16 August 2019

Review: The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan book cover
RRP $29.99AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan has the best premise I've read all year. Can a man live for 7 years underground without seeing another human face?

It's 1792 and Herbert Powyss is a rich middle aged bachelor living in Moreham House in Herefordshire. Powyss enjoys reading scientific papers and cultivating rare plants and vegetables in his vast gardens and greenhouses. He is essentially a man of leisure and learning.

Seeking mention in the scientific journals he reads and the accolades he dreams will follow, he devises an experiment, converts the cellar beneath his house into a fine set of apartments and places the following advertisement.
A reward of 50 pounds a year for life is offered to any man who will undertake to live for 7 years underground without seeing a human face: to let his fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard. Commodious apartments are provided with cold bath, chamber organ, as many books as the occupier shall desire. Provisions will be served from Mr Powyss's table. Every convenience desired will be provided.
To his disappointment, the advertisement attracts just one applicant. John Warlow is a rough labouring man who drinks, beats his wife Hannah and has trouble putting food on the table for his six children. He claims he won't miss seeing anybody for 7 years and is fixated on the guarantee of 50 pounds a year for life if he stays the duration of the experiment.

Warlow enters his lavishly furnished apartments in 1793 and is due to come out in the new century, 1800. Although semi-literate, Warlow is asked to write a regular journal and has ready access to as many books as he wants. There is a dumb-waiter that will provide food, wood, candles and other supplies.

Written in the third person with chapters focussing on different characters, we're given insight into Powyss, Warlow, Hannah (Warlow's wife) and several of the household servants. I definitely enjoyed Warlow's chapters the most. His thought process and experiences were transfixing and I longed to know what he was up to. 

Ironically, these same thoughts quickly begin to plague Powyss as he too becomes fixated on Warlow's existence just a few floors beneath his sumptuous library. Powyss assuages his guilt by reminding himself Warlow is a willing participant and focussing on how the money from his experiment is transforming Warlow's family.

I was eager for the experiment to work and for each of the characters to 'play their role' without messing it up. Unfortunately, accomplished author Alix Nathan had other plans. Powyss's experiment doesn't quite go to plan for a variety of reasons, and it reminded me just a little of the experiment failing in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

It was exciting to learn in the Author's Note that the author had based her novel on a real advertisement she stumbled across in the Annual Register from 1789 to 1814, and specifically the volume for 1797. 

Presented in a small hardback volume with a beautiful cover and stunning endpapers, I was easily transported back in time in this gothic exploration of solitude, scientific learning, mental anguish, transformation, love, penance and regret.

If you're at all intrigued by the premise, then The Warlow Experiment is for you. Highly recommended for historical fiction readers and fans of the gothic genre.

My Rating:

14 August 2019

Interview with Ben Hobson, author of Snake Island

Author Ben Hobson
Author Ben Hobson
It's my great pleasure today to interview Australian author Ben Hobson. Ben is currently on a book tour promoting his latest release, crime thriller Snake Island. Set in Yarram (South Gippsland) and encompassing the townships of Alberton and Port Albert, locals in the area will love the realistic setting and convincing characters. Ben took some time away from his hectic book tour to answer some questions for Carpe Librum.

Thanks for joining me Ben. Is it true you started the creative process for Snake Island by writing the plot down on cue cards?
I actually started the creative process while driving down to Victoria to visit my sick Aunty, who was in hospital. While driving through the night I decided to try and plot a novel! When I eventually made it back to QLD I did write down the entire plot on cue cards. Because Snake Island is far more plot-heavy than To Become a Whale, my first novel, I really had to make sure I had the plot down well before putting pen to page.
Snake Island by Ben Hobson book cover
Published by Allen & Unwin

What was your favourite scene to write in Snake Island?
This is a tough question without giving too much away! I actually think one of my favourite scenes is between Reverend William Kelly and Vernon Moore in the Anglican church. I feel I was really able to articulate a lot of what the novel was about while sticking to the characters, and not just putting words in their mouths. It took a lot of goes to get that scene to feel authentic.

Do you have any writing routines? Neat or messy desk? Do you need background noise or prefer to write in silence?
When I'm writing I aim to write 1,000 words a day. I don't care if they're good words, or bad words, they just need to get written. This normally takes me around half an hour to an hour. And I try to write at night. I normally write in front of the television or wherever I can rest a laptop on my lap. I'm really not fussy.

While editing this novel, though, I did have some of the Snake Island Soundtrack on in the background! It really inspired me to keep myself tonally consistent.

I understand you’re a school teacher, how did your students react to the news you’re now a twice published author?
They ask a lot of questions about how much money I make! I think some of them googled me. Hopefully they're impressed!

Tell us about the word jelspiration and who inspires you?
Hah! I love this word. Jelspiration was coined by writer Sarah Bailey, but it describes those moments wherein you feel equally discouraged and encouraged all at once, on account of somebody else's art. I feel like that when I read Cormac McCarthy. I marvel at his writing and know I'll never equal him, but at the same time I'm encouraged to try!

What are some of your favourite books/authors?
Cormac McCarthy is definitely one of my favourite authors, and his novel The Crossing is something I aspire to. I really love Australian novellist Rohan Wilson, too. Richard Flanagan, too. I love these mythic feeling stories. For some reason they feel more authentic to real life for me.

What are you reading at the moment?
The Revolution of Man by Phil Barker book coverRight now I'm reading five things at once! Main one though is The Revolution of Man by Phil Barker. I'm talking on a panel with Phil on fatherhood for Brisbane Writers Festival. It's a very interesting read about the current state of masculinity in Australia.

Do you have a secret reading pleasure?
Not sure it's secret, but I do love reading Michael Connolly. His books are reliably fun and interesting!

What was the last book to really move you?
Again, another Brisbane Writer's Festival book: Lenny's Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee. A beautiful novel about a lovely young man. It made me really take the time to value my children, which is something I love being reminded to do more of.

What’s the best book you've read so far this year?
Oh man, tough question! Probably Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton. I know that's one a lot of people are talking about, but it really is very good. It's a bit of a masterclass in how to plot without feeling plotty.

What's next? What’s your next writing project?
I'm in the very early stages of writing something about the worst guy I can possibly come up with in a clash with the best guy I can come up with. So I'm really enjoying exploring their relationship.

That sounds exciting. Anything else you'd like to add?
Not that I can think of.

Thanks so much for your time Ben, and good luck with the rest of your book tour! Visit Ben Hobson's blog for more background on how Snake Island came to be.

12 August 2019

Review: Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory is my most anticipated new release for 2019 and I was excited to get my hands on it. Set in England 1648, this is a brand new series from one of my favourite historical fiction authors.

In this new series, Philippa Gregory is going to be tracing generations of the same family through their lives beginning in 17th century England, and following them all the way to Europe and the United States. Spanning more than two centuries, this series will show how regular, everyday women shape history. Hell yes! Called the Fairmile series, it all starts with Tidelands.

Alinor lives in poverty with her two children, having seemingly been abandoned by her abusive fisherman husband. Struggling to scratch together a living, Alinor is a midwife and uses her skills with herbs to heal the sick and injured in her district. She also works at the nearby mill with her daughter, and earns money where she can.

Alinor describes how she makes a living on page 27:
I'm a midwife. I used to have my licence, when the bishop was in his palace and could grant a licence - before he was thrown out and ran away. I can draw a tooth and set a bone, cut out a sore and heal an ulcer, but I do nothing else. I am a healer and a finder of lost things.
Descended from generations of wise women, Alinor is constantly treading a fine line between healing and helping and being accused of witchcraft by locals who love to gossip. With her husband missing feared drowned, Alinor is in the unenviable position of being neither a widow nor a wife and is forced to take counsel from her brother.

Set against the backdrop of English Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, news of these political issues is slow to reach the mire. Alinor's fortunes begin to change when she aids a young gentleman in hiding even though she suspects he is working to save the King. Meanwhile, Alinor's daughter falls in love with a wealthy farmer's son and they long to be together; despite Alinor having no means to raise a dowry.

The concept of class and station is a prominent theme in Tidelands, making it seemingly impossible for Alinor or her daughter to marry for love. The lack of rights for women was not a shock, but was still hard to read and the obvious difference between those in poverty and those from wealthy families was clearly apparent. I found this excerpt from the character of James (the young Royalist) on page 189 most revealing:
He shivered with distaste. He felt that he could not bear the ugliness of these people's lives on the very edge of the shore, with their loves and hates ebbing and flowing like a muddy tide, with their anger roaring like the water in the millrace, with their hatreds and fears as treacherous as the hushing well. .... James's shudder told him that he wanted nothing to do with any of them. He wished himself back with his own people, where cruelty was secret, violence was hidden, and good manners more important than crime.
I largely came to love Philippa Gregory's writing via her Plantagenet and Tudor novels however she has left the Tudor courts and the wars of the roses behind. Whilst I enjoy reading about monarchs and famous women from history, Gregory is equally able to convincingly write about the everyday lives of regular people in England at the time. Fishermen, farmers, and millers populate the cast of characters in Tidelands and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the rhythms of their lives and how they eked out a meagre wage. I was also inspired by just how hard Alinor and her daughter work to save for her dowry and their hardships reminded me how fortunate I am.

There was plenty of foreshadowing going on in the novel though and I just knew something was going to go terribly wrong. Feelings of foreboding permeated the writing and it was almost a relief when events started to take a turn for the worse.

Knowing this was the first of a series I felt Tidelands had a very fitting ending. It wasn't a cliffhanger but a clear separation preparing the reader for a future direction. I'm definitely eager to follow the Fairmile series and find out what happens next. Tidelands is recommended for readers of historical fiction and fans of Ken Follett will enjoy the beginnings of this generational family saga rooted in English history.

My Rating:

05 August 2019

Review: Snake Island by Ben Hobson

Snake Island by Ben Hobson book cover
RRP $29.99 AUD
Published 5 August 2019
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Having grown up in Gippsland, the title of Ben Hobson's novel Snake Island immediately grabbed my attention. Snake Island is a real island that sits off the coast of southern Victoria. Uninhabited, it covers about 35 square kilometres and has been used by farmers, bushwalkers and tourists. Australian author Ben Hobson is now based in Queensland but grew up in regional Victoria in the 1990s. He has expertly used this district as the setting for a fast-paced crime thriller that had me from the get go.

Vernon Moore's son Caleb is doing time in a minimum security jail nearby for domestic assault. Vernon and his wife haven't seen their son since his incarceration, both believing he needs tough love.

Sharon Wornkin is a Policewoman in the service of the local crime family, the Cahills. Brendan Cahill and his family grow marijuana and sell it to guys from Melbourne who travel to their district to collect the packaged product. The Cahill family are secretive and carry a lot of sway in the town with many residents afraid to speak out against them.

Things kick off when Vernon learns Brendan Cahill has assaulted Caleb in jail. Vernon's paternal protective instincts kick in and he'll do anything to get Brendan to back off and leave his son alone. This crisis swiftly unites the Moore family and they're forced to respond.

Fuelled by small town gossip and a sense of family loyalty by both families, the situation goes from bad to worse. Others get caught up in the feud and I was on edge the entire time wanting to know what was going to happen.

Each of the characters is flawed in their own way and each made decisions that either failed to halt the crisis or added fuel to the fire. Each character was memorable and realistic as they explored the often complex relationships between fathers and sons as well as themes of duty, forgiveness, regret, retribution, the cycle of violence, familial love and legacy.

I was able to recognise several places in the rural landscape by their descriptions alone and this added to my reading enjoyment. The novel moved towards a tense and action-packed finale that left me pondering the motives and lives of those living alongside us.

Snake Island by Ben Hobson is a terrific rural crime thriller. And for those of you wondering, there are no snakes. If you enjoyed Scrublands by Chris Hammer or Boxed by Richard Anderson, this is for you.

My Rating:


01 August 2019

Review: Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor coverStrange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor is one of my favourite books of the year so far and Muse of Nightmares is the sequel to this Young Adult fantasy duology.

The story picks up right where we left off in Strange the Dreamer and I was immediately thrust back into the world of Zosma and into Weep with Sarai and Lazlo. Early on I felt there was way too much time spent on the romance between Lazlo and Sarai and I longed to get back to the action of the previous novel.

The action soon returned and we begin to learn more about the history of the Mesarthim and the gods, Lazlo's origins, Minya's back story and so much more. The writing is of the same calibre as the first in the series, and I especially enjoyed this description from page 227:
She had seen horrors hidden in a biscuit tin and planted under a seedling so the roots would grow around it and hold it fast. The mind is good at hiding things, but there's something it cannot do: It can't erase. It can only conceal, and concealed things are not gone. They rot. They fester, they leak poisons. They ache and stink. They hiss like serpents in tall grass.
Despite great writing, I'll admit I did start to feel a little out of my depth as the rest of the world building fell into place and the full scope of Weep's place in the world/s came to light. The use of powers by the godspawn and the revelation of the purpose behind the nursery in the citadel led me to the realisation this is a complex fantasy novel with lashings of magical realism. Muse of Nightmares doesn't have the same general appeal to readers as Strange the Dreamer and I wasn't anywhere near as entranced or gripped by the narrative.

As the title suggests, this sequel is about Sarai who is the muse of nightmares, with the ability to enter the dreams of a sleeping human or godspawn. I wasn't as interested in her story as Lazlo's and I'm sure this contributed to the fact this wasn't another 5 star read for me.

Themes of love, obsession, race, power, revenge and redemption were explored by the characters, with some succeeding and others failing. I wasn't left with any questions and all characters were neatly wrapped up by the end of the novel in a satisfying conclusion. 

Several times the author alluded to the fact something was 'another story' so I wouldn't be too surprised if Laini Taylor returned to this universe in the future. There is more to explore but if she doesn't, I think readers can finish this duology satisfied in the ending.

My Rating: