30 June 2023

Review: The Terrible Event by David Cohen

The Terrible Event by David Cohen book cover

* Copy courtesy of Transit Lounge *

Sporting one of the best cover designs of the year so far, The Terrible Event by David Cohen is a collection of short stories promising 'death, destruction, disappearance, decline and defeat' and sounded right up my alley. 

A brief word on the cover first. Designed by Josh Durham from Design by Committee, this cover design is immediately eye catching and I keep seeing it popping up everywhere. It really taps into my love of stationery and will no doubt be one of my favourite cover designs for 2023. The mention of parallels between this collection and the work of David Sedaris further stoked my anticipation for this Australian collection.

Containing eight stories in total, I enjoyed the sense of nostalgia that started to build.
"The toy was as addictive as it had been in bygone days. Pulling the string triggered memories of backyard cricket, Choc Wedges and Saturday morning cartoons - the very cartoons that had introduced him to Bugs Bunny in the first place. Those were the days." Page 44-45
The Australian setting and mention of Choc Wedges, Holden Commodores and rippled soled desert boots was ripped right from my own childhood and the sweary dialogue in the story entitled Bugs, was great. Here's our main character in Bugs reminiscing about inheriting his dad's old Olivetti typewriter.
"And when you pressed a key, you could see the type bar strike the paper, leaving behind a black letter or number. Nothing made interesting noises anymore. Nothing had any weight or resistance. Mark recalled the hole punches of his youth, the staplers. Where were they now?" Page 65
Yes, the hole punches!! I think back to how much our desk accessories have changed in my time, with liquid paper in bottles to hole punches, fax machines and staplers. I still have a mini red stapler purchased in 2000 that's so small it takes No. 25 staples and it's stapled thousands of bank statements, travel itineraries and meeting agendas over the years. If you love stationery as much as I do, see my review of Adventures in Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case by James Ward.

Back to the collection, hole punches feature in the aptly named short story Holes, and it was here that I started to notice a few common threads or easter eggs that connect through the collection. I won't include them in my review in case they're spoilers - I'm looking at you Nathan! - but not being a regular reader of short stories, I thought this was cool.

While there's limited time to connect with a character in a short story, character descriptions like this provided a neat shortcut to personality, and I could readily relate:
"Zoran's conversations were limited to two main subjects: cycling and craft beer. I didn't have a problem with that, but he seemed to assume that I was as interested in them as he was. If I tried to steer the conversation in another direction, he'd steer it back, before too long, to one or the other. He showed no particular curiosity about me: I think I was really just a receiver for whatever he wanted to talk about. He might ask me what I'd done on the weekend... but only as an entry point for him to tell me all about the cycling and beer drinking he'd done." Page 99
I have a person JUST LIKE THIS in my life too!

My favourite story in the collection was The Enigma of Keith: Another Memorial, which contained an interesting story about the erection of a fictitious roadside memorial, installed to determine whether the presence of a memorial (white cross, flowers) has any impact on driver speed. Do drivers slow down when they notice a memorial on the side of the road? You'll have to read The Terrible Event to find out!

My Rating:

28 June 2023

8 Books on my TBR with Birds on the Cover

I've recently noticed a trend in my to be read (TBR) pile, and it's the sheer number of books with birds on the cover. I don't know whether I have an unconscious bias towards books with birds on the cover, or whether the publishing industry and graphic designers have agreed that birds are used in cover designs for specific genres and I just happen to be attracted to those types of books. I'm not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, but at last count I had 15 books with birds on the cover.

I thought it would be fun to share 8 of them with you, along with a summary of what I think they're about. Let's go!

A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven by Joe Shute book cover

A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven

Joe Shute

What better way to kick off this list than with a non fiction book all about the raven Corvus Corax. Ravens were once revered, and Viking and Norman warriors invaded England with ravens taking pride of place on their shields and banners. Centuries later, the birds were seen to represent evil and death, with ravens driven out of towns and cities as vermin. The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in raven numbers and I'm looking forward to learning just how intelligent ravens are and more about their ongoing relationship with humans.


Chuck Wendig

Published in 2012, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is an urban fantasy novel and the first in a series that at the time of writing, was up to Book 6, Vultures. If the protagonist Miriam touches you, she is able to see the manner and time of your death. A GoodReads nominee for Best Horror 2012, this is the story of Miriam Black and how she deals with her unique gift. Not sure why it's called Blackbirds, but with an awesome cover design like this (your hair is a bird comes to mind) I'm keen to find out.
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig book cover
Elsetime by Eve McDonnell book cover

Eve McDonnell

Elsetime by Eve McDonnell is a middle grade historical fiction novel set in the 1920s. I didn't know this, but in 1928 there was a terrible flood in London when the River Thames doubled in volume, killing fourteen people and leaving thousands homeless. The protagonist in Elsetime is Glory Bobbin, a 12yo orphan who works at the Frippery and Fandangle Emporium creating jewellery. Assisted by a peculiar crow, Glory meets Needle Luckett, a mudlark who has travelled through time, and the three of them together will try to save those endangered by the flood. I love stories about mudlarks, and you might remember my review of Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem.


