31 March 2021

Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn is the story of a group of women who volunteered to serve in the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) or WAS(B) in 1945. Known to the troops as the Wasbies, these hard-working women ran mobile canteens for the 14th Army in the Burma campaign during WWII and operated in the same tough conditions in dense jungle as the allied forces.

Beatrix was one of the Wasbies and many decades later in 1999, she is forced to reflect on her experiences when she has to sell her beloved Japanese fox-girl netsuke to fund the repairs to her crumbling estate. A netsuke is a small hand-carved sculpture worn with a kimono and acted as a toggle to suspend personal items in lieu of pockets.

Olivia is a young intern to a renowned art dealer and is instructed to meet Beatrix and establish whether she truly does have the infamous netsuke known as the fox-girl. This and several other Japanese netsuke were stolen from an exhibition in Oxford in 1976, so does Beatrix really have it? If so, how did she acquire it? Where has it been all of these years?

Unfolding in dual timelines in 1999 and 1945, the mystery of the netsuke drives the narrative forward and I'd have loved the title to reflect this. More than that though, The Last Reunion is a story of the bonds of friendship, mateship, love and loss and of course trauma.

The growing friendship between Olivia and Beatrix was a real pleasure to read and Kayte Nunn conveys some of the horrors of the Burma campaign and the conditions of war without giving the reader nightmares. I have enjoyed other historical fiction novels from this author, including The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant and The Silk House and I knew I was in safe hands here.

I know there has been a plethora of new releases set in WWII lately, but The Last Reunion is highly recommended for fans of historical fiction who are interested in character development more than the politics or strategies of war.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

26 March 2021

Review: The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Catherine Ryan Howard was inspired to write The Nothing Man after reading the bestselling true crime book entitled I'll Be Gone In the Dark by the late Michelle McNamara. Having read that book last year, the inspiration is clear and the 'nothing man' bears a striking resemblance to former Police Officer Joseph James DeAngelo.

Having said that, Howard definitely holds her own. I was hooked by the very first page of this crime thriller, and her writing had me looking forward to the book each night and tearing through the pages.

Eve Black survived the 'nothing man' when at just 12 years of age, he entered their house and murdered her parents and younger sister. Having survived by hiding, Eve is whisked away after the murders to escape the public interest and changes her name. 

Eve is now an adult still coming to terms with her past and when she submits an essay for a writing course, it quickly turns into a true crime account of her survival and the crimes attributed to the nothing man. Jim Doyle is a supermarket security guard and we learn immediately that he's the subject of Eve's book. He's the 'nothing man' and he's livid about the book.

The writing was compelling and the combination of Eve Black's 'true crime' memoir (inspired by a real case) interspersed with Eve's point of view as well as Jim's made for a gripping read. The chapter transitions left me hanging and the 'book within a book' format was executed perfectly.

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard is a gripping thriller with a genuine surprise towards the back half of the book that I definitely did NOT see coming. Highly recommended for fans of crime, true crime and thrillers.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

22 March 2021

Review: Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles

Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles book cover
I've always been interested in the origin of colours and pigments and I'm still fascinated by the topic, nine years after reading and reviewing Color - A Natural History of the Palette by author Victoria Finlay back in 2012. Here in Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour, Australian paint maker David Coles invites us into his world of colour and paint making.

Living in Melbourne, David is the owner of Australia's leading paint making company and Langridge paints are sold all around the world.

His choice to divide the book into the following chapters was inspired: The First Colours; Colour in the Time of the Ancients; Colour + The Classical World; Medieval Colours, Writing Inks; Dyes, Lakes + Pinkes; Mysterious Colours; The Explosion of Colours; A Brave New World of Colour and The Science of Modern Colour. Separating the colours by time and type was very helpful to this reader and the opposite approach to Victoria Finlay who divided her book by colour. 

In Chromatopia, I was re-introduced to known favourites like cochineal, which requires 14,000 insects to produce just 100 grams of carmine lake pigment. However I went on to learn that cochineal production was one of the best-kept trade secrets of all time and became the third-greatest product from the New World, after gold and silver. Surprisingly, cochineal is making a comeback in cosmetics and food production given the increasing concern over artificial food additives. In this case what's old is new again.

I was interested to discover the process involved in making peach black was important in WWI when activated charcoal from peach stones was used inside gas masks to protect soldiers from deadly chlorine gas attacks. According to Coles: "The Red Cross organised the collection of millions of peach stones that were turned into charcoal, and consequently saved countless lives." Page 67

I enjoyed reading about the production of gall ink and the trivia fact that it's still used in the UK for all official certificates of birth, marriage and death was interesting. I shook my head when reading the section on mummy brown and struggled to understand how it ever became a 'thing'. Who came up with that idea? Honestly!

Another favourite, Tyrian purple was made from sea snails more than 3,000 years ago, with one snail yielding just one drop of dye. With 250,000 snails required to make just one ounce of dye, Tyrian purple was so expensive, that eventually it was only allowed to be worn by the Emperor of Rome.

If you've ever watched an episode of artist Bob Ross in action you'll know he loved his titanium white, but I didn't know 'it is the most widely used pigment of all time." Page 145

One of my favourite colours is the poisonous and deadly emerald green which contains arsenic and was extremely toxic and deadly in the right circumstances. I also remember it being one of the primary reasons for reading and reviewing Victims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David in 2016 so it was great to get a refresher here.

Another colour of interest is Prussian blue:
"Outside its artistic application [Prussian blue] has been used as a colourant to make blueprint paper, as a laundry blue, and in plastics, paper and cosmetics. There is even a pharmaceutical grade that is ingested to counteract radiation poisoning." Page 121
I love learning new things, and in this book David Coles introduced me to vantablack
"Incredibly, it is the darkest material on the planet. Vantablack is an acronym of Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays. Made by a process of chemical vapour deposition, it absorbs up to 99.96 per cent of all visible light." Page 171
It's hard to imagine, but the accompanying photo of the colour vantablack applied to a three-dimensional object left me convinced this was an incredibly impressive - and slightly creepy - product. A quick Google left me gobsmacked as the details of bronze masks covered in vantablack completely disappeared. Looking at the colour has been likened to staring into a black hole and I completely agree. It's unnerving to say the least.

I'll admit struggling with some of the scientific processes in the book around colour and pigment creation although the glossary was a handy reference. While I'm sure the recipes at the end of the book were provided for paint makers and artists - of which I'm neither - I was at least able to marvel at the effort involved in producing the perfect pigment.

After reading Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles I'm left with a renewed appreciation for the effort and industry surrounding the production and trade of colour in the past and can't help but feel a little nostalgic about just how much has changed. That said, when I compare this to the excitement surrounding new developments like vantablack, I'm optimistic for future discoveries in the world of colour and art and I'm sure the author will be there for it.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

18 March 2021

Guest Review: A Home Like Ours by Fiona Lowe

A Home Like Ours by Fiona Lowe book cover
* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *


I love it when a book surprises you, and that was the case when guest reviewer Neil Béchervaise offered to read and review A Home Like Ours by Australian author Fiona Lowe. He wasn't expecting a five star reading experience but books can do that, they can surprise us in so many wonderful ways. Enjoy Neil's review below.

Neil's Review

Homeless women and domestic violence, council corruption and apparently caring community members in conflict with each other, Fiona Lowe’s latest novel has it all, in spades.

I have to confess, I began reading this book with some trepidation. Recent experience suggested that I would probably, once again, be confronted by too many ill-developed characters trampling confusedly through 500 odd pages of poorly developed plot with a plethora of description to fill out the space. I decided to read the first 20 pages and the Acknowledgements (often a clue to how the novel was realised, and by whom).

In fact, I was engaged from the first paragraph, a woman sleeping rough in her car; too cold, too cramped and too poor to use up petrol running the car for its heating. Forced to move on in panic when suddenly surrounded by a hooligan mob, she drives to a country town coffee shop and, for a few hours at least, she finds some peace. And that’s just the Prologue.

But then it comes. Just as I thought. Chapter 1 finds a woman power-dressing to wow her husband. (It doesn’t work). And now we are in Boolanga, a country town on the Murray River – somewhere near Cobram, Numurkah and ‘Wang’. We get the picture but we are spared the details because the plot is moving on. Great relief.

New characters will be introduced in the coming chapters. New scenarios will be sketched out in sufficient detail for us to empathise with the inhabitants, the victims perhaps.

Here we go”, I might have said. "A multitude of characters and …”. But these people were, somehow, more real. Tara, with her two young children was having trouble arousing her husband – was he having an affair? And how did she really feel about Zac, her personal trainer? Nineteen year old Jade with her baby was suffering emotional abuse from the baby’s father. He was occasionally present, usually drunk and completely unsupportive. Helen, the homeless woman, had found shelter in a disused heritage house in exchange for managing the town’s community garden. She was out of the car. She had a foot on the ground in Boolanga. But it was still uncertain.

The introduction of a refugee community on the edge of town provides that level of tension that we like to deny. The reality of the racism affects each of the women in different ways and, together with the management and development of the garden, generates serious conflict between former ‘besties’. More importantly, it opens the way for a series of plot developments that are both heart-wrenching, joyous, and all too familiar.

Fiona Lowe’s fifth novel A Home Like Ours might make a movie but it is more useful in challenging us to review our personal values, attitudes and approaches to the central issues of homelessness, domestic violence and racism. Is every robbery really committed by gangs of African youths? Every drug deal? Hey, didn’t we used to blame those on gangs of Vietnamese youths? And. And…

A Home Like Ours is a well crafted novel, a genuine page-turner, a compelling read for anyone who is willing to take the risk of changing how they believe ‘the other half’ actually live.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

16 March 2021

Review: Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden is a literary feat exploring the grave topic of death. Mrs Death is portrayed as an old poor black woman overlooked by those who pass her by never knowing she holds their very lives in her hands.
"Only she that is invisible can do the work of Death. And there is no person more silenced than the woman, talked over, walked over and ignored than the woman, the poor woman, the poor old woman, the poor old black woman, your servant bent over a mop, cleaning the floor of a hospital. Did you see me today? Did you walk past?" Page 201
The portrayal of Death as anyone but a man in a dark robe with a scythe wasn't a shock to me and I was easily able to visualise Death as an old black woman. In the movie adaptation of The Shack by William P. Young, actress Octavia Spencer played the role of God and her performance was sublime. Mrs Death's character brought to life by Salena Godden with an expert hand was equally sublime.

However, when we meet Mrs Death she's exhausted by her work and seems to be seeking solace. Wolf Willeford is a struggling writer and when he purchases an antique desk, his connection to Mrs Death is strengthened. Mrs Death talks with Wolf and he begins to transcribe her stories.
"Mrs Death walks with me there. She tells me the river is one of her oldest friends. She says the Thames is filled with ghosts and old spirits. The floor of the River Thames is littered with engagement rings and the bones of dead babies. We stand together on the shore; we grow cold in the black shadow of the ghosts of slave ships, the clatter of the traders, the unloading of stolen goods and treasure, coffee, sugar and human cargo. Shadows of souls and the clatter of bones." Page 52
Wolf also transcribes stories of particular deaths that have stuck with Mrs Death over time. The Moors murders and the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 are just two examples. On other occasions, Mrs Death attempts to impart her knowledge of the world in a direct appeal to Wolf and all of humanity in her advice on how to live life.
"To die is to have been alive, that is why you must live: live free, live wild, live true and live love alive. Let the fire burn you and the light blind you. Let your belly get full and fat and embarrass you. Let your words fall out and tumble carelessly and honestly. Let your passions be unlimited. And do your lifetime all in your own life time. And let all your shits stink and all your roses bloom. May your every success be a threat. Fuck being scared and infected with fear and doubt. Own your rejections and own your failures; they are an excellent wall to smash and to kick against. Every morning may you rise to fight and to create yet again, this time with both fists, and not with one hand behind your back." Page 64-65
This quote comes from an epic chapter narrated by Mrs Death and the entire chapter is full of quote-worthy moments I wanted to share here. Speaking to all of humanity and of course directly to the reader, Mrs Death says:
"I am Mrs Death and I am coming for you all. Accepting me is the first step, after that it gets easier, I promise you. Knowing me, knowing this, knowing that, that this all ends, is the best knowing you need to know." Page 65
We even get a chapter from the perspective of the Desk belonging to Mrs Death. You might harbour grave concerns this couldn't work but I can assure you it does. On reflection, it was one of the most enjoyable chapters of the entire book. Here's why.
"I have recorded every inky scratch of quill, the tap of her typewriter, the whisper of pencil and the slash of her fountain pen. Splashes of ink, wine and time. Now just put your ear here, Wolf, rest your head on my surface, you'll hear all the ghosts of scribbling pens of dreams from before. Stroke your fingertips gently across my red skin, as though it is braille, you'll be able to trace the hard-pressed writing from before." Page 86
The writing is sensual and full of life, love, death and meaning. The format contains many character perspectives and straddles multiple genres including fantasy, short stories, true crime and poetry in an overall presentation that felt unique to this reader. Beautifully presented in a hardback edition with black and gold dust jacket and complementary gold end papers, Mrs Death Misses Death is published today and I'm dying to discus it with other readers. (Sorry, couldn't resist).

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden addresses our mortality head on and doesn't shy away from the ugly nature of life, love, suffering and loss as we know it. It's definitely a wake up call for readers and a reminder of the misery and wonder of humankind while offering a life-affirming and hopeful message. 

Author Salena Godden took me with her on a literary exploration of the important themes in life including: love, loss, time and death and I know I'm the richer for it.

Highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

12 March 2021

Review: Elsewhere by Dean Koontz

Elsewhere by Dean Koontz book cover
* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

Elsewhere by Dean Koontz is a father and daughter novel starring Jeffrey Coltrane and his daughter Amity. A homeless man by the name of Ed gives Amity's Dad a device for safekeeping. Ed tells him it's the key to everything but warns him never to use it, promising it will only bring misery and terror.

Naturally this wouldn't be a Koontz novel if the device wasn't used, and the action kicks off from there.

The key to everything is actually a device that ports the holder to an alternate world, or parallel universe. As expected, there is a cashed up black ops group who will do anything to obtain the key and a chase ensues. Will Amity and her Dad survive?

The plot is 'nothing new' but eleven-year-old Amity is undoubtably the star here. She is courageous and smart, with most of her learning coming from books which gained instant appeal with this reader. As a result of Amity's shared love of reading with her father, much of the book is very meta when they refer to stories and what happens to the heroes and the villains. Like this example from Amity:
"People in stories were always preparing themselves for the worst, which rarely happened. When the plucky girl or the stalwart hero died, then either the book sucked or it had deep meaning. Nobody wanted to read sucky novels, and those people who wanted deep meaning didn't want it in every damn story." Page 223
I enjoyed this shared love of stories, however the fact that Jeffrey was called Jeffy throughout the novel quickly got on my nerves. It would seem I have very little tolerance for names like this for an adult character.

Having said that, Elsewhere was an action packed palate cleanser and something a little different to my usual reading fare. Here's Ed's perspective:
"Understand, many timelines are as hospitable as this one, some even better. But across an infinite multiverse of worlds, you can find all the evil realms that humanity has imagined - and some beyond imagining. I'm burnt out on travel. I haven't the nerve for it anymore. My heart can't take it. I was a pacifist once. A pacifist! I'm not anymore. I am armed. I can kill. The things I've seen...they've changed me. I don't want to be changed more than I've already been. I don't want the multiverse. All I want is a home, books, and the peace to read them." Page 174
In reading Elsewhere, I could just as easily have been reading a Stephen King novel with an examination of fate, destiny and love forming the overarching themes. Of course, the characters encounter more than their fair share of danger and horror in some of the multiverses they visit and the threats they face, bringing the overall lessons learned into sharper focus.
"Life was an infinite library of stories, and in every story, a girl such as Amity learned an important lesson, sometimes more than one, whether she was a highborn child of royalty or a milkmaid." Page 352
Elsewhere by Dean Koontz is an action packed science fiction novel about parallel universes and it was a good read.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

10 March 2021

Review: Everything is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray

Everything is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Readers of Carpe Librum will know that I love reading - and watching documentaries - about hoarders. There's something uniquely fascinating to me about the physical manifestation of their grief, personal trauma or mental illness and the appeal of the before/after transformation process and subsequent recovery - albeit rarely achieved - is irresistible.

In Everything is Beautiful, Eleanor Ray has created the perfect setting and background story for a hoarding character in the form of Amy Ashton. I was really able to get inside Amy's head and understand just how her hoarding started and how difficult it was for her to make any space in her house - or her life - for anything else.

The introduction of new neighbours and the way in which they immediately inserted themselves into Amy's life reminded me a little of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman but in a good way. Like Amy, I don't have children, but the neighbour's children and their interactions with Amy were instantly relatable and heartwarming and I loved their presence in the novel.

There's also a compelling mystery that is slowly unravelled and I was eager to find out what happened to Amy's boyfriend after he and her best friend disappeared twelve years ago. Right around the time Amy's hoarding started.

This book is being marketed at fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and I can see why. I actually had the same reading experience with both books, despite the many differences between the two main characters. I became heavily invested in the wellbeing of Amy (as I did Eleanor), and I wanted to see her character grow and heal from her trauma. 

Everything Is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray is a heartwarming contemporary novel and I found myself enjoying an unexpected five star reading experience. Highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

08 March 2021

Guest Review: The Charleston Scandal by Pamela Hart

The Charleston Scandal by Pamela Hart book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *


Today the media is abuzz with news of Harry and Meghan's interview with Oprah Winfrey and the royal scandal of Megxit continues. It's not the first royal scandal, nor will it be the last. Today guest reviewer Neil Béchervaise shares his thoughts on The Charleston Scandal, an historical fiction novel by Australian author Pamela Hart about a scandal involving a member of the royal family in the 1920s.

Neil's Review

It is 1923. The Great War that killed about 40 million ended five years ago, it is history. The suffragettes will be marching their case through the streets of London until 1928. A promising young ex-serviceman-turned-politician named Hitler has floated some interesting ideas in Germany. Homosexual acts between men over 21 will remain a jailable offence in Britain until 1967. Actresses are considered, at best, to be whores in polite society, and the Prince of Wales, son of the ruling monarch Queen Victoria, Bertie to his friends, is a renowned, if rather embarrassing, playboy of questionable morals.

Against this confusing and conflicted background, Pamela Hart presents The Charleston Scandal. Hart features the life of an actress, Kit Scott, and her acting/dancing partner, Zeke Gardiner as Kit stumbles uncertainly between the ever-tenuous life of the ingenue actress and her potential acceptance among the ‘titled gentry’ who ‘play’ on the margins of the Prince of Wales debauchery.

It is 1923. Women in Australia have had the right to vote for over 20 years. The automobile has become a common feature on the roads. Women can attend university – even become doctors and lawyers. Some actors and actresses are well recognised in society: In Melbourne, in 1921, Sarah Bernhardt played to “a critical and intelligent audience” and Nellie Melba was a leading soprano at Covent Garden from 1888. Out of this background of emerging acceptance of theatre as a respectable career - even for women - Kit Scott has left Australia, to the consternation of her father, Dean of St Andrews cathedral, and the horror of her mother and sister to confirm her career as an actress in London. It was a common path for young women in pursuit of an acting career.

The scandal of Kit having her photo published in the tabloid press dancing the highly risqué (for the time) Charleston with the Prince of Wales provides the title for this novel. However, it is the presentation of the characters with their various social backgrounds – Kit is Australian (a colonial! Yikes!) while Zeke is a Canadian with a farming background and an abusive father. These events and key characters offer Hart the opportunity to explore and present the stolid resistance of the upper classes to any threat to their entitled existence and, simultaneously, to review the living conditions and aspirations of young, mostly working class, women.

Zeke and Kit seem to be an unlikely pairing but their common aspirations and their rapidly emerging acting skills generate a sharing of emotions and thoughts, an empathy which they strain to deny to themselves is love, albeit a necessarily platonic love.

While there is romance, and even recrimination, The Charleston Scandal presents a highly enjoyable exploration of the upper-class demand for total subjugation of those ‘beneath’ them. It illuminates their adherence to a world which Jane Austen presented a century before them. In contrast, Hart demonstrates, sometimes maybe too sympathetically, the generosity, the vivacity, the professional determination of the actresses who compete in audition for too few roles.

As a side-bar, the arrival of Zeke’s father, the abusive farmer from British Columbia, from whom Zeke is trying to free his mother, offers a convenient opportunity to review the issues of domestic violence, care for the poor, ill and aged and the uncertainty of future care for the working class family as they become unemployed.

The Charleston Scandal is a romance-filled romp through life in London a century ago. At the same time, it confronts its readers with issues which are all-too prevalent a century on. After all, it is now 2021! Pamela Hart has given us a novel of tough love. To read of the maintenance of a Jane Austen society one century on must give us pause to reflect on what still remains entrenched in our current social structures one further century on.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

Neil's Rating:

07 March 2021

Review: Peanut Butter - Breakfast, Lunch Dinner Midnight by Tim Lannan & James Annabel

Peanut Butter - Breakfast, Lunch Dinner Midnight by Tim Lannan & James Annabel book cover
Do you like peanut butter? I enjoyed peanut butter well enough as a kid, but my love for peanut butter started to grow around the time salted caramel became a 'thing'. All of a sudden, there were salted caramel milkshakes and ice creams and peanut butter flavoured treats became more available. Fuelling my expanding appreciation for peanut butter was a Reese's Pieces milkshake from Misty's Diner in Prahran (since closed down) which was the stuff of dreams. A now extinct flavour of Ben & Jerry's ice cream called Clusterfluff also proved difficult to resist.

It should come as no surprise then, that this increasing love of peanut butter should one day overlap with my reading tastes. When I saw the cover of Peanut Butter - Breakfast, Lunch Dinner Midnight last year and realised the authors Tim Lannan and James Annabel owned and operated the - previously unknown to me, but now very familiar - Byron Bay Peanut Butter company, I knew this book had to be mine for Christmas.

Authors Tim Lannan and James Annabel start off by informing the reader all about peanut butter and especially the ingredients to avoid in a bad peanut butter. They then proceed to tell you how to make your own. Sounds counterintuitive doesn't it? But somehow it isn't. You can use your own homemade peanut butter, purchase their peanut butter or use supermarket brands when making their recipes. They really don't seem to mind one way or another, as long as you're enjoying their food.

They've provided a variety of flavour suggestions and recipes in this collection, some of which included ingredients I haven't used before (like coconut oil and brown rice syrup), but I'm willing to give it a go.

After reading and salivating over the book I decided to order a bunch of their products to try, including a limited edition jar of pumpkin spice peanut butter. (Spoiler alert: it's delicious!) As I write this, I'm also making satay chicken in my slow cooker using one of their sauces and fingers crossed it's as delicious as my own 'peanut butter chicken' recipe.

This recipe book is beautifully presented and contains a fun and innovative layout to extend the recipe options. It's also full of enticingly delicious recipes and drool-worthy colour photographs. Peanut Butter - Breakfast, Lunch Dinner Midnight by Tim Lannan & James Annabel is recommended for anyone who loves peanut butter or home cooks who would like to embrace the flavour in new and exciting ways.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

04 March 2021

Review: A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

Lucy Jago is a new-to-me author, and A Net for Small Fishes begins in London in January 1609 during the reign of King James I, taking us through until the year 1615. Mistress Anne Turner is the wife of a Doctor, and despite all odds, she and Frances Howard, Countess of Essex meet and become friends. The differences between them are many; namely their rank and station in life and the 15 years difference in age. However the friendship between Anne and Frances (Frankie) grows as they each face their unique struggles in life.

Frankie is having problems in the marital bed, and I knew I was in safe hands after reading the advice of Dr Turner to Frances Howard in the form of the following conversation from page 30.
"A wife must not question her husband any more than I may question a King; especially a young husband, in need of the support and obedience of his spouse as he brings to bear his authority over his household. When all is in its proper place, then he will rule with kindness and mercy. I have observed that too lusty a wife can dishearten a husband. Until he sees fit to speak of it to me, I can do nothing to encourage him. However, you are wan. I suspect you are suffering from greensickness, for which I can treat you until such time as it is cured by your husband's seed." Page 30
I'd never heard of greensickness, and was eager to learn that it was an iron deficiency or anemia that left female patients with a greenish complexion. Apparently there are many causes of greensickness, but one of the cures was sex, in the belief that a husband's sperm would 'settle the womb'. Unbelievable right?

The story of Anne and Frankie's relationship is author Lucy Jago's attempt at exploring the women behind the very real Overbury scandal in more detail. In fact, the less you know about the real events depicted in the book the better.

Lucy Jago has an evocative writing style, and I loved her turns of phrase, like this one from Page 116:
"...'At this rate, you will soon be an earl,' she finished, with a little laugh that revealed her teeth and attracted the attention of the few who were not already listening to every word, lapping at their flirtation like dogs at the butcher's drain." Page 116
Jago's writing brings the period to life on the page, however she also appeals to our basic humanity, like this example from later in the book:
"I pulled threads of memory from my mind, carefully separated each one and laid it with utmost tenderness, like clean clothes, on that child's pile, until I was satisfied I had missed nothing." Page 281
Anne is a compelling character and I was completely drawn in by her first person narrative. I was also interested to learn that she was famous for patenting the recipe for saffron yellow starch and introducing yellow ruffs to court. I remember it came as a shock some years ago when I learned that ruffs, cuffs and collars were worn in colours other than white; also being produced in yellow, pink and blue during the starching process. Blue ruffs were outlawed by Queen Elizabeth I before the events in this book take place, but that's another story.

The use of yellow was extremely bold at the time, as yellow previously represented cowardice, envy, jealousy, duplicity and treachery. It's more than fitting then that the cover design for A Net for Small Fishes is a vibrant saffron yellow colour and don't you just love the cover design? The french flaps add a luxurious touch as well.

For some reason, I haven't read many books set in the Jacobean era of 1603-1625, however, it is something I'd like to remedy in the future. Until then, A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago was a rare treat and one I highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

01 March 2021

Review: Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor book cover
Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art
by James Nestor starts off really well. I listened to the audiobook and early on in the introduction, the author states:
"The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts there."
With that kind of statement, I was an eager student, ready to learn. The first third of the book was the most informative and interesting in my opinion. I learned that the way in which we breathe and what we put into our mouths greatly influences the formation of our jaws and teeth.

Those who breathe through their mouths are more likely to suffer from a whole host of health-related problems, while the importance of eating a variety of foods that include chewing and crunching can greatly impact the formation of the jaw, teeth and facial structure.

I enjoyed the author's mention of visiting the ossuary in the Paris catacombs as he discussed the dental health of the dead. He noted that with the introduction of highly processed foods, humans suffer more now from crowded teeth and small jaws which shrinks our mouths and affects our breathing. This brought to mind a book I read in May 2017 entitled Built on Bones - 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death by archaeologist Brenna Hassett which made this case with more science and evidence to back it up.

The author himself suffers from dental and breathing problems and underwent an experiment where he and a colleague taped their noses shut for an extended period of time which forced them to breathe through their mouths. However, you'll need to read the book to find out what happened.

In the author's words: 
"This book is a scientific adventure into the lost art and science of breathing."
However, I'd lost interest by the time I reached the sections on breathing practices like Pranayama and the exercises towards the end of the book were uninspiring. Instead, my key takeaways were from the beginning of the book and now when I see a young child sucking their thumb or putting safety blankets in their mouths, I worry for their development.

James Nestor narrated the audiobook himself, however for reasons unknown, puts on a completely different voice when quoting other researchers or people throughout the text. Unfortunately I found this incredibly distracting and it considerably detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

I did enjoy the anecdotal evidence, but Breath is by no means a medical book. Nestor is a journalist, not a medical professional or a scientist, so readers do need to keep this in mind.

Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor is recommended reading for all parents (even if you just read the first half of the book), anyone suffering from dental difficulties and naturally anyone experiencing breathing problems, like asthma, snoring or sleep apnea.

My Rating: