27 November 2020

Guest Review: Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I recently mentioned Australian author Christos Tsiolkas in my review of Northside, however despite how much respect I have for the author and how much I enjoy watching him speak in interviews, I've resigned myself to the fact that Damascus just isn't for me. Not to worry, guest reviewer Neil Béchervaise picked it up instead and offers the following review.


Christos Tsiolkas' stunning new novel Damascus is a work of soaring ambition and achievement, of immense power and epic scope, taking as its subject nothing less than events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church. Based around the gospels and letters of St Paul, and focusing on characters one and two generations on from the death of Christ, as well as Paul (Saul) himself, Damascus nevertheless explores the themes that have always obsessed Tsiolkas as a writer: class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, exile; the ways in which nations, societies, communities, families and individuals are united and divided - it's all here, the contemporary and urgent questions, perennial concerns made vivid and visceral.

In Damascus, Tsiolkas has written a masterpiece of imagination and transformation: an historical novel of immense power and an unflinching dissection of doubt and faith, tyranny and revolution, and cruelty and sacrifice.

Neil's Review

If, as the publishers assure us, Damascus is “a masterpiece of imagination and transformation” then we may be forgiven for wondering why so much is so predictable. Of course, we probably know the story of Saul/Paul and his transformational road to Damascus experience. We are familiar with the misogyny attributed to the region and the period. We may even be familiar with Saul/Paul’s writings about the acts of the early Christian apostles and his letters to the early Christian enclaves. We may be less familiar with the fact that he was born about 4 BCE, that he was a Greek speaker and his trade was tent-making.

Tsiolkas’ multi-voiced narrative offers a broad critique of Saul/Paul’s probable background, his formative experiences, his response to those with whom his beliefs conflicted and the reaction of those who were close to him, as friends, relatives and jailers.

Damascus is a tough read. The emotional challenges of the brutality and on-going misogyny grate against the apparently unquestioning and unquestionable acceptance of the need to turn the other cheek and to love thy neighbour. In a jealous, raging argument with Paul, Christ’s ‘twin’ brother, Thomas dismissively spits, “And it was on the road that he realised, Roman, Jewish, Samaritan, Arab, Greek, none of that mattered. It’s how you treat your neighbour, the stranger, the exile – only that matters”.

Paul’s self-seeking and jealous insistence on his personal rightness and righteousness provide a stark contrast with those who do not totally agree with him. His attitudes and his actions appear to be at odds with the Paul whom Tsiolkas appears to be championing. The increasingly biblical writing style towards the end of the novel appears to me to be at odds with the author’s stated intent, “I wanted to do the impossible: to be faithful to both Paul and Thomas”. Perhaps it is the extent to which Tsiolkas achieves his intent that ultimately determines the value of his ‘journey’.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

23 November 2020

Review: The Ultimate Bucket List - 50 Buckets You Must See Before You Die by Dixe Wills

The Ultimate Bucket List - 50 Buckets You Must See Before You Die by Dixe Wills book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I'm so confused by this book, I hardly know where to begin. Regular readers at Carpe Librum will know I enjoy reading a variety of non-fiction titles and was looking forward to reading The Ultimate Bucket List - 50 Buckets You Must See Before You Die by Dixe Wills for Non Fiction November.

I thought this book would act as an interesting vessel for a bucketload of information on some very interesting historic moments, events, people and innovations. Having turned the last page of this beautiful little hardback, I don't actually know what I just read.

At first, I was constantly checking Wikipedia to find out whether the bucket entries were real or imagined. With entries varying from the Bobrinski Bucket (a fascinating bronze bucket made in 1163 and mentioned on page 65) to the Bucket Fountain in New Zealand (a real and ugly fountain on page 136) to the head scratching entry of Taylor Swift's Bucket on page 105. (What was that all about?)

Some of the subject matter was obscure and made references and in-jokes that went way over my head. Simultaneously, the book is also full of silly offbeat humour and imagined dialogue, accompanied by comic illustrations making light of the topic and I couldn't work out whether the author was 'taking the piss' or using comic relief to make the subject matter less intimidating or more approachable. It was thoroughly confusing.

Is this satire? Is it a toilet joke book? I'm not sure what it was, but as a reader I was disappointed. The author was clearly well researched and provided a list of 50 buckets from all walks of life and periods in history. I found that I was frequently putting the book down to fact check when the author could easily have supplied adequate details to satisfy the reader's genuine curiosity. It's hard to imagine the reader who will understand all of the 50 entries provided without some serious Googling.

If Dixe Wills had written a serious book about the subject matter, with photographs - instead of crazy illustrations reminiscent of Quentin Blake - The Ultimate Bucket List could have been a 5 star read.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

20 November 2020

Review: Northside by Warren Kirk

Northside by Warren Kirk book cover
* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Warren Kirk is an Australian photographer living in Melbourne and Northside - A time and place is the first collection of his I've read. In it, he uses his creative eye to photograph people, workplaces, homes and buildings in Melbourne's northern suburbs and the results are engrossing.

Northside begins with an introduction by well known author Christos Tsiolkas who expertly prepares the reader for the nostalgic journey to the past which is to follow.

This collection focusses on scenes that seem frozen in time and they made me incredibly nostalgic for a lost era; a time not too long ago that still exists in little known pockets of society that Kirk seems to have a knack for uncovering.

Some of the photos had an exhilarating effect, making me want to jump up and help clean a workspace or re-arrange the shelf displays in a milk bar while others had a calming effect, as thoughts of previous generations and the lives they led in those places washed over me.

Kirk's photographs stir reflections about the human impact on the spaces we inhabit, the immigrant experience, appreciation for the work ethic of blue collar workers and nostalgia for an era in time some of us can still recall or see in echoes all around us.

I dearly wish Kirk had provided some accompanying text for each of the photographs to explain a little about the subjects or subject matter, however I understand that not knowing anything about the subject matter forces the reader to imagine the life and spaces depicted.

Northside by Warren Kirk has captured and preserved a slice of Melbourne's social history that I believe is important and will be enjoyed by many.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

18 November 2020

Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Honeybee by Craig Silvey book cover
Published September 2020
RRP $32.99 AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Sam Watson's voice captured my heart immediately and wouldn't let go. All I knew about Honeybee going in was the premise. A 14yo boy Sam climbs over the rail of an overpass and is ready to jump. At the other end of the same bridge is an older man Vic, smoking his last cigarette. The two make eye contact and their lives change from that moment on.

Wow, what a premise! I was instantly hooked and the relationship between Sam and Vic slowly crept up on me. Sam is a young teen on a journey of self discovery and Vic is dealing with grief and a loss of identity and purpose. The trajectories of their lives filled me with hope and their unforgettable relationship produced an unexpected coming-of-age story.

A lot goes on and I did have to suspend my belief quite a few times, however readers everywhere are falling in love with Sam and I'm predicting some awards will follow for Honeybee.

I also predict much will be made of the author writing a teenage trans character given he is a straight cis-gender man himself, but I won't be doing that here. I'm all for own voices - obviously - but I believe the job of an author is to imagine, research and write.... fiction! Ken Follett wasn't alive in 997AD and has no lived experience of the era, yet he researched and gave us The Evening and the Morning. Christopher Paolini hasn't been to space (at least I don't think he has) yet he gave us a stellar space opera To Sleep In A Sea of Stars.

Authors write characters with all kinds of traits and experiences they themselves doesn't possess, and as a reader, I don't feel the need to examine every book to determine whether or not the author has the lived experience of the main character. It's just not important to me. 

I do care whether the writing is good, the plot engaging and the characters convincing. In this case, Sam Watson felt very real to me and I cared deeply about him as the book progressed.

Re-reading my 2014 review of Jasper Jones, I wrote that "Jasper Jones is a coming-of-age story with a distinct Australian feel" and I can honestly say the same about Honeybee. However, don't be fooled, Honeybee is nothing like Jasper Jones. The two young protagonists in both books are completely different; the only thing uniting them being that Silvey has done a great job of offering the reader another moving coming-of-age story set in WA.

It's been 10 years since the release and subsequent success of Jasper Jones and I really enjoyed listening to the author chat with Cheryl Akle about Honeybee and books on the Better Reading podcast. Silvey is such a terrific Australian talent and yet remains so likeable and humble about his writing success that you can't help but trust him as a reader.

Honeybee by Craig Silvey is highly recommended for YA and adult readers and I look forward to whatever he writes next.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

16 November 2020

Guest Review: Operation Certain Death by Kim Hughes

Operation Certain Death by Kim Hughes book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Kim Hughes GC is a bomb disposal expert in the British Army and received the George Cross for his gallantry during the Afghanistan conflict. Operation Certain Death is his debut novel introducing his protagonist, Staff Sergeant Dominic Riley.

Neil Béchervaise thoroughly enjoyed Operation Certain Death and shares his 5 star review for Carpe Librum readers below.


He thought he left the war behind. But it's come home with him.

A bomb explodes in a newly designed shopping complex in the centre of Nottingham, ripping through the lives of everyone in its wake. Confirmed as a targeted, terrorist attack, special units are quickly brought in to lock down the area.

For bomb-disposal expert, Staff Sergeant Dominic Riley, Afghanistan never feels far away and that’s especially true on the morning of the bombing. Riley isn’t on active duty, but that doesn’t stop him fighting his way to the destruction – which is only just beginning.

What he doesn’t yet know is that this is just the start – that the bomb-maker and those who hired him have bigger plans in place, ones that are designed for maximum destruction. Plans that are personal. For Riley – and his family.

It’s a race against time to work out the link before more people are killed – because Riley is our only hope. And he just might be our last.

Neil's Review

I must admit that I have never really thought about the motives behind terrorism. The mere word seems to have blocked further logical thought. Maybe, then, I am both complicit in its ‘value’ and an uncounted victim of its effectiveness. Either way, Kim Hughes' latest novel has woken me to both the human, ideological and wider political motivations for the seemingly senseless violence that is all too easily media-linked to religious and extreme nationalistic violence.

As a former British bomb-disposal expert, Hughes engages us with the dangers of his career, the personal emotional challenges of living with PTSD and the increasingly broad motives of the terrorist’s world. From seeing his closest friend blown apart to living with that same friend’s voice in his head as an on-going guide and critic or differentiating the motives of international terrorists, Hughes' protagonist lives a tenuous existence within and beyond the margins of the law.

Investigating a bomb explosion in the centre of Nottingham, Staff Sergeant Dominic Riley discovers he is personally targeted. His ex-wife and daughter are endangered, his grandparents, formerly active but still engaged MI5 agents are involved and his former Afghan interpreter is motivation for one of the bombers.

Increasing the pressure, a second thread to the terrorist threat is revealed, Irish extremists are still actively resentful of their post-colonial ‘British masters’ and following an equally familiar thread, an active Russian spy ring is involved.

All of this seems vaguely familiar. The former Russian spies poisoned with radio-active isotopes come to mind. The American paranoia since 9/11 seems relevant. The New Zealand mosque shootings seem much closer than an election away and the ongoing British concerns with Ireland stir up the mud of the Covid epidemic.

Yes, it is familiar but, in Riley’s hands, it starts to seem very up-close and personal. We begin to envision the realities behind the radicalisation of young men and women across the ‘free world’ to the Taliban/Al Qaeda cause. We begin to comprehend the desire for revenge of families who have tragically lost their loved ones to endless ‘wars of terror’. Riley personalises and summarises the stuff of generations of colonial peacemakers, the stuff that Kipling was writing from the Raj, that Churchill was reporting from the Northwest Frontier, that Graham Greene used to bring Vietnam to life a generation before America and Australia found war essential.

The unique point of view presented in Operation Certain Death complicates simplistic media images of terrorist motives. Riley substantiates the roles of personal grief, family care, revenge and retribution within the arc of international political subversion in Britain, and indeed internationally at this very moment. In doing so, he presents a powerful insight into the times we live in, he offers us an amazing immediacy and, for this reader at least, he quietly suggests that maybe it is time to wake up to the cost of oversimplifying violence.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

12 November 2020

Extract from Humans by HONY Photographer Brandon Stanton

Humans by Brandon Stanton book cover
Published by Macmillan
RRP 44.99 AUD
Brandon Stanton is the photographer behind the well known Humans of New York (HONY) series of photographs with accompanying interviews. His popular series has expanded across several countries and I've always found his work incredibly moving. If you haven't had the pleasure yet, check out his website.

Brandon Stanton has a new book out called Humans and I'm pleased to be sharing an extract with you today thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia. Enjoy this edited extract from Humans by Brandon Stanton, published by Macmillan, RRP $44.99 AUD.


Brandon Stanton’s Humans is a book that connects readers as global citizens at a time when erecting more borders is the order of the day. It shows us the entire world, one story at a time . . .

Brandon Stanton’s Humans – his most moving and compelling book to date – shows us the world. After five years of traveling the globe, the creator of Humans of New York brings people from all parts of the world into a conversation with readers. He ignores borders, chronicles lives and shows us the faces of the world as he saw them. His travels took him from London, Paris and Rome to Iraq, Dubai, Ukraine, Pakistan, Jordan, Uganda, Vietnam, Israel and every other place in between. His interviews go deeper than before. His chronicling of peoples’ lives shows the experience of a writer who has traveled widely and thought deeply about the state of our world.

Including hundreds of photos and stories of the people he met and talked with in over forty countries, Humans is classic Brandon Stanton – a fully color illustrated book that includes many photos and stories never seen before. For the first time for a HONY title, Humans will contain several of the essays Brandon’s posted online which have been read, loved and enthusiastically shared by his followers.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

11 November 2020

Review: A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington

A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

With one of the most attractive cover designs of the year, A Girl Made of Air is the debut novel by Nydia Hetherington. 

Beginning as an interview for the New York Times, our narrator slowly begins to share her life story. The reader learns upfront she was the The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived and now finds herself searching for a lost child. (Fun fact: A funambulist is a tightrope walker).

Mouse was born into a circus family but remained an outcast within the unusual circus community. Her mother and father didn't take an interest in her upbringing and Mouse was left to her own devices and withdrew into herself. When Serendipity Wilson came along, Mouse's entire world changed.

This story is told by Mouse in her later years as she reflects on her life and shares details that build towards her search for a person lost in time. In order to piece together her history, Mouse shares her memories, letters and journal entries in an attempt to pull together the story of her life. She also includes stories within stories that were felt like fables, myths and folklore. The style put me in mind of The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings; both read earlier this year.

The narrator gives us the impression of a table covered with snippets that she is crafting into a cohesive story but I found it was too piecemeal for me. I didn't find this method particularly effective and it felt a little disjointed for my liking. It'd be interesting to know if the story was 'carved up' into this style to suit the narrative or whether it was written in this style and the narrative grew up around the content to explain the various 'entries' and insertion of different material.

Adding to the disrupted flow was the lack of dialogue punctuation and the use of italics to indicate when certain characters were speaking. I know this is a popular literary device, however I'm one of those readers who struggles without punctuation for speech.

Given the circus setting, I'm sure comparisons will be made between A Girl Made of Air and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, but I haven't read The Night Circus so it didn't influence my reading experience of this novel in any way; positive or negative.

A Girl Made of Air is an historical fiction fantasy novel touched by magical realism with characters you will remember. The narrator often addresses the reader (or interviewer for whom this text is intended) directly, and I'll leave you with an example from page 318:
'Are you wondering if there's to be a happy ending? I wish I could tell you. We must find the answer together.' Page 318
If you enjoyed The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, I think you'll love this.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

09 November 2020

Review: Sh*t Moments in New Zealand Sport by Rick Furphy & Geoff Rissole

Sh*t Moments in New Zealand Sport by Rick Furphy & Geoff Rissole book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

The Kiwi duo of Rick Furphy and Geoff Rissole are back and this time they're giving readers Sh*t Moments in New Zealand Sport.

Here Furphy and Rissole cover some of the greatest losses and terrible moments in New Zealand sporting history.

My favourite moment of the book was learning that in 1996 the America's Cup was on display in Auckland's Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron when it was damaged by a Maori sovereignty activist. He broke into the building and smashed the display case and hit the trophy so many times with a sledgehammer, it was feared the cup was beyond saving. I rushed off to Wikipedia to learn that it took silversmiths three months to restore the trophy to its original condition. How have I not heard about this? (Page 43)

While that was certainly the highlight of the book, the lowlight came on page 71, when authors explain that:
'The combined New Zealand and Australian Competitive Hill Climbing team travelled to Gallipoli in 1915 in their first international tour...Unfortunately, they copped a rough draw and ended up facing the very formidable Turkish team on home soil. Powered by Anzac biscuits and an unquestioned belief in God, King and Country, the New Zealanders gave it their best shot but ultimately ended up suffering a grievous loss.' Page 71
Now, you don't need to be a Veteran to take offence at this. Just re-reading it again so I could write this review had me wishing I'd set this book aside at this point. War is not a sport and it certainly shouldn't be fodder for jokes as low as this. This was incredibly poor taste and while I recognise Furphy and Rissole are experts at taking the piss, there's nothing even remotely funny about this.

Using the word poof on page 85 was also offensive and I'm surprised these two entries survived the editing process.

It was mildly interesting that New Zealand didn't win any medals at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (Page 96), but by then I didn't care. With cricket and rugby dominating the content and the offensive content above, I was glad to reach the end.

Reflecting that Kiwis hate losing to Australia, I'll leave you with an amusing quote from page 102, the only shining moment of the book:
'Much like a horror-movie villain, Australian sports teams are never dead and buried until the head is decapitated, the body burnt to a cinder and whatever remains is flung into the sun.'
Ultimately, their first book Sh*t Towns of New Zealand (written by Anonymous) remains their best. I'd advise reading that instead and giving this one a miss.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 November 2020

Guest Review: Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham

Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham book cover
Published July 2020
* Copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin *

I'm throwing to guest reviewer Neil Béchervaise to close out the week with his glowing review of Finding Eadie by popular Australian author Caroline Beecham. Over to you Neil.

When misguided morality is amplified by wartime poverty, baby-stealing and illegal adoption become sad realities and bomb-devastated Britain provides a raw emotional setting for Beecham’s latest novel.

Set within the heart of the second world war book-publishing industry, Finding Eadie is a compelling thriller with a fascinating historical basis. The German blitzing of London’s Paternoster Row, home of many of Britain’s major publishers, shortages of paper and the metals required for typesetting have led to major business re-prioritisations. These have been compounded by the movement of skilled workers into the armed forces and American initiatives to maintain the flow of new books by printing soft-cover editions and pocket-sized books for ease of transport.

In 1943, babies and young children are being bought and sold, both legally and illegally across Britain. Many are being shipped to safety overseas and the 1939 Adoption Regulation Act has still not been passed. Newspaper advertisements seeking babies remain common and, despite the efforts of the newly formed National Children’s Adoption Agency, child trafficking and baby-farming remains common.

Waking from sleep after the birth of her new baby, unmarried book editor, Alice Cotton discovers that her deeply religious mother has sold the child for adoption to avoid the shame of admitting the child’s illegitimacy. Finding her baby, quite naturally, becomes Alice’s obsession and, despite her fear of losing both her friends and her job and the very real threat to her own safety, she moves with sleuth-like precision to find Eadie and bring her home.

Weaving the hunger for new titles among the armed forces at war with the need for gripping stories, Caroline Beecham provides a highly credible account of the wartime lust for reading in that pre-television age. At the same time, she explores the discomfort and dangers of travel across the Atlantic, the fragility of relationships as soldiers die in battle and the personal impact of brutalising financial planning as it impacts the publishing industry.

Finding Eadie is a rare delight in our Covid-embattled climate where unemployment, love and even survival are mingled with threatening journeys through largely unfamiliar experiences. At a point when we are still unravelling the complexities of stolen generations, well-meaning ‘adoptions’ and the issues of illegitimacy in religious settings, this novel comes as a sheer delight. 

Intriguing, heart-rending and, ultimately, intensely informative, this story had me reading deep into the night to reach the outcome.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

04 November 2020

Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry book cover
I received this gorgeous copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry for Christmas last year and decided now was the perfect time to read it.

This historical fiction novel begins in London 1893 where we meet recently widowed Cora Seaborne and her son; Cora's companion; and Cora's Doctor friend and his colleague. The narrative soon moves to Essex where Cora meets the local vicar William Ransome and his family in their little community.

The Essex Serpent is a slow moving meandering novel, with the characters orbiting around each other. Cora is searching for fossils and loves being in the outdoors enjoying her newly discovered freedom. It's not long before she learns of the Essex serpent.
"And has Essex yielded any fossils? I saw in the papers some new species was unearthed up on the Norfolk coast after a winter storm: sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth's a graveyard." Page 104
The locals believe the Essex serpent is responsible for a drowning and other mysterious events and an eerie atmosphere is created that has varying impacts on our characters.
"You are a solipsist, Mrs Seaborne - can you really not imagine that I might take a path which differs from yours and be happy walking there?
No, she thought: no, I cannot." Page 166
The story seeps slowly like the creeping tide of the estuary and those looking for a gripping read or a supernatural thriller will be disappointed.

Instead, readers will discover The Essex Serpent is a character study of relationships and contains many themes that play out between the characters: science and religion; medicine and religion; superstition and religion and the big ones of friendship, love and unrequited love.

The friendship between Cora and William is based on a meeting of the minds and was the highlight of the book for me. Late in the book, Perry perfectly captures what it's like to see a close friend after a long absence:
"Both had saved such stores of anecdote and complaint, of tall tale and half-formed theory, that fully an hour passed without pause. Each made an inventory of the other, totting up with pleasure the well-remembered gesture or the phrases used too often, the tendency to withold or exaggerate, the sudden veering-off into fresh pastures which the other followed at a run." Page 345
The Essex Serpent is a quiet character driven book that reminded me a little of the characters in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and those in Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders. So if you enjoyed either of those novels, I believe you'll enjoy The Essex Serpent too.

All in all, this was a slow paced character study with some moments of great writing and one of the most beautiful cover designs of 2016. Reading it several years after the hype has settled, I wanted more story so this was just a good read for me.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating: