08 June 2023

Review: The Brothers Grimm 101 Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

The Brothers Grimm 101 Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm book cover

I did it! It took me 10 weeks, but I finally read The Brothers Grimm 101 Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. I read the original Snow White and Sleeping Beauty tales and more besides. How do I feel about it? I feel proud of my reading achievement, but the writing style was unfamiliar and it was a somewhat draining reading experience. I was only able to read a few fairytales at a time before needing a break from all of the kings, princesses, curses and forests.

I was shocked to discover just how short some of the fairytales were, namely Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Cap; or as we now know it, Little Red Riding Hood. The brevity of these tales and the way in which they've gone on to inspire untold spin offs and interpretations - one of which, The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager, I just read - is quite remarkable.

As expected, there were some terrific opening lines, like this one from The Hare's Bride:
"There was once a woman and her daughter who lived in a pretty garden with cabbages; and a little hare came into it, and during the wintertime ate all the cabbages." Page 282 The Hare's Bride
I'm instantly 'into' the story with this kind of opening line, and an intro like this reminds me of the stellar fable at the beginning of The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott.

Blessed with some stellar opening lines, some of the fairytales had quite sudden, dreadful or unexpected endings. How's this one from The Mouse, The Bird, and the Sausage:
"Owing to his carelessness the wood caught fire, so that a conflagration ensued, the bird hastened to fetch water, and then the bucket dropped from his claws into the well, and he fell down with it, and could not recover himself, but had to drown there." Page 104 The Mouse, The Bird, and the Sausage
Some of the tales end with a sentiment like 'and they haven't been heard from since" or "where they live to this day." How about these though:
"And the mouth of the man who last told this story is still warm." Page 116 The Bremen Town-Musicians
"Then the children went home together, and were heartily delighted, and if they are not dead, they are living still." Page 204 Fledgling
Isn't that charming? This happy ending describes a wedding party:
"I wish you and I had been there too." Page 208 King Thrushbeard
This isn't the only time the authors break the fourth wall and address the reader directly either. When describing a scene whereby everyone present is collecting as many gold pieces as they can physically carry, comes a comment in brackets direct to the reader:
"(I can see in your face that you also would like to be there.)" Page 151 The Wishing Table, The Gold Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack
I wonder if the brothers could have imagined readers enjoying their stories 200 years after publication. Reading The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs was a highlight of this collection, along with the classic Hansel and Gretel.

Now that I've read them, would I recommend Grimm's Fairytales to other readers? I actually don't think I would. Viewed through today's lenses, the lessons from these fairytales feel simplistic and out of touch: beauty and virtue is good, greed and envy is bad, being ugly is bad and good will always triumph. The fairytales aren't suitable for young children, and there's a lot of violence for children over the age of ten as well, with drownings, curses, amputations, poisonings, beheadings, hangings and all sorts of terrible endings. I actually think storytellers and children's authors from the last 50 years do an excellent job of providing educational and entertaining stories for young children and adults alike.

This collection has been worth reading and while I'm satisfied to have now read the original source material, the experience was enriched by reading it alongside three other book reviewers. Ashleigh (The Book Muse), Veronica (The Burgeoning Bookshelf) and Claire (Claire's Reads and Reviews) joined me for this Grimm's buddy read and Ashleigh lead our conversation based on her study of the subject matter at university. What a great buddy read!

What's your favourite fairytale? I think mine is Hansel and Gretel.

My Rating:

06 June 2023

Review: The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier

The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette *

An historical fiction novel inspired by the Voynich manuscript? Yes please! For those needing a refresher, the Voynich manuscript is a handwritten book on vellum in an unknown script dated to the early 15th century. The book has some botanical illustrations - including some fictitious plants - but the contents have never been successfully de-coded, despite some of the best minds and scholars all over the world doing their best to uncover the mystery. The Voynich manuscript is now available in full and is free online, making it available to the public to view and solve at their leisure. 

The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier is set in Renaissance Florence, where Sister Beatrice is the librarian in a convent. Beatrice feels safe in her library with her prayerbooks and scrolls until the arrival of two women desperately seeking sanctuary one night changes things at the convent irreparably. One of the women hands Beatrice a book, and Beatrice realises this is no ordinary book when men come looking for the women.

After falling in love with the cover design of this book - it might even end up being one of my favourite covers of the year - next to impress me was the writing skill of this new-to-me author.
"'Did you hear that, Beatrice? What do you say to that?' There are many things I should like to say, but none that will do me credit. I swallow a mouthful of pie, and find that my thoughts are in danger of spoiling its flavour." Page 31
I just love that double-barrelled quote, don't you? The convent was a terrific setting, and I greatly enjoyed meeting some of the other sisters and learning the rhythms of life within the veritable safety of the convent walls. The political climate of the time in Italy was relatively familiar, having recently read other books set in Renaissance Florence, largely One Illumined Thread by Sally Colin-James (April 2023); The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt (2022); and The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell (2022).

As the pressure rises and Beatrice finds herself in danger, the author was able to capture unique character insights, like this gem:
"And so, compelled by fear, not buoyed by courage, I fling myself clumsily forwards," Page 270
Having said that, I had to begin to suspend my belief when it came to the powers of the book. I should say that this isn't a dual narrative, and there's no part of the plot set in contemporary times where the book is being decoded. The Book of Eve is inspired by the Voynich manuscript, but isn't about decoding the book. It's an origin story of sorts and I was firmly in a four star frame of mind within the closing pages - one star being lost along the way to the influence of ancient powers. Putting it another way, the creep of urban fantasy into this tale went a little too far for my liking.

However, it was the use of the word 'meaningless' just three pages from the end that saw a further star slip away. The denouement regarding the origin story of the book was a little ambiguous and while I often dislike ambiguity, this one was rather fitting until that one word threw one of my interpretations under the convent's cart wheels, splashing me right in the face.

The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier is a well written feminist tale set in Italy during the Renaissance period and readers without any knowledge of the Voynich manuscript will enjoy this immensely. If you're on the fence, check out a FREE sample of the book.

My Rating:

31 May 2023

Review: Cold People by Tom Rob Smith

Cold People by Tom Rob Smith book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

I read The Farm by Tom Rob Smith in 2014 and I can still remember the gasp I made when I realised the predicament the main character was in. In 2014, I published my first ever Top 5 Books list and The Farm was proudly featured.

Next came Child 44, later made into a movie on the big screen starring Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Noomi Rapace. I gave this 4 stars in my review and went on to become the first Australian blogger to interview Tom Rob Smith.

So, when a copy of Cold People arrived in my mailbox, I knew the author could convincingly set a plot in the harshest climate in the world, as the freezing Russian conditions in Child 44 were expertly conveyed to the reader. I also knew that Tom Rob Smith could spin a terrific yarn - as he did in The Farm - so I rugged up and started reading.