Jenni Fagan

I love the cover design for Hex by Jenni Fagan. It's one of my favourite covers in this list, but Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan was a DNF for me in January this year, so I'm worried I won't enjoy Hex. It sounds so good though! On 4th December 1591, Geillis Duncan is a convicted witch in a prison cell awaiting death when she receives a visitor. Iris has come from the future and offers her support and solace. Coming in at just 100 pages and inspired by the North Berwick witch trials in 1590, I should know very quickly if this is for me or not within the first few pages.
Hex by Jenni Fagan book cover
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz book cover

Magpie Murders

Anthony Horowitz

There's a good chance you may have already read Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz or have it waiting for you on your own towering TBR piles. Published in 2016, Alan Conway is the successful crime writer behind his fictional English Detective Atticus Pund. With nods to vintage crime fiction including Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Conway's editor Susan Ryeland is concerned about his latest manuscript, which seems to reveal a hidden story. Horowitz went on to publish a sequel Moonflower Murders in 2020 and according to GoodReads, each "volume is two mysteries; one in Susan’s world and a book-within-book detective story set in the 1950s".


Marcus Aurelius

Time for a classic! Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD and a Stoic philosopher and I've been looking forward to reading this since receiving a copy in 2021. The famous Emperor and Philosopher is known for quotes like: "You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength" and “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” I'm hoping for some timeless wisdom in these pages but with time to reflect on key insights for greatest impact, it'll likely to be a slow and meaningful reading experience.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius book cover
My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier book cover

My Sister Rosa

Justine Larbalestier

This book captivated my attention instantly with a brilliant premise: "What if the most terrifying person you know is your ten-year-old sister?" It certainly puts the cute bird and black and white cover design into a new perspective doesn't it? I added this book to my TBR in 2017 but still haven't read it yet. What's it about? My Sister Rosa is a young adult thriller about Che Taylor who loves his younger sister Rosa despite fearing she's a psychopath. Nominated for a bunch of awards, Justine Larbalestier is an Australian author, so I'm pleased to include a homegrown author in this list.

The Book of the Raven: Corvids in Art & Legend

Angus Hyland

This book explores the behaviour of ravens as tricksters, thieves, problem-solvers and gift-givers through artwork and includes photographs, paintings, texts and poems. I'm hoping for a stunning coffee table book that includes artwork and literature from Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe right through to Game of Thrones - "there was a raven in the night" being one of my favourite quotes of the series.
In case you thought it couldn't get any better, Christopher Skaife, author of The Ravenmaster - My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London has written the Introduction.
The Book of Raven: Corvids in Art and Legend by Angus Hyland book cover

That's it! I'm pleased to see an Aussie author and a variety of genres represented in this list: middle fiction, historical fiction, non fiction, crime, urban fantasy and even a classic! Have you read any of these books? Which one are you most drawn to read?

20 June 2023

Review: Becoming Mrs Mulberry by Jackie French

Becoming Mrs Mulberry by Jackie French book cover

* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

In Becoming Mrs Mulberry by Jackie French, the reader meets Agnes in 1924 at the Mulberry estate known as Wombat Hills, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Agnes Glock is a medical student who gave up her chance to become a doctor to establish a haven for shellshocked soldiers and those left permanently injured or horribly disfigured by WWI. When Agnes meets her best friend's brother Douglas Mulberry, their lives are irrevocably changed.

Largely unfolding in a flashback or dual timeline, the first half of the book contained significant character makeovers and partial recoveries in the case of Agnes and Douglas. Agnes is a staunch believer in the restorative power of nature, and the ability of wildlife and the Australian bush to heal those still suffering the horrors of war, abuse, trauma and shell shock. As Mrs Mulberry, Agnes insists on hiring staff injured or incapacitated in the war and sets up a respite for returned and injured soldiers otherwise locked away in hospitals, insane asylums, back bedrooms or attics.

The second half of the narrative was the unexpected discovery of an ill little girl being displayed in a travelling circus freak show visiting the nearby town. Allegedly raised by dingoes, Agnes is drawn to the little girl who howls like a dingo, walks on all fours and laps up her water like a dog. Convinced she can treat the girl's illness and give her a better quality of life, Agnes insists the child accompanies her to Wombat Hills for treatment.

I love a character makeover and the first half of the book was a five star read for me, with several makeovers and recoveries unfolding in what seemed like quick succession given the length of the book. My favourite part of the novel - other than Trout's exit - was the overseas flashback to Agnes meeting Douglas and their immediate struggle to return to health, safety, sanity and eventually, the Australian bush.

Meanwhile, the second half of the book slowed down to a three star read for me, leaving my overall rating somewhere in between. The medical treatment of the girl and the mystery surrounding her birth and place of origin didn't engage me nearly as much as the early establishment of our main characters.

Becoming Mrs Mulberry by Jackie French is recommended for fans of Australian historical fiction, however don't read the blurb - or this review - prior to starting it. Almost all of the key points of the plot are revealed in the blurb and I think you'll enjoy it more if you know less going into this one.

My Rating:

13 June 2023

Review: Back Story by David Mitchell

Back Story by David Mitchell audiobook cover

I've only recently discovered the work of David Mitchell, and I don't mean the novelist who wrote Cloud Atlas. In fact, the author comments on just how often the two are confused, well not by each other obviously. I discovered British comedian David Mitchell's work a few months ago when deciding to read The Satsuma Complex by Bob Mortimer. I watched a few segments of Would I Lie To You? and David Mitchell made me laugh just as much - if not more - than Bob Mortimer. I had to check this guy out.

The audiobook sample for Back Story is a segment about the author's back pain and the fact that he's suffered from sciatica for years. He had my attention. After taking up walking, Mitchell's back pain improved and the additional exercise resulted in some unintentional weight loss. Back Story couldn't be a more apt title.

The writing and vocabulary made me chuckle and giggle, and the skeptical eyebrow in the introduction (along with a stellar delivery, as the author reads his own work) set the scene and prepared me for the laughs to come:
"You've probably guessed that all things new age tend to make me raise a skeptical eyebrow, and a skeptical fist, which I bang skeptically on the table while wryly starting a skeptical chant of fuck off, fuck off, fuck off, before starting skeptically to throw stuff and scream 'you can shove your trendy scientifically unsubstantiated bullshit up your uncynical anuses'. For me, sitting on a ball feels a bit wind chimes. It's got a touch of the homeopathic about it." Introduction
The skeptical eyebrow and skeptical fist still make me chuckle. This memoir is structured around a walk he is taking, and Mitchell regularly uses his surroundings to kick off a new thought or recount a memory in an entertaining way. There's much here about his time at university, sketch shows, pilots, panel shows, TV gigs and his acting career. 

When Mitchell is ranting on a topic, or discussing a particular encounter or behaviour, he had me in the palm of his hand. This anticipation of another chuckle is what sustained me through the content surrounding his work and the number of readings, auditions and meetings he attended in order to kick off, establish and then maintain his career.

I picked this up because I find David Mitchell funny, but I'm learning that doesn't mean I'll automatically love the respective comedian's memoir. In Back Story, there was way too much content about Robert Webb (Rob). I guess it's not too surprising given their career collaborations, and the fact they both served as best man at each other's respective weddings, but it was too much for this reader who didn't follow Mitchell and Webb or Peep Show.

David Mitchell is a likeable and funny guy, so learning he's self conscious and also admits to being vain was a complete surprise. Here's an example of what I mean:
"All I ever want is for my clothing, weight, haircut and smell to go unremarked on. I don't think I'm particularly handsome or particularly ugly. If I'm to be deemed acceptable or even likeable, it won't be because of my appearance. So my aim is that my appearance should in no way be noteworthy. But then again, not so un-noteworthy as to be in itself noteworthy. That's how I ended up with this haircut." Chapter 32
Back Story by David Mitchell was a laugh, but I think I'll wait awhile before reading And Away by Bob Mortimer in case it's more about the ins and outs of the comedian's career, rather than their thoughts and observations about life in the manner of authors like David Sedaris.

Published in 2012, Mitchell ends the memoir with his relationship and wedding to Victoria Coren in that same year. Back Story is about David's school, university and career progression, and choosing to end it when he meets his life partner and soul mate was an inspired decision. I understand this demarcation of life experience, and if the author ever pens another memoir, I suspect he'll start with the establishment of his family and all that followed.

Fans who have followed David Mitchell on TV and radio for years will no doubt thoroughly enjoy this. The author reminisces about shows he's worked on and people he's met and worked with, all of which were new to me. The chapter on Michael Palin was hilarious and an unforgettable highlight.

My Rating:

08 June 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

06 June 2023

Review: The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier

The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette *

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: