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: