30 July 2022

Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Atomic Habits by James Clear audiobook cover

Keen to put an end to a newly formed self-sabotaging habit, I listened to the audiobook of Atomic Habits by James Clear. Despite being advertised quite heavily on GoodReads these last few weeks, I'm sure I wasn't influenced by the Amazon advertising, was I? I strive to keep my reading free from hype and targeted marketing, but can we ever be sure our reading choices are 'pure'? I digress.

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear didn't manage to offer this reader anything new. Having read many self help books over the years, and experienced varying degrees of success and failure in goal setting and habit tracking in the past, I was surprised to find I was doing better than I thought.

I started a new walking habit during lockdown that has now 'stuck' for two years and I also track my performance against an exercise physiology program which has enabled me to make greater progress.

I've been keeping a food diary since 2018, and on habit tracking, Clear says:
"Those who kept a daily food log lost twice as much weight as those that did not. The mere act of tracking a behaviour can spark the urge to change it." Chapter 16
If you haven't experienced this yourself, the mere act of being accountable to someone, knowing a person other than yourself is going to look at your results - or lack thereof - can be its own form of motivation. I'm a person who definitely needs to be held accountable (and I learned this reading The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin), but as Clear says, tracking can become its own kind of reward as you see the progress. This is so true!

Despite being familiar with the topic, in Atomic Habits, James Clear sometimes delivers the material in seemingly new and refreshing ways, like this pearl:
"Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits".
This makes things crystal clear, doesn't it? If you have a habit of reading before bed every night, then you're more likely to read a number of books in a month or year. If you are a shopaholic, or have a habit of spending more than you earn, or eating more than you burn, then you won't be able to save up for a home deposit and are likely to be carrying some extra weight.

I loved this insight from James Clear on finances and wish all school leavers were taught this when they entered the workforce:
"Saving money is often associated with sacrifice, however you can associate it with freedom rather than limitation if you realise one simple truth: living below your current means increases your future means." Chapter 10
Basically, if you change the habit, you will change the outcome. If you have a desired outcome, you can set goals and create habits to help you achieve them. Sounds simple and I'm still learning, but I WAS able to kick a newly formed habit that was getting out of control. But perhaps it wasn't the book that helped me achieve that, but the intention I set that by the time I finish reading this book, I will stop that bad habit. Interesting to consider, isn't it?

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear is recommended for readers new to the topic. If you have a favourite book about habits, I'd love you to recommend any further reading on the topic. You can also check out my review of Better Than Before - Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin.

My Rating:

27 July 2022

Review: The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia *

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd is an historical fiction novel about the Batavia. Nine year old girl Mayken is aboard the flagship Batavia, built by the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam in 1628. The ship is on her maiden voyage to Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies in what we now call Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Batavia was an impressive ship carrying three hundred passengers and in a 10 year project starting in 1985, a full size replica of the ship was built using the same materials and methods employed in the early 17th century. Similar to the Titanic, it's heartbreaking to know that the Batavia sunk on her first voyage.

Steward Jan Pelgrom (a character based on a real person on the voyage) tells our protagonist Mayken more about the ship and about what happens in the belly of the ship or 'The Below World':
"First of all there's the gun deck. Where sailors bicker and curse, eat and sleep and the ship's barber lops off legs. Where the cook's galley gets hotter than Hell and the rats the cats can't catch grow big enough to steal babies. The orlop deck below that is for cows and soldiers. And below that, there's the hold." Page 13
Meanwhile, in 1989 we meet nine year old Gil, sent to stay with his Grandfather on a remote fishing village off the coast of Western Australia. Gil is struggling to fit in and understand his place in the world, while surrounded by fishermen and scientists searching for remains of the Batavia wreckage and fragments from the survivor's settlement that followed.

The island is remote and hostile and Gil is haunted by stories of a ghost girl.
"Gil has a watched sort of feeling. He reassures himself that his room is too small for any quantity of ghosts, unless they can overlap. But then the dead can't harm you; it's the living you should fear. The ghosts ought to make themselves useful and go out and haunt the veranda in case Roper returns." Page 93
I love Gil's sense of humour and applaud the writing style. Mayken is curious and friendly and makes many friends on the voyage. She likes to explore the ship when she can and here she is asking her favourite old sailor (Holdfast) if he has any stories:
"The old sailor obliges. He tells the sleepy child stories of cursed ports and blood-red roses, of the gunner's beautiful daughter, of love knots and promises. His words are snatched up and hauled away by the wind, which picks up as the ship ploughs on through the night." Page 157
While brief, this particular relationship between Mayken and Holdfast was incredibly touching and I also enjoyed the interactions between Mayken and the kitchen boy. However the journey continues on for months and the crew and passengers become restless as their health begins to suffer without fresh food.
"As is the way with souls confined, tempers fray and flare, ill-spoken words fester, coincidences become intrigues. Minds seethe with resentment and revenge like the worms in the water barrels.
As the ship spoils, so does the air between the people." Page 163
At one point, Mayken becomes justifiably emotional and the writer's expertise in making the reader feel every part of her anguish was clear on the page:
"She doesn't want to be calm. She wants to tear the ship apart, rivet by rivet, bolt by bolt, drag the caulking out with her teeth, lever up the boards with her fingernails. She wants to swing off the shrouds screaming and rend the main sail. Instead, she sleeps." Page 196
If you know your history - and even if you don't - you soon discover that the Batavia is going to come to grief off the coast of Australia and I REALLY didn't want to read about what happened afterwards. Approximately 40 people drowned in the wreck, but the rest were able to swim, float or paddle ashore. Worried a rescue wouldn't arrive in time, a savage fight over rations and scrabble for power amongst the survivors led to the cold blooded murder of many men, women and children in a series of atrocities. This made for hard reading, but these scenes were interspersed with some lighter moments with Gil which carried me through.

Gil isn't shipwrecked but he's facing his own hardship as he comes of age with a Grandfather who seems emotionally unavailable but trying to do his best. In fact it reminded me of Sam and Vic's relationship in Honeybee by Craig Silvey.

I loved Gil's thoughts on karma:
"Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people; that is the law of karma. Good deeds get rewarded and bad acts get punished. Help someone out, you'll win the lottery. Steal from a shop, a bird will shit on your head. Sometimes you'll get bad karma for something you don't do, like not helping an old lady who falls down in the road. In a few days, a month, or a year, a hole will appear in your pocket and your wallet will fall through it. That's karma." Page 259
Love it! Gil is so endearing and his thoughts and observations often made me smile. I especially loved the scenes featuring his pet tortoise and the link that connected Gil to Mayken was a nice touch.

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd reminded me of Devotion by Hannah Kent and The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews, so if you enjoyed either of those historical fiction novels, you'll enjoy this one too. The writing for both narratives and time periods in The Night Ship was seamless and moving. In the past I reviewed The Hoarder and Things in Jars by Jess Kidd, but didn't quite reach the lofty heights of a five star review. I think this time she has earned that additional star. Highly recommended!

My Rating:

25 July 2022

Winners of Once Upon A Camino announced

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway last week to win 1 of 5 signed print copies of Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson. This was an international giveaway so we had heaps of entries and I'd like to welcome all new subscribers.

Entries closed at midnight last night and the author helped me choose the winners. Congratulations to the following winners:

Michele Douglas, Diana, Cousin Phil, Ash & Claire Woods!!

Congratulations to each of our five winners! You've won a signed copy of Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson valued at $32.99AUD thanks to the author. The winners will receive an email from me shortly, and will have 7 days to provide a postal address and their preferred inscription. You will receive your prize direct from the author and hope you enjoy Tom's journey.

For those who missed out, I'll be sharing a combined giveaway and interview with AViVA next and a giveaway for Framed by John M. Green next month. If you'd like more details, all dates are on my Giveaways page so please come back and enter if you see anything you like.

Carpe Librum!
Carpe Librum image promoting giveaway of 5 copies of Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson

21 July 2022

Review: Westography by Warren Kirk

Westography by Warren Kirk book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Originally published in 2016 this is a re-release of Westography by Warren Kirk with the addition of new photographs from this Melbourne based photographer. I missed Westography when it was first released, and picked up his work with Northside followed by Christmas in Suburbia. The chance to go back and see his work focussing on the suburbs of West Melbourne was enticing and ultimately a rewarding experience.

Commencing with a terrific introduction by Helen Garner, we soon step back in time to yesteryear or through the rabbit hole to the 1950s, or is it the 1970s? Kirk takes us inside homes and businesses, as well as including streetscapes, shop frontages and more in this collection. Many of the subjects photographed were proud Western Bulldogs fans, and several homes featured include their owners' unquestionable support for their beloved AFL team.

Kirk seems to have a keen interest in the social history of Melbourne and preserving life as it was in the home and in the workplace 'back in the day'. When that period actually was is not defined, but as the reader we instantly relate, his photographs remind us of the homes we lived in or visited when we were young, the workplaces we glimpsed or the front yards we walked or drove past on our way somewhere.

The photographs are timeless and could have been taken anywhere in Australia and I suspect Warren Kirk's entire body of work will become more and more treasured as time marches on and these places are slowly erased from history.

I'd love to know how Kirk finds so many spaces little changed by the passing years and the relationships he establishes as part of his work. The subjects appear comfortable and at ease in their surroundings which can be difficult when posing for a happy snap let alone someone of Warren Kirk's calibre. How does he meet them, enter their personal space and put them at ease? Seeing the end result is only part of the story for me, and I wanted more. I made the same complaint observation when reviewing Northside, and I still wish Kirk's photographs included a caption, or even the year they were taken. Instead the reader must do all of the work imagining and wondering about the subjects and their lives with nothing to go on but the name of the suburb.

I remember my excitement learning about an apartment in Paris that had been locked up and undisturbed for 70 years, and marvelling at the lucky souls who entered those rooms and took the photos that quickly went around the world. We all wondered at the circumstances surrounding the apartment and how it remained undisturbed and unchanged for so long. Compared to a phenomenon like that, it's equally exciting to discover contemporary houses and rooms that have been actively lived in and enjoyed but look precisely as they did 30, 40 or 50+ years ago. Both instances provide a looking glass into the past and remind us of the passage of time. I also enjoy viewing abandoned photography for this same reason.

While enjoying this nostalgic collection, I realised with a jolt that I recognised two personal items in people's homes; an art deco lamp that looks exactly like my Mum's and a kitchen board by Christopher Vine Design that sits on a kitchen bench I frequent in Sydney. It's proof that the longer you look, the more you'll see.

Westography by Warren Kirk is recommended for those who enjoy photography and readers with an interest in social history. If you'd like a sneak peek, the publisher has shared a flick through of sorts on YouTube and I encourage you to check it out. Highly recommended.

My Rating:

15 July 2022

Giveaway (5 copies) & Review of Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson

* Copy courtesy of the author *
Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson book cover

Nine years ago, I interviewed Melbourne based author Matthew S. Wilson about reading, writing and his debut novel at the time, The Devil's In The Detail. Since then, Matthew has been working hard on his next masterpiece and has re-emerged from years of research with a compelling adventure story set in Spain.

Today marks the release of Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson and to celebrate, Carpe Librum is giving away 5 copies signed by the author. This is an international giveaway and entries close at midnight AEST Sunday 24 July. See below to enter. 


So, what did I make of it? I enjoyed it! Once Upon A Camino is about Tom and his journey on foot as a pilgrim along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Tom is a successful white collar worker in London in love with his girlfriend Ana. He decides to fly to Spain in order to ask for her family's blessing to marry, but Ana's grandfather wants him to prove his love for her. What happens next is an unexpected series of events as Tom agrees to walk the Camino so he can propose to Ana.

Along the gruelling journey, Tom meets fellow pilgrims and they share their stories and motivations for making the same trek. The setting reminded me a little of a modern day take on The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (there's even a Knight!) and I really enjoyed it.

Inspired by his own trek along the Camino in 2010, Once Upon A Camino is thoroughly researched and gave me an insight into Spanish history I hadn't encountered before. Unfolding from multiple character points of view and comprising an element of historical fiction, Once Upon A Camino is a story about love, courage, friendship, regret, fate and destiny and was beautifully told.

My Rating:


Tom, a 28-year-old investment banker, lives a successful life in London with his girlfriend, Ana. Intending to propose, he flies to Spain, seeking her family’s blessing. But his plan runs aground when Ana’s grandfather, Tito, insists the union cannot proceed until Tom walks the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometre pilgrimage across Spain.

‘A man would walk across a country without hesitation for the love of his life, no?’

Upon commencing the Camino, Tom’s plans further unravel – his backpack mysteriously disappears, and his phone loses its signal. And when all the other hikers seemingly vanish, Tom makes a discovery that changes everything. Suddenly pursued by the authorities, Tom’s only path home to Ana is alongside a motley band of pilgrims bound for Santiago – among them a reclusive fisherman named Fernando, who carries his own dark secret.

Once Upon a Camino is a novel about time. It focuses on past regrets and untrodden paths. It’s a story of friendship and connection, of following your heart, despite your better judgement. It’s written for those who’ve walked the path to Santiago and others who simply enjoy life’s unpredictable journey and the strangers we meet along the way.
Carpe Librum image promoting giveaway of 5 signed copies of Once Upon A Camino by Matthew S. Wilson


This giveaway has now closed and the winners will be announced soon.

13 July 2022

Review: Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies book cover

I don't know what I just read. Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies is presented in a series of vignettes and is about a girl called Pearl. Each right hand page (in my copy) is a vignette from Pearl's young life, headlined by a brief chapter heading or title on the opposite page. This makes for a quick read, but the vignettes are heavy and force you to consider what's really going on.

Pearl is a troubled girl and I found myself wondering if she's a sociopath, psychopath or suffering from antisocial personality disorder. Perhaps she's just evil? The author's lyrical writing style put me immediately in mind of Sundial by Catriona Ward, in her ability to create an incredibly creepy young girl. When reviewing Sundial earlier this year, I wrote that it was a 'slow burn, disturbing and unsettling read with a hostile undercurrent' which readily applies here.

The prose in Reasons She Goes to the Woods is spellbinding, and Pearl's visits to the woods are full of evocative nature writing which did well to offset some of the tougher scenes. Meanwhile, there is a constant underlying feeling of menace and mounting dread about what Pearl will do next.

Some of Pearl's childhood antics are relatable, and I especially enjoyed the eating competition:
"I will choose two items of food for each of you, she explains, you have to eat them without throwing up. They all think this is a great idea, and start boasting to each other about how they are never, ever sick." Page 133
Pearl chooses a 'blob of corned beef and a teaspoon of cough medicine for Fee', while the kids load up the spoon for Pearl:
"Soon the big spoon is towering with, among other things, a soft sprout, peanut butter, a slick of Vick's rub, a prune and a crumbled stock cube." Page 133
I could totally relate to this game, although in my day it was a tablespoon of soy sauce, a tablespoon of Vegemite or a full glass of water. What fun!

Published in 2014 and going on to win various awards, Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies is literary horror and while the writing is spectacular, I can't say I enjoyed reading it. The lack of dialogue punctuation and page-long paragraphs certainly irritated and Pearl is a sensual and disturbing character. Those who remember watching The Good Son (starring Macaulay Culkin) will be shocked to find Pearl is even worse.

I borrowed Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies from the library and I'll be glad to send it down the return chute and on to the next reader intrigued by the sinister yet alluring blurb.

My Rating:

09 July 2022

Review: The Biscuit Book - The History of a Very British Indulgence by Lizzie Collingham

The Biscuit Book - The History of a Very British Indulgence by Lizzie Collingham book cover

I love biscuits and every time I opened this book I wanted to eat one. The Biscuit Book - The History of a Very British Indulgence by Lizzie Collingham is naturally full of biscuits, sponge fingers, biscotti, shortbread, macaroons, crackers, digestives, pretzels, rusks, scones, wafers, waffles and much much more.

This is a serious history book that focuses on the origin of particular biscuits, the production and manufacturing of biscuits, the distribution of biscuits, the effect of class and the conditions of workers employed in biscuit factories.

There's quite a lot on the history of sugar, and while you might assume this to be dry, Collingham provides many interesting sweet morsels like this one:
"During the seventeenth century, treacle replaced honey in gingerbread. Treacle is the English name for the molasses or sweet uncrystallised syrup that drains out during the production of sugar as it slowly crystallises into a solid mass. From the 1650s, raw brown muscovado sugar from Britain's new sugar colony in Barbados flooded the London sugar market, and by 1692 there were 38 sugar refineries in the capital, processing the brown sugar cones into white refined sugar. A by-product was plenty of cheap molasses." Page 58-59
To find out what they did with all of that molasses, you'll have to read the book.

Did you know that biscuits with aniseed and caraway seeds were thought to aid digestion and give the consumer fresh breath? Thankfully aniseed and caraway seeds fell out of favour with the French influence of citrus zest for flavourings and the author covers many more cases like this where various countries and cultures have influenced or adopted certain biscuit recipes. Collingham takes us beyond country or culture of origin to explain the how and why those particular items rose to favour in the first place.

This includes describing the origin of biscuit names as they arise in the text, and explaining the continental confusion between biscuits, crackers and cookies:
"What confuses us today is terminology: what the English would now call biscuits, the Americans call crackers or cookies; what the English think of as scones, southern Americans call biscuits. This confusion can be unravelled by tracing the introduction of Dutch bakery traditions into the Americas." Page 86
Further on, the author goes on to explain that:
"the American use of the terms cracker and cookie are the result of a far more straightforward Americanisation of Dutch words." Page 91
Collingham also provides a detailed and thorough history on the evolution of ship's biscuits and hardtack and outlines just how crucial they were to explorers, travellers, traders and of course the war effort. The twentieth century production of biscuits during the two world wars and the produce shortages that preceded and followed them are also covered in great detail, but I'll admit finding these sections somewhat hard going.

Bakers, cooks and home chefs will appreciate the many recipes included throughout, and I was astounded (okay, that's probably the wrong word, perhaps horrified?) to read that many of the original biscuit recipes required hours of whisking.
"But it was the invention of the metal whisk to replace the bundle of twigs used to beat confections in the still room that marked a big step forward in biscuit making. Seventeenth-century instructions specified that at each stage of the process the biscuit dough had to be beaten for at least two hours. In the 1760s, [Elizabeth] Raffald suggested that a mere half an hour with the far more efficient metal whisk was sufficient for each stage, thus reducing the beating time from 6 to 1 1/2 hours." Page 102
Imagine being the person whisking away for hours and if you're a servant, not even being able to taste the fruits of your labour. A detailed history of production, design and distribution of the biscuit tin was fascinating and reading about the many uses for them around the world was an eye opener.

I will say The Biscuit Book - The History of a Very British Indulgence is heavily focussed on war and the effect on biscuits and vice versa, and when I learned the author had published The Taste of War: World War II and The Battle for Food and The Hungry Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World, it became clear that this is the author's area of specialist interest and expertise.

Those looking for a brief history on some of their favourite biccies (Australian slang) like Jaffa Cakes, Kit Kats, Jammie Dodgers, Wagon Wheels, Ryvita and Marie biscuits will find it here, however be prepared to learn way more than anticipated along the way. 

The Biscuit Book is recommended for history buffs and biscuit lovers while other readers may find this a little dry and stale.

My Rating:

05 July 2022

Review: The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth

The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

It feels like an abundance of historical fiction set in WWII has been published in the last 5 years and I'm close to reaching my saturation point, but made an immediate exception for one of my favourite Australian authors Kate Forsyth.

The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth is an historical fiction novel set during WWII in Crete, an island of Greece. Our protagonist Alenka Klothakis is a local and part of the fierce resistance mounted by the Cretans against the German invasion in 1941. The 11 day Battle of Crete (in which 11,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and injured) was expertly written and I cheered the locals as they attacked and killed as many of the German paratroopers as they could with whatever they had to hand. Alenka offers to help the Allied Forces in a makeshift hospital:
"Alenka soon understood why. She had never seen such pain and suffering before. On every side men held out pleading hands, some weeping. She carried buckets of water in and stinking bedpans out, rolled bandages till her hands ached, scrubbed blood off floors, boiled surgical instruments in one pot and soup in another, and held the hand of one poor young man till he died." Page 96
Australian soldiers Teddy and Jack were compelling characters and their relationship with Alenka and other members of the resistance drove the story forward in a unique way. I think readers will love Jack and while Teddy was much less likeable, his motivations throughout the war were - unfortunately - all too realistic.

This was a five star read but for two quibbles. The first was the way in which the novel began which is both a compliment and a minor quibble. The beginning was so magical and evocative I wanted to stay there. Forever. Instead I was wrenched unwillingly into Alenka's adolescent years and the seemingly sudden beginning of the war. The transition from Alenka's childhood memories straight into the war seemed way too quick for me and out of step with the pace set in the opening few pages. Perhaps I was so keen for another book like Bitter Greens (my all time favourite novel by Kate Forsyth) that my mind raced away in an unrelated direction and I resented leaving Alenka's Yia Yia behind after just meeting her.
"Yia-Yia knew many stories of gods and heroes, giants and nymphs, and the Three Fates who spun and measured and cut the thread of life. Many of Yia-Yia's tales were strange and terrible. A girl who was turned into a tree. A woman cursed with snakes for hair. Another whose tongue was cut out and who could only tell her story by embroidering it upon a cloth. The story Yia-Yia told most often, though, was that of the minotaur in the labyrinth, for it was the mythos of Alenka's home, the ruins of the palace of Knossos in the island of Crete." Page 3
Can you blame me for wanting to read a book of Yia-Yia's telling after that paragraph on the opening page? The second quibble comes towards the end of the novel and I can't mention much without potentially spoiling it for others. Suffice to say, a main character acts completely out of keeping with the circumstances and her choices seemed incredibly simplistic and uncharacteristic after what she had endured during the German occupation.

Now that's off my chest, let me tell you The Crimson Thread is the perfect title for this novel, and I loved the references to embroidery and the thread of fate stitched throughout the pages. The way in which embroidery was used to record and exchange messages, and as a respite from the Nazi occupation was inspiring. I know the author started to embroider in preparation for writing this book and it clearly shows. I love to cross-stitch and picking it up again after an unplanned but lengthy hiatus recently, my heart was warmed any time a stitch was sewn in the book.

The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth is highly recommended for fans of historical fiction; even those wary of 'another' WWII novel.

My Rating: