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!
14 November 2018

Review: Stalked - The Human Target by Rachel Cassidy

* Copy courtesy of Rockpool Publishing *

As the subtitle of Stalked - The Human Target by Rachel Cassidy indicates, this book contains Stories of people pursued by stalkers and the devastating effects on their lives. For the most part, this was an informative and educational read and contained information on what constitutes stalking and harassment, case studies and information from subject matter experts.

I wasn't expecting bullying and harassment to feature as much as stalking but the inclusion made sense when explained. From the mention of David Letterman and Madonna in the synopsis, I was expecting to read about more famous cases than those included in Stalked.

In an attempt to provide balance, the author included the perspective of a stalker convicted for his crimes. However the interview didn't go anywhere near far enough in my opinion. Given this was the only first person perspective of stalking from the perpetrator's point of view, I wanted to know more. Did he regret his actions, did he ever feel the urge to stalk again, and how did the time drain of obsessive stalking impact his life. How did he keep it secret.

Given that I was left wanting more information on the topic of stalking, the appearance of 9 pages of author acknowledgements at the end of a 178 page book seemed over the top. One of the stalking victims (Mark Wilson, former judge of Dancing with the Stars) was given 4 pages to list his own acknowledgements and the combined 13 pages was excessive.

On the flip side, the resources list at the end was comprehensive and no doubt will be helpful to some readers. I'd recommend Stalked by Australian author Rachel Cassidy for anyone dealing with bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment or stalking.

My rating = **

Carpe Librum!
12 November 2018

Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

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

An historical fiction novel set in Prague with a supernatural element, Melmoth by Sarah Perry held so much promise for me. Unfortunately this highly anticipated read left me feeling a little underwhelmed by the end.

Our main character Helen is riddled with guilt and living an ordinary life when she is given a manuscript and told about Melmoth. Melmoth the witness is a tall woman dressed in black with bleeding feet condemned to walk the earth forever. She’s the loneliest being in the world and tries to lure the guilty to wander the earth beside her.

Despite the awesome premise, some of the gothic tropes in this novel soon became repetitive and therefore lost their power to move me. For instance, there were so many jackdaws (crows) throughout the novel that their appearance quickly lost their 'creep factor'.

The best parts by far were the 'stories within the main story' in the form of the manuscript, letters and documents. They contained information across time from other people who had encountered Melmoth and these encounters and backstories made for interesting reading.

I particularly enjoyed uncovering the reason behind Helen's guilt and belief she must suffer for the sins of her past and I could easily have dwelled in her tale much longer. However her overarching story failed to hold my interest.

Exploring themes of redemption, guilt and perhaps even loneliness, Melmoth will appeal to historical fiction lovers who enjoy dark and mysterious stories.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!
10 November 2018

Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia *

Reading Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield was like sitting at the foot of a legendary storyteller on a wild and stormy night. I was in expert hands, hung on every word and instantly fell into the story being told.

Set in the 1800s on the river Thames, the story starts at an ancient inn at Radcot called The Swan. At the time, if you wanted music, gambling or brawling you could visit a number of other inns, but the specialty on offer at The Swan was storytelling.

The stories told were passed down through generations, from the battle of Radcot Bridge in 1387 to more recent times and anywhere in between. Some of the stories had alternate endings or different beginnings, but the locals who frequented the inn loved to tell them and loved to listen to them being told.

It's in this setting that a man stumbles in one night dripping with river water and a young girl in his arms. She is dead and he is close to it, but hours later she comes back to life. Those present struggle to comprehend what has happened and who she might be.

The girl's identity is the mystery gently driving this atmospheric novel forward, and the elements of myth and folklore kept me glued to the page. And 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.

Diane Setterfield is a favourite author of mine, having adored The Thirteenth Tale in 2006 and her writing style has only improved since then; if that's even possible. I loved being addressed by the author occasionally as 'dear reader' and although it's not a new construct, it works perfectly here. It reminds the reader the novel is just another 'story being told' and builds on the layers of stories already being told at The Swan.

Once Upon a River is dark and gothic and reads like a fairytale re-telling at times. It's definitely a serious contender for my Top 5 Books of 2018. Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield is available in December 2018.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

P.S. I learned after reading this that The Swan Inn and Radcot Bridge are real locations and are just as I imagined. In fact, Radcot Bridge was built around 1200 and claims to be the oldest crossing of the river Thames. This, together with the fact that I read this while in London further added to my enjoyment.
08 November 2018

Interview with Sandy Macken, author of Paramedic - One Woman's 20 Years on the Front Line

Author, Sandy Macken
Sandy Macken is the author of Paramedic - One Woman's 20 Years on the Front Line and she joins me today to chat about her memoir, her career as a paramedic and her reading habits.

Thanks for joining us Sandy. What was the most challenging part of writing your memoir Paramedic? I wanted to give the reader the opportunity of walking with me step by step through some of the toughest jobs I have faced. I had to completely immerse myself in the thoughts and feelings of every single moment in order to achieve this. 

One particular chapter was so stressful in the writing and editing that my hands would become sweaty and my nervous system become quite activated. (Can you guess which one? lol) So I had to pick and choose the right times to do the writing, because I knew that it would be a bit of a ride for me. Along with the challenge would come the gratitude, for the peace and good health I was enjoying, so it was both "bitter sweet" and that is the point of the book; to inspire that balance of heart and mind of both our challenges and the blessings that often hide among them.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to become a paramedic? Know that the job will grow your soul and that can be hard work but well worth it. Strive to keep an open heart.

What training do you need to undertake in order to become a paramedic? What are the different levels/titles/ranks you progress through?
Nowadays most people come in after a three year degree in paramedicine. The levels progress from trainee to qualified paramedic. There is then a competitive application process for those wishing to further specialise. There are various specialisations including "Intensive Care" which the stories in the book reflect. Other areas of specialisation include Extended Care and aeromedical as well as Special Operations which is similar to a rescue role.

What do you wish the public knew when it comes to receiving treatment from a paramedic or calling an ambulance? 

A calm environment and honest answers is helpful. There is really good medical advice given through the triple zero number.

What are the most common mistakes good samaritans make when giving first aid before an ambulance arrives on the scene? 

I probably don't see most of them. Simple helpful measures and timely calling for an ambulance is best.

Have you ever delivered a baby?
Been there a few times! A job that always raises the heart rate. I helped a woman give birth on a bench seat outside hospital at 5.00am on a cold winter morning. That was the day I learned that it is possible to give birth sitting upright on a chair. And that birthing women are completely awesome.

Do you ever need to go to court as part of your job?
Yes, I have taken the stand a few times. It isn't a regular occurrence, but I have been called as a professional witness, mostly for violent crimes.

Do patients you’ve assisted ever ask to meet and thank you down the track? How do you feel about meeting patients you saved?
Yes. It is AMAZING to meet the patients. I have had a couple of experiences that were quite beautiful. What really struck me is how different a person looks when they are close to clinically dead. That experience is something that I take with me forever too, so to meet that person, whom I had the privilege of helping in such a dramatic way for me has been incredibly moving and sometimes part of a healing journey too. It is often a great success, to preserve life for someone. The gift for me is that incredible sense, that life is so precious.

What’s your favourite way to unwind after a difficult shift?
Swim in the ocean. It has a cleansing effect second to none. It lifts my spirit.

What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
Books that educate and inspire me.

What are you reading at the moment?
Our baby is five months old, so reading time since her birth has been a shared delight. We are reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgeson Burnett.

What was the last truly great book you read?
I have to say The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A classic tale that teaches me something new every time I read it. Another one I read to my daughter.

Thanks for joining us Sandy and for all the good work you do in the community. Paramedic is published by Rockpool Publishing.
05 November 2018

Review & Extract: Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater

Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater
Published by Simon & Schuster Australia
RRP AU$24.99
Photography © Lauren Chater
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Lauren Chater is an Australian author who loves to read and bake and has been blogging about her love of baking and decorating cookies at The Well Read Cookie for the last three years. In her latest book, Lauren brings her love of books and cookies together in Well Read Cookies - Beautiful Biscuits Inspired by Great Literature.

This scrumptious hardback is full of Lauren's favourite reads paired with cookies iced and decorated to reflect the theme or focus of the book. There are a variety of books represented, with children's books, classics and contemporary novels included and the decorated cookies are mouth-wateringly delicious.

Lauren includes the reasons she loves each of the 60 books chosen and also talks a little about each of the cookie designs. I thoroughly enjoyed the unique pairing of literature with creative and whimsical cookie designs and it made me hungry for biscuits and books all at the same time.

I'm lucky enough to be able to share with you three of my favourite cookie/book combinations, so please enjoy them below.

Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater
Published by Simon & Schuster Australia 
RRP AU$24.99
Photography © Lauren Chater

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Why are children so obsessed with books about food? From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Possum Magic, food and literature continues to be an utterly magical combination. What is it that makes us go gaga for Suessian green eggs and ham and dreamy Sendak-style aeroplane doughnuts? Psychologists suggest food is associated with memory, so perhaps when parents read to children from picture books which feature fantastical feasts and pleasant picnics, a love of food is absorbed along with the language.

Nowhere is this combination of edibles and idioms more apparent than in Eric Carle’s classic tale of gluttony and greed, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Brimful of fruit, condiments and sweets, it’s the ultimate guide to a week’s worth of overeating, but it’s also a lesson in growth and transformation.

The compulsion of the caterpillar to consume everything in sight is an instantly recognisable childish trait. The mere whiff of a pickle takes me straight back to my school days, and whenever the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘cake’ are mentioned together, I find myself reaching for the fridge – because, as everyone knows, the perfect accompaniment to a Matilda-style Bruce Bogtrotter chocolate cake (thank you Roald Dahl) is a slice of Swiss cheese.

When I was making these hungry caterpillar cookies, my children offered very helpfully to cut the holes out of the ‘fruits’ instead of what they usually do, which is squirt the icing straight into their mouths. I recommend using the bottom of an icing tip to get a good-sized hole and piping an outline around the hole first before you flood so that the icing doesn’t drip down inside. You’ll need a 1.5 mm tip for the caterpillar’s details.

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa
Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater
Published by Simon & Schuster Australia 
RRP AU$24.99
Photography © Lauren Chater
Many people see passenger liners as places of transit, a bridge between the old world and the new. This unique experience takes a tragic twist in Armando Lucas Correa’s novel, which chronicles the ill-fated journey of the transatlantic liner St Louis through the eyes of a young Jewish girl, Hannah Rosenthal. 

Fleeing the persecution of the Nazi regime in 1939, Hannah and her parents join others on board the ship, expecting to disembark in Cuba, but their excitement quickly sours as the ship is turned away from that port, and every other, and the liner soon becomes a floating crypt. Correa pays tribute to those poor souls in this sobering story about war, hope and the human condition.

Of all the passenger liner tragedies in popular culture, the best known is of course the White Star’s Titanic but the success of Correa’s book has recently thrown light on the forgotten passenger ship St Louis. A German ocean liner, she set out in May 1939 and soon became embroiled in a political and humanitarian crisis when Jewish passengers fleeing the Holocaust were denied entry at every port.

With an eye to the recent horrors in Syria, Correa’s book seems more relevant than ever and, cute cookies aside, it’s one that everyone should read to prevent such a tragedy ever occurring again. These liner cookies were made using a custom cutter but any steamship cutter will do.
Outline and flood the bottom section first in black icing.
Outline and flood the top half in bright white icing once the bottom has dried.
Use grey icing in a piping bag fitted with a 1.5 mm tip to add the decorative stripes and the windows.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater
Published by Simon & Schuster Australia RRP AU$24.99
Photography © Lauren Chater
Not many people have much sympathy for Jay Gatsby, the brooding anti-hero of Fitzgerald’s moody commentary on America’s loss of innocence. He’s the kind of guy we love to read about but would find intolerable if he rolled up outside in his Merc. He’s the ultimate creepy ex-boyfriend, hanging around to remind you what you missed out on. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole Gatsby aesthetic: the flappers, the prohibition booze, the vacuous parties on Long Island paid for by Daddy’s trust-fund. There’s a delicious opulence and decadence in the book (especially the party scenes) that makes me want to cut my hair into a bob and Charleston ’til dawn. But then Fitzgerald throws in the contrast of the slum areas outside Rhode Island and exposes how one-sided the whole business is; desperate depression on the one hand, filthy opulence on the other. Both Nick Carraway (useless enabler) and Jay Gatsby (hopeless dreamer) really rub me up the wrong way.

Daisy, on the other hand, is a girl after my own heart. Unlike Gatsby, who tries to mould himself into some kind of unreachable ideal, Daisy goes straight for the Cartier and doesn’t feel a bit bad about it. She never apologises for who she is or what she wants. Is it her fault Gatsby puts her on an impossibly high pedestal? Not at all! It might be unfashionable, but make like a mint julep and be a Daisy; throw your troubles to the wind and let some man do the worrying for you.

I think Daisy would appreciate these flapper girl cookies with their oh-so-chic wink and stylish cloche hats. Don’t forget to add a dash of edible gold to embellish your decorations!

Recipe for Vanilla Sugar Cookies (Makes around 16)
250g unsalted butter, softened                            1 egg
1/2 tsp salt                                                           1 cup caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence                                           6 cups flour, plus extra for rolling out
1/2 tsp baking powder

Place softened butter and caster sugar in a large bowl and mix until smooth and light in colour (about four minutes).
STEP 2 Add in vanilla essence and beat in egg, until combined.
STEP 3 Slowly beat in the baking powder and flour, one cup at a time. After two minutes or so of beating the dough should start pulling away from the edge of the bowl and form a lump. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a lightly floured surface.
STEP 4 Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in fridge for at least four hours.
STEP 5 Preheat oven to 180°C (355°F). Roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut out desired shapes. Place them on flat baking trays and put in freezer or the fridge for at least 20 minutes before baking to preserve shape.
STEP 6 Bake each tray for 18 minutes, turning halfway to ensure consistency.
STEP 7 Allow to cool completely before decorating.

You'll definitely need a cup of tea and a biscuit when devouring Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater. If you want more, feel free to turn the oven on, whip up a batch of sugar cookies and check out my interview with Lauren about her debut novel The Lace Weaver.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!
01 November 2018

Review: The Girl On The Page by John Purcell

* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

This book 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 Girl On The Page by John Purcell has been the most surprising read for me so far this year and I absolutely loved it!

Australian author John Purcell is currently the Director of Books at Booktopia and before that he ran a secondhand bookshop in Sydney for 10 years, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he has such a firm grip on what it's like to work in the book industry. I've heard that John's portrayal of the industry is too sexy to bear any resemblance to the Australian publishing industry. I'll never know for sure, but this definitely kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The references to real authors and actors in the story enhanced my enjoyment and gave the novel a real contemporary feel. The title is also quite playful and possibly a stab at all the books with 'girl' in the title.

Punchy, sexy, witty, entertaining and containing intelligent debate on literature versus bestselling fiction, I'm recommending The Girl On The Page by John Purcell far and wide.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!