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: