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: