22 February 2024

Review: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris audiobook cover

After a ripping introduction to the work of David Sedaris in 2021 via Calypso, his work has been hit and miss since then. Naked was a 2 star read, Me Talk Pretty One Day a 3 star read and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim earning a mere 2 stars despite the catchy title.

I decided at the end of 2021 to put the brakes on my Sedaris tear for a while, knowing I'd probably come back to his oeuvre at some stage in the future.

Years later and enough time has passed that I now miss listening to a good Sedaris story told in his unmistakable lilting voice with his white gay privilege proudly on display. So it was, that I picked up Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris published in 2013.

Immediately better than the last 3 books from him I've read, I was soon chuckling to myself and enjoying his inimitable style of storytelling. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris is a return to his droll sense of humour and genuine interest in other people that kept me engaged in Calypso.

Sedaris has previously written about health care in America and France and their differences, although I never tire of his content around dentists. Chapter 2 is entitled Dentists Without Borders and the reference to his 'good time teeth' and his doorbell response to being asked if he was okay was easily my favourite story in the collection.

The unflattering accounts that had me frowning with budding disapproval in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim were thankfully absent here. This collection was more self deprecating and even included a few live recordings with audience laughter and applause convincing me I'd also enjoy seeing the author live if he plans another tour Down Under.

While I live in hope, part of me wonders if all of Sedaris' stories and anecdotes are true - did he really holiday in a nudist camp or have that strange encounter at the taxidermist shop? - or are they cleverly constructed fiction presented by a humourist as fact for our entertainment or his amusement?

Either way, I've found myself firmly back onboard the David Sedaris train and there are still plenty of collections and books to discover. What should I read next?

My Rating:

20 February 2024

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite book cover

Two sisters live together in their family home in Nigeria. Korede and Ayoola. The older sister is a hardworking nurse in a hospital and her sibling is a killer.

Ayoola is beautiful and manipulative and when things go wrong she calls her big sister Korede to help her 'fix it'. Korede has a crush on a doctor at work, but when he meets Ayoola and falls for her instead, it creates a painful wedge between the sisters.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite has a brilliant and engaging premise but I'll admit reading it was a little stressful. Ayoola's conduct was incredibly frustrating and I really felt for Korede and the complicated relationship with her narcissistic sister; seething with sibling jealousy yet bonded by familial love.

Braithwaite successfully ramps up the tension and it seems as though she took out all the stops to make the reader squirm. I don't recall squirming so much for the main character since reading Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater and wanting to shout out some pointed life advice at one of the characters.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a quick read packed with dark humour as Korede must decide where her loyalties lie. Is she an enabler, an accomplice after the fact or her sister's willing victim? Will she choose family or justice? Can she choose both? The setting in Nigeria was refreshing and I enjoyed the scenes taking place in the hospital and in particular, the relationship Korede has with a coma patient.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was popular when it was published in 2018 and reading it more than 5 years later, I can see what all the fuss was about. If you enjoy your domestic thriller light with a dash of black humour, you'll enjoy this!

And if you like books about sisters, check out my post entitled 4 Books About Sisters on my TBR. One down, three to go!

My Rating:

17 February 2024

Review: The Madman's Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching

The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching book cover

The Madman's Library - The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a weighty yet stunning hardback book bursting with glorious images and plates showing the books - and their pages - described within. According to his bio, Edward Brooke-Hitching lives in London and is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, which may shed light on his interest in unusual books, obscure books, famous and forgotten books.

It's immediately clear that the author is a well-researched book lover and bibliophile, and it doesn't take much effort for the reader to match his enthusiasm for books and of course reading them.

The author gives us a tantalising sample of what we can look forward to early on:
"Invisible books, books that kill, books so tall that motors are needed to turn their pages and books so long they could destroy the universe. Edible books. Wearable books. Books made of skin, bones, feathers and hair. Spell books, shaman manuals, alchemist scrolls, sin books and the ancient work known as the 'Cannibal Hymn'. Books to communicate with angels, and books to summon treasure-hunting demons. The lawsuit filed by the Devil, and a contract bearing his signature. Books worn into battle, books that tell the future, books found inside fish or wrapped around mummified Egyptians. Leechbooks, psychic books, treasure-finding texts and the code-writing hidden in the Bible." Introduction Page 16
The writing strikes a comfortable balance between being well researched and well written while never tipping over into the dry and academic style of writing that often ruins my interest level in books like this. Brooke-Hitching really gets it.
"But these books breathe. They hold thoughts, knowledge and humour otherwise long gone. Their stories - and to a degree, their authors - are alive upon opening them, undiminished by the violence of time." Introduction Page 16
Tell me you haven't shared these thoughts too. The use of hornbooks pops up in my reading from time to time, and while I'd once Googled to clarify what they were, I don't recall ever seeing one, until now, which was a joy.

And while I knew what a hornbook was, I'd never heard of a xylothek or a wooden library, have you? According to the author, Xylotheks:
"... record arboreal biodiversity by forming a library from the trees themselves. Each volume is made of the wood of a different tree, their spines composed of the bark... and their contents containing specimens of the tree's leaves, seeds, branches and roots." Books that Aren't Books, Page 34
I defy any reader to view the accompanying photograph in the book and not instinctively want to reach out to touch and smell the volumes. Apparently xylothek collections of native flora can be found around the world and we have one here in Australia! Who knew?

I enjoyed studying the sheer ingenuity and variety in the emerging designs for the typewriter, and of course reading about the Voynich Manuscript; a book that has been studied around the world, but never been successfully decoded or deciphered.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Madman's Library and have already made plans to read his follow up published in 2022, entitled The Madman's Gallery - The Strangest Paintings, Sculptures and Other Curiosities from the History of Art. Here he turns his eye to the 'greatest curiosities from the global history of art' by gathering together more than a hundred 'magnificently eccentric antique paintings, engravings, illustrations and sculptures, each chosen for their striking beauty and the wonderfully bizarre story behind their creation.'

Colour me interested!

My Rating:

15 February 2024

Review: The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley

The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley book cover

If you love fairytales and historical fiction set in France, then The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley will interest you. Set in the salons of Paris and commencing in 1699 during the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV, this story is based on the life of Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy and her friend, socialite and heiress Madame Nicola Tiquet.

Marie Catherine was a storyteller and author known for coining the term 'fairytale' and The Bee and the Orange Tree focusses on her life, in addition to that of her daughter Angelina and friend Nicola Tiquet. Those familiar with the fate of Madame Angelique-Nicole Tiquet may be interested in this fictionalised account of her life, while simultaneously finding the conditions of her circumstances hard to process.

Imagining the literary salons of Paris in the seventeenth century was intoxicating and the list of family and character names at the beginning of the novel was extremely useful. In this novel about female agency and the power of story, our characters struggle with overbearing males in their lives:
"She'd lost count of the conversations they had shared about brutish husbands. She repeated the advice she always delivered at their end: you are more capable - of creating meaning, of finding pleasure - than you allow yourself to believe." Page 22
While seeming more appropriate for today's characters than 300 years ago, this advice is freely given, yet has surprising and unintended consequences for our characters.

The writing in The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley is luscious and evocative and reading it felt like an indulgence. We're also treated to some striking moments like this one:
"As the only tree standing in the field of her mother's fury, she was preparing to be lashed by strong winds, vulnerable to a fiery lightning strike." Page 291
Written by an Australian author and published in 2019, the title of this book comes from a fairytale of the same name written by Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy and published in 1697 and it really works. My reading experience would have been enhanced if I'd known the book was based on real figures from history; that understanding only arrived afterwards with the Author's Note at the end.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to visit one of the literary salons of France in the 1600s or enjoy the work of Kate Forsyth with regard to fairytales, The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley is for you.

My Rating:

08 February 2024

Review: Vital Organs by Suzie Edge

Vital Organs - A History of the World's Most Famous Body Parts by Suzie Edge audiobook cover

Vital Organs - A History of the World's Most Famous Body Parts by Suzie Edge has a nifty concept to pull in readers eager to discover the quirky stories behind 'history's most famous limbs, organs, and appendages'.

With creatively titled chapter headings like Queen Victoria's Armpit (Chapter 16), King Louis' Fistula (Chapter 25) and Napoleon's Pen*s (Chapter 32), medical doctor and historian Suzie Edge grabs your attention and provides an interesting conversational style overview of each case, supported by history and science.

Listening on audiobook and narrated by the author, I enjoyed learning about Miss Emily Wilding Davison's Skull in Chapter 3, while cases I was already familiar with still entertained. Alexis St. Martin survived being shot in the stomach and after undergoing lifesaving surgery, the open wound failed to heal closed. This wound created a 'window' of sorts directly into the stomach, allowing an Army surgeon to study the digestive process for years afterwards.

Chapter 10 was a dazzling deep dive into dental health, looking at the famous Habsburg Jaw acquired after centuries of inbreeding; Marie Antoinette's early form of braces; George Washington's gum disease and false teeth made from ivory and stolen teeth from slaves; and teeth stripped from dead soldiers laying on Napoleonic battlefields known as Waterloo teeth.

If that wasn't suitably informative and enGROSSing enough for you, Chapter 38 Yao Niang's Toes was all about Chinese foot binding, yes please! I've always been fascinated by the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding, an interest recently renewed when I read Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See last year and further satisfied here.

In the author's own words, Suzie Edge tells stories about 'gory human body history' and this has made her a sensation on Tik Tok. I'm not a regular user of TikTok or BookTok - an online community focussing on books and literature - but this isn't the first time I've read a book or listened to an audiobook about medical history.

Some of you might remember and/or enjoy:

With a few books of this nature still waiting for me on my TBR, including Severed - A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson, I'm also keen to read the author's book on Royals in Mortal Monarchs - 1000 Years of Royal Deaths as well as her upcoming release, History Stinks! Poo Through The Ages.

In Vital Organs, Suzie Edge condenses vast amounts of history into short sharp chapters making the history engaging and digestible in a readily accessible writing style and I recommend it to non fiction readers with an interest in history, medical history and anatomy.

My Rating:

 * I'm not a prude but Carpe Librum has been the victim of censorship (outrageous) that I haven't been able to remedy, and two of my book reviews are hidden behind warnings for sensitive content. What's so sensitive about books and reading I hear you ask? In short, reviewed two books with the 'S' word in the title, so rather than leave out the mention of Napoleon's appendage, I've used an asterisk in the hope this review won't be flagged.

31 January 2024

Review: The Pulling by Adele Dumont

The Pulling by Adele Dumont book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Opening with a disclosure about her fingernails, readers picking up The Pulling quickly discover that Australian author Adele Dumont is extending an invitation to join her in exploring her deepest darkest thoughts, warts, fingernails and all. Dumont even tries to warn sensitive readers:
"Before I go on, let me say that the chapters that follow this one may be hard for you to bear; unless you are of my kind, doing what I do would hurt you." Page 49
In a deeply personal memoir that can also be read as a collection of essays and vice versa, author Adele Dumont shares that she has trichotillomania (from the Greek word for hair + pull + mania), however she never uses the word. Instead, she prefers to call it pulling in order to highlight the physical nature of the act and the mental pull of the urge; hence the title of this book.
"The whole process was mysteriously painless: the hairs on my head, I learned quickly, sit as shallowly as birthday candles in a cake, can be removed as effortlessly as a grape can from its stem." Page 49
As you can see, the writing is evocative, yet the private thoughts regarding her upbringing and relationship with her mother and sister often gave me pause on the page as I marvelled at her self awareness and deep level of disclosure. Many reminiscences were tough, but this one made me smile in recognition:
"She scorned the kind of parents who fed their kids anything too processed or frozen or coloured. When my sister wanted devon for her lunches like all the other kids, my mum would screw up her face and tell her: 'They make that stuff out of embryos.' She didn't seem to trust the kind of people who bought play-dough or birthday cakes from the shops instead of making them from scratch..." Page 24-25
The Pulling is an intimate self examination of habit, ritual, compulsion and obsession without slipping into pointless navel gazing or devolving into a pity party. In an intensely personal narrative, Dumont attempts to explain her detailed thought process before, during and after a session of pulling, the affects it has on her physical body, her confidence levels and self esteem.

When describing the feeling of being in the pulling state, Dumont shares:
"So captive is this state that from within it I have watched my phone ring on the carpet beside me, but been incapable of reaching across to pick it up. In my laundry, which adjoins the lounge room, once I accidentally forgot to unplug the sink that the machine drains into, and listened to the sink fill then flood, knowing - at some level - that it must be seeping into the carpet, but helpless to interrupt it. When I've been overtaken, I have stood and watched water in my porridge simmer away into the air, and then the oats turn black and crackle with dryness, and my ears fill with the smoke alarm's shriek." Page 72
I can't even begin to imagine how paralysing this must be and just how debilitating the condition is. Exploring a topic that brings us shame and examining the matter from all sides within the relatively safe confines of our own minds is admirable, but to put pen to paper and share them with the world takes immense courage and I was in awe.

At times reading like a diary or confessional, I did find myself wondering why the aspect of alopecia wasn't explored. If I noticed a friend or colleague with a patch of missing hair or an ill fitting hair piece, I would - incorrectly in this case of course - assume it was alopecia and move on. I wouldn't ask questions to clarify my assumption, judge the person negatively or bring attention to their condition in the same way I wouldn't comment if a person has visible vitiligo or male pattern baldness. I wish the author had considered this as a reason she was never 'confronted' or 'outed' by those close to her; although I'm prepared to accept that perhaps she has and it just didn't make the final edit.

The Pulling was hard going at times, strictly due to the intensely personal nature of the disclosures and the feelings they stirred up. In reading the author's accounts, I found myself better understanding the mental gymnastics underlying other compulsions like gambling which was insightful. Dumont is optimistic about the future, trying to reduce her triggers and pull less:
"Here is the basic truth: I wanted to stop pulling, but I also wanted to pull. And one of these desires was always stronger than the other." Page 183
I can certainly relate to the contradictory nature of our thoughts and how some desires are in direct conflict with others; the desire to be healthy and the desire to eat foods that don't aid in the achievement of that goal. The pleasing introduction of a life partner and their close relationship with the author gives the reader hope M will be able to provide the strength and support she needs:
"I had long thought of the hypervigilance and deception my condition required as being a barrier to intimacy. But now I saw another dimension to my secret: its disclosure could be a means of offering intimacy." Page 239
Dumont shares many personal epiphanies and self discoveries and I applaud her courage in making them public. I also found myself wondering how it will be received by those who know the author well while hoping it aids in her healing. This collection won't be for all readers, but there's much to be gained within the pages of The Pulling by Adele Dumont and I won't be forgetting it in a hurry.

My Rating:

P.S. The book also touched on a few of my favourite topics: Rapunzel Syndrome, bezoars, hair as identity, the religious and historical significance of hair and more. Those interested in hair might like to check out my review on Hair by Scott Lowe.

24 January 2024

Review: Magic Words by Jonah Berger

Magic Words by Jonah Berger audiobook cover

Magic Words - What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger was an interesting audiobook and the author's research promises to reveal 'how six types of words can increase your impact in every area from persuading others and building stronger relationships, to boosting creativity and motivating teams'.

According to Berger, digital language processing tools have revolutionised the social sciences, and after analysing countless movie scripts, customer service calls, academic papers, millions of online reviews, song lyrics and more, he has comprised a list of six types of words.

Listening to this audiobook and flipping through the ebook from my library, I'm not left with 6 specific words burned into my brain - like please or thank you - rather the book was more about how to use words more effectively. Here's more in the author's words.
"This book uncovers the hidden science behind how language works. And more importantly how we can use it more effectively to persuade others, deepen relationships and be more successful at home and at work." Introduction
The one magic word I will take away from reading this is the word 'because'. The author tells us of an experiment where the test subject asked if they could push in front of a queue of people waiting in line to print a document. First they asked nicely and then they made the same request and used the word 'because' and followed on with words to the effect they were in a hurry. I was surprised that the word 'because' resulted in the request being met more favourably because it's an approach I already employ. (Pun intended).

Having said that, I thought the success lay in spending more time talking with the person to make a case, hence lessening the rudeness of the request and explaining the reason in an attempt to mitigate blowback. You could argue the word 'because' is a magic word, or in the act of using it, you're also achieving the above.

The second key takeaway for me was the fact that some of us want to claim a desired identity and Berger uses an example whereby young children were asked two questions in order to determine the best approach. Children were asked "can you help clean up the blocks?" or "can you be a helper and clean up the blocks?" Those asked to be helpers were more enthusiastic to help in the task.

Rephrasing the request makes the task of helping seem like an opportunity to claim the desired identity of helper and being a helper is a useful and positive experience that reflects well on the child. This also taps into the naughty/nice and good girl/good boy language that recognises and reinforces good behaviour. Interesting!

Magic Words - What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger is full of small moments like this, although having read How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, the majority of the content wasn't new to me. Readers fresh to the topic of language, the art of communication and social sciences will love this!

My Rating:

19 January 2024

Review: The Strangers on Montagu Street (Tradd Street #3) by Karen White

The Strangers on Montagu Street (Tradd Street #3) by Karen White book cover

From one book with a creepy house at sunset on the cover to another, and this is my third visit to the Tradd Street series written by Karen White. Beginning with The House on Tradd Street (#1) and continuing with The Girl on Legare Street (#2), The Strangers on Montagu Street (#3) picks up with the same set of characters and moves us along with their lives and complex relationships.

Melanie Trenholm is a successful realtor in Charleston, South Carolina and continues to work on restoring her historic home. Love interest Jack is still on the scene but he's shocked early on to discover he has a daughter he didn't know about. Oh, and Melanie is also psychic but she keeps it on the down low.

Not sure why it is that I enjoy this series so much, is it the frequent mention of architecture, restoration and antiques? Melanie's ability to see/sense ghosts or the tension brewing between Melanie and Jack? I don't usually enjoy the romance elements of a plot but here it works. The Southern location and sultry heat along with unearthing family secrets containing betrayal and loss kept the pages turning with enthusiasm. And there's even a haunted dollhouse, need I say more?

With so much time elapsing since reading the first two books in 2011 and 2015 respectively and with the third in 2024, I'm surprised I was able to immediately dive straight back into the series with such ease and relish. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that while I was off reading other things, the author continued on with the series, ultimately choosing to end it with book #7 in 2021.

It's rare for me to be able to read a series right through to its conclusion - either losing interest, prioritising elsewhere or abandoning the task due to diminishing reading returns - but I'm excited to give it a try this time, and now have the following books to look forward to.

The remaining books in the series are:
  • Return to Tradd Street (#4)
  • The Guests on South Battery (#5)
  • The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street (#6)
  • The Attic on Queen Street (#7)
Any prediction as to when I'll finish reading the series? 😆

My Rating:

16 January 2024

Review: The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

An author struggling to write her next bestseller receives a request from a famous billionaire in Malibu to ghost write his family's story. Our protagonist Olivia Fitzgerald has enjoyed publishing success in the past although her latest re-telling of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier hasn't sold well and now she's struggling to deliver her next manuscript. Without any progress or prospects, Olivia is unable to refuse the offer and agrees to meet billionaire and People’s Sexiest Man Alive Henry (Ash) Asherwood to discuss the project.

Olivia isn't sure whether to believe the story that Daphne Du Maurier plagiarised the story of Rebecca, and that the 'original' story was a first person account written by Ash's ancestor.

Readers familiar with the plot of Rebecca should fall in love with The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor. We have multiple 'book within a book' references with a little of Olivia's Rebecca re-telling making its way into the novel, along with the story that inspired the original Rebecca novel that somehow seems to mirror Ash's life.

In this way, the book becomes a little like Inception with a layered plot containing multitudes of Rebecca references making The Fiction Writer novel itself seem like another gothic mystery in the making.

That said, some of the descriptions gave me pause for all of the wrong reasons, like this one:
"As I walked in the sand, staring off at the gray mist encapsulating the water, I grew more determined to focus on work, on the project today." Page 72
Last I checked, mist can't enclose the water or it ceases to be mist and these moments distracted me from the story at hand.

Olivia's work situation and attraction to Ash reminded me a little of Verity by Colleen Hoover, in that a writer is staying at their employer's house in their personal space with attraction sizzling and a growing sense of unease building.

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor is definitely recommended for fans of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which I enjoyed back in 2019 as much as this modern offering.

My Rating:

14 January 2024

2024 Reading Challenge Sign Ups

It's a new year and a fresh start for annual challenges and I'm signing up for two reading challenges this year.

Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2024

First up is the Non Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by fellow Aussie book blogger Shelleyrae at Book'd Out, but I'll be increasing the difficulty level this year.

Instead of committing to read 6 books from any 6 categories, I'm tackling the highest level of the challenge to complete the Nonfiction Nosher level. For this, I will need to read and review 12 books, one book for each category in the list below.
2024 Non Fiction Reading Challenge logo by Book'd Out

Here are the categories:
True Crime
The Future
Published in 2024

Some of these are going to be hard, so if you have any suggestions I'm happily accepting recommendations. In the meantime I have plans to read The Pulling by Adele Dumont for the biography/memoir or health challenge prompt.

You can join in too! Social media tags: #ReadNonFicChal @bookdout (Twitter) @shelleyrae_bookdout (Instagram).

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2024

Hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader, today I'm signing up to complete the Medieval Reader level of the challenge, one level higher than previous years. 
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2024 logo by The Intrepid Reader

Last year I aimed to read 10 books but this year I'll need to read and review 15 historical fiction books in order to successfully complete the challenge.

So far, I'm planning to read The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See.


Are you challenging yourself in 2024? Do you plan to borrow more books from the library, read more or less about a certain topic or spend more time reading? I'd love to know and feel free to track my progress through the year over on the Challenges 2024 page.

10 January 2024

Review: The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson

The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson audiobook cover

I didn't expect to close out my year of reading in 2023 with a book by Bill Bryson or a book about Christmas, yet both of these coalesced when I came across the irresistibly titled The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson last month.

Bill Bryson always manages to entertain me with curious facts from history and has a warm and merry narrating voice making this the perfect non fiction book for the month of December.

This Audible freebie was delightful and I enjoyed following Bryson through the history of Christmas and various yuletide traditions in this heartwarming yet brief spotlight on a very jolly time of year.

When it comes to gift giving, Bryson points out that some presents cost more to the giver than they are worth to the receiver, however he balances this by making the following counterpoint:
"The very act of giving a gift automatically adds value to the gift, because it expresses qualities of affection and friendship that cannot be priced. There's also value to the giver because it makes them feel loved or appreciated..." Chapter 6 - Let's Shop!
Yes, this is why I love gift giving so much! The effort and thought behind a gift means so much more than buying the item yourself. It adds sentiment and meaning to the recipient and serves as a reminder whenever you see/use/wear that item. The author goes on to mention that gifts include 'sentiment and good will and lots of other qualities that cannot be measured economically.' I couldn't agree more.

Along the way, Bryson bursts some festive myths and even goes as far as introducing the reader to a website dutifully listing the ever increasing number of Black Friday fatalities around the world. On a more positive and intriguing note, Bryson shares another surprising quirk of Christmas:
"One of the most endearing aspects of Christmas is how it has spread to other lands, often with a novel twist. In Japan for instance, it is now a fixed tradition among millions of people to have a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken at Christmas time." Chapter 6 - Let's Shop!
Don't believe me? Have a listen to this festive gem for yourself.

You can also check out my review of At Home - A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
or The Body - A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

My Rating:

08 January 2024

Top 5 Books of 2023

2023 was an excellent reading year overall, and I read a total of 76 books with (weirdly) the same amount of 5 star reads as last year, with 19 books earning a 5 star rating. In previous years, my top five list has covered a range of genres, whereas this year they're drawn from just two. Three of the books featured were requested from the respective publisher, one was my own copy and another borrowed from the library.

Here are my Top 5 Books of 2023 in the order I read them:

1. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell
The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell book cover

This is an atmospheric novel about class, ambition, loyalty, envy, power and obsession and I was truly gripped as I flipped the pages to witness the slow destruction of certain characters.

Set at the Mercury Theatre in Victorian London, Miss Jennifer Wilcox has been brought low by her circumstances and accepts a job offer from the wife of the theatre's owner in return for a favour she can't refuse. Jennifer will need to make and mend all of the costumes, style hair and organise the accessories for the leading actress at the Mercury while spying on her.

The theatre setting, the backstory and suspicious and deadly accidents at the Mercury along with nods to the era (a young brother pasting together matchboxes to earn his keep and another working in a hat factory) were the icing on this creepy Victorian cake. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell was a gothic triumph!

2. Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See
Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See book cover

Set in 15th century China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), this is the fictional account of the life of Tan Yunxian, a woman who became a practicing doctor in China at a time it was extremely rare and severely frowned upon. Yunxian was so successful looking after her female patients, she published a book of medical cases in 1511 and to date, it's the oldest known medical book written by a woman in China.

We follow Yunxian from 1469, through her Milk Days, Hair-Pinning Days, Rice and Salt Days right through to her Sitting Quietly days, which formed a wonderful structure for her story and life progression. The relationships Yunxian has with her mother Respectful Lady, mother-in-law Lady Kuo, her father's concubine Miss Zhao, and her friend Meiling drive the character development and plot forward in an unforgettable narrative.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See was a complete surprise and I loved the content around foot binding.

3. The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge
The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge book cover

Walcha is a small town in NSW and in 2017, Natasha Darcy murdered her partner Mathew Dunbar and tried to make it look like suicide so that she could inherit his multi-million dollar farm. Australian journalist Emma Partridge is the Senior Crime Editor for Nine News, and in penning Mathew Dunbar's story in The Widow of Walcha, exposes the greedy and despicable behaviour of one of the most cold and calculating women in Australia.

Mathew Dunbar was a kind and generous sheep grazier looking for love and a family, making him the perfect target for Natasha Darcy. The case, arrest and subsequent trial outlined in the book showed Darcy to be a compulsive liar and an evil, manipulative woman. There was so much damning evidence in this case it was mind-blowing and I found it hard to fathom how a woman could be so cold and cruel.

Narrated by Jo Van Es, The Widow of Walcha gives us a shocking glimpse into the sordid mind of a self-serving, unfeeling, greedy and manipulative woman prepared to do anything to further her financial position at the expense of all others. Sentenced to 40 years in prison with a non-parole period of 30 years, thankfully Darcy's black widow days are well and truly over. The Widow of Walcha is one of the best Australian true crime accounts I've ever read and I found myself talking to many people about it afterwards.

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

After the events in the last book (Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, which made my Top 2022 list) Ernie Cunningham is enjoying his publishing success when he receives an invitation to attend a crime writer's festival held on The Ghan.

Ernie regularly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, like telling us up front that we can safely assume he survives the tour given he's writing about it. Openly giving us a list of suspects and divulging his findings, 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 - the author is also a comedian - booklovers will relish the publishing jargon and observations from the characters during their train journey on The Ghan.

5. 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 and in Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings is the ultimate tour guide on this journey, readily providing all manner of info about geonerds and their love of maps. If you enjoy quirky facts in quick succession, this is for you.

The author has been an enthusiastic toponymist - a student of place-names - for as long as he's loved maps and it shows. We move on to the market for collectors of ancient maps and globes that stretches as far back as the Renaissance, but for readers who would rather leave history in the past, the section on maps in fantasy fiction was illuminating. Jennings weighs in on the 'map gap' between the genders, leading me to make peace with my map preference of 'forward is up' instead of 'north is up'.

I was excited to read about Roadgeeks - the highway scholars of mapheads - who take photos of road signs to clock their routes and discover more about systematic travel, while the chapter on geocaching had me checking for geocache locations near me. Maphead by Ken Jennings is endlessly engaging with sections on confluence hunting, Google Earth and street view being of key interest.

It's great to see a combination of my two favourite genres, historical fiction and non fiction dominating the list and two Australian authors represented. Honourable mention to The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs.

Have you read any of these or plan to?

Carpe Librum!
Top 5 Books of 2023 image by Carpe Librum

02 January 2024

Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath book cover

I finally read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I'm sad to say it was a disappointing experience. Esther Greenwood is a 19 year old student from Boston and the first half of this slim modern classic is a rather pedestrian coming of age story centring around the search for purpose and direction in life.

Knowing The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical is part of the appeal and part of the problem. Sylvia Plath famously committed suicide just a month after The Bell Jar was published - under a pseudonym - by gassing herself in the kitchen with her children in the next room.

In The Bell Jar, Esther is paralysed by the possible futures, giving rise to my favourite passage from the book:
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was... and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet." Page 73
The fig tree metaphor was insightful but where other readers saw hope and optimism, I saw helpless misery. Plath uses her writing to provide insight into Esther's mental health, although we never learn of a specific diagnosis:
"Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently." Page 140
Esther's sudden and unexplained decline dominates the narrative in The Bell Jar as she deals with a failed romance, equivocates over whether to attend summer school and even fancies she'll spend the summer writing a novel.

Eventually Esther hasn't slept for seven nights, has worn the same clothes for three weeks without bathing or washing her hair, and doesn't see the point anymore because, in Esther's words: "everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end." Oh save me!

While Plath's mother didn't want The Bell Jar published, Esther's mother helps her to seek medical advice and intervention which leads to a series of shock therapy treatments in private hospitals.

There were some moments of writing I enjoyed, like this one:
"I stepped from the air-conditioned compartment on to the station platform, and the motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station-wagons and tennis rackets and dogs and babies." Page 109
However, these moments - of wondering what tennis rackets smell like - were few and far between, and when accompanying a narrative like this: "I might go and drown myself in the sea, or perhaps cut myself with razors," I found The Bell Jar to be an emotionally draining downer of a book.

Then there was the weird visit to see a doctor for a diaphragm fitting (it's the 1950s after all), and later Esther suffers from excessive haemorrhaging after losing her virginity in a scene that isn't adequately explained.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath now joins the Carpe Librum Disappointing Classics Club and is in good company, along with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Plague by Albert Camus, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

If this is a beloved classic of yours or you think I've completely missed the point about how groundbreaking this novel was for its time, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Let me have it!

My Rating: