31 January 2019

Review: The Au Pair by Emma Rous

The Au Pair by Emma Rous book cover
* 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

In Miniature by Simon Garfield book cover
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

Dead Heat by Peter Cotton cover
* 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

2,024 QI Facts To Stop You In Your Tracks by John Lloyd book cover
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

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence book cover
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.

The Peacock Summer by Australian author Hannah Richell book cover2. 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?

The Girl on the Page by John Purcell book cover3. 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.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield book cover4. 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
The Corset by Laura Purcell book cover

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

Tombland by C.J. Sansom cover
* 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!