29 December 2023

Non Fiction 2023 Reader Challenge Completed

Non Fiction 2023 Reader Challenge Completed logo by Book'd Out

I love participating in the Non Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by fellow Aussie book blogger Shelleyrae at Book'd Out and this year I signed up for the Nonfiction Nibbler level of the challenge. For this, I was required to read and review 6 books from any of the categories listed below.

I successfully completed the challenge, so here's what I read:

Black - The History of a Colour by Michel Pastoureau
The Dirt on Clean - An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg
This Mortal Coil - A History of Death by Andrew Doig
The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson

On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
And Away... by Bob Mortimer
What Lies Beneath - My Life as a Forensic Search and Rescue Expert by Peter Faulding

Crime & Punishment
The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge
Badness by Gary Jubelin

Storm in a Teacup - The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski
Thinking with Your Hands by Susan Golden-Meadow

Built to Move - The 10 Essential Habits to Help You Move Freely and Live Fully
Bizarre - The Most Peculiar Cases of Human Behavior and What They Tell Us about How the Brain Works by Marc Dingman

Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings

RecipeTin Eats Dinner by Nagi Maehashi

Social Media
Copywrong to Copywriter by Tait Ischia


Sorry, Sorry, Sorry by Marjorie Ingall & Susan McCarthy
Care Packages by Michelle Mackintosh
Fierce Love by Susan Scott

The Arts
Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera Companion
Almost Lost Arts by Emily Freidenrich
The Book of the Raven - Corvids in Art & Legend by Angus Hyland & Caroline Roberts

Published in 2023
Shoes - An Illustrated History by Rebecca Shawcross
Corners of Melbourne by Robyn Annear
Retro Sydney 1950-2000 by Nathan Mete
You're All Talk by Rob Drummond

I was happy to read from every category in the challenge except for sport. Did you read any stand out non fiction this year or have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments below and feel free to sign up for the challenge with me in 2024.

Carpe Librum!

22 December 2023

Review: You're All Talk by Rob Drummond

You're All Talk by Rob Drummond book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

I've always been fascinated by language, accents and linguistic diversity. I have an Australian accent and my favourite accents to listen to are the Kiwi and South African accents. All I need to do is Google 'Anna accent Downton Abbey' or 'Peaky Blinders accent' and I can easily lose half an hour or more in my day.

In You're All Talk - Why We Are What We Speak by Rob Drummond, the reader is introduced to the broad range of accents from a UK central perspective with various distinguishing features highlighted to demonstrate the language differences in accent and dialect. Drummond gives us a history lesson as to how the different accents developed and changed around the world, and how they continue to evolve and change today.

The author is a Professor of Sociolinguistics and academic linguist and he explains why accents shift between locations and within classes in the UK and the stigma associated with some accents while others are considered more refined or cultured. Linguistic criticism and judging people by their accents was covered, as well as the practice of expressing accents in writing; Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe comes to mind here.

Adopting accents to signify a shared group identity was fascinating and the author draws on the nature of gay talk (gay voice) and Valley Girl speech as two clear examples of this.
"Speech features become associated with specific groups through those groups repeatedly using them. Not because there is anything intrinsically feminine/middle-class/gay about them, but because that's the association that develops when particular people use them again and again. And when this association has been made, these features can be used by others to help create that identity for themselves." Page 79
I'm still pondering this many days later. The differences in vowel sounds across accents is touched on, and how the American accent evolved to pronounce the 'r' in words (which is called a 'rhotic' accent by the way) and it's not what you think! I loved learning about the glottal stop and worried when I read about accent reduction. The inclusion of foreign accent syndrome brought to mind an old 60 Minutes episode and sent me off hunting that down.

One of my favourite takeaways from You're All Talk was without a doubt learning about vocal fry:
"Creaky voice or 'vocal fry' is another speech feature that is often associated with young, especially American, women. Combined with uptalk, it provides the toolkit for what is often referred to as 'Valley Girl' speech, and is a feature that is often heavily stigmatised." Page 14
The author suggests listening to a video of Kim Kardashian talking and I quickly found a montage of her using vocal fry and that was it! Now I can't un-hear it and regularly notice it appearing in male and female speakers in the content I'm viewing.

Drummond touches on too many aspects of the way we speak and why to mention here. I haven't been able to share even half of my favourite snippets (there were 17!!), but if any of these topics interest you, you'll love this book.

You're All Talk by Rob Drummond is highly recommended for non fiction readers interested in language and communication and why we speak the way we do.

My Rating:

20 December 2023

Review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

After reading Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See earlier this year and identifying it as a real contender for my Top 5 list, I was lucky enough to receive two of the author's backlist titles for review, the first being The Island of Sea Women.

Set on Jeju Island in Korea from 1938 - 1975, the novel covers the events through the occupation by the Japanese, the Korean War and eventual establishment of North Korea and South Korea.

Our main character is Young-sook and the book follows her life in a dual timeline beginning with her childhood years growing up and learning how to do water work with her best friend Mi-ja. A small part of the book takes place in 2008 and provides the contemporary timeline.

Starting with little to no knowledge about Jeju Island, I was interested to learn about the matriarchal society of the haenyeo, where the women divers support their families by diving for various items - like mollusks, octopus, seaweed - to sell and eat. In contrast to the west, the matriarch is the head of the family and the father looks after the children at home while women divers go to work in the water fields or dry fields depending on the season.

Despite this interest, much of the content includes the conflicts and associated atrocities during this period. I found the unrelenting nature hard going at times and I needed to take a break part way through the book.
"We stayed alert for Japanese soldiers. Korea had now been a Japanese colony for twenty-eight years. We hated the Japanese, and they hated us. They were cruel. They stole food. Inland, they rustled livestock. They took and took and took. They'd killed Grandmother's parents, and she called them chokpari - cloven-footed ones." Page 13
I'm used to reading historical fiction where an heir is needed to secure a family legacy or royal line, but in this culture, a son is valued because they can perform ancestor worship when you die. Far from a son being required for reasons of succession, female babies are prized for their income earning abilities and male babies are celebrated as they represent a comfortable afterlife.

In the words of one of the characters:
"You are nothing but someone's servant if you don't have a son who can perform ancestor worship for you one day." Page 61
The political situation and escalation of violence with accompanying poverty and starvation is interpreted through the eyes of the haenyeo, and it was often a helpless situation for Young-sook and her family.
"This meant - although none of us understood the practicalities - that the USSR would oversee Korea above the line as we transitioned to independence and formed our own country. We thought we were free, but so far the only difference in our lives here on Jeju was that the Japanese flag was lowered, and the American flag was raised. One colonizer had been replaced by another." Page 154
In my view, there was too much time spent covering the ever changing political situation to the detriment of character development and character growth. An estrangement was the most interesting focal point of the novel and without giving away any spoilers about whether (or not) there was any reconciliation, the ending was satisfying and realistic.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See is recommended for readers who enjoy their historical fiction supported by a detailed knowledge of the political and military background at the time to add validity to the story and highlight the horrors of the past. An interest in Korea will enhance your enjoyment.

I'm looking forward to reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane in the new year!

My Rating:

17 December 2023

Historical Fiction Challenge Completed 2023

At the beginning of the year I signed up for the Renaissance Reader level of the 2023 Historical Fiction Challenge which required me to read 10 historical fiction books. As a comparison, last year I read 14, but this year I smashed my goal by reading a total of 22 historical fiction novels.

Here's what I read throughout the year 2023:

1. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell
2. The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson
3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
4. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
5. The Miniscule Mansion of Myra Malone by Audrey Burges
6. Homecoming by Kate Morton
7. One Illumined Thread by Sally Colin-James
8. The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier
9. The Becoming of Mrs Mulberry by Jackie French
10. Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See

Additional books read for the challenge:
11. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
12. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
13. The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes
14. Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper
15. The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman
16. Miss Austen by Gill Hornby
17. The Widow of Pale Harbour by Hester Fox
18. Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley
19. The Armour of Light by Ken Follett
20. The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters
21. The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon
22. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Have you read any books on the list? I read a combination of new and backlist books from a variety of eras and genres and next year I'll definitely be signing up for the challenge again, although I'm thinking of attempting the Medieval level of 15.

Either way, I'm sure there'll be some exciting new titles coming out in 2024 to tempt me in addition to the many older books still waiting on my bookshelves or hiding in the library. Want to join me? Visit Marg at The Intrepid Reader for details.

Carpe Librum!

15 December 2023

Review: Kill Your Husbands by Jack Heath

Kill Your Husbands by Jack Heath book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Australian author Jack Heath is back in the charts and on my reading schedule with Kill Your Husbands this month. Heath is known for writing gritty and gruesome crime novels - like the Timothy Blake series - as well as killer adventure books for kids, but this latest novel feels like a shift into a new writing style as he ventures into contemporary psychological thriller and domestic noir territory.

Kill Your Husbands focuses around three couples and I'll admit it took me a while to cement the different personalities, their individual relationship dynamics and variously intersecting backstories. Once I was able to do that, it became even harder to figure out what the hell was going on.

Setting out for a short digital detox getaway in New South Wales, a couples swap goes wrong when one of the party ends up dead. Moments of laughter like this break up the tension in this whodunnit:
'I'm told he was a bit of a larrikin.' 'You mean a dickhead.' Kiara gives a slight nod. Page 218
I didn't warm to any of the characters as their various egos, undercurrents of jealousy and envy along with the competitive nature of their friendships was sickening to read. All six characters in this isolation thriller were flawed and unlikeable and as a result I wasn't invested in their survival.

There were some interesting character insights, but these weren't the sort of people I would ever have as friends or regularly choose to associate with.
"It hadn't seemed very funny at the time - kind of mean, actually. But fifteen years later, he found himself laughing along, not because it was clever but because it was a shared memory. The past was like that, tragedy becoming comedy. Sometimes he heard a song from his youth on the radio, and even though he'd hated it back then, he'd sing along. The act of remembering gave him joy." Pages 62-62
I think Kill Your Husbands has all of the juicy elements of an international bestseller, (I'm thinking Ruth Ware level here) however I'll admit to being a Heath purist; if there's such a thing. For me that means I prefer to read his 'shock and awe' style of writing, the way he's able to make characters say and do things no author - I read - is doing. Heath has the skill to make me laugh while making me recoil and writing plots that make my jaw drop. 'That' wasn't here in Kill Your Husbands, and while some readers will appreciate the 'gore left at the door' approach, I genuinely missed it.

Jack Heath is an 'auto-read' Australian author for me and I suspect he'll attract a wider reading audience with Kill Your Husbands which can only be a good thing for readers. It's rare that an author can adapt to so many writing styles and I'm excited to see when he next releases a book 'for me'.

My Rating:

11 December 2023

Review: Fierce Love by Susan Scott

Fierce Love by Susan Scott book cover

In 2007 I read Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott and remember being impressed with the knowledge imparted and trying to absorb and implement as many of the key points as I could into my day to day life. Not since reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie had I read a book that made an immediate impact on the way I communicate with others.

I noticed the author Susan Scott released a new book last year called Fierce Love - Creating a Love that Lasts, One Conversation at a Time and I was hopeful for a brand new set of skills I could incorporate into my life a mere 16 years later.

Choosing to listen to the audiobook narrated by the author herself, unfortunately Fierce Love didn't have anything new to teach or show me.

This time there were no breakthroughs, a-ha moments or epiphanies. I did really enjoy this reading highlight from Chapter 16 though when the author quotes from Robert Brault:
"Life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got." Chapter 16, It's Not You, It's Me
Despite that little nugget of insight which I definitely need to work on, I think I would have been better off with a re-read of the original - and easily the better - Fierce Conversations.

If you haven't read Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, I recommend starting there for the greater reading experience.

My Rating:

06 December 2023

Review: The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon is an historical fiction novel set in Maine in 1789 inspired by the life of Martha Ballard. Martha was an 18th century midwife who left a diary of her work with patients, much in the way Tan Yunxian did in Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See.

If you've noticed I read another historical fiction novel set in Maine recently (The Widow of Pale Harbour by Hester Fox set in 1846) you'd be right, but these were very different books in subject matter, plot, writing style and character arcs.

Martha Ballard is a very likeable character and an excellent midwife and healer. Called on to assess the body of a man pulled from the icy Kennebec River - the frozen river of the title - Martha believes the man has been murdered.

The writing was incredibly visceral and evocative, which was offset by tender moments in the chaos like this:
"Only when the hangman cut the rope and let [character name removed for spoilers]'s body drop to the ground with a heavy thud did Ephraim turn me in to the wide shelter of his chest." Page 79
There's something in those five words that still moves me; the 'wide shelter of his chest.' Martha's work means she knows the villagers well and her medical expertise is readily called upon. The narrative focuses on the investigation of the man's death which leads to speculation it may be connected to a rape case in the town.

The character arcs and village goings on reminded me of Ken Follett's ability to launch into village life, establish characters and draw us in until we find ourselves deeply invested in their choices and decisions. Martha's relationship with her husband Ephraim was moving and I found myself caring about all of the characters and wanting them to safely navigate their problems, succeed in their endeavours and in other cases, see justice carried out.

This is my first time reading any of Ariel Lawhon's books, but I'm so glad I was sent this unsolicited copy, because now I'm a new fan. If you enjoyed Gulliver's Wife by Lauren Chater, Tidelands by Philippa Gregory or more recently, Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See, you'll love this. (I just realised these three books are also published by Simon & Schuster, looks like S&S is becoming my 'go to' for historical fiction).

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

30 November 2023

Review: Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete

Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete is a collection of photographs that invites the reader to step back in time and tap into their nostalgia and sense of curiosity. Drawing together photographs taken in Sydney from a variety of sources including the National Archives of Australia, State Library of NSW Archives and Getty Images, Nathan Mete has managed to document the changing streets of Sydney over the course of half a century.

There are plenty of photographs showcasing Sydney's ever evolving city skyline, and the construction of Centre Point Tower in the 1980s was most interesting. Apparently it's now called the Sydney Tower Eye, not that I'll be able to change the name association in my mind. I lived in Sydney in the late 1990s and Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 took me back to that era with the flip of a page.

As in previous collections of this nature, I enjoyed looking deep into each photograph and studying the people, and in doing so observing the many changes in fashion, advertising, technology, construction and retail over time. Structured chronologically by decade, some of the photos displayed a stiffness and formality in their composition but this is quickly offset by Mete's casual and relaxed style of writing.

I didn't plan on reading a book about Sydney at the same time as a book about Melbourne, but sometimes that's just how our reading schedules turn out. At the same time I was reading about the hazards of runaway horses in early Melbourne in Corners of Melbourne by Robyn Annear, I was learning about the demise of Sydney's Bourbon and Beefsteak in Kings Cross, which closed in late 2022. (Such a shame, I have many happy memories of partying there!)

Arising from a very successful instagram page of the same name, Retro Sydney shows the publishing industry is changing and many successful content creators are now following their social media success into the book industry and becoming published authors.

If you enjoyed books like Old Vintage Melbourne or Old Vintage Melbourne 1960 - 1990 by Chris Macheras - also published by Scribe Publications - and wished there was one for Sydney, you'll be pleased to know this is it!

Retro Sydney 1950 - 2000 by Nathan Mete is a well designed coffee table book, and would make the perfect Christmas gift for the armchair time traveller, historian, photographer, nostalgic visitor and reflective resident; they will all find something to admire here.

My Rating:

27 November 2023

Review: The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters book cover

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters was published in 2019 and follows straight on from the events in The Last Hours, published in 2017. I received this book from a generous bookish friend in 2019 and it's languished on my TBR until now. Together these two historical fiction titles form the Black Death duology, which is set in 1300s Develish, Dorsetshire.

I read The Last Hours in October 2017 and despite reading The Turn of Midnight six years later, I didn't find myself lost at all. The Last Hours ended on such a memorable cliffhanger that left me out of sorts at the time, yet the author does an excellent job reminding us about the precise state of play when we last caught up with the various characters. My favourite historical fiction authors - Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir and Ken Follett - also manage to strike this balance between boring and repetitive recaps and helpful pointers that enhance the narrative without distracting from it.

To further drive home this point, halfway through The Turn of Midnight, the review copy of The Armour of Light by Ken Follett arrived in my mailbox. I'd requested it from the publisher and it was 730+ pages long so I reluctantly set aside this book in favour of ensuring I met my reviewing commitments. Picking this back up again 2 weeks later, I needn't have worried that a further interruption would diminish my reading enjoyment.

Again Lady Anne is the hero of her demesne, and together with Thaddeus, they have a plan to secure their futures after the black plague has swept through the countryside. The pestilence exposed the worst in some people and the best in others, some cowered in fear while others responded with kindness, unwilling to believe God was punishing them for their sins.

If you've been reading my reviews for any length of time, you'll have noticed that I love a good quote. I take a note as I'm reading and later transcribe all of the quotes when drafting my review. Many of these quotes end up on the cutting room floor (oh geez, that's an old analogy, but I'm sticking with it) but I didn't record any while reading The Turn of Midnight. I checked my review of The Last Hours and I didn't note any quotes while reading that one either. Perhaps it's a relief to read a quote-free review from me for a change, but I can assure you this wasn't due to a lack of great writing.

Lady Anne is a compelling character, a widow navigating a man's world and constantly challenged at every turn, she must be clever to dodge their accusations, negotiate safety and a future for her people. The dialogue was tight and amusing and the ending was immensely satisfying.

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters is highly recommended for historical fiction readers, but it won't really work as a standalone, so for maximum understanding and enjoyment, I recommended starting with The Last Hours.

For more, check out my review of The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters.

My Rating:

21 November 2023

Review: Corners of Melbourne by Robyn Annear

Corners of Melbourne - The Great Orange-Peel Panic and Other Stories from the Streets by Robyn Annear book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

In Corners of Melbourne - The Great Orange-Peel Panic and Other Stories from the Streets, Australian author Robyn Annear takes us through some of the interesting early history of the intersecting streets and corners of Melbourne.

Right out of the gate, the subtitle of this book introduced me to the nuisance and hazard of orange peel on the newly laid flagstone paving on Melbourne's footpaths. As a street food, oranges were healthy, cheap and nourishing, but when:
"...leather-soled shoes met orange peel dropped on flagstones, a diabolical hazard to pedestrians ensued." Page 5

But how much orange peel are we talking about here? A correspondent writing to the Argus stated that one afternoon he removed 17 pieces of orange peel from the west side of Elizabeth street over the course of one hour. Okay, that sounds like a lot!

"At issue was how the 'peripatetic orange-eater' (a distinct urban type) disposed of the empty wrapper, which was often by scattering peel on the footpath as they went along. There were no bins back then, but there was a 'proper receptacle' for street waste - namely, the gutter. Bluestone channels, wide and deep enough to require footbridges for crossing, ran along either side of Melbourne's main streets." Page 6
Broken limbs, concussions and even deaths resulted from these nasty falls but orange peel wasn't the only danger.
"All it took was a stray spark from a discarded match or cigar butt on the footpath for a woman to be engulfed in flames. Skirts lanterned out by crinoline cages or billowing cotton petticoats were so frightfully flammable that accounts of women killed or maimed by dress fires were almost daily news." Page 17
This brings to mind my review of Fashion Victims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David, so be sure to check that out if you have an interest in how your clothes could kill you in the past. Remember those bluestone channels? When it rained in Melbourne, flash flooding could cause those deep gutters to flow with a very fast rushing current, often flooding the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Street. Pedestrians couldn't see the footbridges, were swept off or fell into the waters and some even found themselves trapped and drowned beneath the footbridges. Hard to imagine isn't it, drowning in the street?

If you managed to dodge the orange peel, avoid being set alight or drowning on the early streets of Melbourne, you might be hard pressed to avoid being startled or trampled by a horse.
"When trains first ran from Flinders Street, the train whistle had 'a very terrifying effect' on horses - young ones in particular. With the advent of trams, it was the clang of the gripman's bell. The scrape of a street sweeper's shovel, an umbrella being shaken, a dog's bark, a thunderclap: any sudden noise or movement might set a horse off." Page 48
Annear follows with many accounts of horses being spooked, with or without their rider as well as with or without their cart, buggy or coach. Good samaritans trying to slow or stop a runaway horse/s were often hurt or killed in the process and pedestrians, passengers and cart drivers themselves were frequently knocked down, bowled over, trampled or crushed.

The installation of an elaborately designed fountain at the intersection of Swanston and Collins Streets seems impossible to imagine now. Installed in 1859 and named the Victoria Fountain, it was designed to provide water to the public and included a horse trough, making it a convenient place to stop. The water and subsequent animal droppings made the area muddy and the watering of horses and livestock regularly disrupted the flow of traffic in both directions. Reading the resistance from the public and efforts from the council reminded me that some things don't change and the fountain was swiftly relocated to Carlton Gardens, a 'poorly cultivated pleasure-ground' at the time.

Understandably, sanitation was a problem, and the city's laneways became public urinals. Annear tells us we can still see remnants of this time:
"There are a couple of laneways in central Melbourne where an injunction to Commit No Nuisance can still be seen, painted on the wall at eye level. Translated from Victorian bureaucratese, it means: Do Not Piss Here." Page 77
I thought those signs meant no graffiti, or keep the noise down. The first public urinals in the city were immediately popular and rapidly exceeded all expectations. (No facilities for women mind you!) These urinals provided privacy but directed the urine down into the gutters, hence saving the alleyways, but still stinking out the public. One such urinal close to the Theatre Royal was allegedly visited by 1,897 men over a six hour period on a Saturday night. Imagine the volume of urine produced! Unfortunately this was nothing compared to the estimated 10,000 patrons utilising the urinals located on Bourke Street every week.
"The gutters were sluiced regularly - if not often enough - by sanitation workers authorised to uncork the fireplugs that stood at intervals on the edge of city streets." Page 87
According to an article in the Herald from January 1822:
"Truly Melbourne might be fairly called the city of stinks. Last night the stench arising from the gutters in Elizabeth Street was particularly noseable...Even those well accustomed to the malodorous atmosphere of this particular thoroughfare stood aghast, and ultimately fled." Page 87
Changing topics, and another aspect from the Corners of Melbourne was that of what to do with foundlings left on doorsteps and street corners. Unwanted children born to poor families, unwedded mothers, mistresses or victims of abuse were a significant problem:
"If a foundling's identity and parents couldn't be traced, the infant would be 'charged' with being a neglected child and presented at the local court. There, a bench of three magistrates would decide not only the child's fate, but its name." Page 119
The author goes on to tell us about the naming of Cecil Nicholson, Alexander South, August Studley, Henry Street, Ellen Park, Frances Wellington and more. I don't know why, but reading these names and hearing their stories makes me sad. Not knowing a child's identity somehow seems such a cruel and a lonely beginning for these and many more babies abandoned in this way.

On learning neglected children were committed to industrial schools by the court for up to 16 years, thankfully the author declares:
"But that's enough shit and misery for one chapter. Suffice it to know that the industrial schools - overcrowded, disease-ridden; short on privies and shorter on love - were no place for a child." Page 121
What a breath of fresh air! Annear seems to know when the reader has had enough of a topic, while her anecdotes and case histories gave me the feeling she was spinning yarns at a bar, or a campfire.

Stories of larrikins and gangs of boys spitting, throwing stones, stealing, harassing people and causing mischief somehow didn't engage my imagination as fiercely. Nor did the information around bill posting and advertising, and the rise and curse of hoardings in Melbourne. Having said that, I've been paying closer attention to hoardings and advertising since reading the book, and am able to 'see' with fresh eyes, noticing for the first time that the section of road underneath Richmond Station crossing over Punt Road now has organised and numbered billboards. When did that happen?

I was more interested in the history of pedestrian foot traffic and the changing of rules from 'keep to the right' and 'keep to the left'. A great one on escalators, did you know that prior to 1925, the city council had a regulation for pedestrians to 'keep to the right'. This rule meant that pedestrians had their backs to the road traffic - that was keeping to the left - essentially blinding them to hazards approaching them from behind.
"In Melbourne the change took effect in 1925. But there was resistance, with traditionalists calling the new rule 'absurd', 'farcical' and 'pettifogging'. Too bad: it was law. Now Keep to the Left was stencilled on the surface of city footpaths, with a continuous white line painted down the middle so there could be no mistaking where the left side became right (or wrong)." Page 237
Pettifogging means placing undue emphasis on petty or trivial details (thanks Google) and I found myself marvelling that white lines were ever drawn on the footpath to indicate a mandatory direction for pedestrians. That is, until I remembered the white lines and circles that appeared on pavements and floors during the pandemic telling us all where to stand and queue. It's interesting how some things change and others stay the same.

Overall, the material contained within Corners of Melbourne was thoughtfully collated and gave me a sense of what I might encounter walking the early streets of Melbourne as it was expanding and developing into the city I now call home.

Recommended for history buffs and those with a non fiction interest in urban planning, social history, architecture or economic development. You can check out the first 72 pages for free on the publisher's website.

For more, you can also check out my review of Adrift in Melbourne by Robyn Annear.

My Rating:

17 November 2023

Review: The Armour of Light by Ken Follett

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett book cover

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett is a 700+ page novel, but if you're concerned it'll be a slow burn or you'll have to suffer through a slow start, fear not. As always, bestselling author Ken Follett drags the reader into the lives of his characters by the scruff of the neck, whether they've made the commitment to invest the requisite time with him or not.

But this is historical fiction I hear you cry, not a thriller. How does he do that? Well, how's this for an opening line?
"Until that day, Sal Clitheroe had never heard her husband scream." Page 3
Okay, I'm in! The opening line introduces us to Sal Clitheroe and we become immediately invested in her plight and that of her husband and family. It's 1792, the focus soon widens and we begin to meet more characters from a range of backgrounds from the town who will go on to tell this story. Some are friends, some are foes and they all have their faults, but together a relatable history of the period begins to form in the reader's mind.

Set in Kingsbridge, England during the Napoleonic Wars, I'll admit to being surprised at the date we pick up the thread again. I wanted to return to the moment soon after the events of The Evening and the Morning and the naming of Kingsbridge which gave me a very pleasant gasp of recognition that left me wanting more.

That said, The Evening and the Morning was actually the prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, however The Armour of Light is the 5th novel in the series and chronologically follows on more than a century after A Column of Fire*.

In The Armour of Light, we return to Kingsbridge 150 (or so) years after those events and during the industrial revolution.* The characters in Kingsbridge are struggling with the introduction of machinery to the local mills, which causes unrest amongst the workers.

Meanwhile, I learned about press gangs for the first time and didn't know that men could be kidnapped or tricked and captured, later waking up on a ship.
"Britain was in constant need of men for the navy. The militia, the home defence force, had no shortage, for it had the power to conscript men whether they liked it or not. There was no conscription into the regular army, but poverty-stricken Ireland supplied about a third of army recruits and the criminal courts accounted for most of the rest... So the biggest problem was the navy, which kept the seas free for British trade." Page 427
"In England, teams called press gangs kidnapped, or 'impressed', able-bodied men in coastal towns, took them aboard ships, and kept them tied up until they were miles from land. The system was hated, and often led to rioting." Page 427
I don't recall this ever coming up in the historical fiction I've read until now, but I could be mistaken. It seems preposterous, doesn't it? That you could drop into your local tavern for a beer and be kidnapped and forced into service, unable to alert your family or provide for them and this plays out in the book.

As in previous work, Follett's depth of research is supported by excellent writing, with the occasional line that made me smile for the sheer joy of it:
"The two men set off again. Willard House was on the market square. The irritatingly officious Sergeant Beach was on duty in the hall, and after a token display of reluctance he showed them in to Donaldson." Page 552
I love the 'token display of reluctance' and seeing this kind of detailed observation on the page is always an unexpected delight. Other than commencing close to two centuries later than I expected, The Armour of Light by Ken Follett delivered on every other hope and expectation. I came to care about the plight and wellbeing of the millworkers and villagers as well as the success of the town, all while understanding that the challenges faced in the industrial revolution were only going to increase.

Follett is able to distil the events of history and make them relatable through the impact to his characters, and I'm now feeling a little more informed about the Napoleonic wars and can't wait to see the release of Napoleon here in Australia later this month.

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett was my most highly anticipated title for 2023 and I can highly recommend it for readers of historical fiction.

* Here's a look at the Kingsbridge series of books in the order you should read them, and the time periods they cover:
Book #0 The Evening and the Morning 997AD - 1007AD
Book #1 The Pillars of the Earth 1135 - 1174
Book #2 World Without End 1327 - 1361
Book #3 A Column of Fire 1558 - 1606
Book #4 The Armour of Light 1792 - 1824

My Rating:

08 November 2023

Review: What Lies Beneath by Peter Faulding

What Lies Beneath by Peter Faulding audiobook cover

Peter Faulding has had a stellar career, and in What Lies Beneath - My Life as a Forensic Search and Rescue Expert I was looking forward to reading all about it. Why the one star rating? I'll get to that.

Faulding grew up in England, caving and exploring mines with his Dad from a very young age, and this went on to form the early beginnings of an impressive career in search and rescue. Becoming more adept at exploring, charting and shoring up mines and tunnels, Peter and his Dad became known by the local fire and rescue squad, volunteering their time when a novice caver was lost or needed rescuing. This knowledge was soon sought after by the UK Search & Rescue Teams (UKSART) and Faulding's career took off, despite never specifically qualifying or following the traditional hiring process.

Faulding served in the military for six years as a military parachutist, and left seemingly to expand his search and rescue business, Specialist Group International (SGI). His interest in developing his own capabilities and skill set led him to become a qualified diver and his searches then expanded to include drownings and body retrievals.

Faulding is an unapologetic high achiever, however his attitude started to tick me off. On locating the body of a man who had drowned, Faulding overheard distraught loved ones discussing the idea of raising funds for the victim's family. The deceased had fallen out of a boat and subsequently drowned, allegedly because he wasn't wearing a life vest. Faulding is tired of attending senseless drownings and approaches the family. He tells them he couldn't help overhearing, but if loved ones wanted to raise some money for the family, perhaps some of it could be spent on life vests for their boat. Well intentioned, sure, but definitely not the time or place for this unsolicited 'advice'.

In Chapter 6, just as he says he: "felt an acute sense of responsibility to conduct the job that we had to do with sensitivity and dignity." Faulding later remarks, "I remember being surprised at how quickly the flies found him." Ummm, what? The author makes this same observation about flies finding the bodies several times and I found it inappropriate and disrespectful to the victims and their loved ones.

Faulding's business SGI is engaged to remove protestors who have tunnelled below the proposed site of a bypass, and 'locked on'. The extent to which environmental protestors in England go in order to disrupt a development, or halt a bypass was eye opening. Staying underground for days at a time, and often dangerously cementing themselves and locking each other to obstacles to slow down the rescue process. In many cases, protestors needed to be cut free from some nasty obstacles and many remained locked-on for days on end, relying on the rescuers for nourishment.

These confined space rescues made me squirm with secondary claustrophobia, but other than telling us protestors left bags of their excrement for rescuers every day, he doesn't really describe what it's like to have to lay on top of a person in order to free them from their lock-in. Faulding seems to respect the ingenuity and dedication of the protestors while reminding the reader how lucrative the work is. He makes sure to mention that for this job he went and purchased some quad bikes, and for this rescue a few vehicles, or a soft top Aston Martin DB7 Vantage Volante to celebrate a month long project. Spare me!

The cases of freeing environmental protestors at various sites became quite repetitive and seemed to blur into one another. The only relief came when the author bragged about purchasing another cutting edge piece of equipment that nobody else was using in the UK at the time.

It seems Faulding regularly travelled in search of emerging technology, expanding into ground penetrating radar, underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and more, being sure to tell us the price tags along the way. Faulding's team were now being hired to search areas for human remains, giving rise to a few chapters on true crime and helping law enforcement. Even here Faulding's arrogance shines through.

Using his years of experience of tunnels and sediment, Faulding began to develop a 'sixth sense' (my words, not his) about where human remains were likely to be found. He mentions a few well known cases, and one in particular when a detective told him an area had already been searched and wouldn't allow SGI to search it again. Reflecting on news the body was later found in that area, Faulding takes the trouble to point out that if he'd been able to search where he wanted to, the family would have been spared years of anguish.

It's not the first time Faulding clashes with SIOs or members of the Police. His expertise becomes so specialised that he's contacted by all levels of government, and I'm not even joking when he says some of them are highly confidential so he can't mention them.
"I had contacts in so many agencies by now, some of which were highly confidential so I cannot mention them. But if something needed to be searched, we were the first port of call." Chapter 9
Did you hear that? That was the sound of my eyes rolling back into my head and squelching back down. In his words:
"Every stone needs to be overturned, every hunch followed, and every piece of information followed up on. I made sure I went into every job with an open mind and a commitment to see it through, for as long as it took until I could be confident that I had searched everywhere. Of course it was disappointing when I couldn't find anything, but at least I could console myself with the knowledge that I didn't find anything because there was nothing there. Not because I hadn't looked hard enough." Chapter 11
If you're still thinking to yourself, 'well, that's not too arrogant, where's the harm in being confident about your work?'
"Often the range of call outs we were engaged in swung from the sublime to the ridiculous. I was highly regarded and my work was appreciated. I had skills that were valuable, I could search underwater, under buildings, in drains and tunnels, I could climb buildings, look in gutters. I was useful, a problem solver, a search Swiss Army knife." Chapter 11
Peter Faulding comes across as competent, knowledgable and an expert in his field, whilst also being disrespectful, condescending and arrogant. I wonder if some of this arrogance would have been written out if he'd worked with a ghost writer or a biographer.

Waiting at a scene for a Doctor to declare a deceased and mummified victim's remains, the author recounts the following interaction:
"A young Doctor turned up about an hour later. She had a stethoscope around her neck. 'Where is he?' she asked as she walked through the front door. 'I'll show you' I said, leading her to the garage, 'you won't be needing the stethoscope'. 'I'll make that judgement' she said curtly. We arrived in front of the body bag, and I crouched down and looked up at her. 'Are you ready with your stethoscope?' I asked. I then unzipped the bag, and opened it up. She recoiled slightly at the sight, she was not amused." Chapter 16
We've all worked with people like this and they're far from funny. When proactively engaged in flood rescue, Faulding warns authorities that the river is going to burst its banks, but the experts disagree. The river floods and the author can't resist an 'I told you so', crowing:
"I'd never seen anything like it, I had predicted it was going to happen, but no one would believe me, and that was the disappointing bit. We rely on computer models for everything, but unfortunately they are not always right." Chapter 18
And he is? Again, spare me! The author rails against figures in authority who wouldn't, couldn't or didn't listen to his advice and there are plenty of instances in this memoir of 'I told you so', or 'if you'd listened to me....'. In fact, in the case of Nicola Bulley, best summed up in this article from The Guardian, ‘She’s not in the river’: diving expert in Nicola Bulley case under the spotlight, Faulding even goes so far as to engage in some obvious point scoring.

There is very little in the memoir about the author's personal life or any internal growth shared. The fact that a protestor by the name of Swampy receives more air time in this memoir than his first wife Mandy and their two daughters, came across as insensitive and unfeeling. Short shrift was given to their eventual separation, which didn't come as a surprise to the reader after countless mentions of family holidays abandoned. The author spends many weeks and sometimes months away from family on rescue missions; searching crime scenes; or purchasing, testing and learning how to use new equipment. He even devotes time away from family to get his helicopter and fixed wing pilot's licences in the UK and the USA. I mean, come on this guy!

Just when you think there can't be any more, the author enlightens us about 'his' plan for a nation wide water safety scheme, where schools can loan out life jackets like a library book. Working with others, generous crowdfunding and more, he makes sure to look the hero as he tells us:
"In my own time, and at my own expense, I delivered the lifejackets to schools in my helicopter all over the UK." Chapter 20
If my loved one were ever missing, Peter Faulding is the man I'd want searching. It seems to me that he's top of his field, but 'what lies beneath' is an arrogant man with a rather large ego.

My Rating:

05 November 2023

Review: Maphead by Ken Jennings

Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings book cover

Maps are such a big part of our lives, I'm surprised I haven't read into the topic before now. I'm old enough to remember planning a journey with a road atlas or referring to handwritten directions, but I look at maps far more often now with GPS and Google Maps than I ever did before. In Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings is the ultimate tour guide.

Early on, he starts with some basics about different kinds of maps, like this one:
"Hypsometric maps are those ones that represent terrain with vivid colours: greens for low elevations, browns and purples for high ones. 
I preferred the clean political maps that Hammond and National Geographic published, where cities and towns stood out neatly on lightly shaded territory and borders were delineated in crisp pastels. In fact, I dislike hypsometric maps to this day." Page 6
I wasn't a fan of hypsometric maps when I was in Defence standing in the bush with a compass in my hand, but I do love an informative choropleth map, especially during elections:
"'Choropleth' maps - those in which areas are colored differently to represent different values on some scale, like the red-and-blue maps on election night - date back only to 1826." Page 8
Jennings is the knowledgeable navigator in the passenger seat on this journey, and as you drive through the pages and chapters, he readily provides all manner of info about geonerds and their love of maps. If you enjoy learning quirky facts in quick succession, this is for you. Example, did you know that 'cartacacoethes' is the uncontrollable compulsion to see maps everywhere?
Puddle in the shape of map of Australia

The puddle that looks like a perfect map of Australia immediately springs to mind, as does my remark last night that the protein (pork schnitzel) looked like the shape of Africa.

When the allies were planning the 1944 invasion at Normandy, there were extraordinary contributions made my mapmakers who had stolen across the English Channel by night for many months to map the coastline. Furthermore:
"In 1942, the BBC asked its listeners to send in prewar postcards and holiday snaps from the beaches of Europe. Seven million poured in, showing coastlines from Norway to the Pyrenees, and they were used to select Normandy as the site of the initial landing." Page 59
Despite a reasonable knowledge of military history, this was completely new to me. It seems unheard of, until you remember a similar call out by more recent governments: 'if you see something say something' and the images submitted post 9/11.

I was happy to see Humpty Doo (Northern Territory) get a mention in the section about place names and toponymists, as the author tells us he's been an enthusisastic toponymist - a student of place-names - for as long as he's loved maps. We then move on to the market for collectors of ancient maps and globes for display purposes that stretches as far back as the Renaissance:
"This was a watershed moment in the history of cartophilia. For thousands of years, people had drawn maps because they had to: to get from one place to another, or locate taxpayers, or mark the boundaries of fields and pastures. If not for those maps, lives or property would be lost, governments might fall. But here, for the first time, we have evidence of people keeping maps just because they liked looking at them." Page 99
Here Jennings mentions several figures from history - like John Dee, Samuel Pepys - who loved collecting and viewing maps, including Vermeer who reproduced maps in the backgrounds of more than a quarter of his paintings.

For readers who would rather leave history in the past, the section on maps in fantasy fiction was illuminating. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, David Eddings are mentioned, but it was the detail about Brandon Sanderson's maps that held my attention the longest. The author and Sanderson were college roommates, so he offers quite an insight.
"The hallmark of epic fantasy is immersion," says the best-selling genre writer Brandon Sanderson. "That's why I've always included maps in my books. I believe the map prepares your mind to experience the wonder, to say, 'I am going to a new place.'" Page 113
Jennings weighs in on the 'map gap' between the genders, and he made some convincing arguments:
"Tests on gender and navigation have found that women tend to navigate via landmarks ("I turn left when I get to the gas station") whereas men use dead reckoning ("I still need to be north and maybe a little west of here"), which ties in nicely with the evolutionary perspective: early men went out on hunting expeditions in all directions and always needed to be good at finding their way back to the cave, developing their "kinesic memory," while women foraged for edibles closer to home, developing "object location memory." Simply put, men got better at finding places, while women got better at finding things." Page 139-140
I'm also guilty of setting my map preference to 'forward is up', while my husband prefers the 'north is up' orientation which totally messes with my mind when I'm forced to use it.

The section on systematic travel was fascinating, and the first person who came to mind was Matt Harding, whose Where the Hell is Matt? series went viral in the 2000s. Some systematic travellers aim to visit every country in the world, perhaps every capital city, every state in the USA, the most northern/southern/eastern/western tip of a landmass. But how about ticking off the junction of state borders, or the highest mountains on every continent? The sky is the limit, and while I think I'd find the concept stressful, ticking off locations is high on the list for systematic travellers.

Just like twitchers and trainspotters, roadgeeks are the highway scholars of mapheads, and take photos of road signs to clock their routes.
"They can tell the difference between a Westinghouse streetlight and a GE one and are the only ones who notice when the lettering on interstate signage is switched over from Highway Gothic to the new Clearview font." Page 167
I don't know why, but I find this incredibly reassuring and even comforting. Perhaps knowing there are people in the world who pursue these particular interests gives me a sense that in every field, no matter how specialised, there is an expert; someone who lives and breathes everything there is to know about that topic.

The chapter on geocaching had me checking for geocache locations near me and - just like the author - I was surprised to find one less than 500m from my front door! It only required a photograph to complete the find, so I wasn't tempted to sign up and start checking caches on the weekend, but I'll certainly look twice next time I see someone taking a selfie at that location. They could be a geocacher!

Maphead by Ken Jennings is endlessly fascinating, and while I've been lucky enough to experience the thrill of watching the numbers tick over on the GPS when crossing the equator, did you know that confluence hunting is a thing?
"The Degree Confluence Project was started in 1996 by a Massachusetts Web programmer named Alex Jarrett, a new GPS owner who noticed that his commute happened to take him across the nearby seventy-second meridian twice a day." Page 237
Jennings tells us that no spot on Earth is more than 49 miles from one of these points of 'cartographic perfection' and there are 16,340 confluence points worldwide. Can you imagine? Maybe you've been lucky enough to visit a location (US has a few) where you can stand right at the spot where 3 or 4 states come together. Perhaps you just give a hoot when you cross from NSW to VIC in your car, but for a confluence hunter this is small fry.

I can see this review is getting long, and I haven't even begun to touch on all of the Google Earth and street view stuff! In reading Maphead and learning why so many people are cartographically cloddish, I'm convinced Geography needs to re-enter the curriculum of the day. 

If you suspect you'll need to look up images of maps while reading this, you're spot on, so have your device at the ready. Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings is an absolutely fascinating read and I'll be sorry to return it to the library. 

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

30 October 2023

Bone Rites Winner Announced

Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley book cover

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway last week to win a signed copy of Bone Rites by Australian author Natalie Bayley. All entrants correctly guessed the name of Natalie's guest post A Wander Through the Wonderful World of the Edwardians and if you missed it, you can check it our here.

Back to the news at hand, drum roll please as I draw the winner.......

Congratulations Rowan!!

You've won a signed copy of Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley valued at $21.99AUD thanks to the author. You'll receive an email from me shortly and will have 7 days to provide your Australian postal address. The author will then sign and send your prize out to you directly, so I hope you enjoy!

28 October 2023

Review: This Mortal Coil by Andrew Doig

This Mortal Coil l - A History of Death by Andrew Doig book cover

Our health has changed dramatically over the centuries, and in This Mortal Coil - A History of Death by Andrew Doig, the author explores the main causes of death we face today (heart disease and cancer) and how they vary from the illnesses and diseases from the past.

Doig introduces us to the Bills of Mortality in Chapter 2, and tells us the lists started being kept in the 1590s as a method of recording and reporting how many people were dying from the plague each week. The list was later expanded to include all causes of death, some of which have held particular interest over the years. (You can check out the medicinal remedy for quinsy in my review of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.)

Here are some of the choice examples of the causes of death recorded in a Bill of Mortality from 1664:

Affrighted = Frightened to death
Dropsy = Abnormal swelling of the body caused by the build-up of clear watery fluid. Often caused by kidney or heart disease
Falling sickness = epilepsy
Griping in the guts = sudden, sharp pain in your stomach or bowels.
Rising of the lights = a rather poetic name for coughing your lungs up.
Sweating sickness = Infectious and often fatal epidemic disease affecting England in the fifteenth century. Exactly what it was is a mystery

I borrowed a copy of This Mortal Coil from my library as well as listening along to the audiobook, as some of the chapters contain graphs and tables and while rather expertly narrated, I was still keen to examine the print version of the data.

After reading chapters about life expectancy in different countries and across time, genetic diseases, plague, famine, scurvy, and sorting out the difference between typhus and typhoid,* my most memorable fact from the book came from learning about cholera. I knew the story about John Snow and his map of the Broad Street Pump (which also came up while reading Maphead by Ken Jennings, which I'll be reviewing next), but I didn't know anything about the dreadful symptoms of this terrible illness.
"Faeces are normally brown, as they contain dead red blood cells. The bad smell is molecules containing sulphur. In contrast, the diarrhoea from cholera is white and very runny, resembling water that has been used to cook rice, and can also smell of fish. Stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting also occur, adding to fluid loss. As the dehydration takes hold, victims experience irritability, lethargy, sunken eyes, loss of saliva, dry and shrivelled skin, and (unsurprisingly) extreme thirst. Blood turns acidic, urine production stops, blood pressure falls and the heartbeat becomes erratic. Losing salts in the blood causes muscle cramps and shock, as blood pressure becomes dangerously low. Patients scream and thrash as their muscles spasm, before they collapse exhausted." Page 100-101
This sounds like like a horror movie! I once believed ebola was the worst way to die, as seeing/being someone bleeding from the eyeballs was surely the most unnatural and horrific sight. However, now I'm thinking cholera - also known as the blue death - has got to be one of the worst illnesses, and seeing white runny diarrhoea would chill you to the bone, wouldn't it?

This Mortal Coil is full of interesting facts from history while never being grim or dull, and to my point, Doig opened my eyes to an entirely new mania. I enjoy learning about tulip mania and the dancing mania, and I'm familiar with railway mania, but I was stunned to learn there was a period of canal mania in British history. The author tells us:
"The success of the Bridgewater Canal (which is still in use) helped trigger canal-building mania in Britain from 1770 to 1830, with more than 4,000 miles built. Canal mania was followed by railway mania from 1830. Rail passenger numbers jumped from 5.5 million in 1838 to 111 million in 1855." Page 147-148
Now that I reflect a little, I think canal mania was building in the TV series Gentleman Jack, wasn't it?

Published in 2022, This Mortal Coil by Andrew Doig is up to date with the inclusion of Covid and is highly recommended to readers with an interest in history, health, science, medicine and medical science discovery.

* Typhus is caused by bacteria spread by fleas and lice, and Typhoid is caused by Salmonella Typhi from contaminated water or food.

My Rating:

26 October 2023

Guest Post: A Wander Through the Weird & Wonderful World of the Edwardians

Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley book cover

Welcome to Australian author and new pen friend Natalie Bayley. As part of the blog tour for Bone Rites, Natalie is going to share some interesting facts about the Edwardian period. Stick around for the giveaway at the end, but for now, take us back in time Nat!

A Wander through the Weird & Wonderful World of the Edwardians

I chose to set my award-winning (ahem, I still love saying that) novel, Bone Rites, in the Edwardian and post-Edwardian period because I’m fascinated by that era. Writing historical fiction is like jumping in a time machine and living another life for a while. And while the so-called ‘golden era’ of 1901-1914 was followed by a horrifying war and a flu pandemic that killed an estimated 5% of the world’s population, it was a wild, experimental time of intense social revolution and technological invention.

Talking of inventions, if you’ve ever watched TV you’ve probably seen an episode of the phenomenally successful series, Downton Abbey. Writer Julian Fellowes took great pains to ensure the show was historically on point, and it certainly highlights Edwardian class divisions. While Lady Mary sips tea on the lawn and bitches about her sister, dozens of minions are rushing around behind the scenes, cooking, cleaning, carrying and generally co-ordinating her life of leisure. The show reveals how the working class below stairs were beginning to resent their servitude, yet the upper (literally – upstairs!) classes were also starting to question this feudal hangover. They recognised that their poorly paid ‘slaveys’ or ‘drudges’ had access to all the family’s darkest secrets. What ‘the butler saw’ was every morally dubious thing their employers did. And yet, without the advantage of our modern labour-saving devices, the owners of these huge houses depended on their servant help too much to prioritise privacy over maintaining centuries of privilege.

So, what do you do when your servants know all of your secrets? Just put on a cap and apron, slip below stairs and spy on them in return. Following the lead of their party-going king and queen, Edwardians loved putting on fancy dress and pretending to be someone else. For a while, it was quite the thing for society ladies to dress up as maids in order to infiltrate a friend’s house for a laugh. Perhaps this was inspired by the 1904 play, Lady Madcap, by Paul Rubens, in which an Earl’s rebellious daughter holds a ball at her father's castle without telling him and pretends to be her own maid. She has a great deal of fun confusing everyone, but I don’t think it was the ensuing chaos that made the play a success; it was the possibility of subverting those rigid class codes just by wearing the right clothes.
Natalie Bayley author pic

A few years later, there was a trend of holding servant-themed costume parties where guests were invited to dress up as servants (complete with a parlourmaid’s bib-apron or a footman’s knee breeches) and serve dinner to their hosts. I’m sure the real servants thought this was exceedingly droll (not). Think of George Bernard Shaw’s quintessentially Edwardian play, Pygmalion, (1912, later adapted as My Fair Lady) in which a cockney flower girl has a wash, a few elocution lessons, and a new frock, before convincing everyone she’s a duchess.

Inspired by this Edwardian enthusiasm for role play, my novel’s unlikely heroine, Lady Kathryn, spends some time pretending to be a maid in an aristocratic household. Avoiding spoilers, what she gets up to below stairs would make even the most sanguine Edwardian aristocrat faint clean away, but Kathryn’s experiences give her a great deal of insight into the self-abasement that lies behind her world of privilege.

The other aspect of Edwardian life I find fascinating is their enthusiasm for the cornucopia of drugs that were readily available back then. Like many other women during the war years, Kathryn gives a ‘war kit’ to a soldier heading to the front. These care packages, which could be bought over the counter at department stores like Harrods, consisted of packets of tea and sugar, hypodermic syringes, grains of morphia and vials of cocaine. Drugs we would now consider illegal and highly dangerous were as commonplace as aspirin in the Edwardian era.

Kathryn’s later interest in opiates was also far from unusual. The 1902 British Medical Journal critiques the prevalence of morphine use at society tea parties:
“A number of ladies meet about 4 o’clock every afternoon, tea is served, servants are sent out of the room, the door is locked, the guests bare their arms, and the hostess produces a small hypodermic syringe with which she administers an injection to each person in turn. If one injection is not sufficient to satisfy any particular guest, a second or even a third is given.”
That would explain how they managed to endure those bone-crushing corsets...

For more insights on the weird and wonderful Edwardians, I invite you to step into the strange world of Lady Kathryn Darkling in my novel, Bone Rites, published October 31st by Aurora Metro Books.


For your chance to WIN a signed copy of Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley, enter my international giveaway here

Carpe Librum!
Carpe Librum giveaway image for Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley

24 October 2023

Review: Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson

Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Books Australia *

Ernie's back after the events in the last book (Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone) and following on from his subsequent publishing success, has been invited to attend a crime writer's festival held on The Ghan. This forms the setting for Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson and what you need to know from the outset is that this is meta fiction.

Ernest (Ernie) Cunningham regularly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly. One of the ways he does this is by telling us up front that we can safely assume he survives the tour - given he's writing about it - but he also gives us a list of suspect names. He even specifies how many times the killer's name will be mentioned for those eager enough to count the occurrences. (Not me).

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson was one of my favourite books in 2022 and while it wasn't a debut for this talented Australian author, I still wondered whether it was a 'one off' quirky, refreshingly unique writing style and format unlikely to be successful a second time around. OMG, I'm here to tell you this man can write!
"I'm still learning about the book world and my place in it, but even I knew then that McTavish was the sourest tasting word in publishing - popular. It's the tautology of authorhood: apparently if you're good enough to be popular, you're too popular to be any good." Page 31 
Set on The Ghan (the train of the title), this is another brain teasing, mind stimulating laugh out loud slap to the face of a book and I couldn't get enough. Stevenson readily gives the reader clues the entire way, yet still manages to surprise us.

Full of insightful yet funny character observations - remember the author is also a comedian - Ernie's description of his Aunt Katherine was wild:
'Katherine is my late father's little sister. A wild youth had been transformed by a tragic accident into an uptight adulthood. She's a stickler for rules: her star sign may as well be School Principal. She barracks for the umpires, and is the type of person who says, with a completely straight face, "How could you forget? It's in the calendar."' Page 40
The writer's festival is attended by a cast of characters, including writers with varying degrees of publishing success, agents and fans, and I loved the competitive nature of their interactions and the pettiness, ambition, pride and egos on display.

On what to wear to the restaurant on the Ghan, Ern shares a theory of his with the reader:
"My theory is that the less wealthy you are, the better you tend to dress for expensive events - meals, the theatre - as your effort in dressing matches your effort in expenditure. A week's wage: better pop on a tie. One billable six-minute increment: I'll wear boardies to the opera, no worries." Page 107
Booklovers will relish the publishing jargon and observations from the characters like this one with regard to fiction titles:
"You know, you put the full name of the character in the title? Put a number next to it too, if you want to get real flashy. It's the trendy thing right now. The Eleven Orgasms of Deborah Winstock, that's the Erica Mathison; The Five Lives of Erin O'Leary; The Four Cousins of Barbara Who-Gives-A-Toss. They're everywhere." Page 211
Fans of Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone will note a similar methodology here, however I'd eagerly sign up for another 10 outings with Ernest, flaws and all, confident in the knowledge I'm in Stevenson's expert hands. This was such a wild ride and I enjoyed it all the more when my husband read it immediately after me.

Everyone on this Train is a Suspect
by Australian Benjamin Stevenson is another triumph and a strong contender for this year's Top 5 Books of 2023 list. Highly recommended!

Board the train here to read a FREE extract.

My Rating: