31 December 2022

Review: Collecting Cooper by Paul Cleave

Collecting Cooper by Paul Cleave book cover

Paul Cleave is a bestselling kiwi author from New Zealand and Collecting Cooper is my first time reading any of his books. In 2012, Paul Cleave hit my radar and at the time, the blurb for Collecting Cooper was the most enticing of his books so I added it to my TBR. I then purchased a copy in July 2018 and I don't know why I waited 4 more years to read it, but if you're a book lover you can probably relate.

Published in 2011, I was told by a fellow reader that Collecting Cooper can be read as a standalone, but on reflection, I think it would have been better to begin at the start of the Theodore Tate series, which at the time of writing, is now at 4 books.

Collecting Cooper is a crime novel set in Christchurch New Zealand with the lot: a mental institution, Psychology Professor, disgraced cop and overlapping plot lines that eventually come together in a clever piece of writing. Cleave has a direct and cutting writing style and here's a taste from early on in the novel.

In this scene, a character is reflecting on the fact that he doesn't have a driver's licence and if he attempted to sit the test he'd totally freak out.
"He knows he'd only manage a few hundred meters before throwing up all over himself. No, he doesn't need a license as long as nobody ever pulls him over, and there's no reason anybody should. He's a careful driver, and the body in the trunk isn't making any noise." Page 27
Collecting Cooper is a dark read, and there were quite a few references to the first book which I really should have read before reaching for this one. This no doubt detracted from my overall enjoyment level, but was entirely my own doing.

Collecting Cooper by Paul Cleave will appeal to readers of Stuart MacBride and Jack Heath and those who enjoy crime novels set across the ditch in New Zealand.

My Rating:

30 December 2022

Aussie Author Reading Challenge 2022 Completed

This is my 11th year participating in the Aussie Author Reading Challenge hosted by Jo from Booklover Book Reviews and I'm proud to say I successfully completed the 2022 challenge. 

I was completing the Kangaroo level of the challenge and needed to read and review 12 books by Australian authors, of which at least 4 were female, 4 were male, 4 were new-to-me authors and a minimum of 3 genres were covered.

Here's what I read for the challenge:
2022 Aussie Author Reading Challenge logo
1. The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
2. Vanished by James Delargy
3. Adrift in Melbourne by Robyn Annear
4. The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater
5. Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson
6. The Attack by Catherine Jinks
7. The Tens by Vanessa Jones
8. Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson
9. What Makes Us Tick by Hugh Mackay
10. CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie
11. Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie
12. Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer

Here are the additional books I read for the challenge:
13. Characters - Cultural Stories Revealed Through Typography by Stephen Banham
14. Missing, Presumed Dead by Mark Tedeschi QC
15. The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth
16. Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson
17. Westography by Warren Kirk
18. The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt
19. Hydra by Adriane Howell
20. Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall
21. A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird
22. Runt by Craig Silvey
23. The Carnival is Over by Greg Woodland
24. Old Vintage Melbourne 1960 - 1990 by Chris Macheras
25. Limberlost by Robbie Arnott
26. The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher
27. Headcase by Jack Heath

I read 27 books by Australian authors in 2022, and next year I'm planning to participate in the challenge again. I'll be kicking it off by reading Copywrong to Copywriter by Tait Ischia and The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson first. Who else is joining in?

17 December 2022

Review: Dark Skies by Lonely Planet

I've always loved stargazing, and Dark Skies - A Practical Guide to Astrotourism by Valerie Stimac and Lonely Planet was given to me by my husband for Christmas in 2020. Given some of the celestial events have dates attached (lunar and solar eclipses for example), I thought I'd better read this before another Christmas passes me by and it's still on the shelf.

Dark Skies is very much a Lonely Planet guide to astrotourism; a new term for me.
Dark Skies - A Practical Guide to Astrotourism by Valerie Stimac and Lonely Planet book cover

It's broken down into the following chapters:
Dark Places
Astronomy in Action
Meteor Showers
Space Tourism

I was most interested in the Dark Places, Meteor Showers and Eclipses chapters, but they're all very interesting and comprehensive given what's on offer.

Another new-to-me word is archaeoastronomy and I enjoyed learning about it in the chapter on Dark Places:
"Archaeoastronomy, the so-called 'science of stars and stones,' is the interdisciplinary study of how ancient cultures used the night sky as part of culture and society - including in construction. Sites like Stonehenge in England and Chichen Itza in Mexico are among the locations of interest to archaeoastronomers, since they seem to be aligned with celestial events such as equinoxes and solstices. Archaeoastronomers use material remains to examine how ancient cultures related to phenomena in the sky." Page 95
What a fascinating area of science!

It was also interesting to read that the next total solar eclipse visible from Australia and New Zealand takes place on 22 July 2028, with Sydney being in the path of totality. The entire eclipse will take 2.5 hours and totality in Sydney will last a maximum of 3 minutes and 58 seconds. To enjoy the maximum 5 minutes and 10 seconds, enthusiasts will need to travel to rural Australia.

Light pollution - and seeking locations free of it - was a continual theme in Dark Skies, and that's to be expected. I also noticed an optimism that an increase in astrotourism will inevitably result in a greater appreciation and respect for the environment and a subsequent shift in thinking towards how we treat the planet. There's much we can do to reduce night time light pollution (for which our native habitats will be grateful), and I enjoyed that the book closed with:
"If astrotourism helps more people protect our amazing home planet, the future will be bright.... and the night skies will be dark and full of stars." Page 283
It definitely reminded me of the alternate phrase from Game of Thrones, "The night is dark and full of terrors."

Dark Skies very much feels like a Lonely Planet guide, and while I've only read two (Kenya and Hawaii) this was a familiar format. As in those two books, you need to break up the reading of a Lonely Planet guide within your regular reading schedule. Some of the content is dry and after a while, the consistent format can become repetitive and dull. Thankfully some amazing photographs remind the reader of the power and wonder of the night sky and the universe beyond.

Dark Skies is a valuable resource that will quickly date; as with all Lonely Planet books.

My Rating:

15 December 2022

2022 Nonfiction Reader Challenge Completed

I read 25 non fiction books in 2022 and it was the third year in a row participating in the Nonfiction Reader Challenge. The challenge is hosted by fellow Aussie book blogger Shelleyrae at Book'd Out and I successfully completed the Nonfiction Nibbler level of the challenge this year by reading and reviewing at least 6 books.

Here's what I read, and you can follow the link to check out my reviews:
1. Social History (The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer)
2. Popular Science (Revelations in Air: by Jude Stewart)
3. Language 
Book'd Out 2022 Nonfiction Reader Challenge Completed logo
4. Medical Memoir (All the Living and the Dead: A Personal Investigation Into the Death Trade by Hayley Campbell)
5. Climate/Weather
6. Celebrity (The Killer Across the Table by John E. Douglas)
7. Reference (Bibliophile by Jane Mount)
8. Geography (Adrift in Melbourne by Robyn Annear)
9. Companion to a podcast
10. Wild Animals
11. Economics
12. Published in 2022 (Missing, Presumed Dead by Mark Tedeschi QC)

While I did manage to read 25 non fiction books this year, only 7 of them qualified for the challenge as the others didn't meet the criteria for any of the remaining prompts. Some years I actively participate in Non Fiction November however I gave it a miss this year. Participating in a year long challenge holds more appeal to me and I consume non fiction all the time, not needing a specific month to motivate me.

Now to start planning for next year! Sign ups are already open for 2023 over on Book'd Out, although I prefer to sign up to all of my reading challenges in January. Will you be joining in? What was your favourite non fiction book for 2022?

Carpe Librum!

13 December 2022

Review: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker book cover

Am I putting you to sleep with the number of books and audiobooks I review on the topic of sleep? I sincerely hope not, but I might need to acknowledge that this has become a comfort topic, something that I'm always interested in, am already largely familiar with, but keep wanting to consume or re-visit from time to time. 

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker is my latest audiobook endeavour to understand more about sleep. Providing a new-to-me angle, Walker focusses on what happens within the body when we sleep, and then what happens in the body if sleep is inadequate. The short-term and long-term physical repercussions of that were made terribly clear and none of the news was good.

The reverse was also highlighted, meaning a lack of sleep or poor quality sleep over time can cause detrimental damage to vital systems and processes in the body leading to a multitude of health problems. Some of these can then add to the pressure of not getting enough sleep or inability to sleep, creating an unhealthy spiral that is difficult to escape.

I believe this quote from the author in Chapter 7 encompasses the main thrust of this book:
"No facet of the human body is spared the crippling noxious harm of sleep loss." Chapter 7
Familiar topics including: school start times, concentration levels and workplace culture that values early starters and late finishers were all explored. However, as I was listening to the audiobook, the author's frequent reference to a PDF that I didn't have access to was frustrating and significantly detracted from the content.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker was an interesting book on the road to sleep but I don't think I've reached saturation point on the topic, so stay tuned for more in the new year. Three titles at the top of the pile are Sleep in Early Modern England by Sasha Handley, When Brains Dream by Antonio Zadra and Hello Sleep: The Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications by Jade Wu. 

Have you read any of these or have any recommendations?

Sweet Dreams!

My Rating:

07 December 2022

Review: Headcase by Jack Heath

Headcase by Jack Heath book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

My favourite fictional cannibal Timothy Blake is back in the fourth instalment of the Blake series that began with Hangman, and continued on with Hunter (and my inclusion in the praise section) and Hideout. The latest is aptly titled Headcase and if you were concerned the talented Aussie author from Canberra might have lost his penchant for kick arse female characters, clever plots, skilful subterfuge, electrifying tension or tantalising riddles during the pandemic, you needn't have worried.

Headcase is a crime thriller with a refreshing difference. If you're a fan of the series, then this will deliver on all your bloody hopes and nightmarish expectations, but my advice is not to read the blurb. There's mention of an astronaut which initially made me roll my eyes as I'm not a fan of cartoonish hijinks when a character suddenly finds themselves in a thematically dissonant or cringeworthy situation. Fortunately the astronaut angle is free from cringe, and Blake has teamed up with a CIA handler by the name of Zara who is a force to be reckoned with, but certainly no replacement for Agent Thistle. Blake finds himself in therapy (hence the Headcase reference), yet he remains a charismatic anti-hero with no clear boundaries in terms of character motivation or development.

Fans will find a satisfying update since the events of Hideout (published in December 2020), and it was hard not to notice that since then, Heath seems to have continued honing his craft with the release of standalone crime novel Kill Your Brother in January this year, and is clearly in no danger of delivering a dud or running out of ways to make us gasp out loud.

In a recent review, I lamented that I might be reaching saturation point with regard to the number of emerging and existing Aussie crime authors, but Jack Heath is a clear exception to this - and any - rule. I also appreciated seeing praise from fellow Australian author Benjamin Stevenson as his book Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is a brilliant whodunnit which breaks the fourth wall and sits on the pile of potentials for my Top 5 Books of 2022 list.

Headcase by Jack Heath is an entertaining and finely crafted bloody mess recommended for fans of the series and crime thrillers more generally. As the year draws to a close and I begin to look back and assess my favourite reads of the year, it's hard not to consider Headcase for one of the prestigious five spots.

Highly recommended and you can read the first 22 pages of Headcase for FREE in this extract.

My Rating:

30 November 2022

Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon book cover

Published in 2014, The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon has been on my virtual 'maybe' list for several years; okay I'll admit it, 8 years. During this time, the author has published several new novels the blurbs of which have also piqued my interest; I'm looking at you The Drowning Kind and more recently The Children on the Hill. I'm the kind of reader who sometimes prefers to try an older title before deciding if an author is worth continuing on with, so thanks to my library for making that possible.

The Winter People is a paranormal mystery set in West Hall, Vermont, replete with strange disappearances, ghost sitings, myths and legends surrounding a circle of stones called the Devil's Hand and a ring made of bone.
"They think that there's something out there, in the woods at the edge of town, something evil, something that can't be explained. There have been a lot of stories over the years, folks who've gone missing, people who say they see strange lights or hear crying sounds, tales of a pale figure roaming the woods. When I was a boy, I thought I saw something myself one time: a face peering out at me from a crack between the rocks. But I moved closer and it was gone." He made his eyes dramatically wide and gave a little chuckle. "Have I scared you yet?" Page 132
The story alternates between time periods - 1908 and the present day - and different character perspectives (Ruthie, Katherine, Martin) and also includes diary entries from The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea that add to the layers of suspense. Eventually the author skilfully brings all of the stories together and in doing so, solves the mystery.

The clever plotting reminded me of the likes of Ruth Ware or Laura Purcell, although I already read quite a few accomplished authors in this particular niche.

The Winter People has been classified by many readers as horror, however I found it only mildly creepy, if that. I believe it belongs more fittingly in the category of YA historical fiction and domestic noir with a touch of the paranormal and supernatural and it was a good choice for the October / Halloween reading schedule.

The Drowning Kind was published in 2021, so based on previous trends, I'll probably get to it in 2029! Have you read any books by this prolific author?

My Rating:

25 November 2022

Review: Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory is the third book in the Fairmile series that began in 2019 with Tidelands (Book 1) and follows straight on after the events in Dark Tides (Book 2). This instalment in the historical fiction series begins in spring 1685 and takes us through to summer in 1689. So much happens in this generational family saga that it's hard to believe the plot takes place in just 4 years, but this encompasses the disquiet around the religious beliefs and practices of King James II, the unrest around monarchy and parliament and of course, the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

Philippa Gregory has a talent for showing how the politics and living conditions of the day affected everyone from the Queen right down to the every man, or ferryman as the case may be. A sub plot in the book took a few characters to Barbados this time and introduced the reader to the atrocious conditions of the slave trade and sugar harvesting industry. In Dark Tides we followed Ned to New England and the two contrasting settings didn't strike the right chord for me. This time however, I was equally entertained by the goings on in Barbados as I was for the happenings back in England, and largely, I think that was down to the character of Rowan.

In Dawnlands we catch up with the same main characters in the family, and continue to follow them through their work lives, personal lives, loves, losses and changes in favour. This allows for deep character development and I enjoyed the introduction of a different sort of love one character has for another:
"No! Never. He loves her as a man loves a woman, as a young man loves a young woman, and that's good and right for him. But I love her as if she were a star in the sky. I love her as if she were the wind blowing over the water. I don't need to own her, I just want her to be in the sky, moving over the deep, I just want her to shine." Page 377
Lady Livia Avery is still a force in their lives and a thorn in their side. A manipulative woman and a terrific villain in the series, here a character tries to deliver a warning about her:
"I promised myself I'd never look back. I advised you to do the same. She's like laudanum: at first it's wholly beneficial, then you can't imagine your health without it's support, and you want more and more." Page 92
I enjoyed Gregory's take on the warming pan incident surrounding the birth of James Edward Francis Stuart to Queen Mary in 1688, although it could prove controversial for some readers. What was certain, is that the Royal couple needed a male heir, and it's clear in the following passage that the Court was equally desperate for her to conceive:
"There'd better be nothing in this that is dangerous," Livia warned her bluntly. "If she gets ill then I will be in terrible trouble, but you're a dead woman." "Nothing but thyme to boil in sweet wine. She should take honey and pepper every day, and she should eat hare and venison, male meat, the pizzle and the parts. Can you order that for her?" "Of course I can," Livia said. "She's the Queen of England. I can get almost anything in the world but a son in the cradle!" Page 261
Dawnlands is just as entertaining as Tidelands and the machinations of Lady Avery are increasingly manipulative and self-serving and just as hard to deal with for the characters as they are for the reader. The author has created a terrific villain in the series and I can't wait to see what plans she has in store for this social climbing, conniving woman.

While I haven't heard of a fourth book in the Fairmile series, I have no reason to believe there won't be one. The characters are continuing to eke out their various livings as best they can, with some striving to improve their station in life while others remain motivated to pursue political justice or concentrate on their individual or family legacy. 

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory is highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and best read as part of a series.

My Rating:

18 November 2022

Review: The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher

The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher is set on the Mornington Peninsula an hour out of Melbourne, and our protagonist Charlie Deravin is staying at his family's holiday house while on suspension. Charlie is a cop and he plans to spend his time in disgrace digging into the disappearance of his mother twenty years earlier. His Dad is a retired cop, but despite having friends on the force, Charlie's mother's disappearance - and presumed murder - has never been solved.

This is the second novel I've read this year set on the Mornington Peninsula, (you can read my review of Hydra by Adriane Howell) and the third book set in Victoria (see my review of The Carnival is Over by Greg Woodland) and I think I'm ready for a change.

I'm not sure whether it's the over familiar Australian setting or the police procedurals or Aussie crime in general, but I'm starting to find some of them a little 'samey'. I remember getting this - legitimate reading related concern - after consuming one too many historical fiction novels set during WWII. So much Aussie talent has burst forth in this genre in the last 3 years, that we readers really have been spoiled for choice. For me, I think it's time to reduce my reading a little in this particular Australian crime niche and focus more on the genres supplying 5 star reads more readily.

The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher is well written and populated by interesting and relatable characters. The plot was engaging and I didn't guess the whodunnit, which is always nice. This is my first time reading anything by this prolific author, but The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher will appeal to fans of Australian crime fiction, including authors like Sarah Bailey, Sarah Barrie, James Delargy, Jane Harper, Chris Hammer, Greg Woodland and Christian White.

My Rating:

10 November 2022

Review: The Journey by James Norbury

The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon is a charming book written and illustrated by the talented artist James Norbury. It's the sequel to the international bestseller Big Panda and Tiny Dragon published in 2021, and while I've only read a sample from that book (freely available on the publisher's website), I was easily able to slide in with the characters as they embarked on their journey without the feeling I'd missed an important backstory.

A seemingly simple tale, our two protagonists, Big Panda and Tiny Dragon - delightfully depicted on the cover - embark on an adventure together, but things don't go to plan. As they encounter set backs and face difficult and challenging situations, Big Panda shares his wisdom with Tiny Dragon and the attentive reader:
'Problems should not stop us,' said Big Panda. 'They are simply nature's way of letting us know we need to explore a different path.' Page 22
The Journey is about so many things, including overcoming obstacles, generating hope and seeking happiness wherever we are. Achieving spiritual fulfilment, facing fear and adversity, seeing opportunities in setbacks, and having the courage to embrace change are also key elements of the tale. Other themes included gratitude, acceptance, resilience, mindfulness and above all, friendship.

At times, I did find myself wondering whether the author was trying to cram too many reflections and lessons into the book, with Big Panda seeming to espouse elements of Buddhist philosophy on one page and Hallmark sentiments on another.

While the book overall is a warm, feel-good read, sometimes the dialogue or mini life lessons felt contrived:
'But if making the change was easy, it probably wouldn't make very much difference. Great change requires great effort.' Pages 52-53
Big Panda is the Mr Miyagi of the book, full of wisdom, with Tiny Dragon eager to learn from his experience. Perhaps it's just me, but characters like Big Panda or Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, are very appealing. Maybe it's something to do with their size and majesty and the effectiveness of the writing, but it makes me want to sit at the feet of Aslan or Big Panda and ask my own questions off script. I wonder what they would say...
'This raft is a little like us,' said Big Panda. 'Where it's been doesn't have to determine where it's going.' Page 60
It's not just Big Panda who always knows what to do, Tiny Dragon also has some revelations to share towards the end of their journey:
'I still feel some sadness at the loss of my friends, my home and, of course, my tea set, but I think maybe I am learning to be more accepting of things.' Page 141
I think you'll agree we can all try harder to be more accepting of things. I know I can, and it's a constant battle of self improvement for most of us as we try to 'do better' each day.

The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury will appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds who will each find something different to celebrate within the pages. Young readers who have faced recent adversity in the floods, will especially relate to the plight of Tiny Dragon; who reminded me a little of Pickett, Newt Scamander's little pet in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Beautifully presented in a hardback edition with gold foiling and silk bookmark ribbon, The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury will make a heartwarming gift at Christmas.

My Rating:

07 November 2022

Review: Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker

Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World's Most Infamous Items by J.W. Ocker book cover

Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World's Most Infamous Items by J.W. Ocker was a mildly entertaining and interesting book, the kind of which is soon forgotten, but enjoyed while it lasted. The author is clear at the start of the book that he doesn't intend to cover hauntings, whether they be haunted locations or haunted objects, which I thought was fair enough.

The book is perfect for the audiobook format and is divided into categories, with each object given its own chapter. Each object is covered in a brief 5-8 minutes on audiobook, or a few pages in print format.

In the chapter entitled Cursed Under Glass, we learn about the infamous Hope Diamond and Otzi the Iceman, whose mummified remains were discovered more than 5,000 years after his death.

I enjoyed learning about rune stones in Cursed in the Graveyard, which only served to reinforce my thoughts on disturbing tombs or burial sites for purposes of research or grave-robbing.

Cursed in the Attic introduced me to the case of The Crying Boy Paintings - which I'd somehow never read about - The Baleroy Chair of Death and The Basano Vase.

In the chapter entitled Cursed in Stone, one of the topics was The Amber Room and I recall interviewing author William F. Brown about it back in 2012 as well as doing a few hours of Googling on the topic. In fact, this entire book elicits frequent Googling as the reader is inspired to look at the physical object being described and read a little further than Ocker's offerings.

The Business of Cursed Objects chapter included Annabelle the Doll and the Warren Collection, and all manner of haunted and travelling museums. The Curse in the Machine included James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder and The Prague Orloj (a magnificent medieval astronomical clock in Prague) among other items of interest including chain emails, which I thought was a bit of a stretch.

In his chapter Why Aren't These Objects Cursed, the author makes a good point when wondering why objects like the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull and the Skin Book of James Allen don't have a reputation for being cursed.

Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker was easy to digest with each cursed artefact covered in a short chapter, including information on where the item is (if the location is known) and how many deaths have been attributed to it.

Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker was akin to stumbling upon a random documentary while channel surfing and being sucked right in. It's only when I surfaced at the end of the book that I felt as though that might have been a waste of time, given I'd done most of the research myself in all that Googling. At the time however, I was happy for the bite size curse snacks delivered up by Ocker.

Published in 2020, Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker is a light read recommended for those interested in history, social history, archaeology, the paranormal and of course curses. Even if you're a skeptic, there are plenty of facts, geography and history to sink your teeth into and some ripper stories.

I'm interested to know if you believe in curses, bad juju or karmic consequences, so let me know in the comments below.

My Rating:

03 November 2022

Review: Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

Reading Limberlost by Robbie Arnott was an ethereal experience. Inspired by the real life experiences of the author's Grandfather, Robbie Arnott has attempted to bring his Grandfather's stories of growing up on an apple orchard in the Tamar Valley in Tasmania to life.

Arnott's Grandfather sadly passed away last year at the age of 92, and while he asked his grandson not to include any 'magical realism stuff', it's heartbreaking to know he'll never see himself on the page as Ned in Limberlost. I think he would have been mightily proud of his talented Grandson.

Ned lives on a farm in Tasmania helping his Dad and his sister, while his two brothers are fighting in the war overseas. Ned hunts rabbits and sells their skins for cash and is saving up for something to make his brothers proud when they return.

It sounds like a simple plot or perhaps a simple living, but the novel is bursting with life and emotion. While the dialogue between the characters is spare, the nature writing is evocative and the Australian landscape and bushland is immediately recognisable. Like his father, Ned is quiet and reserved but his mind is busy with thoughts, some of which surprised me.

Here's an example of the descriptive nature writing and Ned's observations and deep thinking from mid-way through the book:
"He had never worked closely with wood before. If he'd thought of it as having a smell at all, it had been as the broad scent of the forest: the pungency of rotting vegetation, the clearing menthol of eucalypt, the off-sweet tang of wild blossoms, the dankness of mud, the freshness of rain, the rot of a dead wallaby, the chalky minerality of broken rock. The odours of trees belonged to their leaves and flowers; he'd assumed timber would be mute. He wondered at his wrongness, as the wood spice filled his lungs, sank into his blood.
The sight and smell. He felt tricked, drunk. He hadn't known the world could do things like this to him." Page 118
The writing is so visceral and I now have a desire to find out what Huon pine smells like. Any suggestions on how a city dweller might go about achieving that without a trip to Tasmania?

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott made my Top 5 Books of 2020 list, however I think it's fair to say Limberlost is a completely different kettle of fish. Limberlost is inspired by a personal story with a tangible past, rooted in family and history and without any magical realism. While the quoll in Limberlost certainly felt otherworldly in many ways, there were no magical creatures or fable re-tellings to enchant the reader here.

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott is a quiet and unassuming book, best suited to a patient reader willing to make space to absorb and appreciate the prose of Ned's personal story. If you're not sure if this is for you or not, you can access a free preview of the book here.

My Rating:

29 October 2022

Review: The Carnival is Over by Greg Woodland

The Carnival is Over by Greg Woodland book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

There's no carnival in this story. No circus either. No carnivals, circuses, fairs or fetes. Now, onto the book. The Carnival is Over by Greg Woodland is a rural thriller set in 1971 in Moorabool, Victoria. Hal is 17 years old, working off a good behaviour bond in the local abattoir and wants to get the hell out of Moorabool. Sergeant Mick Goodenough is investigating two suspicious suicides in the area and their paths cross when Hal's workmate goes missing.

While technically this can be read as a stand alone, Hal and Sergeant Mick Goodenough were characters in The Night Whistler and The Carnival is Over is set 5 years after the events in that book.

I haven't read The Night Whistler and it was obvious to me that I missed a lot of interesting backstory and character depth and development. I was still able to follow the main plot easily enough, but my reading experience would no doubt have been richer had I done the right thing and read The Night Whistler first.

The regional setting in Victoria is instantly relatable and the small town politics were all too convincing. Fans of Chris Hammer or Jane Harper will be right at home reading Greg Woodland.

Funnily enough, I enjoyed the workplace scenes in the abattoir more than I should have. Hal is at the bottom of the pecking order, and a toxic workplace culture is entrenched in the place. It made for a tense work environment and gave readers a glimpse of what the work might really be like.

Greg Woodland is an emerging Australian author and definitely one to watch. The Carnival is Over is recommended for fans and readers of crime fiction who can't get enough Australian crime fiction, or those looking to discover a new-to-me Aussie author. 

My Rating:

26 October 2022

Review: Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin book cover

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin is presented as a memoir, but it could be better described as a collection of vignettes exploring the topic of sleep and the author's insomnia.

A slim read, journalist and author Marina Benjamin takes the reader on a tour through her sleepless nights, as well as the thoughts and writings of famous poets and philosophers on the topic of sleep and insomnia. After a while, these mini-essays, observations, musings and ponderings begin to paint a literary mural about sleep - one of my favourite topics - and what it's like not being able to get it.

As a rule, I generally don't like reading books without chapters. However, the arc of Insomnia is more dreamlike and doesn't lend itself well to a specific structure and the lack of chapters here seemed logical. Each 'idea' is presented in a short/long paragraph with a decent break until the next one which allows the reader to stop - or keep going - without the mental interruption of a chapter break.

Here's one of the vignettes I enjoyed the most, thanks to her suggested collective noun:
"You would think that writing on insomnia has turned me into some kind of expert! Practically everyone I meet now tells me about their sleep troubles. It often turns out to be one of those earplug moments, since there is barely a story I have not heard, a pill I've not tried, or a method I haven't worked before. But it is the mathematics of insomnia that really kills me: the never-ending count of hours lost and gained logged in the ledger of sleep missed and unexpectedly found that every insomniac carries in their head as an account of their own sorry deficiency. Perhaps, after all, the collective noun that fits us best is a calculation of insomniacs." Page 52
As you can see, Benjamin has a personable writing style and her musings are relatable. In this slim book she talks about acquiring a nocturnal literacy and I think it's safe to say she's attained this.
"Besides, intrusive thinking is just one way the insomniac brain stokes itself. Harder to fathom (and to treat) is the freewheeling, seemingly autonomous tripping through utter banality, the night-time regurgitation of daytime crud - of the stuff that doesn't actually merit deliberation - that moves like an arm-linked chain of can-can dancers through a demi-wakefulness that exists beyond any conscious control, but (and this is the source of frustration) is conscious enough - kick, and kick, and kick - that you have to clock it." Page 85
Every reader can relate to bouts of sleeplessness or wakefulness, but Benjamin describes her insomnia so convincingly that I was able to understand her experience on a deeper level:
"Too often my insomniac mind is stuck in crud-chewing mode. It feeds me snippets of song, meshed with advertorial-type sloganising that might, in turn, trigger a memory from childhood before pinging back to a thought-of desire (a want) or to something I saw on the internet, or something someone told me - then on again, unpredictable, inconsequential, threading and worming inside my head. Nothing is more inimical to rest and yet I am powerless to stop it. It is like waterboarding the mind with meaningless overflow, a smothering drip, drip, drip of surplus thought." Page 85-86
I wonder how many writers feel the same way the author does in this passage:
"But then the fear that presses in on me is that my work might be fated never to transcend the neurotic. The very idea that this may be the case is so profoundly disturbing, so unsettling, it is as if the ground I walk on had begun to bubble and liquefy. Writing for me is both compass and anchor." Page 98
The idea that writing can be both a compass and an anchor really made me stop and consider.

Marina Benjamin is obviously well read and I enjoyed the snippets she shares on all manner of topics, including literature, art, history, psychology and philosophy. With an interest in sleep and insomnia, I enjoyed accompanying Benjamin on her self guided tour of famous writings about these topics, but the elements of memoir were far less enjoyable for me.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin is recommended for insomniac readers who enjoy memoirs and essays and those interested in the topic of sleep and insomnia.

My Rating:

24 October 2022

Review: The Body by Bill Bryson

The Body by Bill Bryson audiobook cover

I enjoyed listening to At Home: A Short History of Private Life at the beginning of the year and decided to seek out more of Bill Bryson's work. The Body: A Guide for Occupants, written and narrated by Bill Bryson seemed like a good place to start, and promises to provide the reader with a Bryson-esque overview of the human body and all of its functions.

Not having any background whatsoever in medicine, physiology or biology, this was a solid introduction to the human body for me.

The book is full of interesting and often entertaining facts, like this one from the Belly Button Biodiversity Project:
"60 random Americans had their belly buttons swabbed, to see what was lurking there microbially. The study found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 of which were unknown to science. That is an average of 24.3 new to science microbes in every navel." Chapter 2, The Outside: Skin and Hair
Bryson seems to have an insatiable appetite for history and science and it made me wonder how this book came about. Did the author set out to write about the human body and then conduct the research? Or did he pursue a natural interest in the topic and then see a need to summarise his learning in a way that would benefit other readers?

Either way, this was an educational and often surprising read, how's this?
"The largest source of foodborne illness is not meat or eggs or mayonnaise as is commonly thought but green leafy vegetables. They account for 1 in 5 of all food illnesses." Chapter 15, The Guts
Wow, I had no idea! The Body: A Guide for Occupants is very accessible to the average reader; it's a fantastic foundation for those eager to learn and a solid introduction for those seeking a general overview. Just now, reading more about the Belly Button Biodiversity Project, (tell me you aren't going to Google it later) and I'm reading it in Bryson's voice, which means he has clearly left an impression.

Published pre-pandemic in 2019, it has aged well considering and I look forward to reading more of Bryson's work in the future. What should I read next?

My Rating:

20 October 2022

Review: Old Vintage Melbourne 1960-1990 by Chris Macheras

Old Vintage Melbourne 1960-1990 by Chris Macheras book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Old Vintage Melbourne 1960-1990 by Chris Macheras is the sequel to Old Vintage Melbourne and is for all those who enjoy studying urban photographs of this wonderful capital city. Melbourne was voted the world's most liveable city for 7 years in a row from 2011 and I'm proud to call the city home.

While Old Vintage Melbourne included photographs taken between the mid 1880s and the mid 1990s, this collection - as the title suggests - focuses on the three decades between 1960 - 1990 which makes for a well thought out sequel. Being a child of the 1970s, seeing this collection of colour photographs taken before my birth, at the time of my birth and into my own living memory was quite something and met a level of curiosity that wasn't satisfied in the first book.

I enjoyed the snippets of history that were unknown to me prior to reading this book, like the fact that a 12yo boy vanished in 1982 when he was playing in the reflecting pool and fountain in the City Square; now the Metro tunnel work site on the corner of Swanston Street and Collins Street. The temperature on that day was in the 40s and the water would have been tempting, however the boy was sucked into the circulation system of the fountain and disappeared from view. Despite frantic and heroic efforts from his friend, he was presumed drowned until he was miraculously found alive, 1.5 hours later! Apparently he found an air pocket in the main cavern and was rescued when the water was pumped out by the fire brigade. Wow, how terrifying for him and his parents! If you want to read about this tale of survival and learn more about the incredible bravery of the boy's friend, you can read the entire story here for free.

All of that said, I had to deduct a star in my rating due to the editing of this collection. The author's name is misspelled in one of the photo credits (page 33) and on page 106, the content for two photographs have been reversed, presumably due to a layout change at some point in the process. The content accompanying the photographs is critical to the overall enjoyment of the collection and in this case, the book would have benefitted from a tighter editing process.

On a more positive note, Macheras has touchingly included a photograph of his grandparents in this collection, which was a lovely personal touch and an indulgence the reader will surely allow.

Reading Old Vintage Melbourne 1960-1990 by Chris Macheras made me nostalgic about the past, but I find it fascinating that I don't feel the same way looking around at today's streetscapes. I always notice when a building disappears or a storefront changes, but I don't feel their loss in the same way as businesses which closed decades ago. Why is that?

In studying the images in this collection, signage is just as interesting as the architecture and equally as compelling as the subjects who happen to have been present at the precise moment the photo was taken. I enjoyed imagining myself in those settings (how fun would it be to browse the aisles at Coles New World in the 1970s) and wondering about the lives of those captured unawares. Where are they now?

I know we're living in changeable times, and when I walk around the CBD now, I'm reminded that the Metro tunnel is going to significantly change the city landscape and new train stations are being constructed as we speak. It's clear that there's so much more greenery in this collection than in the past, and it doesn't seem to be related to the time it takes to grow a tree. It seems to me that as Australian culture has shifted and evolved over time, urban planners, developers and councils have embraced the advantages of greenery in the city to cool the towers of concrete and glass on every block as well as improve the aesthetics and air quality of the urban landscape. This continues even now with council grants encouraging green walls, rooftop and community gardens and rooftop beehives.

My favourite images in this collection were by far the aerial shots of Southbank and South Melbourne, and I could look at these for hours comparing what I can see in the images to what I know of the landscape as it is right now. The Then/Now comparisons are wonderful for that purpose and the author has included several throughout the collection.

I can't help but wonder - and hope - that Chris Macheras' love for Melbourne continues, his Instagram account continues to thrive (his motivation for the books) and that he might soon start planning another sequel that could take us closer to the present date. Retro Melbourne would make a terrific title, don't you think?

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

16 October 2022

Review: Yours In Books by Julie Falatko

Yours In Books by Julie Falatko book cover

Children's books that celebrate a love of reading will get me every time, and I couldn't resist purchasing a copy of Yours In Books by Julie Falatko. Our main character is Owl T. Fencepost and all he wants is to be left alone in his tree house to read his books in peace.

Owl lives at the top of an old oak tree and is bothered by noisy animals. Frustrated, he writes a letter to a bookshop after perusing their marvellous catalog and a friendship slowly develops. The entire book is told in a series of letters and book recommendations (two of my favourite things), and Owl begins to make a new friend in the owner of the bookshop, Bessie Squirrel.

Illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo, the book is full of cheerful and charming illustrations and I heartily enjoyed reading the letters and observing the relationship growing between the two characters with each letter they wrote, sent and received. The book recommendations were amusing too and I think older readers will enjoy the titles.

It was immediately clear - to me anyway - that Yours In Books is a different take on 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. For those who haven't had the pleasure, 84 Charing Cross Road is a non fiction collection of letters initiated by Helene Hanff living in New York to a second hand bookshop in London called Messrs Marks and Co. The letters were part of a 20 year correspondence between Hanff and Frank Doel and while it was published in 1970, I thoroughly enjoyed it in 2012.

Perhaps it's a coincidence that ten years later I'm reading a children's book that seems to be inspired by 84 Charing Cross Road or the 1987 movie starring Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins.

The choice to present this delightful read for a new generation of little readers in a dust jacket is once again an interesting choice for a children's book. When reviewing The Farmhouse I observed that this was an odd choice for a children's book, but you tell me. Is this the trend in children's books? Do parents, librarians and teachers think it's a good idea?

Yours In Books by Julie Falatko and illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo is an engaging little story and I look forward to sharing it with my niece and nephew.

My Rating:

12 October 2022

Review: Runt by Craig Silvey

Runt by Craig Silvey book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Runt by Craig Silvey was a sheer delight to read, it felt like 'coming home.' Forget his earlier books Honeybee and Jasper Jones, Runt is completely different and aimed at his youngest reading audience yet.

Annie Shearer is eleven years old and lives in a small country town called Upson Downs. Her parents run a sheep farm and Annie never goes anywhere without her leather tool belt, causing some kids to think she's a little odd.
"Fixing things is Annie's hidden talent. If something is wrong, she wants to make it right. But some problems are so tricky that it's not clear how to solve them, or they're so large that the solution doesn't fit in her tool belt. Like the drought, for example." Page 5
I warmed to Annie instantly and cheered when she made a friend in the stray dog of undetermined pedigree, Runt. Scavenging from bins and being chased by the local constabulary, Runt was all alone in the world, until he met Annie and they became fast friends.

The unique relationship between Annie and Runt is special and together they're capable of achieving great feats. Annie enters them both into an agility course at the local show in an attempt to win the grand prize of $500 to help her parents pay the mortgage on the mortgage. Naturally we want them to win, but Runt has a fear of being watched and won't do any tricks if someone else is watching. How are they going to be able to run the agility course at the show with so many people looking on?

Every chapter book needs a villain and Silvey gives us two: the Collector who lives on the hill and buys up properties whose owners have fallen victim to the hardships of drought, and a fellow competitor in the world of canine agility courses, Fergus Fink.

The story is further enhanced by charming illustrations by Sara Acton. Born in England but now living in Australia, Sara was kind enough to reach out on Instagram after enjoying my Bookmark Monday post so naturally I think we should permanently adopt her.

Brimming with little life lessons and subtle morals along the way, Runt is full of heart. If you loved Matilda by Roald Dahl, this is the book for you. There's even a 14 page teacher's resource available for download. 

Runt by Australian author Craig Silvey is an uplifting, heartwarming and comforting read for all ages and I'm looking forward to passing this on to family.

My Rating:

08 October 2022

Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Fairy Tale by Stephen King book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Charlie Reade is a terrific kid! Charlie's Mum died when he was ten and his Dad became an alcoholic, forcing Charlie to learn how to take care of himself. Years later, Charlie is in his teens and his Dad is newly sober, trying to adjust to their new normal when Charlie meets an old German shepherd called Radar and her owner, grumpy old recluse Howard Bowditch.

King has a knack for writing stories with wholesome and likeable young male characters meeting cantankerous old men and the relationships that develop between them. I particularly enjoyed the short story Mr Harrigan's Phone contained in the collection If It Bleeds from 2020, and if you enjoyed that, you'll love the first third of this book. 

Charlie is a well-read, upstanding high schooler when he meets the elusive and mysterious Mr Bowditch and as a consequence of their meeting, their lives begin to change. Charlie loves to watch old movies, read old books and generally feels like an old soul, with nothing to indicate he's a modern 17 year old teenager which may bother some readers. Here Charlie explores Mr Bowditch's house with Radar close behind:
"She followed me down the hall, which was dim and sort of amazing. One side was stacked with old magazines done up in bundles that were tied with hayrope. The other side was stacked with books, most of them old and with that smell that old books have. Probably not everyone likes that smell, but I do. It's musty, but good must." Page 24
Charlie begins to suspect Mr Bowditch has some pretty big secrets, and when he finds out what's in the garden shed, the real adventure starts.

The plot seemed like a meeting of The Neverending Story, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland with a clear quest and adventure trope, replete with giant cockroaches, giants, curses, a talking horse and a sundial with magical properties. A kingdom ruled by a villain while the royal family cowers is too tempting for Charlie who wants to help. Is he the chosen one? The promised prince? My eyes started to roll a little at this point.

Thankfully, the novel is saved from devolving completely by moments of clarity like this one:
"You may say I have no reason to feel shame, that I did what I had to do to save my life and the shed's secret, but shame is like laughter. And inspiration. It doesn't knock." Page 574
These are the snippets I love uncovering in a Stephen King novel, the character insights that make me reflect on life, people and relationships, however they were few and far between in Fairy Tale.

King incorporates many myths, legends and fairytales in this novel, and readers will recognise characters inspired by their stories, such as The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Goose Girl and Rumpelstiltskin. I'm sure there were more and devoted fans will no doubt produce a comprehensive list soon but they didn't really add any depth or layers to my reading enjoyment.

Fairy Tale feels like a fun carefree project for King of sheer indulgence; a creative exploration of stories and stories within stories with way too many tropes that written by any other author, probably wouldn't have made a splash on the new release calendar.

Notwithstanding, Stephen King is an internationally bestselling author and an auto-read for many of us, who happily read through books like Fairy Tale, in the hopes of discovering real gems like 11.22.63 and Billy Summers. Dog lovers will find much to love within these pages, and Radar is arguably the biggest and certainly the most important character in the novel.

Fairy Tale is recommended for hard core Stephen King fans, constant readers, dog lovers and the completionists of you out there. First timers are advised to start elsewhere in King's oeuvre.

My Rating:

03 October 2022

Review: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham book cover

It's time for another classic, and this time... it was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. Published 71 years ago in 1951, The Day of the Triffids is a science fiction novel set in England and I'm pleased to say I was pleasantly surprised by how well it has aged.

The story begins in London with Bill, who is in hospital after having treatment on his eyes. His eyes are bandaged up and he isn't able to watch the incredible meteor shower that is lighting up skies around the world. The next day, everyone who watched the meteor shower is blind.

The action begins very early on, and there's certainly no slow burn build up:
"From the street below rose a scream, wildly distraught and contagiously terrifying. It came three times, and when it had died away it seemed still to tingle in the air." Page 4
We then accompany Bill as he works out what has happened and what he does from there. As the reader, we can't help but wonder what we would do in Bill's situation, and it's clear early on that the effects of the disaster are going to have irreparable repercussions for the human race, with the vast majority of the world now blind. Bill laments early on:
"My way of life, my plans, ambitions, every expectation I had had, they were all wiped out at a stroke along with the conditions that had formed them." Page 47
This story is largely known for the killer plants or triffids of the title. The triffids were present prior to the meteor shower, and didn't arrive in the way Audrey II did in Little Shop of Horrors. I wasn't sure if these plants with their deadly stingers would seem comical to today's reader, but I can assure you they did not. At its heart, I believe The Day of the Triffids is an apocalyptic novel, with the tension focussed around battling the elements and survival, the triffids are just one of the many dangers.

The population is instantly divided into the sighted and the blind, and a new class system is born. The sighted are needed to find food and basics for survival, and Bill faces many dilemmas early on. What is his duty as a sighted person? How many people should he help? As thoughts extend to survival in the future and people begin to form new communities and plan to plant crops and protect themselves from the triffids, people are forced to face harsh realities, prompting many deep and meaningful conversations with the characters.

The following quote is from a lengthy discussion around sexism, and the realisation that human knowledge is going to dwindle from generation to generation and every person is going to have to chip in now to retain as much as possible.
"Times have changed rather radically. You can't any longer say: "Oh dear, I don't understand this kind of thing," and leave it to someone else to do for you. Nobody is going to be muddle-headed enough to confuse ignorance with innocence now - it's too important. Nor is ignorance going to be cute or funny any more. It is going to be dangerous, very dangerous. Unless all of us get around as soon as we can to understanding a lot of things in which we had no previous interest, neither we nor those who depend on us are going to get through this lot." Page 150
The events in the book spark many conversations and force the reader to consider what they would do given the same situation. One group planned to create new laws while another focussed on ensuring all fertile women became pregnant so that they could give birth to sighted babies as soon as possible; to aid in the building of a new world.

With many accidents and deaths along the way resulting from an array of new dangers, many of the characters have lost all of their family and loved ones and find themselves alone in this 'new world.'
"Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary... That day I learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly - that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do." Page 177
While reading The Day of the Triffids, I couldn't help thinking about the TV series See, starring Jason Momoa. See is a brilliant tv show set in a post-apocalyptic world in the future where being blind is the norm. Two children are born who can see, and the story begins from there. Witnessing how the characters in this world have engineered their lives to cope with their communal blindness made me wonder if any of the writers have read The Day of the Triffids.

I think it's a shame that this novel was adapted for the screen in the 1960s and became part of a period of terrible C Grade horror films. The same thing happened in the 1980s when several novels by Stephen King were turned into terrible boring movies that didn't do justice to the original source material.

While short in length, this Penguin clothbound edition (I love these!) has small font, so reading this classic slowed my reading progress significantly. I usually read around 6 books per month, but only read 4 in September as I was plodding through this classic. I don't read classics often, but the rewarding experience is always worth the additional time and effort.

The Day of the Triffids is a modern classic, and now I see why. (Sorry, couldn't resist). The events in the novel raise some serious questions, highlight terrible human behaviour while showcasing brave and good natured people just trying to help their fellow human beings to survive.

Important topics like law, power, subjugation, suicide and polygamy are faced and discussed by the characters, with plenty to engage the active mind of a student, or tempt discussion at a book club.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

26 September 2022

Review: A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird

A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird book cover

Amaze-a-loo! A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird is my second novel from this talented Australian author, but it was published two years before The Emporium of Imagination rocked my world and made it straight onto my Top 5 Books of 2021 list. I was keen to pick up her debut and with a matching signed bookmark in hand, I began reading with high expectations.

In A Lifetime of Impossible Days, Willa Waters is our main character and we meet her at age 8 (Super Gumboots Willa), age 33 (Middle Willa) and age 93 (Silver Willa). Thanks to a mysterious box with strange instructions, Willa is able to visit her future selves, and her future selves can also visit with her. At one point in Willa's life there's a tragedy and the three Willas need to work together in order to stop it from happening.

Once again, Tabitha Bird's writing is immersive and young Willa was such a likeable character you could even say she was amaze-a-loo! (One of her favourite sayings). 

Willa's Grammy is a warm, wise, loving and memorable character and the midnight tea parties sounded magical and wondrous. The author is able to tap into family love and emotion in such a raw and moving way, I was spellbound.
" 'Oh, don't worry dear. I have that problem, too.' I want to say things that are blankets around this little girl's shoulders." Page 208
For those worried about getting lost in the perspectives of each of the Willas, the author has thoughtfully named each chapter, constantly reminding the reader of who we are 'with' so to speak. Having said that, by the end of the novel I did find the time travel aspect a little timey-wimey and wasn't able to keep up with all of the mechanics. Thankfully it didn't hamper my ability to follow the overarching narrative, but it did interrupt my thoughts while reading, costing it one star in my review.

A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird is an exploration of memory, time, ageing, trauma, abuse, grief and ultimately the power of love. It's also about changing the future and dealing with the past with many life lessons in between.

Here, Grammy gives Willa some advice on regret.
"'Regret is expensive in ways you can't imagine.' My voice is choked. 'What if remembering also costs too much?' Grammy [says] 'Ah, Willa. That's always the question when we're faced with a challenge. What will it all cost? Remembering your past and dealing with it will no doubt be expensive. But I'm telling you, forgetting costs more.' There's such a deepness in Grammy's eyes, a loss or hurt from so long ago that it seems outside of time itself." Page 163
Make sure to have some jam drops nearby when reading this uniquely Australian magical realism novel that is bound to warm your heart.

My Rating:

16 September 2022

Review: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette *

Sublime, just sublime! The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell is one of my most highly anticipated releases for 2022, especially after her previous novel Hamnet made it on to my Top 5 Books of 2021 list last year.

The Marriage Portrait is an historical fiction novel about the life of Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici set in Renaissance Florence in the 16th century. The author shares an historical note at the front of the book telling us that in 1560, newly married Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici left Florence at the age of fifteen to begin her life with husband Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Less than a year later, Lucrezia would be dead, surrounded by the rumour she was murdered by her husband for failing to produce an heir.

This author's note made for an incredibly unexpected beginning, and ensured that every reader - regardless of their knowledge of Italian history - embarked on the novel on equal terms.

In doing so, we follow Lucrezia's narrative in dual timelines in pre-marriage years (1550s) and post marriage years of 1560, right up until her death in 1561. Lucrezia was a troubled child and her mother blamed herself for the girl's odd behaviour.
"It has been drummed into her by physicians and priests alike, that the character of a child is determined by the mother's thoughts at the moment of conception. Too late, however. Eleanora's mind, here in the map room, is unsettled, untamed, wandering at will. She is looking at maps, at landscapes, at wildernesses." Page 10
How is it even possible to shake our heads at the mistaken belief a woman's thoughts during sex and conception would affect a child's temperament, while simultaneously hopeful that the child born of such a union will be wild and adventurous. Reading this, I couldn't wait to find out what kind of girl Lucrezia would turn out to be.

The writing in The Marriage Portrait is simply divine. Each time I picked up this gorgeous book with stunning cover design, beautiful end papers and fabulous french flaps I had to stop and take note of page numbers I wanted to come back to and descriptions that took my breath away.

Here's a sample of the author's humour first:
"'Indeed,' Vitelli remarked, inclining his head, then he pulled an odd face, his eyes creased, his lips retreating from his teeth. It took Lucrezia a moment to realise that Vitelli was attempting a smile." Page 87
Later the author describe's the cause of Lucrezia's insomnia so clearly that every reader can relate to her plight:
"But sleep will not come for Lucrezia, refuses to hear her call. Her mind, made restless by the journey, by the new rooms, has too much to do, too many impressions to review and polish and store away, too many questions to pose and ponder." Quote page 303
How many readers can immediately relate to Lucrezia's insomnia? I'd go so far as to say all of us, yet somehow O'Farrell makes her protagonist's insomnia feel otherworldly, and so weighted down by history yet instantly relatable at the same time.

Sometimes the author was able to move me with just two words, in this case 'apologetic' and 'creep', have you ever seen them together? How's this:
"She is used to the Tuscan climate, where there is a slow tapering-off of warmth and light, a gradual tip into autumn, winter arriving in an apologetic creep." Page 353
This gave me a little shiver, and I instantly visualised the frosty winter creeping across the land. In some cases, the writing is free and other times - like this one - the writing is claustrophobic. When donning her wedding dress, Lucrezia notes the following:
"The gown rustles and slides around her, speaking a glossolalia all of its own, the silk moving against the rougher nap of the underskirts, the bone supports of the bodice straining and squealing against their coverings, the cuffs scuffing and chafing the skin of her wrists, the stiffened collar hooking and nibbling at her nape, the hip supports creaking like the rigging of a ship. It is a symphony, an orchestra of fabrics, and Lucrezia would like to cover her ears, to stop them with her palms, but she cannot. She must continue like this to the door; she must walk through it, out into the corridor, where there are people - her father's officials, her mother's retinue - waiting for her." Page 123
The author made me feel the oppressive weight of the fabric, itch with discomfort and bend under the pressure of the stifling expectations. Ugh, heavy stuff!

Lucrezia reluctantly fulfils her duty by marrying her dead sister's fiance, but her husband Alfonso is a real piece of work. Simultaneously charming and manipulative, he soon emerges as a fully developed monster. Lucrezia is a young woman without any agency, but thankfully she is still full of spirit:
"Only she knows that within, just under her chilled skin, something quite other is taking place: flames, vibrant and consoling, lick at her insides, a fire kindles, cracks and smoulders, throwing out smoke that infiltrates every corner of her, every fingernail, every inch of her limbs. Her hair surrounds her - all he can see of her is the top of her head. He must believe she is listening to his lecture, to his chiding, but no. She is stoking this conflagration, letting it blaze, encouraging it to sear every inside space. He will never know, will never reach this part of her, no matter how violently he grips her arm or seizes her wrists." Pages 277 - 278
When Lucrezia begins to fear her life is in danger, she is desperate to escape her plight. She ruminates:
"Her brothers, by contrast, were trained as rulers: they have been taught to fight, to argue, to debate, to negotiate, to outwit, to outmanoeuvre, to wait, to spot an advantage, to scheme and manipulate and consolidate their influence. They have been schooled in rhetoric, in narrative, in persuasion, both written and verbal. Every morning they are drilled in running, jumping, boxing, weight-lifting, fencing. They have learnt to handle a sword, a dagger, a bow, a lance, a spear; they are taught how to fight on a battlefield: they have studied military tactics. They have been instructed in hand-to-hand combat, with their fists and their feet, in the event of their needing to defend themselves on a street or in a room or on a staircase. They have been taught the fastest and most efficient ways to end the life of another person - an enemy or an assailant or an undesirable." Page 282
Just as Lucrezia is reflecting on all of this, the reader shares her absolute horror that her husband Alfonso will have undergone the same training. How can she refuse to yield herself to a man like that? How can she ever fight back or stand up to him? She is his inferior in every way.

Occasionally, due to the Florentine setting and the inclusion of the Medici family, I was reminded of Luna in The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt. Set in 1479, that novel is also a young coming of age story set in renaissance Italy with a spirited and inspiring female protagonist chafing against the cultural constraints against women. If you enjoyed one, you'll love the other but I do recommend reading them more than three months apart.

The ending of The Marriage Portrait was a complete and utter shock, and it shouldn't have been. I'll say no more, but readers will either love the surprise, or they won't. I wasn't a fan, but the novel moved me so much that The Marriage Portrait is still a solid 5 star read for me and a definite contender for this year's Top 5 Books of 2022 list.

Sublime and highly recommended!

My Rating: