daily routine and introduces us to each of the ravens. He describes the birds, their personalities, pecking order, quirks and many anecdotes demonstrating proof of their incredible intelligence. He explains the characteristics of ravens, what makes them different to crows and how he manages to keep them happy and healthy at the Tower.

In addition to his duties as Ravenmaster, he also gives us an idea of what it's like to give tours of the Tower in his role as Yeoman Warder: learning the tour script, fielding questions and being photographed hundreds of times a day.

To qualify as a Yeoman Warder of the Tower of London, applicants need to have served in the military for a minimum of 22 years with an unblemished record. Christopher lives with his wife in the Tower and is one of many ceremonial guardians of the Tower. He
 is a corvid enthusiast having previously known nothing about birds, and I found his writing style easy going and informative without being dry.

Incorporating the history of this great fortress (which is fascinating to me), the author also includes the history of ravens in literature and art and the folklore and myths surrounding them. In talking about the association between ravens and death, Christopher writes:

"Their reputation for feasting on flesh was soon matched by a reputation for feasting on souls: people used to say that ravens would sit on the roof of a house of the dead and the dying and wait for the soul to come up the chimney so they could gobble it down." Pg 221

I met the Ravenmaster when I visited the Tower of London in October 2012, and wanted to ask him a million questions at the time. Fortunately he was able to answer all of my questions in this memoir which was a pleasure to read. I especially enjoyed reading about his involvement in the poppy exhibition Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red exhibition in 2014.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

06 December 2018

Review: Absolute Proof by Peter James

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

Ross Hunter, Investigative Journalist learns there may be absolute proof of the existence of God and decides to investigate. Under serious threat from several organisations who seek the evidence Ross is gathering, Absolute Proof has been compared to The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I loved The Da Vinci Code so decided to give this a go, however the only connection I could see was the concept of Jesus Christ's DNA being passed down to the present day. Despite the hieroglyphics on the cover, there are no puzzles or riddles to solve here. In fact, Ross's trip to Egypt was brief and hieroglyphics didn't factor in the story at all so I have no idea why they grace the cover.

Peter James is a bestselling author who has written a tonne of books but this was my first time reading his work. I found Ross's character to be a little irritating at times and I soon grew weary of wading through the endless descriptions of scenery and mundane tasks. Ross's ruminations also took up too much space and only served to recap his thoughts on the goings on; which is boring if you're the sort of reader able to keep up with what's happening.

And the ending? Where do I start? The ending left far too many unanswered questions. It was ambiguous and anti climactic and I expected more from an award winning author who has sold more than 19 million books. Absolute Proof was a meandering novel with some interesting points about religion but the unresolved ending left me underwhelmed and unlikely to seek out any of his other novels.

My rating = **

Carpe Librum!

04 December 2018

Review: It's All A Game - A Short History of Board Games by Tristan Donovan

RRP $24.99 AUD
Published by Allen & Unwin
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Roll the dice. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. I love playing board games and It's All A Game - A Short History of Board Games by Tristan Donovan was a good read.

All the expected games are there: Chess, Backgammon, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Cluedo, Pictionary and Monopoly and much more. I appreciated reading the history behind the formation of these games and learning about new - to me - ones.

The section on war games was interesting, however I was surprised and secretly excited to hear mention of The Ungame and Scruples.

I enjoyed reading about the evolution of my favourite game Monopoly, however was embarrassed to learn it was created in the USA first. I played the British version and ignorantly believed the American game board was the 'inferior' version. Whoops!

"By 2016 [Monopoly] had sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. It is, by far, the bestselling branded board game ever created and no other game, except maybe chess, has so imprinted itself on the world's collective consciousness." Page 95

I also enjoyed learning about the formation of Simon & Schuster on page 155:
Richard Simon was at his aunt's house for dinner in 1924 and she asked if there was a collection of cross words she could buy for her daughter.
"Together with his friend Lincoln Schuster, Simon founded a publishing company called Simon & Schuster" to publish a collection of cross word puzzles. The book became a sensation and "Simon & Schuster was on its way to becoming one of the biggest book publishers in the United States."

I read It's All A Game during Non Fiction November (hosted by A Book Olive) and it left me wanting to play boardgames again. Unfortunately I don't have any willing participants close by so now I'm playing Backgammon on Board Game Arena. My profile name is Carpe_Librum (naturally) if anyone wants to play.

Roll the dice.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

29 November 2018

Review: The Corset by Laura Purcell

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

I'd give this 6 stars if I could, and with 4 reading weeks left in the year, I'm also fairly certain The Corset by Laura Purcell is going to be my No 1. favourite book of the year.

An historical fiction novel, The Corset is essentially a Victorian gothic thriller. Told in alternating chapters by two female narrators, Dorothea is a wealthy and charitable woman with an interest in phrenology, and Ruth is a prisoner awaiting trial for murder.

Dorothea visits Ruth in prison with the intention of measuring and monitoring her skull for her phrenology studies but is soon interested in Ruth's story. Before her arrest, Ruth was a seamstress and she claims her needlework has the power to kill.

The Corset is an absolute masterpiece with so many elements I enjoy in a book: secrets, friendship, Victorian England, needlework, gruesome hardship, betrayal, revenge, redemption, hope, poison and mystery. These elements in the Victorian setting and gothic atmosphere enhanced my enjoyment tenfold and I really didn't want this to finish.

It did draw to a close though and the subtle twist at the end made me clutch at my chest and gasp and is one of the most satisfying endings I can remember reading. The Corset is an intelligent, riveting and engaging story and I enjoyed every stitch on every page. If you enjoyed Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (book or the mini series) then this is for you.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

P.S. You can read my review of Laura Purcell's debut novel The Silent Companions here.

26 November 2018

Review: Sh*t Towns of New Zealand by Anonymous

RRP $22.99 AUD
Published by Allen & Unwin October 2018
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *
New Zealand has a special place in my heart, but Sh*t Towns of New Zealand contains some real laugh out loud moments and I enjoyed reading it.

The anonymous author raised a few suspicions at first (who is she/he?) but these are soon forgotten as you discover their views on the crappy towns and suburbs in New Zealand. There's a lot of 'taking the piss' going on.

Here's a snippet to set the scene from the section about Auckland on page 23:

"Iconic Landmark: The Sky Tower, a casino-owned structure shaped like a giant hypodermic needle as a tribute to the homeless junkies who sleep beneath it."

They're right too, the tower does look exactly like a hypodermic needle. Bwahahahah!

Several entries had me rushing off to Google to fact check (Shrek the Sheep, the Nick Smith squatting statue) and one of my favourites was the small town of Bulls on page 95. According to the author:

"Some time ago, some bright spark decided the best way to compensate for Bulls' blatant boringness was for every business in town to be christened with a bull-related pun. Cop shop? Const-a-Bull. Pharmacy? Dispens-a-Bull. Public toilets? Relieve-a-Bull. Brothel? Shag-a-Bull. Doctors? Cure-a-Bull. Abortion Clinic? Dispos-a-Bull."

I don't know about you, but I love this kind of pun and reading about this place made me want to visit the town of Bulls right away.

I did have a few criticisms though and thought this contained way too many references to STDs and teenage pregnancies. Some of the slights on locations seemed a little repetitive at times and readers should know
 it contains a lot of adult content.

Sh*t Towns of New Zealand is a great gift book or stocking stuffer for Kiwis and those with a  fondness for the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Kia Ora.

My rating = ***1/2

Carpe Librum!

22 November 2018

Review: Elevation by Stephen King

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Set in legendary Castle Rock, Elevation is a great little novella about resident Scott Carey. Scott seems to be losing weight on the scales but his body remains unchanged. He weighs the same no matter what he's holding or wearing, but manages to feel lighter and lighter as time goes on and his weight decreases.

Elevation follows Scott's short journey as his weight gradually decreases and he begins to reflect on his life. Will his weight reach zero? What's going to happen?

Scott's relationship with his two neighbours and his friend Dr Bob Ellis are the star of this story and I just loved the dialogue between them. Stephen King has a talent of being able to capture everyday life in an often poignant way, and Elevation has it in spades despite the brevity of the story.

Elevation contains a nice feel good message about tolerance and getting along in a small town, but definitely isn't a horror story.

"Good Discussion!"

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

19 November 2018

Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia *

It's very possible The Lost Man is my new favourite novel by Australian bestselling author Jane Harper. Set on a huge cattle station in outback Queensland, this is the story of the Bright family dealing with the unexpected death of their son and brother Cameron. Cameron was found 10kms from his car and died of dehydration and exposure with the family left to wonder what happened.

At its heart, The Lost Man is a stand alone family drama but you'd be mistaken if you thought this fell into the genre of farm lit. The Lost Man is a dark mystery set against one of the harshest landscapes in Australia. Jane Harper's writing evokes an unforgiving landscape and the sheer isolation is frightening at times.

The characters include members of the Bright family, town locals and two backpackers and the author has captured their personalities effortlessly. 

The Lost Man is full of tension as well as insight into how these families make a living off the land. The Bright family are prepared for any hazard while out working on the property. This makes Cameron's death even more mysterious; why would he leave his car full of supplies and succumb to the elements?

I recommend The Lost Man by Jane Harper to mystery, thriller and crime readers everywhere. It's a brilliant read!

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!