By page 8, he was off to a cracking start with this description of a ship's captain living 150 years ago:
"...[Captain] Moray was an expert in choosing his crew from the variety of outcasts on offer, his preference being for the melancholic, the sexual deviants and the thieves. For the thieves there was nothing to steal, for the melancholic there was the ocean to meditate upon and for the deviants there were other deviants. Moray never shared the secrets of his own past, cultivating the appearance of a forceful but fair man, a bastion of order in this otherwise barbarous industry. There was room for only one murderer on this ship." Page 8
Wow! I was hooked right there and then! The premise of Cold People is that all of humanity has to relocate to Antarctica in 30 days in order to survive. The 'event' that kicks off the action was very well written and I enjoyed experiencing it from a few character's points of view, in the same way we did when the dome dramatically came down in Under the Dome by Stephen King.

The plotting style reminded me of Matthew Reilly, and I know you'll be thinking "that's probably because of Ice Station", but actually it's because of the action in The Great Zoo of China. Cold People felt cinematic in scale at times and if you enjoy Matthew Reilly, I think you'll enjoy this too.

It's probably relevant to acknowledge that I don't read many dystopian novels or books set in a post apocalyptic world. Just as I followed Maggie O'Farrell blindly into her memoir based purely on my love of her writing, Tom Rob Smith beckoned me into his glacially cold dystopian future and I'm glad I followed.

Cold People
 by Tom Rob Smith is inventive and optimistic about humanity while pointing out our flaws and I'm glad I stepped into this frightening futuristic portrayal. 

My Rating:

26 May 2023

Review: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell

I've read two five star novels by Maggie O'Farrell now (Hamnet and The Marriage Portrait) and I finally made time to dip a toe into her back catalogue. I'd previously worried that I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death would be a misery memoir and I'm just not interested in that type of book. However, I listened to the sample and decided to give this a try and thankfully, I was richly rewarded for taking the chance.

I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death is a memoir by Maggie O'Farrell that deals with seventeen separate experiences in her life, seventeen times she could have died, and didn't.

Near death experiences or NDEs are fascinating, but not what this is about. 

I Am, I Am, I Am is about the circumstances leading up to each episode and the personal reflection and self assessment the author shares with us. Maggie O'Farrell is able to establish an instant intimacy with the reader by stripping herself bare and sharing her inner most thoughts and revelations from different points in her life with us.

Motherhood and love is at the heart of most of these stories, as is an uncompromising and unflinching self awareness.

The language and writing is absolutely sublime, and Daisy Donovan narrated the audiobook I listened to with passion and spirit and perfect interpretation of mood, subject and feeling.

At the end of I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death I didn't feel weighed down by a hard life, as you might expect. Instead I felt inspired, invigorated and brimming with admiration for this amazing, fierce, complicated, intelligent, flawed and brilliant woman.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

23 May 2023

Review: Black - The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

Black - The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau book cover

My exploration of colour continues, and this time I'm back with Black - The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau. A hefty hard cover with beautiful artwork inside, this massive tome took me several months to read; leaving me wondering whether renewing it nine times might qualify me for some kind of library record.

Topics explored included white and black forming opposites, as light and dark, good and evil.

It was in the specifics that my reading interest picked up. Tidbits about history, like this about chess:
"In the original Indian game, and then in the Arabic-Muslim version, black pieces and red pieces opposed each other on the chessboard - as is still the case today in the East. These two colors formed a pair of opposites in Asia from time immemorial. But in Christian Europe that black/red opposition, so striking in India and Islamic lands, had little significance." Page 42
That's quite interesting, isn't it? But that's not all.
"...over the course of the eleventh century the color of one set of pieces changed to provide an opposition conforming more to Western values, and white pieces faced red pieces on the board." Page 42
I had no idea that European chess boards sported white and red chess pieces for several centuries. Then, in the mid thirteenth century, the colour combinations changed to black/white, which is how we know the game today.

I'm also interested in how the colour black has been perceived in the past, and the ongoing shifts that happen every few generations:
"After the year 1000 the color black began to become less prominent in daily life and social codes and then to lose a good portion of its symbolic ambivalence. In Roman antiquity and throughout the high Middle Ages good black and bad black coexisted: on the one hand, the color was associated with humility, temperance, authority, or dignity; on the other hand, it evoked the world of darkness and the dead, times of affliction and penitence, sin and the forces of evil." Page 46
In the mid 1300s, both before and after the black plague, black signified wealth and public authority as monks and religious orders, lawyers, judges and magistrates began wearing black, making it austere and even virtuous. Following on were clerks and those in government, followed by university professors, lending authority and knowledge to the colour.

You might know that queens in France once wore white when in mourning, but you may not know - or remember - who was responsible for changing the fashion to black for mourning:
"At the end of the late Middle Ages, the kings of France still wore purple for mourning, and the queens still wore white. But at the turn of the sixteenth century, Anne of Brittany...introduced to the French court the use of black for mourning queens." Page 71
That reminds me of another area of interest I have, Victorian mourning etiquette. In fact, I have a few books on my TBR on the topic, but back to Black:
"In the fifteenth century, gray experienced an astonishing promotion. Not only did it make its entry into the wardrobes of kings and princes, but symbolically it became the color of hope." Page 110
I didn't know about the popularity of grey in this period, with the colour even going so far as to represent hope and joy. The trend extended to textile arts and pewter became a sign of high rank when it wasn't previously valued until that time. This reminded me of the sudden rise in the preference for the colour charcoal in business work attire, curtains and couches that came around in the 2000s.

Another random fact, this time about rainbows. I didn't know that:
"Until the seventeenth century,... rainbows were never represented as they are today. Sometimes they had three colors, sometimes four, rarely five, and these colors formed different sequences within the arc than they do in the spectrum." Page 148
How did I never notice this before? That's absolutely fascinating to me! Why wouldn't artists paint or draw what they saw? The rainbows seen hundreds of years ago are the same we see today and they clearly have more than four colours. Perhaps it was to conserve paint or pigment?

If you're old enough to remember the emo phase of the 1990s, then you might be surprised to learn it was nothing new. As the saying goes, history repeats itself. In the chapter entitled The Poetics of Melancholy, the author informs us:
"In the nineteenth century, two attributes often accompanied the representation of the Romantic artist or poet: black clothes and a "melancholic" stance..." Page 165
Later, Pastoureau points out that black leather jackets worn by bikies and rock stars once indicated the wearer was a rebel or an outcast. Now, wearing black is no longer transgressive and doesn't draw attention in the way it once did. Other things change too. Where white was once the most common colour of underwear, this trend has reversed and now black is the most popular. Go figure!

I've always been interested in how the colour black has been viewed by people across time and how it's gone from monastic and austere (Benedictine Monks, and later the Puritans), to officious and indicating an office of good standing, to rebellious and counter culture (goth, emo), to formal wear. 

If you're interested in books about colour, you might like to check out my reviews of the following:

Color - A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
Chromatopia - An Illustrated History of Colour by David Coles

I borrowed Black from the library, and I don't think I've satisfied my colour curiosity just yet, with the following titles still on my TBR:

The Colour Code by Paul Simpson
Secret Language of Color by Joann Eckstut and Arielle Eckstut
Red: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey

Michel Pastoureau presented an academic approach to his subject matter, and as a result, I found some of the content engrossing and some tediously detailed. Nevertheless, I'm still very keen to read his offering on stripes, The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes, but now I know not to hope for an informal Mary Roach type presentation.

My Rating:

22 May 2023

Drowning by T.J. Newman Winners Announced

Drowning by T.J. Newman book cover

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway last week to win 1 of 3 copies of Drowning by T.J. Newman. Before she was a bestselling author, T.J. Newman was a flight attendant and fortunately all of you answered correctly.

Entries closed at midnight last night and the three lucky winners were drawn today. Congratulations to:

Leanne Lonsdale, Joe & Floss!!

You've each won a copy of Drowning by T.J. Newman valued at $32.99AUD each thanks to Simon & Schuster. You'll receive an email from me shortly and will have 7 days to provide your postal address. The publisher will then send your prize out to you directly, so I hope you enjoy!

19 May 2023

Review: The Satsuma Complex by Bob Mortimer

The Satsuma Complex by Bob Mortimer book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

This was a real surprise. The Satsuma Complex arrived in my mailbox unsolicited, and despite attending the Melbourne Comedy Festival each year, and having a reasonable appreciation of the who's who of comedians, I hadn't come across Bob Mortimer's work before. I started by watching a few clips from Would I Lie to You? and he had me. This guy makes me laugh. Often. And full bellied. So I decided to see what he could do.

Gary Thorn is our thirty year old narrator in The Satsuma Complex by Bob Mortimer. Gary is an average, unremarkable legal assistant in London, low on friends but instantly likeable. When drinks at the pub with acquaintance from work Brendan come to a premature close, Gary starts chatting with a young woman at the bar. Despite getting along like a house on fire, she leaves without exchanging contact details.

From there, a mystery ensues when Brendan goes missing and Gary is the last person to see him alive. The Satsuma Complex has an easy and enjoyable reading rhythm that's all about the writing and particularly the dialogue.

Here's an observation from our main character that had me nodding along in recognition:
"Mainly because of the fringe. I associate geometric haircuts with the arts. You know - David Hockney, Phil Oakey, Jane Brurier - and the Doc Martens screamed the more crafty end of the arty spectrum." Page 21
Because I do too! I always assume a person with a geometric severe cut fringe is involved in the arts, literature or fashion industries. Why is that?

Mortimer has a talent for writing interesting characters, and Gary's neighbour Grace is an absolute hoot. In fact, I can't recall enjoying a neighbour in a novel as much as this since Maud's friend and neighbour Renata in The Hoarder by Jess Kidd in 2018.

Later learning Mortimer was once a solicitor helped me understand his clever intelligent writing and deepened my interest in his work, so much so that I'm considering listening to his memoir And Away, published in 2021.

Mortimer's imagination and creativity were a welcome surprise. Here's a paragraph narrated by Gary, who is talking about taking a bath before going out on a date:
"I made it into a forty-minute experience, shaving my face, ears and shoulders, cleaning between my toes, topping up with hot water every time the temperature faded, cleaning under my nails, reading the ingredients of my shampoo and toothpaste, squeezing the blackheads on my nose, cleaning the sealant between the bath and the wall, floating the cap from the shower gel on the surface and then sinking it by spitting a stream of bath water from my mouth, lying slowly down to gradually fill my eye sockets with water, polishing my kneecaps with shaving foam, shining the taps with my big toe, throwing the soap up in the air then dipping my head underwater to hear its re-entry into the swill and making spirals from my chest hair so that it resembled a Mediterranean garden. It was a good bath and a welcome break." Page 200-201
The duck jokes were a quack-up and the no-comment interview (page 100) made me read the entire scene to my husband so he could join in on the chuckles.

This five star rating is based purely on enjoyability. This book made me laugh out loud and I often found myself thinking about it during the day and looking forward to picking it up again each night.

I can highly recommend The Satsuma Complex by Bob Mortimer, and I'll even go so far as to say it has inspired an interest to continue my reading later in the year with And Away by Bob Mortimer and a memoir by David Mitchell, co-star of the show Would I Lie To You? entitled Back Story. I've never really been a fan of memoirs, but I'm already planning to listen to these two, based purely on their ability to make me laugh. Perhaps I need an injection of humour to get through the winter?

A new favourite, that's for sure!

My Rating:

15 May 2023

Review: Patch Work by Claire Wilcox

Patch Work- A Life Amongst Clothes by Claire Wilcox audiobook cover

According to the blurb for Patch Work - A Life Amongst Clothes, author Claire Wilcox has been employed as a curator for the Victoria and Albert Museum for most of her working career. Since visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2018, I've followed their social media channel and enjoy the behind the scenes curator videos on offer from Museum of London and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

When I saw a curator from the V&A had penned a book about her work, I imagined I'd be able to delve further than these documentary videos to gain insight surrounding the ins and outs of restoration and exhibition work, stitched together with some fascinating history and interesting objects. I was curious to learn about the career process involved in her line of work, and the physical toll it takes on the lucky few permitted to touch these priceless objects rich with provenance.

That would be a fascinating book indeed, but this wasn't it. I wanted to learn more about the author's career as a curator, and instead I learned more about the author herself.

The tantalising chapter headings held promise - Kid Gloves; Tapestry; Mail Order; The Skirt; Silver Thread; Production Line; Wedding Suit; Dust - but rarely delivered the expertise and hands-on experience I was after.

Patch Work - A Life Amongst Clothes by Claire Wilcox is a memoir told in very short chapters threaded through with the tools of the author's trade as a senior curator. Listening to the audiobook, the content felt personal and very much a private project for her friends and family rather than a resource for readers interested in her work, the work of the V&A Museum, or those motivated to pursue a career in her field.

Recommended for readers of memoir only.

My Rating:

12 May 2023

WIN 1 of 3 copies of Drowning by T.J. Newman

Drowning by T.J. Newman book cover


I'm teaming up with Simon & Schuster today to offer Carpe Librum readers in Australia the chance to WIN 1 of 3 copies of Drowning by T.J. Newman valued at $32.99AUD each. Author T.J. Newman is a flight attendant turned bestselling author and Drowning is a thriller about a commercial jetliner that crashes into the ocean. Entries close at midnight AEST on Sunday 21 May 2023, good luck!


Six minutes after takeoff, Flight 1421 crashes into the Pacific Ocean. During the evacuation, an engine explodes and the plane is flooded. Those still alive are forced to close the doors—but it’s too late. The plane sinks to the bottom with twelve passengers trapped inside.

More than two hundred feet below the surface, engineer Will Kent and his eleven-year-old daughter Shannon are waist-deep in water and fighting for their lives.

Their only chance at survival is an elite rescue team on the surface led by professional diver Chris Kent - Shannon’s mother and Will’s soon-to-be ex-wife - who must work together with Will to find a way to save their daughter and rescue the passengers from the sealed airplane, which is now teetering on the edge of an undersea cliff.

There’s not much time. There’s even less air.

With devastating emotional power and heart-stopping suspense, Drowning is an unforgettable thriller about a family’s desperate fight to save themselves and the people trapped with them - against impossible odds.


This giveaway has now closed.

11 May 2023

Review: The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager book cover

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager is quite unlike any book I've read before. The story of Hansel and Gretel is told at 75 year intervals between the years 1378 - 2365 to coincide with the visit of Halley's Comet. I had no idea how the author was going to achieve 14 different narratives, the juxtaposition of historical fiction and science fiction, and all in a non linear fashion without losing the reader's focus or attention. It sounded too ambitious but I was game.

At the time I chose to pick this up, I was reading The Brothers Grimm: 101 Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm and struggling to push through the style of writing. It was for this reason that the inclusion of the Grimm brothers in the 1835 timeline of The Archive of Alternate Endings was a welcome surprise.
"The task set before them is to solicit from the women the tales that have defined their country and culture, the tales that are going extinct. The women know the stories best, for they are the primary narrators. These are women for whom work means labor: tending garden, cooking dinner, raising children, cleaning house. Telling tales, the women inform Jacob and Wilhelm, helps to pass the time." Page 12
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm listen to the story of Hansel and Gretel, and one particular version is different to the one we all know. From this point, we follow the various iterations of the fairytale in the subsequent narratives.
"Hansel and Gretel. The story is first told by tongues now long gone. It echoes through the countryside, travels great distances and across the ages. Families install it into the brains of their children and those children grow to become adults. The story is mapped into the mind like a digital blueprint. The brain computes that the story is about strife, abandonment, the possibilities of leaving bits of yourself behind in order to find your way home. Home is used here figuratively, meaning that which is familiar and comfortable and safe." Page 67
In the 1910 timeline, the narrator is an illustrator of the story providing a neat connection, and here she reflects on the difference between being a writer and reading:
"She is grateful she is not a writer, for writing is a ghostly, haunted thing. It permits one to enter different temporal dimensions. It allows one to enter different human psyches. It requires one to manipulate the feelings of another until one elicits a particular response. To read is to consume, to put the book on the tongue and push it down the throat. She reads the story again and again, silently. She catches herself in the glass of the window and for a moment, she does not know the lips that mouth the words." Page 50
You might be wondering how the reader could possibly navigate and keep track of 14 time lines, and I marvelled at this while reading too. The feat is achieved with ingenious chapter headings and sub-headings, aided by short punchy chapters and vignettes and held together with solid storytelling to connect the timelines and keep the story straight.
"It is easy to forget, but stories need not always have a purpose. We are quick to say that folktales have a moral or a lesson or a creed. But most of the stories that have survived the ages are told for one purpose only, and that purpose is to say this: 'Being human is difficult. Here is some evidence.' " Page 94-95
I think the same can be said when considering the purpose behind The Archive of Alternate Endings. There are morals and lessons along the way and the book is full of cosmic correlations and themes of sibling connections, parenthood, queerness, grief, climate change, AIDs epidemic and the power of stories coalesce into a literary offering quite unlike my usual reading fare.

Somehow the author has pulled off quite a feat bringing more than 14 dates and narratives together and the following quote seems a fitting description of the reader's experience on the page:
"Time feels like it is pleating, so that before and after seem somehow simultaneously now." Page 84
This characterises my own reading experience and I was impressed by the author's ability to pleat time and not lose me in the folds of her many intersecting and overlapping narratives in the process. The only reason this book isn't getting the full 5 star treatment, is that several future dated chapters didn't hit the mark for me.

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager was published in 2019, and a quick check tells me the author hasn't released any novels since then but I bet she's penning another stellar literary experiment and I'm totally here for it.

My Rating:

09 May 2023

Review: Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater

Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Death of a Bookseller takes place in a Walthamstow bookshop in London called Spines and is told by two employees of the shop, Roach and Laura. These two book-loving protagonists couldn't be more different from each other. 

Brogan Roach has always been fascinated by death, and obsessively listens to true crime podcasts and purchases books about serial killers through the shop with no intention of paying for them. Roach has a Giant African Snail for a pet (which was fascinating) and an open disdain for people she terms 'normies'.

Laura on the other hand is the polar opposite of her colleague; wearing vintage tea dresses, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and leaving a trail of rose oil perfume wherever she goes. Laura is charismatic and popular with the staff and customers, and Roach becomes fixated:
"Laura Bunting. Her name was garden parties, and Wimbledon, and royal weddings. It was chintzy tea rooms, Blitz spirit, and bric-a-brac for sale in bright church halls. It was coconut shies and bake sales and guess-the-weight-of-the-fucking-cake." Page 1
Roach is socially awkward yet desperate to become friends with Laura, convinced they have much in common, including a shared interest in true crime. Roach's desperate attempts to befriend Laura and her subsequent awkward rejection reminded me a little of Single White Female (minus the violence) meets The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton. The protagonists in both have an unhealthy obsession and go to lengths that make the average reader cringe with thoughts of "don't do that, you're going to get caught" or "stop, you're making it worse".

As the plot thickened, I didn't condone some of the escalating actions of our characters, but I equally couldn't look away as tensions at the bookshop boil over.

I liked the select use of the snail illustration at the bottom of the page, and initially thought this was a technique employed to indicate Roach was narrating the chapter. However, as we get into the story the snail begins to appear in both alternating chapters. If you've read this and have a theory on the snail illustration, please let me know.

Spines is a standout setting for the majority of Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater, however this reflection from Laura nixed any niggling fantasies about what it might be like to work in a bookshop:
"And the customers - oh, the customers. The customers are everywhere, like lice, crawling all over the shop, touching everything, knocking things over, dropping rubbish, leaving destruction in their wake. And they just keep coming, more and more every day. Customer enquiries, customer reservations, customer orders, customers lost, customers queuing, customers that need serving, customers that need the toilet, customers that want someone to yell at because their lives are spiralling out of control, because suddenly they're tired and it feels like only yesterday that they were still sleeping around and partying and couldn't care less about anything else, and now they're in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and everything hurts and no one cares and life hasn't worked out the way they'd expected it to, so all they have left is the dizzy power of punching down at the bookseller who's ordered in the wrong book on kindness. They dawdle and moan, always in the way, always wanting something, demanding attention and servitude with an anxious impatience, their expectations high and their fuses short." Pages 253-254
I love that, 'expectations high and their fuses short'. Snappy writing like this offsets the slowly building tension and allowed for a few thoughtful character insights. Here, Laura reflects on the grief she has for her mother's passing.
"I never got around to reading the rest of my mother's books, but the bitterness of losing her library faded when I understood the real power of reading. It's not the physical books, books as artefacts, as objects, that actually matter. The pages that my mother touched, turned, folded, read, don't hold the same reverence as her winter scarf, her handwriting. The books themselves are no more meaningful than the streets she walked on, the mugs she drank from, the sheets she slept in. It's the words that have power. Somewhere between the ink that's printed on each page and my understanding of the content is a plain across which my mother's mind has also wandered, and that landscape exists in every single edition, whether or not it has been touched by my mother's hand. That's the power of reading." Page 73
I love that! Yet, it's also the power of reading that demonstrates I can simultaneously agree and disagree with that quote and still find some reverence in physical books read by a loved one.

Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater is set in a bookshop I'd love to visit one day, although I don't think I'd like to be served by flawed and troubled staff like Roach or Laura. Slater's experience working for Waterstones in London has enabled her to take us behind the till of a busy bookshop to the drama simmering between the stacks and deliver an entertaining psychological thriller.


My Rating:

06 May 2023

Review: The Therapist by Hugh Mackay

The Therapist by Hugh Mackay book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Australian Hugh Mackay is a psychologist and social researcher and he knows what makes us tick. Literally! Hugh Mackay is known for studying attitudes and behaviour and I thoroughly enjoyed his non fiction titles What Makes Us Tick in 2022 and The Inner Self in 2021.

In The Therapist, Martha Elliott is a Psychotherapist with a different approach to her treatments, often employing breathing techniques and foot massages within her sessions to help patients ease into their therapeutic discussions with her.

Martha's colleague and business partner Rob have consulting rooms in Chatswood Sydney. Rob has a different treatment style and I enjoyed his work discussions and business relationship with Martha.

The story kicks off with a few new patients for Martha and we seamlessly drop into her day-to-day life, learning about her from the very outset:
"Her handsome face radiated kindness, optimism and an eagerness to ease the pain of all those (well, almost all) who came to her for advice, support, guidance... or for nothing more than the comfort of her patiently listening ear. Perhaps for the reassurance that here was someone who was finally taking them seriously." Page 1
Reading a novel about a psychologist written by a psychologist was a little like Inception, and had me wondering how much of Martha - if any at all - was Mackay himself on the page. We're privileged to sit in with Martha on her treatments which offered an intriguing glimpse into the consulting room for those of us who haven't been to therapy lately/before.

The issues our characters are dealing with include loneliness, relationship breakdowns, IVF and in one case, a desire for revenge. These problems held my interest and while I was hoping the plot would take us into darker thriller territory - like The Family Doctor by fellow Australian author Debra Oswald - Mackay kept to the relative safety of domestic noir.

I enjoyed the brevity of the novel and with my copy coming in at less than 250 pages, many authors could learn from Mackay's concise writing style that still manages to deliver in depth character exploration and growth.

The Therapist by Hugh Mackay is recommended for readers who are curious about what really happens in a therapist's consulting room, and if you enjoyed Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb - also a psychotherapist -  this will be right up your alley.


My Rating:

02 May 2023

Review: Personal Effects by Robert A. Jensen

Personal Effects - What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living by Robert A. Jensen audiobook cover

I'm a sucker for titles like this, and I was drawn to read Personal Effects - What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living by Robert A. Jensen in order to find out what Jensen has learned in his time recovering the dead.

Jensen has had a stand out career, beginning with a Bachelor of Science in Criminology - Law Enforcement and time spent at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office as Deputy Sheriff. He then served 10 years as a US Army Officer where - among other military postings - he worked as the Commander of Mortuary Affairs and responded to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

In 1998, Jensen joined Kenyon International Emergency Services, the leading disaster management company in the world. Jensen later became the CEO of Kenyon, eventual owner and Chairman; later selling the business and stepping down in 2021. He also served in the California Army National Guard. Does this guy ever stop? (Short answer: no).

Dealing with just one mass fatality in a lifetime would be more than most of us could process, but Jensen was involved in many major events during his career, including: September 11 attacks in 2001; the Bali bombings in 2002; Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Haiti earthquake in 2010, Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017 and too many plane crashes in between to mention.

Jensen has led an incredibly impressive and demanding career, and his empathy is evident when describing his work. I spent much of the book being shocked and outraged by just how poorly and insensitively many emergency situations have been managed in the past. In some cases, the total disregard for the feelings of the families made me absolutely furious. In one instance, all personal belongings from a plane crash had been frozen together in one big block in order to preserve them. Ummm, WTF?

There were some quieter revelations when learning more about the delicate process of recovering human remains at a site:
"When you're starting out, you don't know if a fragment is just one of many pieces you might find of a deceased person, or if it is the only part of that person you'll find. DNA testing takes time and we don't want to delay the system unnecessarily. Before we even do this, I will usually meet the Medical Examiner who will ultimately be in charge and who will issue the death certificates and ask, 'people or pieces'? I need to know if the goal is to account for every missing person, or to identify every bit of human remains that are recovered. It's a question most people have never thought of or could even conceive asking." Chapter 14: The Science and Emotion of Identification
Add me to the 'most people' category immediately with the gratitude that I'll never have to be the person making those big decisions. Jensen's approach to recovering the dead and their belongings is filled with respect and his lessons about caring for the living aren't immediately applicable to the average reader.

The life lessons he's learned along the way are more about preserving and maintaining dignity for the deceased at all stages of the process and employing common sense. E.g. In one case, Jensen refused to cut a body trapped in rubble in half in order to shield the distressing sight from view, instead laying a blanket over the remains. In another case, the hands of the deceased were cut off to facilitate quicker mass fingerprinting which caused unknown distress to the relatives and quite rightly upset the author.

In my opinion, the target audience for Jensen's memoir should be first responders, search and rescue, medical and law enforcement agencies and those in risk management. If a loved one was ever involved in a mass casualty event, I'd want Jensen overseeing the recovery process, however I believe he's best placed educating businesses, corporations and insurance companies on how best to respond in a mass casualty situation. It seems we still have much to learn.

If one type of man-made or natural disaster dominates Jensen's memoir, it's plane crashes. As it happens, I listened to the majority of this audiobook while at an airport or - ironically - flying to my destination. It did occur to me at one point (about an hour into a 90 minute flight) that perhaps listening to all this talk about plane crashes was bad karma when you're 30,000 feet in the air.

Back on the ground, I was full of admiration for Jensen and we desperately need more people like him - or people taught by him - on hand to prepare businesses and organisations for future disasters. As a reader fortunate enough never to have lost a loved one in a mass casualty event, my heart aches for those who have and are still navigating through the grief.

A difficult read.

My Rating:

28 April 2023

Review: One Illumined Thread by Sally Colin-James

One Illumined Thread by Sally Colin-James book cover

* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

One Illumined Thread by Sally Colin-James is an historical fiction novel about the lives of three women linked across three very different timelines. In Hebron, 41 BCE Elisheva is a married woman ostracised by her community because she's been unable to bear a child. Antonia is the wife of an artist in Renaissance Florence and we pick up her thread (pun intended) in 1497. Our contemporary narrator is Doctor Reed, a textile conservator living in Adelaide in 2018 and all three characters were compelling.

Establishing the unique identity of each of the three main characters was a little tough at first, but I was helped along by the talented writing of Colin-James and her ability to keep re-introducing characters to the reader in a helpful manner reminiscent of Philippa Gregory.

Fertility, motherhood and womanhood are key themes in each of the narrative arcs:
"That's us women. Often invisible. But strong like the wind. And most men, if asked for the truth, would say that when it comes to the household they sail to conditions." I didn't understand what she meant until many years later. Page 226
Connecting the lives of these women across the centuries are artisan crafts, primarily glassblowing and painting. In the Judean timeline, Elisheva shakes off the disapproval of the women in her village to become a talented glassblower, with her work based on the history of Hebron glass.

The narrative set in Florence is based heavily around the painting La Visitazione by Mariotto Albertinelli (1503) which features the visitation of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. Antonia is married to Albertinelli and friends with Michel (Michelangelo) and is passionate about her pursuit of the perfect white.
"Without white there is no moon," he declaimed. "No stars in our night sky, no flour for our bread, no lilies for our vases. No clouds, no mists, no sudden snowstorms, no mountains of marble." ... "White is where a painter begins and where his brush ends, on the gleam of an eye: a touch of white on that black pupil is what brings the portrait to life. Without white there is no art!" Page 271
Flitting between chapters about artists in Florence grinding pigments in the time of Savonarola, and the threats of violence by King Herod's Army, it was a relief to rejoin our conservator in the somewhat safer space at the Adelaide International Gallery.

Each of the women is striving to reach their inner potential, and the reader will identify with the struggles they face, even if they're of another time and place. There is plenty of character growth and development here with character insights along the way. I particularly related to this one:
"Sometimes, as children, we make too much of the people who pass through our lives. They seem grand and beautiful in the context of our world, but really they're just like every other human. Preposterous and vain." Page 193
Those familiar with their history will be rewarded when reading the narrative set in Judea under King Herod's rule, and it's clear - although not obvious - how much time and effort has been invested in the research for this novel. 

One Illumined Thread by Sally Colin-James is a solid debut and I agree with the publisher's recommendation that it will appeal to readers of Maggie O'Farrell and Pip Williams. Here's a phrase I particularly enjoyed that immediately put me in mind of Hamnet or The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell.
"My mother casts me a glance sharp enough to slice onions." Page 18
When I see sharp (pun intended) writing like this by a debut author - and an Australian author no less - I'm excited to imagine the pages she will write in the future. Sally Colin-James expertly weaves (sorry, couldn't help it) all three narratives of One Illumined Thread together in a meaningful and satisfying conclusion that I can highly recommend to fans of historical fiction.

My Rating:

24 April 2023

Review: Storm in a Teacup by Helen Czerski

Storm in a Teacup by Helen Czerski book cover

Reading Storm in a Teacup - The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski is akin to dipping your toe into the world of physics and thankfully Czerski provides a steady hand for the layperson. Czerski looks at everyday occurrences like why a buttered piece of toast will usually fall butter side down when dropped and what happens when you add milk to coffee informs the book's title.

The audiobook was expertly read by Chloe Massey who shares her northern accent with actress Joanne Froggatt - who plays Anna Bates from Downton Abbey - which is to say I loved listening to her narration.

I found many of the topics interesting including how coffee rings develop and why it's hard to get tomato sauce out of the bottle until all of a sudden it comes glugging out. I was also curious to learn why pigeons bob their heads when they walk.

The author references a study of pigeons that was undertaken in order to understand why these birds bob their heads forwards and backwards when they walk. When the pigeon was walking on a treadmill, the researcher noticed it wasn't bobbing its head.
"The bird obviously didn't need to do it in order to walk, so it wasn't anything to do with the physics of locomotion. The head bobbing was about what it could see. On the treadmill, even though the pigeon was walking, the surroundings stayed in the same place. If the pigeon held its head still, it saw exactly the same view all the time. That made the surroundings nice and easy to see. But when a pigeon is walking on land, the scenery is constantly changing as it goes past. It turns out, these birds can't see fast enough to catch the changing scene. So they're not really bobbing their heads forwards and backwards at all, they thrust their head forward and then take a step that lets their body catch up and then thrust their head forwards again. The head stays in the same position throughout the step so the pigeon has more time to analyse this scene before moving on to the next one." Chapter 5
Fascinating isn't it? I've been wanting to observe this for myself, but the only pigeon I've seen since finishing this audiobook was asleep. Hopefully I'll have better luck soon. 

Coming in at a listening time of 10 hrs and 14 mins, Storm in a Teacup took me a while to get through and when I got to the end and did a stocktake of the notes I'd written in preparation for this review, I noticed pickings were slim.

While I've never been one for physics, I was in safe hands here. Storm in a Teacup - The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski was a nice jumping off point that held my attention throughout, despite not knowing much about the topics covered.

Czerski's enthusiasm for physics shines through and this was an informative listen.

My Rating:

18 April 2023

Review: Built to Move by Kelly Starrett & Juliet Starrett

Built to Move by Kelly Starrett & Juliet Starrett book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Like many of you, I've been working hard to improve my physical health and wellbeing for years, and this book has come at just the right time.

In Built To Move, authors Kelly Starrett and Juliet Starrett introduce the 'The 10 Essential Habits to Help you Move Freely and Live Fully'. Their joint focus centres around mobilisations in favour of stretching or exercising and the appeal of Built to Move is that it caters to all types of physical activity and capability levels.

There's something here for every single reader, from elite athletes to sedentary workers, the injured and the disabled, the elderly and the young.
"And, contrary to what you might expect, achieving good mobility doesn't call for exercise. No cardio. No strength training. Instead, it's a series of simple activities that enhance your capacity for free and easy movement, and in doing so also improve all the systems in your body (digestive, circulatory, immune, lymphatic) that are impacted by putting yourself in motion. You use your body's infrastructure, so you don't lose your body's infrastructure. Mobility also primes the body for exercise, if that's what you want to do. But more important, it primes the body for life." Page 6
I'm fortunate enough to see a Personal Trainer and Exercise Physiologist and enjoyed chatting about this book with each of them. The authors were already known to one, and much of what they've each taught me over the years is in this book. It was terrific to cement their teachings by reading Built to Move, and some key points to remember included the importance of using the big toe to walk and the huge benefits of sitting on the floor, squatting and extending the hips.

My health program consists of many exercises across these categories which has enabled me to improve strength and flexibility and subsequently reduce pain and stiffness in my back, shins, calves, achilles and plantar fascia. This requires constant focus and discipline and the merest deviation can often result in pain and stiffness, which serves as a reminder for next time.

It was interesting to learn more about wearing thongs and specifically why wearing thongs for too long or walking too far in slippers exacerbates my plantar fasciitis.
"But if you're walking any distance in them, you will feel the consequences. Flip-flops don't allow the big toe to flex, which allows the foot to push off the ground. So the body compensates, hyperstiffening the plantar fascia (tissue connecting the heel bone to the toes) and ankle, which can cause pain down the line. Slides present the same problem. Make sure the shoes you're walking in have a back." Page 122
Sometimes an explanation like that helps remind us to alter our behaviour accordingly, while others can provide a whole new angle, like this tidbit about the importance of your glutes:
"Research shows that glute weakness is associated with knee injuries, chronic lower back pain, shin pain, falls among the elderly, and more. Glute strength, on the other hand, has been shown to remedy many of these same situations." Page 86
Who knew a few butt clenches could help relieve or alleviate all of that? C'mon, do a couple with me right now.

I wasn't expecting to read anything controversial here, but this husband and wife team don't believe in icing. They point out the fact that Dr. Gabe Mirkin (the sports medicine physician who came up with RICE - rest, ice, compression, elevation) no longer endorses icing, which was complete news to me.
"Here was the upshot: Don't ice sore or injured muscles. Ever." Page 191
According to the authors, icing interrupts the body's natural reaction, possibly even delaying the healing process and they also question the use of anti-inflammatories. Their points are convincing, but given how hardwired we are to ice a sprained ankle, it's hard to accept.

I learned plenty of new and unexpected things about the body too, including this shocker:
"...but consider that jumping not only keeps your balance systems in shape, it also gets the organs in your viscera cavity moving around, which is beneficial for the health of pretty much all the crucial systems keeping you alive." Page 221
Hang on, what? My viscera needs to 'move' for good health? I knew jumping was good for the heart rate, circulation, cardio fitness, bone strength, balance and more, but I didn't know it was also good for my internal organs. For those that can't jump, I learned that bouncing without lifting your feet off the ground still achieves great benefits for the body, so there's something for everyone. 

I've read many books on sleep, so it was good to be reminded of the impact our sleep habits have on our health and the relationship it has with pain.
"How much pain you feel from any musculoskeletal issues you're dealing with can also be influenced by your sleep habits. With sleep deprivation, two things can happen. One is that the part of the brain that telegraphs pain to your consciousness becomes more sensitive. At the same time, the areas that dull the perception of pain - kind of like your body's own inner aspirin - become less active. ...Sleep is the first line of defense against pain." Page 252
I know this first hand, and it's a key tool in my own management of a chronic pain condition.

Reading Built to Move - The 10 Essential Habits to Help you Move Freely and Live Fully by Kelly Starrett & Juliet Starrett inspired me to move in the same way that watching Old People's Home for 4 Year Olds on the ABC did; which can only be a good thing.

It also incorporates key lessons and teachings from my physio, personal trainer and exercise physiologist and I'm sure they would like more of their patients to improve their own self knowledge and awareness through reading books like this one.

I found this highly valuable and recommend it to all readers.

My Rating:

11 April 2023

Review: Homecoming by Kate Morton

Homecoming by Kate Morton book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Homecoming by Kate Morton is one of my most highly anticipated releases for 2023. This distinctly Australian historical fiction novel starts strong with a refreshingly different setting - for Morton - on Christmas Eve in 1959. It's here in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia that a terrible tragedy takes place that will reverberate through the Turner family for generations to come.

Meanwhile in the present, Jess returns to Darling House in Sydney after learning her grandmother Nora is in hospital. Jess is estranged from her mother Polly but finds a true crime book at Darling House that covers a family tragedy Jess has never heard of.

Familiar in all of Kate Morton's novels is a sense of connection between the past and present and the haunting of the present by tragic events and people from the past. The author's strength is also in creating homes, manors and mansions with character, and Homecoming had two homes to explore and enjoy.
"You'll see what I mean. It's a house that rewards the curious. Have you explored the nook under the east stairs yet? I used to love playing in there. I dare say it's been lonely all these years, just waiting for a child to claim it as her own." Page 90
Told in a dual narrative style, the nature writing was evocative. I enjoyed mentions of the little township of Hahndorf which reminded me of Devotion by fellow Australian author Hannah Kent set in the same region more than a century earlier. The Australian landscape is wild and beautiful yet also dangerous, as the next excerpt demonstrates:
"The story had given her chills, but of recognition rather than fear. Mythical though the creature might have been, inherent in her children's description was a recognizable truth about this place: the uncomfortable but certain sense that danger, the unknown, was always lurking in the dark spaces 'out there'. This continent was one where beauty and terror were inextricably linked. People died here from thirst if they took a wrong turn. A single spark of fire could grow to consume an entire town. Children who wandered beyond the back fence disappeared into thin air." Page 201
I was reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett earlier this year, and almost mentioned in my review that I was sure the writing style and infectious appreciation of nature in this classic went on to inspire some of my favourite authors in Kate Forsyth and Kate Morton. This thought bubble didn't make the final edit of the review, however I was reminded of it when I saw this quote very early on in Homecoming by Kate Morton:
"Curious, Percy urged Prince onwards up the dense, wooded slope. He felt like a character in a book. He thought of Mary Lennox as she discovered her secret garden." Page 23
Speaking of curiosities, the very next paragraph had a reference to 'Sir Gawain on the lookout for the Green Knight', a direct reference to a late 14th-century chivalric romance in Middle English, that inspired The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro that I read just recently. I think it's remarkable how many books reference other works and how authors can inspire others - sometimes from the grave - to create new stories for eager readers.

If you've skipped ahead or noticed the three star rating I'm giving to this novel, you might be wondering why. My primary issue with Homecoming was the use of a book within a book to provide an insight into the 1959 family tragedy. I usually love this writing technique, however in this particular case, the true crime book 'As If They Were Asleep' by Daniel Miller was unconvincing. Excerpts from the book were included in the body of the novel, however the writing style was not that typically found in this genre of non fiction.
"As Nancy had foreshadowed, some of the scenes were written in close third person, as if Daniel Miller had listened to Nora speak about herself and then, rather than write down the interviews precisely as they'd occurred, with his questions followed by her answers, taken the next step of interpreting the memories, history and personal feelings she'd shared, showing the things she'd described. The resulting scenes spoke of many conversations, not just one or two; there were too many diverse details - some of which Jess recognised from Nora's stories, others that were new to her - to have been gleaned in the formal setting of an initial interview." Page 376
This just didn't work for me. The resulting excerpts from Daniel Miller's book read as pure fiction and not a new style of narrative non fiction.
"The scene also showed the intimate way in which Daniel Miller had come to know his 'characters'." Page 346
This writing technique is ineffective if you need to have the character ponder Daniel's writing style within the novel, and then need Daniel Miller's niece to explain how he composed the 'scenes' from his interviews. The resulting effect and mixed tense was confusing and often took me out of the story. The idea of including a true crime element was definitely on trend, but I wished the author had stuck to her tried and true method of revealing secrets and unveiling long held mysteries.

My other gripe was the length of Homecoming. I love a chunky novel and am not deterred by a hefty page count, but at 640 pages in length, this could have been edited down by at least 100 pages. There were moments of terrific writing like this:
"Her grandmother was being very kind to her, which had the effect, as kindness often does, of making Jess feel terribly sad and lonely." Page 90
Wow, so insightful! However, these reading highlights were diluted by the above concerns.

Before I close out this review, I'll leave you with another quote I enjoyed, that provides insight into two siblings arguing:
"Silence fell. A stalemate had seemingly been reached, and with no further shots fired, the room's thick ambience briefly settled. But there is nothing surer than that two siblings, each nursing a problem, will seek refuge in the familiar comforts of quarreling, and so it was with John and Matilda in that moment." Page 309
Homecoming by Kate Morton contains themes of home and belonging, and explores the often rocky relationships between mothers and daughters.

My Rating:

28 March 2023

Review: Shoes by Rebecca Shawcross

Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

I've always been interested in shoes, and as each year passes I find an increasing interest in history and social history in particular. Fortunately, these interests collide in Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross.

First, let me start this review with my impressions of the design and presentation, because this is a stunning hardback book with a beautiful dust jacket featuring a pair of shoes designed by Noritaka Tatehana in 2013. Filled with museum quality photographs on high quality paper and considerably weighty, Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross is a treasure to read and would make the perfect gift for those with an interest in fashion or history.

Shawcross gives us an entertaining tour through the fashion choices of the middle classes, wealthy and elite across Europe over the centuries, and it never ceases to amuse me how fashion cycles around, and every new design or trend is inspired by an old one. Typically speaking, those at the forefront of the trend are usually the young, while those approaching middle age and their senior years are less likely to keep up with the Joneses and tend to stick to what they like, which is often what they wore when they themselves were young. Hearing that an old man was referred to as 'old square toes' because he was still wearing square-toed shoes long after they were fashionable, reminded me of older men I knew growing up who were never seen without a hat.

Armed with only a basic knowledge of shoes and their construction, I was eager to understand the ins and outs - and rights and lefts - of the shoes being presented, but was occasionally left scratching my head. Did buckles really pierce the silk fabric of the latchet ties each and every time they were secured? And what's a vamp?* Many of my questions would have been easily answered if there had been a diagram or two pointing out the basics of footwear construction. As it was, I had to Google all of my queries which interrupted the reading flow and slowed down the overall reading process. *The vamp is the part of the shoe that covers the toes, also called the upper.

You might have heard about pattens - elevated clogs that you wear over your existing flat-soled footwear like snow shoes to keep your feet clean and dry - but have you heard of the slap shoe?

When high heels became popular, wearers could no longer wear pattens (which have a flat sole) however the high heel of their shoes sunk easily into the muck if it was the slightest bit wet. In the 1600s, in an effort to combat the problem without having to give up their heels, people started wearing their high heels slipped into a backless shoe, which we would call a slipper or a mule. Understandably, this made it cumbersome - and arguably dangerous - to walk, so a new shoe was designed, the slap shoe. If you can image a high heel shoe with the ball of the shoe stuck to a raised sole and the heel of the shoe free to lift from it, you have the slap shoe. Wearers would make a slap sound or clacking noise when they walked, similar to the sound some people make when they slap their thongs or flip-flops, hence the name. The sound indicated wealth and prosperity and became the height of fashion. Some slap shoes even had velvet on the sole to soften the sound. Sounds counterintuitive, but altogether fascinating doesn't it?

I was reminded reading this that shoes were once uniform in design and called 'straights' until the early thirteenth century. They could be worn on either foot, here's more:
"In the early thirteenth century, a shaped or waisted sole (the waist being the narrow part under the arch of the foot) appeared, which meant that shoes could now be made with left and right versions. Such an innovation probably increased the comfort of wearing shoes, too." Page 25
I can't imagine wearing straights now, I hope that fashion trend never resurfaces.

Another new to me shoe fact I loved learning about was the WWII invention of the escape boot. The escape boot was:
"... a high-legged leather boot with a fleece layer over a shrapnel-proof lining consisting of loose layers of silk. The boot's unique feature was that the leg section could be cut away from the vamp using a knife that was concealed in a pocket inside one of the boots." Page 190
Wearing these boots, British pilots were instantly recognisable to the enemy. However, if a British pilot was shot down or landed in enemy territory, they could take the knife from its hidden location and cut the tops off each boot. This transformed the boots into a normal looking pair of black shoes, giving the pilot a better chance of escape. Ingenious!

Other personal highlights in Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross included learning Terry De Havilland designed the shoes Tim Curry wore in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I'm going to see this show in June and am keen to check out the shoes worn by the show's new star, Jason Donovan. In fact I was surprised how many times I thought about this book in the normal course of my day while reading it. I attended the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the NGV this month, and was excited to see several pairs of McQueen's infamous 'Armadillo' boots worn most memorably by Lady Gaga in her Bad Romance music video in 2009.

I will say Shoes by Rebecca Shawcross isn't a quick read, you definitely need to take your time and I challenge you to read 30 pages without Googling. While I would have loved some diagrams laced throughout the book, I do understand the editing choice to leave this type of material out. The author covers a specialised topic, and most readers may already be familiar with the 'basics', however it would have made a huge difference for the layperson reader like me, particularly when it came to construction.

Shoes: An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross gave me what I wanted from High Heel by Summer Brennan and was a luxurious and indulgent reading experience. From wide-toed footbags to long-toed poulaines; stilettos to winklepickers; plimsolls to pattens; and brogues to Birkenstocks, Shawcross has cobbled together a comprehensive overview of the history of shoes here and I loved it.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

15 March 2023

Review: The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges

The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges book cover

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

In January 2022 I attended the Doll House: Miniature Worlds of Wonder exhibition at Como House in Melbourne which featured over 40 dollhouses from the 1890s to the present day. The dollhouses in this exhibition were front and centre in my mind while reading this delightful debut novel by Audrey Burges.

The premise of The Minuscule Mansion of Myra Malone instantly captured my imagination. Myra Malone of the title is a reclusive blogger who writes from her attic in Arizona about the Mansion; a miniature dolls' house given to her by a loved one. Myra is an online sensation with thousands of subscribers and fans who enjoy her blog posts about the Mansion, the rooms and their decoration and subsequent redecoration. Fans send her items hoping they'll be featured in one of the rooms and Myra has cultivated a safe and fulfilling existence for herself.

The house is a huge hinged trunk with brass buckles and originally belonged to her step grandmother Trixie. The descriptions of the Mansion in the novel were so detailed I could easily visualise the structure.
"It's hinged, by the way." Lou pointed to brass buckles on the house's backside, shut tight. Myra already knew. "It opens up like a clam on its side, and there are little rooms on hinges inside, too - it kind of unfurls. Damnedest thing I've ever seen." Page 18
More than just a dollhouse, the Mansion has a touch of magic Myra has never understood but which she associates with the original owner Trixie. Sometimes Myra can hear music coming from the Mansion and rooms in the house can suddenly appear or disappear without warning.
"The Mansion is a miniature house - some might say a dollhouse, but please don't, it takes slights very personally - in an eclectic architectural style that embraces Victorian and Gothic influences, as well as a few other mishmashed elements thrown in just for the hell of it." Page 99
We're soon introduced to Alex who works in his father's furniture business and he's a likeable character. However Alex is shocked beyond belief when he inadvertently stumbles across Myra's blog because the Mansion looks exactly like his house! Why does Myra Malone have a miniature model of his house and a replica bedroom with his furniture inside?

The plot is driven by a mystery surrounding the original owner of the Mansion and I enjoyed the dual timelines and touch of 'other'. The novel cleverly incorporates Myra's blog posts to tell some of the story (as in the quote from page 99 above), although I did find the connection between the characters across time a little hazy at times, but thankfully it became clear.

Presented in a delightfully designed cover, and containing a very light romance with strong generational links, I fell in love with this uplifting, feel good tale.

Highly recommended!

P.S. If you're into miniatures, check out my review of Dolls' Houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood by Halina Pasierbska.

P.P.S In writing this review, I've just discovered that the exhibition I mentioned (Doll House: Miniature Worlds of Wonder) is now an online immersive experience. Organised by the National Trust, you can find out more here.

My Rating: