26 April 2018

Review of The Wonder Down Under - A User's Guide to the Vagina by Nina Brochmann & Ellen Stokken Dahl

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

The Wonder Down Under - A user's guide to the vagina by medical students Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl sets out to educate and inform women about sexual health and dispel any misconceptions readers may have. With a clever cover design, The Wonder Down Under achieves this in a relaxed and informative manner although I did have a few concerns with it.

Primarily, I have a major issue with the title. Very early on in the book (page 8 to be precise) the authors point out that the majority of people refer to female genitalia as the vagina, when in fact, it should be referred to as the vulva; as the vagina is only one part of the genitalia. However, the authors then perpetuate the misnomer in the very title of this book. Sorry ladies, but you can't have it both ways!

The medical students are based in Oslo in Norway, and this book is a response to the success of their blog and is translated from Norwegian. The translation was very good, but it's worth noting that many of the stats they refer to are for Norway or the region. 

The authors provide many reassuring notions and take a lot of care to point out every woman is different but normal and sexual health shouldn't be embarrassing but they undo all of their goodwill with the section title of: Discharge, Periods and Other Gore. Gore? What the hell? This might have been a translation error or just an extremely poor choice of words, but it definitely bothered me. This offensive section title grouped six chapters together, and therefore featured at the top of the page for 28 pages. Not good.

The book includes chapters on a multitude of topics - including a comprehensive section on contraception - however there is nothing on menopause. I'm not sure why this was left out when there was time for a few pages on genital mutilation and intimate surgery, but I'm hopeful this information will be added in a future re-printing of the book.

An informative read for young women (and men).

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!
23 April 2018

Winner of Honey Farm Dreaming by Anna Featherstone announced

Thanks to those who entered my bee-autiful giveaway last week to win a copy of Honey Farm Dreaming by Anna Featherstone. Many of you wanted to win this one, and entries closed at midnight on Friday 20 April 2018. The lucky winner was drawn today, and congratulations to (drum roll):
Diana will receive an email with the details and will have 7 days to provide her mailing address. Thanks again to Australian author Anna Featherstone for donating the prize, you can check out her website here www.annafeatherstone.com.

Carpe Librum!

19 April 2018

Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I was so excited to finally get around to reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley this year, but I'm sad to say I didn't enjoy the book AT ALL! It largely came about thanks to a read-along hosted by Noveltea Corner, but let me explain why I loathed reading this.

With a classic as well-known as Frankenstein and having watched various adaptations in TV shows and movies, I thought I knew the basics of the story and how it was written. Turns out I was in for quite a shock.

I've never met such a miserable, self-centred and morbidly depressed character in all my reading life. Victor Frankenstein is an unlikeable character and I wasn't expecting the complicated web of nested narratives implemented to tell the story. The narrator is on a ship writing a letter to his sister, telling her about a person he met (Victor Frankenstein) who conveys his story about creating a daemon. Then we hear the creature's story, as told to Frankenstein, relayed to our narrator and re-told in a letter to his sister. If you thought that was confusing, I agree. At times I almost felt like I was lost in the movie Inception.

Here's another surprise: there is no 'lightning bolt' to animate Frankenstein's creature. In fact, the moment the creature is brought to life happens so quickly you could easily miss it, and one of the other readers participating in the read-along did just that.

Frankenstein is immediately horrified and mortified when he lays eyes on his abominable creation but he 'runs away' and is relieved to find his creation isn't there when he returns with a friend. Why wasn't he curious about where his creation went? Why didn't he destroy his research and dismantle his lab equipment? I found his denial incredibly frustrating.

But this sets the scene for the entire book, which is essentially about Frankenstein's remorse at creating the being and I wasn't buying it. He takes no action to control the situation, he leaves his family in danger and indulges in his self-induced melancholy, remorse, internal torment and inaction to the point of illness; time and time again.

Of course, the creature is unhappy and lonely and asks Frankenstein to create a mate for him. When he refuses and the creature kills his love interest, my heart leapt at the hope the book was going to redeem itself. Surely the creature will force Frankenstein to make him a companion from the corpse of his lost love, but this didn't happen. Perhaps it's my warped 21st Century mind that jumped to this conclusion - it'd be the ultimate revenge for the creature - but it was clearly a lost opportunity for the author in my opinion.

The final insult came when Frankenstein was on his deathbed and asked our narrator to finish the job of tracking and killing the creature. Are you kidding me? He should have done it himself!

I will say the writing is terrific at times, and I did enjoy the phrase 'catalogue of sins' in this quote from the monster on Page 223, although the average reader will find the language quite lofty:
"When I run over the frightful catalogue of sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness."

Although Frankenstein is a short book, it bored me senseless. It might have been groundbreaking in its time, but it doesn't hold up to today's standards. It's kind of like Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but thankfully much shorter.

My rating = *

Carpe Librum!
16 April 2018

Review: She's Not There by Joy Fielding

RRP $19.99 AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

With a premise ripped straight from the headlines, 2 year old Samantha Shipley goes missing from her hotel room one night while her parents are dining in a restaurant down below.

Whether a coincidence or intentional, the premise of She's Not There by Joy Fielding was so very reminiscent of the real world disappearance of Madeline McCann, that I was instantly hooked.

Fifteen years later, Samantha's mother Caroline is struggling to cope while the press continue to hound them and the pressure of the disappearance has torn their family to shreds. Out of the blue, Caroline receives a call from a girl who believes she might be Samantha.

She's Not There was an absolutely gripping psychological thriller and I enjoyed getting to the truth of who Samantha was. The family dynamics seemed genuine and Caroline was a likeable character. I especially enjoyed the real-life inspiration for Caroline's mother and the mention of her in the author's acknowledgements: "...without mentioning my very own long-deceased grandmother Mary, my father's mother and as miserable a woman as ever walked this earth. She was the inspiration for Grandma Mary, and while this novel is unquestionably a work of fiction, many of the quotes attributed to her came straight from her mouth." Wow! This made me love the book even more.

As well as being chock full of suspense, this is also a mystery/whodunnit, so it will appeal to a wide range of readers. The only reservation I have is the cover; I didn't see the relevance to the story at all.

She's Not There was my first time reading Joy Fielding so what a thrill to discover she has a huge back catalogue. I'll admit I did allow myself at times to believe this could be the story of Madeline McCann, and perhaps there's nothing wrong with that. Highly recommended.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!
13 April 2018

Friday Freebie: WIN a copy of Honey Farm Dreaming by Anna Featherstone

RRP $32.99 AUD
* Copy courtesy of the author *

Today's giveaway is a memoir by Australian author and small farmer Anna Featherstone. Honey Farm Dreaming is a memoir about sustainability, small farming and the not-so simple life. 
It includes organic balm recipes, secret farmhouse recipes and tips on how to make a bee hotel and attract bees to your garden. Enter below for your chance to win a copy.

A farmyard full of animals, thousands of tourists in the garden, a hundred backpackers in the house, millions of bees in the air - and one family. What could possibly go wrong?

When Anna and Andrew move their young family to a farm the future is uncertain. All they know is what they feel - a desire to become contributors not consumers. City folk, they are starting from scratch 'not knowing how to make anything, grow anything, fix anything or really do anything'.

Ten years on, and the 90-acre farm transforms from a bland grass paddock to something that is energetic, vibrant, ethical and beautiful. The farm becomes home to honey and native bees, and a multitude of plant and animal species; it lures thousands of visitors all seeking a slice of idyllic farm life to enrich their souls and, sometimes, their social media feeds. Meanwhile, Anna feeds her own soul, becoming a passionate producer of honey, herbs, handmade medicinal balms and other farm-made goods, recipes for which are included in this book.

It's called 'living the dream', but is it? Discover more about the 'good life' and enjoy a good laugh from this entertaining, engrossing memoir in which author Anna Featherstone lays bare what it's like to follow your dreams and to find success, failure and finally understanding along the way.

Author Bio

Anna Featherstone has spent more than a decade small farming where she's made mistakes, balms and a life with her family. Their small but productive farm has won state and National tourism awards for its agritourism offering which included a farmstay. Anna thinks about the environment a lot, loves growing Chinese Raisins, turmeric and tulsi and is a balm-maker, bee lover, writer and speaker. Her first book, co-authored with Andrew Campbell is Small Farm Success Australia: How to Make a Life and a Living on the Land. Visit her website for more: www.annafeatherstone.com

This giveaway has now closed.
11 April 2018

Winners of The Flying Optometrist children's book giveaway announced

Thanks to those who entered my children’s book giveaway last week to win 1 of 2 copies of The Flying Optometrist by Joanne Anderton, illustrated by Karen Erasmus. Entries closed at midnight on Sunday 8 April 2018 and the winners were drawn today. Congratulations to our two winners:
Kate & Nicole
Both winners will receive an email today with the details and will have 7 days to provide their mailing address. I hope your little readers will enjoy this Australian picture book courtesy of NLA Publishing and keep on reading.

Carpe Librum!
09 April 2018

Interview with Lauren Chater, author of The Lace Weaver

Author Lauren Chater
It gives me great pleasure to introduce Australian author Lauren Chater to Carpe Librum readers today. Lauren is the author of The Lace Weaver published with Simon & Schuster this month.

Thanks for joining us at Carpe Librum Lauren. Firstly, can you tell us about your debut novel The Lace Weaver?
My debut novel The Lace Weaver has just been released by Simon & Schuster. It’s an historical fiction story set in Estonia in WW2 about two very different young women fighting to survive and preserve the legacy of traditional knitted lace passed down through their families. It’s a book I’m obviously very passionate about. I hope people enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

I’m very interested in the role the weaving of gossamer lace shawls takes in your novel, can you tell us more about it? Is it true they are so fine they can be passed through a wedding ring?
It is indeed true that they can be passed through a wedding ring. The yarn used to make gossamer (or to be more specific, Haapsalu) shawls is very fine and soft. At the height of their popularity, around the early 1900’s, the shawls were used to promote Estonia's culture and heritage. The Tsar bought one for his wife and the screen actress Greta Garbo was given one as a gift, in the hope that she would wear it. An American gentleman actually had plans to hire a group of Estonian knitters and take them to America to make shawls for his department store. Alas, successive world wars put an end to his plan. The women still knit shawls in Happasalu, though. There is a shop and a museum there where you can see them being made and purchase one for yourself.

I read that you were inspired by an old book you found on Estonia knitting and shawls. What captured your interest?
I work in a library and one day while I was shelving in the craft section, I stumbled across a book about Estonian lace knitting. Curious, I opened it up and read a bit more. The book not only contained details on how to make the shawls but also the history of this small Baltic country which had been occupied by many larger nations. As I got deeper in, I sensed there was an amazing story waiting to be told.

Have you been tempted to try any of the techniques yourself? 

I have tried my hand at knitting but I must admit, I’m not very good at it! It requires a lot of practice and patience, both of which I don’t have since much of my time is occupied with writing and trying to improve my craft in that area. In another lifetime, I think I would have been a knitter. I’d love to devote a few years just to mastering it. Maybe I’ll put it on the bucket-list for when I one day retire!

If you hadn’t seen that book, do you think you would still have written a book yourself?
I doubt I would have written The Lace Weaver if I hadn’t come across that craft book. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t know a lot about Estonia when I first start researching. It’s been a long journey to try to understand the culture and the language, as well as the history of a country which is rich in folklore and tradition but which has faced lots of hardship. Estonia did not regain its independence from Russia until 1991, so there are still many stories there needing to be told. 

What research did you need to carry out during the writing of The Lace Weaver?
Apart from reading many, many books by both Estonians and about Estonians, I traveled to the Baltics in 2015 and spent a lot of time visiting the places mentioned in my book. I was lucky enough to find a wonderful guide who took me to some unusual places, like a bunker in the forest where the partisan fighters lived until they were killed by Russian authorities, and an old derelict factory called Kreenholm (translated: The Island of Crows) which is one of the settings in The Lace Weaver. I also spent some time at the Estonian archives in Sydney, sourcing material and interviewing women who were both knitters and story-tellers. Many of the stories they told me have ended up in the final version of my book.

What’s it like working in a library now that you’re a published author? Does it change things?
I haven’t actually worked a shift for a little while at the library, since I’ve been very busy writing my next book! But the library staff are completely and utterly wonderful. I’ve been so lucky to have them support me all through the process of writing and editing. They’re all coming to the book launch, too. I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier bunch of people to work with. 

What book is on your bedside table right now? 

I currently have an advanced copy of Natasha Lester’s forthcoming book The Paris Seamstress on my bedside table; I’m nearly finished and it was as wonderful as her others. I’m also reading The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. A bit behind the times with that one, but I only recently saw the film and decided I had to read the source material. It’s so moving and yet there’s so much hope that people can find acceptance. I love that about it. 

Do you have a secret reading pleasure you’d be willing to share?
I’m not secretly enjoying reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the first time to my son and daughter. It’s delicious to watch the way their eyes light up when we read the bits about the Hogwarts feast (they clearly take after me in their love of food) and also really wonderful to hear them laugh in all the right places. It’s been one of the best moments of parenting so far. I kept all my original copies too so they are getting the full ‘noughties’ experience. I have a friend who purposely did not read the series when the books were first released, because she wanted to savour reading them together with her kids for the first time. I’m afraid I couldn’t go that far! 

I read that your next novel is going to be called Gulliver’s Wife. What is it about?
My second novel Gulliver’s Wife, retells the story of Gulliver’s Travels through the eyes of Mary Burton, his long-suffering wife. It’s set in 18th Century London, so a world away from The Lace Weaver but there are some similar threads running through the story about the nature of women’s work, the capacity of women to support and nourish each other during times of hardship and the power of love to heal. I’m halfway through the first draft it now and I love it.

Wow, that sounds really interesting. Anything else you'd like to add?
Thanks for sending me your questions! Your blog looks like a wonderful resource for readers and writers. Good luck with your next read!

Thanks so much Lauren! Congratulations on the release of your debut novel and good luck writing the rest of Gulliver's Wife.

05 April 2018

Review: The Hoarder by Jess Kidd

RRP $27.99 AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Do you ever see a book cover and just 'know' it was designed for you? I'm in love with the cover - and title - of The Hoarder by Jess Kidd, and the wallpaper design with the sinister burn mark in the centre dings all of my bookish bells.

In The Hoarder by Jess Kidd, Maud has been brought on to look after Cathal Flood and clear his old house of rubbish and refuse. Cathal is a reclusive and grumpy old man living in a run-down mansion packed with clutter, mementoes and secrets; all of which are threatening to overwhelm him.

The Hoarder is a mystery novel at heart with a mystery surrounding Cathal's family and the disappearance of Maud's sister in childhood. 

Maud is a terrific character and her no-nonsense approach with her client was an absolute joy to read. The inclusion of a little magical realism in the form of the 'saints' Maud could see was interesting, but not altogether necessary to the plot in my opinion. I didn't quite understand why she could see and talk to saints but not to the ghosts of the departed. 

I did enjoy the character of Maud's friend and neighbour Renata though, who could easily command a book of her own. However, the mystery surrounding Maud's sister wasn't resolved to my satisfaction, leading to the deduction of 1/2 star in my rating.

All in all, I adored reading The Hoarder and often found myself thinking about the cantankerous old man and looking forward to the time when I could pick up the book and continue the story.

My rating = ****1/2

Carpe Librum!
02 April 2018

Guest Post: Game Of Thrones is more like real life than you know by Charles Purcell

Author Charles Purcell
Today I welcome Charles Purcell, former SMH journalist, freelance writer and author to tell us why Game of Thrones is more like real life than we know. Over to you Charles.

It’s the biggest question in the book world: when is the last instalment of George R. R. Martin’s multi-million-selling epic series A Song Of Ice And Fire coming out? Sadly, it probably won’t be released until 2019 – the same year the last series of the hit TV adaptation hits our screens. (No spoilers that way, see.)

Martin himself will be glad when it’s published; finally, his devoted fans will stop harassing him. Yet one of the ancillary questions to the GOT saga must be – just how realistic is Game Of Thrones? How true does it cleave to the brutal ancient world that inspired it? The short answer is … pretty real. And the long answer, once you remove the obvious obstacles – dragons, dire-wolves and magic – from the equation? It’s possibly as long as one of Martin’s sprawling epics.

Whole university courses have been devoted to the study of Game Of Thrones and its links to the real-life medieval era. But we don’t have to sit for six months in the halls of Harvard for an answer, we can wrap it up in 10 salient points.

1. GOT is inspired by England’s real-life War Of The Roses
George RR said that Game Of Thrones harks closest to England’s famous 15th-century feud.

2. The War of the Roses featured duelling houses
Like all the struggling for power between houses such as the Lannisters and Starks, the War Of The Roses was about the battle between House York and House Lancaster. They had cool house sigils, too: House York was a white rose, while Lancaster a red rose.

3. The fighting was unbelievably bloody
Think the Battle of the Bastards was savage? Just listen to this description of the Battle Of Towton, described as the most barbaric ever on English soil: “On Edward’s orders, no mercy was shown in victory. Skulls later found on the battlefield showed the most horrific injuries: faces split down the bone, heads cut in half, holes punched straight through foreheads. Some men died with more than 20 wounds to their head: the signs of frenzied slaughter by men whipped into a state of barbaric bloodlust.

4. You win or you die
Insurrections, rebellions and plots to overthrow the king and/or queen were common in English history. If you won, you got to sit on the metaphorical Iron Throne. If you lost, you were sent to the Tower Of London, en route to losing your head. Mankind has been at war for some nine-tenths of recorded history … so the constant fighting in Game Of Thrones isn’t atypical by any means.

5. Life was short and brutal
Rape, pillage and murder were never far away for the oppressed, largely illiterate medieval peasants, who had to swear their allegiance to a lord like in Game Of Thrones. If you were lucky, you got a just and fair lord like Ned Stark: too bad if you got someone like “Old Flay ’Em Alive” Roose Bolton instead.

Like then (and, some would argue, today), the legal system favoured the rich and powerful, who often employed their own punitive forms of justice.

Knowledge of medicine was extremely primitive. You could die from tooth problems, stepping on a nail, being crushed by a horse, being eaten by wolves or any number of viruses or illnesses (medieval greyscale?) for which there was no explanation.

The church was a comfort for many: but, as Tyrion once lamented, there was no god of “tits and wine”. Incidentally, the average life expectancy was under 35 … which is longer than many of the characters of GOT have lived.

6. Food and housing was basic
Peasants lived in huts. Tradesmen lived in slightly better huts. Merchants possibly owned houses with real bedding instead of hay or rushes. Castles and holdfasts were used extensively by the nobility, either for war or as ancestral homes.

The food was also terrible – largely plant based with the occasional meat offering – which is why The Hound loved his chicken and why someone like Hot Pie would have been worth his weight in gold. Take the number of calories you eat in a day and then cut them in half. On the plus side, everyone drank a lot of beer; mostly because you couldn’t trust the water, but also because it was fun.

7. Social classes were rigid
Despite the outliers of Littlefinger and Varys – men who rose above their humble origins by their intelligence and cunning – there wasn’t a whole of lot of social mobility in medieval times. If you were born a peasant you tended to stay a peasant. Intermingling with the lower classes was frowned upon, along with any resulting high-born bastards. Well-born ladies like Sansa were brought up to marry well, even to evil shits like Joffrey. In a world where power was inherited and might was right, the one place a man of humble birth could rise was on the battlefield. People like The Mountain would be rewarded by their Lords … but wouldn’t be expected to turn up to court too often.

8. Some GOT characters were inspired by real people
The Dothraki. Are they Huns? Mongols? Or, as more recently suggested, Scythians? George R. R. has said that the Dothraki are an “amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy”. Robert Baratheon is said to be inspired by fellow usurper overthrower Edward IV, while Tywin Lannister is a dead ringer for scheming moneybags Warwick the Kingmaker.

9. Some of the most memorable scenes in GOT were inspired by real life

When he was captured by the Parthians, the Roman general Crassus supposedly had molten gold poured down his throat to symbolise his thirst for gold. Viserys had a molten crown poured over his head to symbolise his desire for power; a lust so strong he was potentially willing to let the entire Dothraki army rape his sister if they could give him a real crown.

The Red Wedding doffs a bloody cap to the Glencoe Massacre, where 38 members of Clan Macdonald were killed by their “hosts”. Could The Wall be inspired by Hadrian’s Wall? You be the judge.

10. GOT depicts the eternal drama: the human heart in conflict with itself 
Family or realm? Love or duty? Mercy or brutality? Yesterday’s leaders wrestled with the same existential dilemmas we wrestle with today. And, of course, the feelings Game of Thrones evokes in us are very real indeed.
Charles Purcell is a freelance writer and published author, and you can check out his military thriller Game Of Killers: The Spartan now as an ebook or paperback.