20 November 2019

Review: Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold

Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold cover
The first book I read for the Non Fiction November Reading Challenge this year is Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold. The author tackles the fascinating history of London burials from pre-historic and medieval times to the present day.

According to the blurb:
"The city is one giant grave, filled with the remains of previous eras. The Houses of Parliament sit on the edge of a former plague pit, St Paul's is built over human remains; Underground tunnels were driven through forgotten catacombs, thick with bones."
I found the earliest history the least interesting. My fascination really begins as burial space in London and the surrounding areas became cramped and Londoners began to run out of places to bury their dead.

Arnold shines a light into the darkness of countless horrific practices in graveyards all over London. Remains were shoved into crevices within churches, often dug up and relocated to charnel houses or pits without notifying the families and bodysnatchers were a real concern. Some graveyards had significantly grown in height due to the placement of bodies on top of each other in layers that in some cases, the burial grounds were reaching the first floor windows of churches and neighbouring houses.

Many proposed the move away from inner city burials in churchyards and burial plots, and championed the establishment of new cemeteries in consecrated ground in the countryside. Arnold takes us through the movers and shakers across decades and centuries as this began to take form, including the key figures involved in designing these cemeteries.

Countless cemeteries and graveyards are mentioned here including the iconic - and my favourite - Highgate Cemetery, which provides a rich history for amateur sleuths and family historians. Many of the old graveyards scattered throughout London were soon forgotten together with the plague pits which had never been marked with gravestones or markers.
"As time passed, London has constructed houses, churches, streets, entire railway stations, over these mass graves, and it is only by chance that they come to light due to building excavations." Page 65
"In fact, the tunnel curves between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations because it was impossible to drill through the mass of skeletal remains buried in Hyde Park." Page 2
I knew how devastating the Great Fire of London was in 1666, however it was shocking to read: 
"Seventy per cent of its houses vanished into the flames. Thirteen thousand buildings, including eighty-nine churches, disappeared for ever." Page 68
After the fires and the razing of so many structures, new construction began and the dead were swiftly forgotten in favour of rebuilding London. Gravestones, rubble and in some cases human remains from the fires were used in the foundations of new buildings.
"Inevitably, the final remains of many Londoners went into the latest foundations of their great city." Page 172
I enjoy fiction set - or written - during the Victorian era with a particular interest in the rituals and etiquette surrounding death and mourning. Arnold gives the reader much to digest in Necropolis, with the introduction of the great Victorian cemeteries and the detailed mourning practices of the era.

The horses used in Victorian funerals to pull hearses and mourning coaches were: 
"strong, handsome, blue-black animals, worth 50 [pounds] each, were imported from Holland and Belgium. Constantly in the public eye, they were always well groomed. A patch of grey would be painted out, a thinning mane or tail supplemented with hair from a deceased comrade. Mostly gentle and docile they were sturdy animals." Page 196
The introduction of cremation and society's changing attitudes towards it were interesting as were the impact of both world wars on the notion of grief and mourning. Although I could have done without the remarkable level of detail with regard to the individual cemeteries.

Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold reads like an academic text and isn't for everyone. If you enjoy history, anthropology, urban development, changing attitudes to death and mourning or learning about the macabre, then this is for you.

My Rating:
★ ★

18 November 2019

Review: Hive by A.J. Betts

Hive by A.J. Betts cover
* Won in a Pan Macmillan giveaway hosted by The Very Hungry Thesaurus on Instagram *

Hive is the first in a young adult duology by Australian author A.J. Betts. Set in a dystopian future, Hayley's world is made up of hexagonal houses where everyone has a vocation.

Hayley is a gardener and tends the bee hive and plants with her best friend Celia. Grow lights change colour to dictate the passage of time and all 300 inhabitants have a job to do. Each person contributes to the running of the settlement that almost operates like a hive.

Isolated from the rest of the world, governed by God where nobody knows their birth parents, this community also had the feeling of a religious cult.

Hayley is naturally inquisitive and when she notices a drip in an area that is off limits to her, she's desperate for answers. If she's going mad then she'll have a bleak future, but what if something else is going on?

The world building was clever, the writing was evocative and I enjoyed learning about Hayley's settlement and the goings on within the group.

I don't often read YA or dystopian fiction, so it took me a little while to settle into Hayley's world, but reading Hive was a refreshing palate cleanser from my usual eclectic fare.

The next in the duology is Rogue and I'm planning on reading that next.

My Rating:
★ ★

14 November 2019

Review: Sh*t Towns of Australia by Rick Furphy & Geoff Rissole

Sh*t Towns of Australia by Rick Furphy & Geoff Rissole book cover
Published November 2019
RRP $19.99 AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I really enjoyed reading Sh*t Towns of New Zealand last year. A year on and Rick Furphy and Geoff Rissole have given us Sh*t Towns of Australia. Unlike the sister book, I wasn't chuckling and rushing to look up factoids from the book while reading and overall I found it a little underwhelming.

The town slurs were unimaginative and there were so many references to deros, drugs, hand jobs, STDs and the unemployed that it quickly became repetitive.

The humour was crass and the fan mail sections were a missed opportunity. Appearing to be fabricated feedback from readers defending their towns, the authors could have had real fun with this concept. Unfortunately the fan mail comments appealed to the lowest common denominator and didn't even raise a smirk.

The only thing I enjoyed was the section on 'big things' which was uniquely Australian and amusing and the mention of bin chickens. Despite being Australian, I've somehow missed the slang name 'bin chicken' for ibis birds. This then lead me to a very funny and catchy YouTube video about ibis' which is what I'll think of when remembering this book.

Featuring sixty towns and cities, Sh*t Towns of Australia will make a great stocking stuffer or gift for the bogan in your family who enjoys gutter humour. I guess I'm just not the target market for this book.

My Rating:
★ ★ ★ ★

11 November 2019

Review: Him by Clare Empson

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia competition *

Him by Clare Empson begins with Catherine driven mute by earlier events. I was intrigued by the premise and wondered what triggered her to withdraw so far into herself. As the novel jumps back and forth in time, the events that lead to the mutism four months previously are slowly but surely brought to the surface.

Catherine and Lucian fell in love at university, their relationship was relatable and their mutual infatuation believable. Welcomed into Lucian's elite circle of friends, their unexpected breakup took a toll on Lucian and the reason behind it is one of the novel's mysteries.

Told in a multitude of timeframes: now, 4 months earlier, 15 years earlier and from the perspectives of both Catherine and Lucian, the narrative did feel somewhat jumpy and disjointed as a result.

I didn't feel terribly invested in either of the main characters and found the supporting characters to be either vacuous or vulnerable. Their rich lifestyles may interest some readers, but I couldn't help but roll my eyes at their behaviour (now and then) and sense of entitlement.

While I had very little empathy for Catherine, I did care for one of the characters and found her unique story quite moving. Catherine's mutism almost frustrated me as much as it did her husband, and the big 'reveal' or denouement wasn't really worth the reader investment or the build up in my view.

Him is a story of obsessive love, lies, secrets and regrets populated by wealthy young people battling addictions and depression trying to find real love.

My Rating:
★ ★ ★

08 November 2019

Review: The Confession by Jessie Burton

The Confession by Jessie Burton cover
* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

The Confession by Jessie Burton is a dual narrative story about three women, Elise, Constance and Rose. Elise and Constance are lovers in the 1980s and in the present day, Rose seeks answers about her mother Elise, who left when she was a baby.

Constance is a successful author, and the reader is given an insight into her career during the 1980s and her life as a reclusive writer in the present day. Rose devises a ruse to meet Constance and drill her for answers about her mother.

The Confession is my first time reading Jessie Burton and I was gripped by her writing. (Oh and the cover design is stunning!) Essentially a story about love, purpose, motherhood, relationships, choices, secrets and regrets, the narrative kept me turning pages as the confession of the title drew nearer.

Of the three characters, Constance was easily my favourite. Her life was deeply compelling and I thoroughly enjoyed her personality. Rose I liked the least, the ruse and her dishonesty being part of it, but I also found her aimlessness a little irritating.

While I enjoyed the story and the writing, the unresolved ending prevented this from being a five star read for me. While Rose says she's moving on, the book ends with her still searching for answers. (I hope that's vague enough to avoid any spoilers). This was frustrating and coming so soon after another unresolved ending - in The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean - the frustration was compounded. I need more answers people!

Once the 'high' of the confession - or conversation - I'd been waiting for during the entire book was over and I spent a few days reflecting, the effect wore off. If you love a mystery and a deep and meaningful tale of women finding their way in life, then The Confession is for you. I'll definitely keep an eye out for more from Jessie Burton.

My Rating:

05 November 2019

Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean book cover
* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Australian author Felicity McLean has been incredibly popular this year. It begins when our narrator Tikka returns to her suburban home in Sydney. There she's forced to recount the summer of 1992 and the disappearance of the Van Apfel girls during their school concert.

Tikka Molloy was eleven years old at the time and the Van Apfel family (with three daughters) were neighbours. Tikka and her older sister were friends with the Van Apfel girls and their disappearance shocked the local community at the time.

The writing is evocative and atmospheric, and managed to capture Tikka's childhood with every ice cream, school project and ride in her parent's car. Even the simplest scenes like walking to school or a sleepover took me right into the heart of the story while also making me feel incredibly nostalgic.

I enjoyed the coming-of-age elements and the descriptions of the girls, including the dynamics between the two families and the sibling relationships between them.

Where I had a few issues however is that the story is not linear.

Similarities have been made to The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and I can see why. The Lisbon girls (from The Virgin Suicides) and Van Apfel girls are both raised in strictly religious households. The narrators in both novels are haunted and slightly obsessed by the loss of the girls.

Similarities have also been drawn to Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay in that several girls disappear into the Australian bush in the harsh summer and only one comes back. While comparisons like these do attract interest to the book and presumably boost sales, these links are somewhat tenuous in this case.

What made this a 3 star read for me was the unresolved ending. I can guess what led up to the girl's disappearance but this is never confirmed. The details of their disappearance are unsolved in the beginning of the book and remain so at the end which drove me nuts.

I'm also not okay with people withholding information from the police, even years after an event.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean is recommended reading for those who enjoy an Australian coming-of-age novel with a mystery at its heart.

In the spirit of 'if you like this, you'll also like this' fans of this novel should check out The Yellow House by Emily O'Grady.

My Rating:
★ ★

01 November 2019

Review: Hide by S.J. Morgan

Hide by S.J. Morgan cover
*Copy courtesy of the author & Midnight Sun Publishing*

Hide is Australian author S.J. Morgan's first adult novel and it's a thrilling read.

It's 1983 in Swansea, South Wales where we first meet Alec Johnston. A somewhat flawed character who doesn't quite know what to do with his life, Alec is sharing a flat with bikies, Minto, Stobes and Black. (Great names right?)

The overbearing Minto has a girlfriend Sindy and while Alec knows he should mind his own business, he can't help but be drawn in by Sindy's vulnerability and the situations she finds herself in. Try as he might, Alec just can't seem to get out from under the gaze of his bikie housemates; Minto in particular.

Alec seeks help from his parents who live in Cardiff and are easily the most memorable fictional parents I've encountered in a long time. I was definitely rooting for the parents the whole way; perhaps even more so than our protagonist Alec at times!

What develops is a slow burn domestic noir which ramps up the tension as the short punchy chapters progress. The action moves to Australia (not a spoiler, this is in the blurb) and the novel develops into a crime thriller which kept me turning the pages.

Ultimately, I would have liked more information on Sindy and a watertight ending but the conclusion was a satisfactory one, just the same.

With an atmospheric cover design which accurately conveys the trouble ahead for Alec, I believe Hide will appeal to crime fans who enjoy a good domestic thriller.

I'll be running a giveaway on 22 November alongside an interview with the author S.J. Morgan so stay tuned for a chance to win your own signed copy of Hide.

My Rating: