30 December 2021

In 2021...My Life In Books

In 2021...My Life in Books - image by Shelleyrae Book'd Out

Celebrating my life in books was so much fun last year I decided to do it again in 2021 thanks to Shelleyrae from Book'd Out.

The idea is to complete each of the prompts below by selecting a book you've read during 2021.

2021 was the year of: The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird
In 2021 I wanted (to be have): The World at My Feet by Catherine Isaac
In 2021 I was: A Voice in the Night by Sarah Hawthorn
In 2021 I gained: Silence by John Biguenet
In 2021 I lost: The Lost Girls by Jennifer Spence
In 2021 I loved: Christmas in Suburbia by Warren Kirk
In 2021 I hated: Dust by Michael Marder
In 2021 I learned: How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain by Ruth Goodman
In 2021 I was surprised by: Gory Details by Erika Engelhaupt
In 2021 I went to: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
In 2021 I missed out on: The World of PostSecret by Frank Warren
In 2021 my family were: Elsewhere by Dean Koontz
In 2022 I hope: Everything is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray

If you'd like to do this challenge, please consider yourself tagged. Feel free to leave your answers below or come back and provide a link to your post so I can check out your 2021 in books.

27 December 2021

Review: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

A book set in an independent bookshop in Minneapolis, with a ghost? Sign me up!! Louise Erdrich is a native American author and Pulitzer Prize winner and The Sentence is my first time reading any of her work.

All Souls' Day is a day for commemorating and honouring the dead, and The Sentence begins on All Souls' Day in 2019 and takes us through a year of bookshop employee Tookie's life, ending on All Souls' Day in 2020. Tookie is a likeable native American character although her backstory didn't seem (to me) to chime with the direction of the story. Here's a sample of her voice though:
"I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered." Pages 251-252
The reader accompanies Tookie as she navigates this troublesome year, but there's no real sense of an overarching purpose to what we're reading. The issues are up to the minute current, however the 'year in the life' seemed to be the only unifying story arc.

Having said that, there are many quotable moments in The Sentence and there's much here for book lovers to get excited about. Daily tasks in the bookshop, interesting and compelling customers, reading references we can all relate to (many of us have our own 'hard stack' and 'easy stack' of books waiting to be read), book lists (catnip for readers) and the overall power of books and stories for people navigating the Black Lives Matter movement or enduring isolation and lockdowns in the midst of a pandemic.

I loved Tookie's description of one of her customers she refers to as Dissatisfaction:
"By way of the fact he was impossible to please, Dissatisfaction was one of my favourite customers. He was always in a hurry and wanted me to drop everything. He is one of the cursed, a Tantalus, whose literary hunger perpetually gnaws but can never be satiated. He has read everything at least once. As he began reading capaciously at the age of six, he is now running out of fiction. I love the challenge of selling books to him and tried first, as usual, to interest him in history, politics, biography. I knew he would not accept anything but fiction, but this was a chance for him to vent anxiety over what he might read next. He snarled and swatted aside my factual offerings." Pages 97-98
Despite these gems, overall, I guess I felt disconnected from this free form narrative. I generally prefer more structure to my plots than 'here's what Tookie experienced in a crazy year we've all recently experienced from a thousand different perspectives'. Naturally Tookie's perspective is different from my own, but perhaps I just couldn't engage with Tookie on the deep level many other readers seemed to have reached while reading The Sentence.

I really think books like The Sentence will improve with age and distance from the events it covers. Readers in 20-30 years who don't have a living memory of the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the beginning of the pandemic will be reading with interest, while I read in recognition.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

20 December 2021

Review: Never by Ken Follett

Never by Ken Follett book cover

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

Carpe Librum readers will know I'm a fan of Ken Follett's historical fiction Kingsbridge series which began with The Pillars of the Earth, but the author has also written many successful thrillers across his illustrious writing career. Never is his first contemporary novel in over a decade though, so naturally I was keen to check it out.

Never by Ken Follett is a political thriller about the beginning of World War III and a whopper of a book coming in at 815 pages. In a complex plot that doesn't blame any one country for the escalations, the narrative is populated by various characters located around the world. The actions of these characters inform the plot and the tension slowly builds as each person narrates their role in a much bigger series of events. Major powers are involved and the situation realistically begins to snowball out of control.

Never could be called an espionage thriller or a spy thriller, but it also serves as a timely warning that despite a leader's best intentions, international politics is a dangerous game. In typical Follett style, the author had me looking up new-to-me words throughout the novel, (bellicosity on page 5 and vituperation on page 145)* but not so often as to spoil the rhythm of the book.

I'm not a huge fan of political thrillers, but I always enjoy Ken Follett's deeply layered storytelling and detailed character arcs and put my complete trust in him from page one. Fortunately I was rewarded by the close of this expertly researched - yet very long book - with a surprisingly enjoyable ending. Highly recommended.

* Bellicosity is an inclination to fight or quarrel, a warlike or hostile manner or temperament. Vituperation is verbal abuse or language that is full of hate, or angry criticism.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

19 December 2021

Guest Review: Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

Spacecraft by Timothy Morton book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *


It happens to the best of us.... we pick up a book with the hope of being transported, yet it completely fails to take off. We're coming to the end of my series of Object Lessons reviews thanks to Bloomsbury Australia, and in this installation, guest reviewer Neil BĂ©chervaise shares his reading experience of Spacecraft by Timothy Morton.

Neil's Review

For those who have enjoyed the complexities of Edmund Husserl’s early twentieth century Phenomenology and Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction from a half-century later; for those who delighted in the antics of The Muppets and then in Star Wars, Star Trek, et al, Morton’s near-encounters with spacecraft may be an inimitable intellectual challenge. Those, on the other hand, who entered the pages of Spacecraft expecting to be informed and engaged may be rather disappointed.

Morton’s passion for the philosophical underpinnings of space science fiction allows him to wander at warp speed from Han Solo and Chewbacca to Princess Leia, Kermit and Miss Piggy; from a depthy deconstruction of the infinity contained within Dr Who’s most definitely finite TARDIS to the garbage which is the Millennium Falcon.

Considerably more excited by the potential for the space through which spacecraft might travel or, borrowing from Einstein’s relativity theories in which space might travel past the spacecraft, Morton’s exploration manages to introduce the sexual implications of an object being drawn into a largely incomprehensible body. Touching on the nipples of the spacecraft, the gunnery turrets and the control centres, Spacecraft explores political imperatives - fascism, Marxism, imperialism – as he draws on Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Beckett’s Endgame to illustrate the philosophical machinations of his apparent heroes, the authors and their on-screen characters.

Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft added little to my understanding of spacecraft as I thought I understood them. Instead, it offered a complex polemic that will be quite familiar to disciples of Derrida, Foucault and Irigaray in which the intension of the author may always present a challenge for the reader.

Spacecraft will probably appeal to those who have sought to make sense of that complexity which is space by studying the film and television depictions of a world from which all boundaries have been removed, all identifiable positions contested and all relativities absorbed into a commercial singularity most easily understood from the viewpoint of a droid, or maybe a muppet.

As Morton observes in his closing fusillade:
“It’s something to think about now that we are literally ‘after the end of the world,’ [because] “America never was a country, never did achieve escape velocity from slavery and property.” Page 111
As one reviewer has observed, Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft takes the best part of a whole day to read – but it is not until the end that the political angst is fully revealed. And by that time, the spacecraft has departed – or maybe it has been left behind, garbage, until it is reclaimed for another purpose, perhaps.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

15 December 2021

Australian Women Writer's Challenge 2021 Wrap Up and Wind Down

I've been participating in the Australian Women Writer's Challenge since 2014, however this year it was announced that the challenge is wrapping up permanently. From 2022 onwards, the focus will shift to lesser-known Australian women writers of the 19th and 20th Century which is largely outside my reading choices but I wish everyone well in their reading adventures.

Needless to say I'll greatly miss striving to meet my challenge requirements every year and engaging with all of the lovely reviews and reviewers participating in the challenge each month. Fortunately the Facebook group will continue to celebrate the works of contemporary Australian women, so I'll try to engage more regularly over there.

I'd like to thank the many volunteers across the years who gave freely of their time to host, edit and wrap up the various categories of the challenge for eager readers and participants like me who greatly enjoyed the regular content hitting their inbox. A special thanks to Theresa Smith who has become a friend to me over that time and whose dedication to AWW I have admired.

In 2021, I was attempting the Franklin level of the 2021 Australian Women Writer's Challenge and needed to read 10 books and review at least 6 of them in order to complete the challenge. I'm pleased to say I successfully completed the final year of the challenge (phew!) and here's what I read: 
Australian Women Writer's Challenge 2021 logo

9. The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird
10. The Lost Girls by Jennifer Spence

Additional books read for the challenge:
11. Nineteen Days by Kath Engebretson
15. Modern Slow Cooker by Alyce Alexandra

Last year I read 21 books for the challenge, so this number is a little down on previous years. Time permitting, I'd like to try and read The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams and Adrift in Melbourne by Robyn Annear by the end of the year, but we'll see how I go.

Carpe Librum!

14 December 2021

Review: Hunger - A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger - A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay book cover

Does it make sense to follow the review of a recipe book with a memoir about body image and being overweight? Maybe it does, or maybe it doesn't, but I can promise it was a sheer coincidence that my reading choices overlapped in this way.

In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, author Roxane Gay reflects on the struggles she has with her weight, stemming from a vicious sexual assault at a young age. The author shares intimate details about her mental and physical health, fat phobia and the daily hassles and humiliations she endures due to her size.
"This is no way to live, but this is how I live." End of Chapter 59
As a reader in Australia who struggles with their weight, I was hoping to gain some insight or new angle on weight gain and body image from a bestselling author, professor and social commentator. However, Roxane Gay's experiences as a tall (1.91m), bisexual American woman of Haitian descent are nothing at all like mine. I realised half way through that I had entered into this memoir with a fixed agenda instead of the intention to learn about another person's battles and demons.
"The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes." Chapter 62
Roxane Gay is raw and unapologetic in an endearing way and bares her soul in this memoir. Her struggles with confidence and self worth were well written yet hard to read and as a society, there is much we should be ashamed about. After finishing Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, it's clear we have a long way to go in learning how to treat one another.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

08 December 2021

Review: Modern Slow Cooker by Alyce Alexandra

Modern Slow Cooker - 85 Vegetarian & Vegan Recipes to Make Your Life Easy by Alyce Alexandra book cover

I love my slow cooker, and when looking for some inspiring new recipes, discovered Modern Slow Cooker - 85 Vegetarian & Vegan Recipes to Make Your Life Easy by Australian bestselling author - who has her own line of kitchen accessories - Alyce Alexandra. I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian but 85 slow cooker recipes that make my life easy? Yes please, I'm salivating already!

The first recipe I tried from this collection was the Harissa-Spiced Creamy Carrot Soup from page 53. I love soup, and prior to reading this book, I hadn't tasted or even heard about harissa paste. Alyce Alexandra explains that it's:
"... a concentrated fiery concoction made from blended peppers, oil and spices. While it is traditionally used in North African and Middle Eastern cooking, [the author] finds a small amount does great things for almost any cuisine." Page 34
I followed the recipe precisely, but the flavour was a little intense for my untrained palate and I'd be using far less next time. I'm not a good cook, but the carrot soup was tasty and lovely with crusty bread.

There was great variety in the recipes on offer and next up I'm going to try a sweet recipe. If it works, I'll be sharing it with the family at Christmas time. No spoilers though 😉 

What's your favourite slow cooker recipe? For another slow cooker recipe book by an Australian author, check out my review of The Easiest Slow Cooker Book Ever by Kim McCosker.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 December 2021

Review: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Jake is a creative writing teacher suffering from self doubt and writer's block following the enormous success of his debut novel. When one of his students has a killer idea for a book, Jake is jealous and waits for the inevitable sensation when the student's bestseller hits the shelves. Years later, Jake learns his student died unexpectedly before finishing his novel (not a spoiler, it's in the blurb) and he faces a moral dilemma.

What follows from there forms the basis of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz and it's an exciting thriller for writers, published authors, aspiring authors, librarians, booksellers, storytellers, readers, bibliophiles and creative types.
"Stories, of course, are common as dirt. Everyone has one, if not an infinity of them, and they surround us at all times whether we acknowledge them or not. Stories are the wells we dip into to be reminded of who we are, and the ways we reassure ourselves that, however obscure we may appear to others, we are actually important, even crucial, to the ongoing drama of survival: personal, societal, and even as a species." Page 61
Interspersed amongst the goings on are excerpts of Jake's bestselling book, offering us a neat view into his dilemma and eventually the origin of the trouble that eventually follows. Because of course there's going to be trouble.

The Plot will definitely appeal to readers and I enjoyed seeing the many authors mentioned throughout the book. The list of shamed writers on page 76 was a highlight:
"Then he would be relegated to the circle of shamed writers forever and without hope of appeal: James Frey, Stephen Glass, Clifford Irving, Greg Mortenson, Jerzy Kosinski..." Page 76
Of course, then I had to stop reading so I could go and find out the juicy details of the literary scandals attached to the authors mentioned, only being familiar with James Frey.

The Plot is an exploration of the role writers have in telling a story, the duty and responsibility of authors to tell a story well lest the spark of inspiration drift away to alight on the pen or keyboard of a more disciplined and deserving writer.

It's clear to me that the author Jean Hanff Korelitz has given a lot of consideration to the nature and creativity of the writing process, the elusive source of inspiration and the troubling loss of it and the moral dilemmas and complexities of plagiarism and theft.

An entertaining read for booklovers, highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

29 November 2021

Review: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is my fourth outing with David Sedaris this year, and like the others, I listened to the audiobook of this collection of autobiographical essays. Published back in 2004, the author is a lot less likeable in this collection as he chooses to share many unflattering aspects of his life and personality. These clashed with the picture I was building of him in my mind and his choice to take drugs and bludge off his parents made me cringe. While of course I respected and appreciated his candour, I found myself longing to get back to his clever recollections and personal revelations.

David Sedaris' storytelling qualities are all here and his family dynamics are mined for material, but Sedaris seems to be tempting the reader to disapprove of his behaviour.

I enjoyed his observational wit and droll sense of humour, but I didn't find this collection as strong as his others, so this is where I'm going to leave David Sedaris for now.

The author's latest book A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003–2020) was published last month, however I think I'm going to let his previous works 'settle' a while before considering whether or not to continue exploring his material. Have you read A Carnival of Snackery? What did you think?

For more, you can check out my reviews of Calypso, Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

24 November 2021

Guest Review: Echoes of War by Tania Blanchard

Echoes of War by Tania Blanchard book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *


Guest reviewer Neil BĂ©chervaise is back to share his review of Echoes of War by Australian author Tania Blanchard.

Neil's Review

Having focused her earlier novels on events deriving from her father’s German family (see review of Letters from Berlin), Blanchard’s latest work introduces her mother’s Italian heritage.

Pre-WWII Calabria is a complex rural setting; a farming community sitting on the edge of a tectonic plate at the toe of Italy, it is severely affected by earthquakes and tsunamis. Its politics are confused between the demands of the local mafia and those of corrupt government officials. More immediately, conflicted memories of WWI and the rising influence of Mussolini’s fascist ideal of a revived Roman empire have been sparked by Italy’s brutal north-African conquest of Abyssinia in 1935.

Echoes of War is a powerful novel about powerful women; women emerging from the archaic traditions of mindless male domination to challenge their assigned status and strive towards more independent futures. Their paths, need it be said, are not easy. Teenaged Giulia enrages her father by insisting on being allowed to study herbal medicine which, despite its trailing connections with witchcraft, is still widely accepted across their community. Younger sister, Paola has a strong sense of purpose in improving the performance of the family farm while their brother and his two best friends join the army and are quickly disenchanted with the brutality of war.

Prevented from running away to join the Red Cross, Giulia is persuaded to spend time in a convent where, it transpires, she can indulge her passion for learning herbal medicine from a highly respected monk. Returning with strong recommendations of her suitability as a healer, and with the support of her mother, aunt and sister, Giulia once more infuriates her father with what he sees as her wilfulness. In a rage he determines that she will be tamed in an arranged marriage to a widowed fisherman, Massimo. Fortunately, Massimo is both amazingly solicitous and patient. He supports her passion for healing and encourages her practice across the community.

As Mussolini joins with Hitler and the war becomes ever more brutal, a massive earthquake and its ensuing tsunami wipe out the coastal fishing town and wartime conditions further impact the community. When their father is recalled into active service, Paola’s business and farming acumen support the family. Giulia’s friendship with her brother’s friend, Stefano, develops with their shared interest in healing. As Stefano, now with the army medical corps and studying medicine, observes:
“…the potential of combining … the ancient and the modern, the knowledge with the practical. Surely that’s best for the patient.” Page 209
Prior to the introduction of penicillin and in the absence of formal psychological practice, Giulia and Stefano work together, when they can, to provide meaningful medical assistance in both war damaged towns and in the battle zones of both partisan and military forces.

The role of the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, as both a criminal organisation and as an anti-fascist political influence suggests a level of stability for a corruption-dogged society which, otherwise, might develop into a modern democracy. As it is presented, however, Blanchard’s apparently loving and supportive Don is shown to be as much a victim of his inheritance as he is a perpetrator of its continuance. Both a powerful humanitarian force and an increasingly influential criminal, his role remains conflicted and his impact on the community remains ambiguous as the population migrates, to America, to Canada, to Australia.

Blanchard’s latest novel is far more recognisable as a history of family than some of her previous works. Its connections between family, religion, and medicine/healing are both engaging and, at times, challenging. Her connection of the region with its ancient Greek and Byzantine roots provides an interesting insight into Mussolini’s obsession with reclaiming ‘lost empire’. More importantly perhaps, it helps to explain the determination of those who remain to restore the stability they have sought since the region, once called Magna Graecia, was settled in the 8th Century BC.

Echoes of War is a powerful evocation of a time, a place and a cultural vision which provided a significant boost to Australia’s population and its development as a multi-cultural destination of choice for refugees – both voluntary and choiceless. In closing, this novel reminds its readers that almost all of us are ‘boat people’.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

19 November 2021

Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Successful Australian crime writer Sarah Bailey is back with a standalone thriller, The Housemate. Olive Groves is a journalist in Melbourne and worked on the housemate homicide case nine years earlier. Elements of the case remain in question when new evidence comes to light that will shake things up.
"Secrets tend to come out eventually, whether they are forced into the light kicking and screaming, or simply float to the surface. The pulsing momentum of unfinished business can be strong." Page 45
Oli has a few annoying habits (like stubbing out her cigarettes wherever she pleases) but is a compelling character and I enjoyed her relationship with younger colleague Cooper, who is at the forefront of developing a true crime podcast. The dynamic between hardened and experienced Gen Y journalist Oli when paired with enthusiastic millennial Cooper was entertaining, and mirrored the struggle and contrast between traditional media and the rise of the podcast.

Taking place between Melbourne and the Dandenong Ranges, I was caught up in the pressure cooker environment of being the first to break a story or publish a new lead and the consequences for inaccurate copy in this high pressure journalistic setting.

Sarah Bailey is the author of the bestselling Gemma Woodstock trilogy The Dark Lake, Into the Night and Where the Dead Go and I have no hesitation recommending The Housemate for those looking for a way into this author's work and those seeking a break from the standard police procedural.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

17 November 2021

Review: Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies

Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I'm a self-taught PowerPoint user and have been using it for years to create presentations for everything from a new client pitch, product launch, life in review (funeral), community event or family trivia night.

Russell Davies has created PowerPoint presentations for the likes of Nike, Microsoft and Apple and has become the go-to guru for all things PowerPoint. In this book, Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint, Davies shares his tips for creating and delivering an engaging presentation.

This isn't a book for those wanting to learn how to use the program and doesn't contain any specific instructions. Instead, it provides a lot of well-rounded guidance around how to put together an effective presentation. What should you consider when starting work on a presentation? How do you engage your audience and hold their attention?

True to his word, not only is Davies able to present well, he's also highly engaging as a writer as well. In fact, I had to keep stopping to look things up mentioned in the book. Highlights include the PowerPoint slide outlining the situation in Afghanistan that was so confusing, US military General Stanley McChrystal declared "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

I also enjoyed the insight into the preparation process Steve Jobs employed in order to achieve his now famous presentations. Summary? He practised every day for 3 months. In fact, Davies says you should:
"Spend one hour preparing for every minute you'll be presenting." Page 213
As an aside, I loved learning about tricolons (a rhetorical term that consists of a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses) such as the Olympic motto of Faster, Higher, Stronger or the byline for Rice Bubbles Snap, Crackle, Pop. A molossus contains three short words, like: Yes We Can and an epizeuxis is the repetition of words, like location, location, location. Fascinating right?

With quotes from business people and examples from a range of industries, there's something in here for everyone, from small business owners to aspiring leaders, speech makers, executives and office workers around the world.

Delivered with a great sense of humour and a light and breezy approach, Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies is an endlessly interesting and entertaining book and I highly recommend it.

Next slide please!

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

14 November 2021

Review: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris audiobook cover
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris is a witty collection of essays, primarily focusing on the author's time in France. I listened to the audiobook and enjoyed the content focus on speech and language that this collection had to offer.

In one of the essays, Sedaris shares what it was like to have a lisp when he was younger and the experience of speech therapy. Later in life, Sedaris moves to Normandy in France with his partner Hugh, despite not knowing the language. Taking French lessons, Sedaris made me laugh out loud every time he shared his meagre knowledge of French and the reactions from locals.

My absolute favourite quote from the collection came when he called a plumber to come and fix their toilet. In trying to describe the problem, and struggling with the gendered nature of many items in the French language, he says:
"My toilet, she cry much of the time." (Chapter 22)
Sedaris goes on to describe his experience at the dentist and compares the health systems of France and the USA. Much of the content here is chuckle-worthy and entertaining and the satirical humour is again on show.

For more, you can check out my review of Calypso and Naked. In the meantime, I'm already listening to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but suspect I'll be slowing down on my Sedaris streak soon.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

10 November 2021

Review: All Through the Night by Polly Faber & Harriet Hobday

All Through the Night by Polly Faber & Harriet Hobday book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I'm a night owl by nature, and I couldn't resist a picture book for children about those who work the night shift while most people are asleep. All Through the Night - People Who Work While We Sleep is written by Polly Faber and illustrated by Harriet Hobday.

In the beginning of the book, our unnamed narrator is getting ready for bed as she farewells her Mum who is heading off to work.

Each page showcases characters working through the night in a variety of jobs, including: cleaner, security guard, reporter, baker, midwife and more! Our narrator reveals her Mum's job at the end of the book which was a very nice touch.

This is a gorgeously illustrated book with an attractive colour palette that does a great job of conveying the night time setting. The location is an unnamed city, increasing the appeal of the book to young readers. Some of the character names will be difficult for young kids to sound out, but I'm assuming this is in the name of diversity.

All Through the Night by Polly Faber and Harriet Hobday is recommended for children aged 3-5, but I think kids a little older will still enjoy this gem of a book.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

08 November 2021

Review: Christmas in Suburbia by Warren Kirk

Christmas in Suburbia by Warren Kirk book cover
* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

After enjoying the photographs in Northside by Melbourne photographer Warren Kirk, I was excited to see a new collection coming out in November this year. Christmas in Suburbia is a collection of festive photographs taken across Melbourne. As in Northside, Christmas in Suburbia raises feelings of nostalgia and is a unique celebration of urban Melbourne at Christmas time.

In this collection, suburban brick houses are festooned with well worn Christmas decorations slowly fading in the unforgivable heat of a Melbourne summer. The festive cheer of the residents and home owners is clear and I was excited to recognise a few of the Christmas decorations on display.

The appeal of these somewhat average Christmas decoration displays is hard to explain and reminds me of a page on social media dedicated to Shit Brick Fences of Melbourne. There's something endearing in the simplicity and the effort of proud homeowners to beautify their home for themselves and the enjoyment of those passing by. But there's also something riveting about witnessing the ravages of time on a property or a space.

These photographs are presented in this book as a series of postcards and I'm torn about whether I have the heart to pull out the postcards and send them in the mail. Recipients won't be able to appreciate the artwork as a whole and on their own, each individual postcard feels a little sad and satirical. The overall impression of the collection is lost. What would you do? Keep or post?

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

05 November 2021

Review: Devotion by Hannah Kent

Devotion by Hannah Kent book cover
* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia *

Devotion by Australian author Hannah Kent tells the story of a Lutheran family in Prussia who flee religious persecution in the early 1800s and set sail for the colony of South Australia. Our narrator Hanne is a nature lover and different from other girls her age. She's an oddball in her village who doesn't really fit in, until she meets Thea.

Several families from the town leave Prussia together and a large portion of the novel takes place on their hazardous and trying journey by sea to Australia. The writing is sublime and the conditions on board the ship felt so real that I began to feel a little claustrophobic just reading about their cramped living quarters and harsh conditions.

The foreign beauty of the landscape when they arrive in South Australia is powerful and moving, and I enjoyed reading this fictionalised settlement of what we now recognise as Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. The treatment of the original custodians of this land was respectful and well handled and the author provides more information in her Author's Note at the end.

Devotion is a slow moving character study about love and grief and I saw many parallels with Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell. The writing is incredibly evocative and I often had to pause to enjoy the prose on the page. The title of this historical fiction novel is apt, as it's about an individual's right to worship, pray and embrace their own beliefs free from judgement and harm. But it's also about Hanne's devotion to nature, her twin brother and her friend Thea.

I adored Burial Rites and thoroughly enjoyed The Good People, but here in Devotion, Hannah Kent does something a little different. While The Good People contained Gaelic superstitions and folklore, Devotion dips more than a toe into the supernatural realm around halfway through the book. This unexpected shift will be met with surprise by many readers and I suspect some won't enjoy the change in direction. I willingly went with it, however my favourite part of the novel by far was the beginning, prior to the journey to Australia. The daily lives of those in the village of Kay put me in mind of several novels I've enjoyed recently.

Beautifully written, Devotion is about love and yearning, the uncertainty of youth and the hardships of the period. Overall, it was an emotionally heavy book to read, but so intricately lyrical at times I felt as though I was intruding on Hanne's private and inner most thoughts. It also made me wonder whether Kent drew on her own love story in order to create this fictional relationship so convincingly and so heartbreakingly.

Devotion is the third novel by Hannah Kent and this talented Australian writer has now become an 'auto read' author for me, which is rare. Highly recommended for historical fiction readers who have the time and patience to slow down and enjoy a character study about love and devotion.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

27 October 2021

Review: Old Vintage Melbourne by Chris Macheras

Old Vintage Melbourne by Chris Macheras book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Old Vintage Melbourne by Chris Macheras is a stunning collection of historical photographs of Melbourne, spanning from the very earliest photographs from the mid 1880s right through to the mid 1990s. For some readers, Old Vintage Melbourne will be a trip down memory lane, while for others it's the chance to see the city of Melbourne as their parents or grandparents did.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking my time to observe the development of the city and the establishment of the iconic buildings we recognise today. I also enjoyed studying the detail of the various pedestrians in some of the photos and wondering about their lives. Some were completely unaware a photograph was being taken while others brazenly stare at the camera in awe or curiosity. These photographs give us a rare glimpse of everyday life in Melbourne, as in the photograph of 'Bourke Street Pedestrians' c. 1880 by John Henry (Page 39).

This collection is annotated and organised chronologically and I especially loved the 'Then and Now' comparison photos, in which the site of an historical image is photographed again today to allow the viewer to compare the images and notice what has changed during the intervening years. Being able to study photographs of Southbank prior to its significant redevelopment and the eventual establishment of the building where I'm living right now was a real highlight.

I also enjoyed spotting the signage and advertisements painted on the buildings and store fronts through the years, and it reminded me of Nick Gadd's love of ghost signs (see my interview with this Melbourne author here).

Old Vintage Melbourne encourages the reader to reflect on the inevitable passage of time, the remarkable evolution of Melbourne and the marvellous architecture this great city has to offer. On the flip side, it also highlights the tragic loss of some of the most enchanting and attractive buildings in Melbourne all in the name of progress in the 1960s and 1970s. It made my heart ache to see photographs of glorious buildings only to learn they've since been torn down. The Federal Coffee Palace was located at 555 Collins Street and opened in 1888, but this beautifully grand building was tragically torn down in 1973. Another architecturally pleasing building was the Camberwell Post Office, built in 1890 and demolished in 1963. If you know the Witches in Britches building at 84 Dudley Street in West Melbourne, the Camberwell PO had 10 times the gothic charm and its loss is a tragedy.

Seeing Flinders Street Station decked out for the royal visit of Queen Elizabeth II in February 1954 was impressive, and it must have been a sight to behold with the banners and the upper dome decorated to resemble a crown. Wow! 

Impeccably produced, Old Vintage Melbourne by Chris Macheras is presented in a large hardback format enabling a better view of the photographs within. I enjoyed my time within its pages immensely and finished reading with a renewed respect and appreciation for Melbourne's heritage. 

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

24 October 2021

Review: Naked by David Sedaris

Naked by David Sedaris audiobook cover
Fresh on the heels of listening to Calypso by David Sedaris, I went back in time to a collection of his essays published in 1997 entitled Naked. This is a very short audiobook coming in at just over 3 hours and I got through it quite quickly.

Sedaris' caustic humour is back, as are the family interactions and dynamics. David Sedaris' sister Amy was involved in recording the audiobook and acts out some of the dialogue mentioned in the stories. I imagine this would have been a terrific collaboration between the two siblings (Amy is an actor) however the volume of her contributions were way too loud and jarringly contrasted with her brother's smooth delivery. As a consequence, I found myself regularly adjusting the volume and being taken out of the stories each time she spoke.

The title essay (Naked) is a story about the author's weekend stay at a nudist colony and was very enjoyable. I'm still enjoying Sedaris' sardonic take on the world and am listening to Me Talk Pretty One Day next.

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22 October 2021

Review: Noni the Pony Counts to a Million by Alison Lester

Noni the Pony Counts to a Million by Alison Lester book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

It's an absolute pleasure to review a Noni the Pony book here on Carpe Librum. Author Alison Lester lives in South Gippsland in regional Victoria and her picture books for kids are in every bookshop, library, school, child care and day care centre in Australia. I look forward to reading this with my niece and nephew just as soon as we can travel freely out of Melbourne Metro.

In Noni the Pony Counts to a Million by Alison Lester, Noni travels around the district with her friends, counting the number of animals, insects, fish, cars and more as they go.

This is a celebration of Australian flora and fauna and the glorious illustrations work well to highlight the delightful rhyming story.

Noni the Pony Counts to a Million by Alison Lester is bound to become another treasured Australian children's classic. Highly recommended for all ages.

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21 October 2021

Review: How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck? by William Poundstone

How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck? by William Poundstone book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *

I have a background in HR and still offer interview coaching services, so when I saw Bloomsbury were publishing a book about interview questions, I requested a review copy right away. How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck? And Other Perplexing Puzzles from the Toughest Interviews in the World by William Poundstone offers a comprehensive look at the evolution of the interview, including: psychometric testing, behavioural interview questions, work sampling, personality testing, video and group interviews.

Employers always strive to employ interview techniques that are most predictive of job performance by a potential candidate, and many of the logic puzzles and brain teasers posed by companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google are an attempt to gain insight into the problem-solving abilities and creative thinking styles demonstrated by job seekers.

The author then goes on to present a whole heap of interview questions used by some well known US companies, as well as providing a working knowledge of the answers and a solid explanation of how a candidate should go about answering these types of questions.
"A hammer and a nail cost $1.10, and the hammer costs one dollar more than the nail. How much does the nail cost?" Page 111*
At times, reading How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck? by William Poundstone was akin to reading a maths or statistics text book, and I expect it will be most useful to the dedicated job seeker looking for some insight and keen to prepare for any eventuality. Those readers would do well to check out another book I read on the topic this year, #EntryLevelBoss: a 9-step guide for finding a job you like (and actually getting hired to do it) by Alexa Shoen.
"For what it's worth, a 2013 study by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano reported that reading literary fiction improved performance on an emotional intelligence test that included recognition of facial expressions. It's possible that reading about richly realized fictional characters primes readers to be more attuned to clues about other people's emotions." Page 107
Book lovers already know that reading every day builds vocabulary, improves comprehension, enhances brain connectivity and emotional intelligence, but it's always nice to see this recognised in other areas of science and study. From what I can tell, How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck? seems to be an up to date account of the job seeker's experience in America informed by the accounts of job seekers who have applied for roles with these top tier organisations.

I suspect that here in Australia, we are yet to encounter these interview puzzlers on a regular basis, but if the US job market has taught us anything with the increasing popularity of recorded job interview videos, this will soon follow. How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck? is a good read and I enjoyed putting some of these questions to my husband.

*Feel free to send me your answer and I'll let you know if you were right or not!

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

17 October 2021

Review: Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia *

Having thoroughly enjoyed Never Have I Ever last year, I thought I'd give Joshilyn Jackson's newest domestic thriller Mother May I a try. When the novel opens, Bree is happily married to a lawyer, they have three kids and a nice house. Life is great, until her infant baby boy is kidnapped.

There have been many thrillers of a similar nature released in the last few years, all posing the same question for the reader, 'how far would you go to protect your family?' I received Mother May I unsolicited from the publisher, but based on the strength of my own 5 star review for Never Have I Ever, I thought there's every chance this could be one of the best of the sub-genre.

I liked our protagonist Bree, and thankfully she didn't make any stupid or groan inducing mistakes when the kidnapper, an old woman who looks like a witch, gets in touch to tell Bree how she can get her son back.

Themes of motherhood, guilt and revenge dominate this book, and I enjoyed this character insight from well into the book.
"The mind revises... As time passed, events became mutable. People justified their actions, and the more shame they felt about a memory, the more they chewed it over, fretting and defending and editing, until they could live with it." Page 227
I think that's very true, and perhaps if I was a parent myself I would have found Bree's predicament more frightening. Mother May I was an enjoyable read, but nowhere near as gripping and engaging as Never Have I Ever, which was a clear standout for me last year. Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson is recommended reading for those who enjoy domestic noir and domestic thrillers.

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11 October 2021

Review: Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso by David Sedaris audiobook cover
I'm new to David Sedaris and despite being well aware of his many books and essay collections, this is the first time I've dipped a toe into his literary ouevre, and let me tell you, this guy makes me laugh! Calypso is a collection of essays published in June 2018 and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him narrate the audiobook.

Sedaris is a humourist (which I've learned is different to a comedian) and he shares his observational humour and revelations of varying degrees of importance about a range of topics, but largely including his family, upbringing with five siblings, ageing of his parents (and himself), and comments on society.

I loved the quirky family jokes and insights and each essay is delivered in an intelligent, yet self deprecating and insightful way that often made me laugh out loud or chuckle to myself. His wry sense of humour certainly isn't for everyone, and I was only too aware of Sedaris' white privilege shining through in many of his stories. That said, Sedaris seems to be extremely self aware in a way that made it easy for me to let this go and just enjoy the ride. Besides, who can hate on a guy for his white male privilege when his hobby is picking up litter by the side of the road.

There were many moments I stopped to repeat a phrase or enjoy a sentence again, like this one from half way through the book.
"There was never any problem making conversation with my mother. That was effortless. The topics springing from nowhere, and we'd move from one to the next in a way that made me think of a monkey gracefully swinging through the branches of a tree." Chapter 11, 3 hours and 20 minutes remaining
Employing a droll sense of humour and acerbic wit, Sedaris successfully maintains the balance between serious topics, like the death of his sister by suicide, to lighter moments like toilet troubles or the engagements he has with readers in the signing line of his shows. (I'd love to see him perform live if he comes back to Melbourne).

I enjoyed Calypso by David Sedaris so much that I've decided to go back to some of his earlier work and continue listening. Have you read any David Sedaris, seen him on talk shows or even perform live? Do you enjoy his sense of humour? If so, I'd love to hear about it. In the meantime, I recommend his work with caution. I don't know if I'd have enjoyed Calypso quite so much if I'd read his work instead of listening to it, and his humour is an acquired taste. But I can't get enough, so take from that what you will.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

06 October 2021

Review: The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous

The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous book cover
I loved reading The Au Pair by Emma Rous in 2019, and I was really excited to read The Perfect Guests this year, hoping for more buried family secrets, plot twists and flawed characters.

In 2019, Sadie is a struggling actress and receives an invitation to play a role at a murder mystery event at Raven Hall. In 1988, Beth is a 14 year old orphan sent by her aunt to Raven Hall to be a companion to a girl the same age, Nina.

The dual narrative in The Perfect Guests keeps the story flowing although I preferred Sadie's coming-of-age timeline at Raven Hall and the sinister undertones in the complex relationships between the characters.

I was worried the murder mystery setting might have been to cliche for my liking, but it totally worked and was the perfect platform for the 'reveals' at the end. I didn't guess at any of the character connection reveals or twists, and they were cleverly written and satisfying to uncover.

Just as in The Au Pair though, the cover design for The Perfect Guests wasn't representative of the novel for me. It's a scene from the book, however the UK cover design totally nails the atmosphere and setting and I wish this had been the cover chosen for the Australian market.

Raven Hall almost feels like a separate character, and once again, the author was able to bring the manor house and grounds to life in the way Stacey Halls does in Mrs England, and other authors like Laura Purcell and Kate Morton do that keep me coming back for more.

The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I can highly recommend it.

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My Rating:

28 September 2021

Review: As Swallows Fly by L.P. McMahon

* Copy courtesy of Ventura Press *
As Swallows Fly by L.P. McMahon book cover

In As Swallows Fly by L.P. McMahon, Kate is a plastic surgeon living in Melbourne and Malika is an orphan from a remote village in Pakistan. Their lives unexpectedly converge thanks to the well meaning intentions of an uncle and priest and each of the women seem to directly - and sometimes indirectly - help one another with their struggles.

Malika's childhood upbringing in rural Pakistan was tough, yet full of love and her joy of learning and mathematics was a pleasure to read about. I learned that the author volunteered as a medic in Pakistan and his experience definitely shines through in his writing.

Malika struggles with a facial disfigurement after an horrific assault and insists on keeping her face concealed by wearing a veil and hijab. Arguably one of the most moving scenes in the entire book should have been the moment Malika reveals her face to Dr Kate for the first time. I was eagerly anticipating this moment, but the conversation between the characters is held 'off stage' so to speak. In my opinion the author missed an opportunity for these characters to experience a powerful scene and without it, I felt bereft.

Meanwhile, Kate is hardworking and overworked and she's constantly running late for things which really irked me. I know the author needed to demonstrate the demanding nature of Kate's job and how 'busy busy' she is, but it just made me roll my eyes.

I was enjoying the growing trust between Kate and Malika, but by the close of the book there were too many unanswered questions for my liking. There were unresolved character arcs and a glaring oversight right at the end. (Find me on GoodReads for more on this where I was able to hide my questions via a spoiler warning).

As Swallows Fly is the debut novel for Melbourne surgeon L.P. McMahon and will be an enjoyable contemporary read for those who don't mind an ambiguous or unresolved ending.

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23 September 2021

Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab book cover
I loved this book! Adeline LaRue is born in France in 1691, and at the age of 23, her family have decided to marry her off to a widower with three children. Adeline refuses to be 'gifted like a prize sow to a man she does not love, or want, or even know'. In sheer desperation to avoid this fate, she prays with every fibre of her being. A spirit of the woods eventually answers and Addie explains she wants to be free and doesn't want to belong to anyone. In making a deal, her soul is cursed.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is a character driven story about how our main character comes to terms with her curse and the way in which she learns to navigate life now that she is forgettable. Addie is invisible, unable to leave a mark on the world or even say her own name. The unexpected ache of losing her family and everyone she's ever known is tough. Addie is completely and utterly alone and must find a way to survive.

Addie struggles and learns innovative ways in which to get by as she experiences life through the years, decades, and eventually the centuries and I loved it. It also reminded me a little of The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. Through the series, Rice imagines what it's like to outlive everyone else, never age and yet witness so much change in the world over time. The elements I love from that series (relationships, the changing culture over time and the evolution of art, architecture, travel and technology) are evident here, yet in Schwab's own style.

Full of evocative writing and passages that made me pause and reflect, this was my first time reading anything by V.E. Schwab, but it certainly won't be the last. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue manages to straddle the genres of historical fiction and fantasy (owing to the curse) and I just loved the writing style. It's clear the author loves books and stories too, here's a quote from Addie early on in the novel:
"What she needs are stories. Stories are a way to preserve one's self. To be remembered. And to forget. Stories come in so many forms: in charcoal, and in song, in paintings, poems, films. And books. Books she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives - or to find strength in a very long one." Page 31
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is a slow burn character study that makes you reflect on the past, the present and the future and ponder what really matters in the world. The book also made me wonder 'what if' and is a serious contender for my Top 5 Books of 2021 list. The ending was powerful and had me cheering for Addie and I can't wait to read more from this talented writer.

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My Rating:

18 September 2021

Review: How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain by Ruth Goodman

How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain by Ruth Goodman audiobook cover
I managed to leave the frustrations of Melbourne lockdown behind me while visiting Renaissance Britain with one of my favourite historians Ruth Goodman this month. In How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain, Ruth Goodman covers the many ways in which a person could offend, upset, aggravate and disrespect others in Renaissance Britain, which includes the Stuart and Tudor period. Interestingly, the book has been published under a different title in America, How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts.

The book draws on a range of reference materials, including court records, letters, books, pamphlets and more, and Goodman describes the etiquette and manners of the times, and the way in which those who deviated from what was deemed acceptable or expected behaviour were rude, crass and unpleasant company.

Your dress and bearing immediately indicated your class and social standing, with everyone expected to respect their 'betters'. I continue to be fascinated by the changing fashions and the way in which garments and trends often altered a person's bearing, from the way they held themselves to the way they walked or entered a room. I especially enjoyed the chapter on bowing and curtseying but dearly wished for accompanying images or video footage to demonstrate the movements being described.

The insults were cutting and occasionally amusing, especially the author's favourite "turd in your teeth". Goodman provides interesting insights into the changing meaning of descriptions like knave and swashbuckler and I enjoyed other words from the period including: wastrel, fool, strumpet, drunkard and stinkard.

Chapter 5 covered Disgusting Habits and not much has changed over the centuries when it comes to personal hygiene and revolting habits. Slurping or eating with your mouth open was just as gross then as it is now, and I enjoyed this quote shared by Goodman:
"Sup not loud of thy pottage no time in all thy life.” Boke of Nurture by Hugh Rhodes (Published in 1577)
Having enjoyed watching Ruth Goodman in Tudor Monastery Farm, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm and Full Steam Ahead, I opted to listen to the audiobook after learning it was narrated by the author herself. Goodman's style and sense of humour flows through the book, however, I noticed that when she's quoting a reference, her voice is louder (and almost shouty) before resuming the regular volume again. At other times, she speaks more softly to emphasise a point, and as a result, I had to continually adjust the volume which greatly impacted my level of enjoyment.

I love learning new things about daily life in different eras, and in How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain, it was the importance of shirt tails. How did I not know that the long tails of shirts once acted as a barrier between the body and the trousers, essentially performing the role of underwear (or drawers) for men. Men's shirts reached down to just above the knees with a slit at both sides, so they could be tucked around one's nether regions without impeding movement. As a result, to see a man with his shirt tails hanging out was 'disgusting' and now I understand why!

I enjoyed reading How To Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by Ruth Goodman back in January 2018 and How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain by Ruth Goodman is recommended for those with an interest in social history, etiquette and manners.

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