23 May 2024

Review: To the River by Vikki Wakefield

To the River by Vikki Wakefield book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

It's been a while since the last time I found myself totally gripped by a psychological thriller written by an Australian, but To the River by Vikki Wakefield was a blast.

Growing up in a caravan park, Sabine Kelly has been in hiding since the age of 17 when her mother and younger sister were killed in a fire. Accused of being responsible for lighting the fire that led to their deaths, Sabine escaped custody and hasn't been seen since.

Rachel Weirdermann is a recently divorced journalist living in a swanky house on the river and has been investigating the caravan murders for the past 12 years. The narrative kicks off when Rachel believes she sees Sabine in the local area, fuelling hopes of bringing her in and telling the story of the decade.

A fugitive for 12 years, Sabine has had plenty of time to reflect on being blamed for the death of her sister and mother:
"A reputation is a strange thing, Sabine thought. It can grow without you feeding it. You will shrink to fit it. It allows you access to some places, keeps you out of others. It will define you if you let it, and there's no control, no second chances, no escape." Page 189
I enjoyed the distinctly Australian setting on the river of the title and it brought to mind many scenes from my childhood spent on or near the Darling River in NSW.

The local community believe Sabine is guilty, but Rachel starts to entertain the distant possibility there may be more to her story:
"Where the media saw a lack of grief and remorse, Rachel had kept her mind open. Lindy Chamberlain, Joanne Lees, Kate McCann - all women who were judged for not responding the way society believed they should, women who were condemned because they did not share their trauma and grief with the world." Page 251
This is so true and I appreciated the references to Joanne Lees and Lindy Chamberlain in particular here, adding to Rachel's journalistic experience.

Living on her own for years, Sabine has severe trust issues and a soft spot for a loyal companion in a blue heeler aptly named Blue. I'm not often moved by dogs in books but Blue significantly added to the character development of Rachel and Sabine and aided in moving the plot forward in a refreshing way. Big tick!

To the River by Vikki Wakefield includes themes of domestic violence, poverty, corruption, fear, trust and loyalty and sets a cracking pace. If you enjoy Australian crime or find yourself in the mood for a psychological thriller, then I highly recommend To the River by Vikki Wakefield. It's a cracking read!

My Rating:


20 May 2024

Review: The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager

The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager book cover

* Copy courtesy of Dzanc Books *

Our main character in The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager is a striving radio astronomer living in an unspecified future. This is a future where birds are extinct, you can no longer see stars from the surface of the earth and driverless buses are on the verge of replacing human ones.

A surrogate mother to triplets, she became their primary carer after the sudden death of their biological parents in an accident. Doing her best to raise the triplets despite lacking a guiding maternal instinct, I enjoyed her perspective:
"It's a bit unsettling, but children as a rule are unsettling, so I find a way to be both unsettled and also proud." Page 15
Also unsettling is the distant future the author creates, remarking early on:
"I believe when we reached the end of birds - birds, whose genetic code outlived dinosaurs - people realized we were at the precipice of a whole new paradigm of being." Page 27
Gosh I hope I never see that day. Taking place during this unspecified future is The Crisis, which isn't named or described but which divides the population in their isolated settlement into Yes/No camps. Our protagonist is undecided and the reader can readily substitute their own cause or crisis in order to relate to the narrative:
"I have a thought that perhaps we have mistakenly identified as sides what are in fact two responses to the same threat and if only we really sat down and talked about it, maybe cried about it, perhaps made art about it, we would come to realize this fact." Page 27
The Crisis and what it might symbolise is left to the individual reader, yet my perspective shifted from climate change to religion and our protagonist soon realises there could be more than one crisis. Ain't that the truth!

What is clear is our protagonist's love of stars and the night sky and her dream to become an astronomer. As the protagonist studies for the admittance test, there's plenty of space content. This has earned the phrase 'an elegy of space' in the blurb but let's hear from the woman herself:
"I will be a radio astronomer because I want it so much that the blood inside me aches. If you want something enough, in this world, in this town, I believe that you can get it. It's about hard work and real want. It's about never giving up." Page 39
Inspiring stuff! Just as our author is exploring on the page what life might be like in the future (no birds, no stars), our main character does so too. And while considering her three children could live beyond the end of this millennium, the reader is still not clear on when in time this novel is set.
"I would not understand who it was staring back at me and the fact of me being made of skin and bone and blood on a planet that rotates around a sun and in a world where most things crawl but some swim and billowing vapor lives overhead and there is divorce and soda and we move around in vehicles fuelled by liquified dinosaur and there are picnics but there is also murder, and chocolate but also hate." Pages 99-100
Reading The Avian Hourglass is an ethereal experience and I frequently found myself visualising the text, pausing to daydream or consider a description. This lead to a drifting attention and typically this signifies a lack of engagement but I wonder if that's what Drager intended.

The author seems to paint her worlds with wisps and suggestions, so readers who enjoy a fully fleshed out world with clearly defined parameters will find the time period, characters and world building terribly hard to pin down.

One chapter simply reads:
"There is a sign in my grandfathers' workshop that says this: 180 degrees is half a circle, but also a line." Page 156
The Avian Hourglass reminded me of the kind of D&Ms (deep and meaningful conversations) I had in my twenties and here Drager includes discussions about memory, grief, murmurations, the concentric circles of home, the ever changing globe, the march of technology and nostalgia.

It also reads like a fever dream at times, touching on the surreal, including: recurring déjà vu, a sentient planetarium who wants to see the night sky and the ghosts of birds.
"Luce says that my father believed we were all part of a very great fabricated reality, that we have been placed here strategically, as part of a way of knowing what kind of patterns humans will discover and what kind of patterns humans will invent." Page 160
As well as demonstrating for both sides of The Crisis on alternate days, our main character still faces the conundrum and it's one the reader should immediately relate to, but not necessarily have an answer for:
"The conundrum being how to get out of bed each day knowing all the cruelty and horror of the world is unfolding around you, knowing humans are hurting humans in small and large ways in the house next door, the next town over, across the ocean on another continent.
The conundrum being bringing three new humans into the world knowing there are problems in this life that will still exist long after they are dead and gone, problems they cannot escape, that they may participate in - unconsciously - because the problems are bound to the way the world has been shaped.
The conundrum being that there are no longer birds, that the stars are no longer visible." Page 191
In The Avian Hourglass, Drager is offering us a glimpse into a future I think we'd all like to avoid. A future devoid of stars and birds is inconceivable and I feel an uncomfortable tightness in my chest allowing myself to consider this reality just for a moment. The novel demonstrates moments of beauty, love and connection in the world while simultaneously serving as a warning to the modern reader.

This is my second book from this author, having read The Archive of Alternate Endings last year and The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

My Rating:


17 May 2024

Review: Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova

Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova book cover

Elaine Khosrova had cooked and baked with butter for years yet she'd never given the dairy staple much thought until she was assigned an editorial project to "taste, describe, and rate about two dozen different brands from creameries around the world." It was then that she did a double take on butter and thank goodness she did.

Early on, she tells us:
"Even for me, a food professional with more than two decades of experience as a pastry chef, test kitchen editor, and food writer, butter had long lived in the culinary shadows." Page 4
That project kicked off the author's interest in butter which took her all over the world and culminated in this offering. Here are a few tasters of the interesting encounters she experienced on the fringes of dairydom:
"I met with a former Buddhist nun to learn about the intricacies of Tibetan butter carving, and with various scientists to understand udders, soil, and fat metabolism. I spent a week in a large fridge with the artist who sculpts the Iowa State Fair butter cow each year, and I met with a New Jersey man to see his vast personal collection of vintage butter making equipment and ephemera. I've toured the Butter Museum in Cork, Ireland, the Maison de Beurre in Brittany, and gazed up at the infamous Butter Tower in Rouen, France. And in bakeries, restaurants, and culinary schools, I've watched chefs work their magic with butter." Page 8
This micro history went on to deliver all of this thankfully devoid of personal tangents and material better contained in a memoir. Butter - A Rich History touches on a range of topics, including: history; sacred ceremonies and modern traditions; economics; manufacturing; politics; trade; nutrition and food preparation.

One of my favourite butter facts was that of bog butter. A naturally cool and airless bog was an ideal storing place to preserve butter in the warmer months and the perfect hiding place for the valuable produce.
"For thousands of years, Irish wetlands (and to a lesser degree, Scottish, Finnish, and Icelandic bogs as well) were used as butter mines, where covered wooden buckets, or firkins, packed with butter and wrapped in moss were sunk into the earth." Page 47
Accidentally discovered years later, scientists are able to analyse and study the contents but I wonder if they're ever tempted to have a taste.
"Because dairying was closely identified with female rites of fertility, birthing, and lactation, strong cultural taboos against men handling milk existed for centuries around the world, and so the business of butter making grew up squarely on the shoulders of hearty pastoral women." Page 66
I always wondered why cheese and milk were deemed women's work. The science of butter making is covered in great detail, sometimes more than I'd like and we're often reminded of the versatility of butter:
"Not just a delectable food on its own, butter could be used for cooking, as medicine, for lamp fuel, as a lubricant, to preserve meats, and even for waterproofing. No wonder that long-held customs exalting butter continue to endure." Page 58
Various methods of butter presentation were utilised, including embossing, wrapping in green leaves, cloth or parchment paper or presentation in a three foot long rod. In later years, you could even buy canned butter popularised by the Alaskan gold rush. Imagine that!

As you would expect, the industrial revolution changed the butter making industry and refrigeration was another change to the process. The design evolution of butter churns across history is covered in quite some detail, as is the difference between milks, creams and butters produced from a variety of animals, including: cows, sheep, goats, yak, buffalo and more.

The introduction of margarine was an eye opener, and it was useful to be reminded that margarine was originally made from beef caul fat and is naturally white. I didn't realise there was so much controversy surrounding the colour of the new product, when in fact thirty US states introduced legislation to prohibit the use of yellow food dye to fool customers into thinking they were buying butter.
"Some legislatures even demanded that margarine be dyed a different color altogether, such as red or black; five states passed laws requiring margarine be dyed pink!" Page 112
Manufacturers weren't deterred by the hefty restrictions, dodging later tax regulations by selling their margarine with little packets of food coloring for customers to mix at home. Can you imagine eating pink, red or black margarine or mixing yellow food colouring at home?

Those seeking a career change may do well to look into becoming a butter grader.
"Bradley is also a trained butter grader and technical judge. He has the where-withal to detect twenty different flavor defects in a sample of butter, as well as nine texture defects, three more for color and appearance, and two salt-related defects." Page 122
Impressive stuff and so much more interesting than wine tasting; I'd love to attend the types of butter tastings Khosrova writes about. The author does well to remind us about the health benefits of butter:
"In every pound of butter (especially organic and grass-fed brands) there's a payload of fat-soluble vitamins and other constituents that support good health. Vitamin A and its precursors, which are critical to many functions in the body (good vision, a defensive immune system, and skin health), are abundant in butter, but it's the concentration of Vitamin D, E, and K2 content that have been most recently lauded." Page 155
I certainly don't need any encouragement to add an extra dollop of butter to my potatoes but it was a good reminder - for me - to continue choosing butter over margarine. The health debate between fat and sugar was outlined but far less interesting.

In the latter part of the book, my stomach really began to grumble when the author included various cooking and food related information:
"In fact, it's hard to think of another ingredient that boasts as much versatility. As a flavor-lifting cooking medium, butter can be put to work in the saute pan and on the griddle as well as in the saucepan. It can be browned, whipped, smoked, clarified, salted, spiced, or herb-seasoned. And then there is butter's stupendous role in baking. Because it can be creamed, rubbed in, cut in, or layered with other ingredients, we get to choose from a vast range of sweets and desserts. Tender cakes, flaky delicate pastries, chewy bars, snappy and soft cookies as well as luxurious buttercreams all owe their invention to butter." Page 192
Doesn't that just make you want to jump up and make something buttery and delicious? The inclusion of iconic butter centric recipes at the end was an appetising treat.

Reading Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova has inspired me to look for artisanal butters at my local market and consider tasting other supermarket products. I'm a loyal consumer of Unsalted Western Star but hoping to expand my palate real soon.

If any of the above has whet your appetite for all things butter or whipped you into a frenzy, then enjoy this micro history because Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova is a tasty morsel. Bon Appétit!

My Rating:


13 May 2024

Suddenly Single At Sixty Winner Announced

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway last week to win a copy of Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck thanks to Text Publishing. All entrants correctly identified the book is an 'inspiring, witty and at times hilarious memoir'. Entries closed at midnight on Sunday 12 May 2024 and I drew the winner today, congratulations to: 

LOBROO!

Congratulations!! You've won a print copy of Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck valued at $36.99AUD thanks to Text Publishing. You'll receive an email from me shortly and will have 5 days to provide your AUS or NZ postal address. The publisher will then send your prize out to you directly. Cheers and hope you enjoy this inspiring memoir 💛
Carpe Librum image promoting the giveaway for Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck
11 May 2024

Review: Hello Sleep by Jade Wu

Hello Sleep - The Science And Art Of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications by Jade Wu book cover

Do you suffer from insomnia? Are you a night owl? A light or heavy sleeper? I've always enjoyed reading or hearing about the many factors that contribute to a good night's sleep. Author Jade Wu is a behavioural sleep medicine specialist and researcher and I can safely say Hello Sleep - The Science And Art Of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications has much to offer the many insomniacs watching their clocks and tossing and turning as I write this.

My key takeaway from the book is this: whether you fall asleep easily tonight comes down to where you are on the sleep drive versus arousal equation.

Sleep drive - or homeostatic sleep drive - is essentially your body's hunger for sleep, also called sleep pressure. You can build sleep drive by being awake and you can increase sleep drive by being physically and mentally active while you're awake. Put another way, sleep drive is:
"The sleepiness you deposit into your sleep drive piggy bank during the day and use to buy quality sleep at night." Page 94
However, sleep drive is only one part of the equation, the second is arousal. Essentially, arousal is akin to being razzed up, and can be physical, mental or emotional. Arousal works directly against sleep drive and we've all experienced this. Our minds might be racing after an argument with someone or before an important work meeting, holiday or interview. Or, we might experience negative thought patterns that fuel our arousal and make it impossible to turn our brains off or physically relax enough for our body to take over and fall asleep.

Thankfully we can take some control back and Wu steps us through her Hello Sleep program, providing explanations along the way to help readers understand what's happening in their bodies and what to do to change existing sleep patterns.

Narrated by Susannah Mars, there were plenty of helpful facts along the way, and previous learnings I enjoyed rediscovering here, like this one:
"A healthy adult of about thirty-five to sixty-five years old wakes about ten to sixteen times per night, though they don't remember most of these brief awakenings." Page 21
I read Hello Sleep by Jade Wu at the same time as watching Michael Mosley's new documentary Australia's Sleep Revolution with Dr Michael Mosley on SBS. The information contained in the 3 episode documentary reinforced much of Wu's content and vice versa, and I can highly recommend the program.

I experience regular sleep issues related to chronic pain so I was very interested in the chapter entitled Other Medical and Psychiatric Conditions That Affect Sleep:
"When it comes to sleep, it's not a pretty picture: those with chronic pain tend to have worse sleep by every measure, and a majority have insomnia. It's not hard to imagine why: it's difficult to find a comfortable position, the pain is distracting, and the body and brain are generally more stressed, causing hyperarousal. This is an unfortunate vicious cycle because having worse sleep can also exacerbate pain by increasing inflammation and perception of pain, as well as making it harder to emotionally cope with pain during the day." Page 304-305
I felt really seen by the author, who goes on to explain that the Hello Sleep program still applies and that there's plenty within your control that you can do to improve your sleep quality, regardless of any medical conditions you may have.

Hello Sleep - The Science And Art Of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications by Jade Wu is recommended for anyone wanting to understand and improve their own sleep quality, or that of a loved one.

My Rating:


07 May 2024

Review: The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

Intro

You're not seeing things, what follows is a review of an historical fiction novel set during WWI. I know I've said here on Carpe Librum that I'm - mostly - on a break from WWI and WWII historical fiction, however such is the power of Katherine Arden that I made an exception.

Last year I reviewed The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and fell in love with the writing style of this YA urban fantasy / historical fiction series. The Bear and the Nightingale earned a glowing 5 star review and I'm still looking forward to reading the next book in the Winternight trilogy The Girl In The Tower. Therefore I was surprised to see the author pop up in a publisher's catalogue with an adult title The Warm Hands of Ghosts. Seeing it was an historical fiction novel set in WWI, I was keen to see how - or if - the author would bring her love of Russian myths and legends and sense of 'other' to a bloody war and now I have my answer.

Review

I shared this back story because I didn't know what to expect - other than great writing - reading The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden. It's quite possible that if I'd known just how dark the book was going to be, I might not have requested it for review. Having said that, going in blind was the best approach for me and I'm glad I read it.

Laura Iven is a Canadian nurse providing medical care to the soldiers on the Western Front during WWI when she is injured during the bombing of a hospital, discharged and sent back home to Halifax in Canada to recover.

The snappy writing and depth of character was immediately present in the author's writing. Here's one of my favourite observations by Laura:
"Laura tried not to look cynical. Pim appeared simultaneously flattered, delighted to make his acquaintance, and innocently unavailable. She'd probably practiced that expression in a mirror." Page 91
Laura's brother Wilfred (Freddie) is a soldier serving in Belgium and after receiving contradictory news and fearing he might be missing, she risks another deployment and travels back to Belgium in search of him. Volunteering at a private hospital in Flanders, Laura and her colleagues struggle to stay on their feet working for days without rest in the gruelling conditions. Laura speaks to the men as she tends to their wounds and starts to hear strange stories about the Fiddler.

The novel is set in alternate chapters with Laura in present day January 1918 and Freddie's point of view from several months earlier enabling the reader to discover what happens to him. Incorporating elements of the Halifax Harbour explosion from history was a refreshing angle I hadn't come across in WWI literature and it was interesting to learn more about this disaster from the character's perspective.

Laura's brother was named Wilfred in the novel and every time I saw his name on the page I reacted with 'oh, I thought that was going to read Wilfred Owen.' I studied the works of WWI poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves in a War Literature course at University so I felt rewarded when I noted the following in the Afterword:
"Her brother's name, Wilfred, is a hat-tip both to Ivanhoe and to Wilfred Owen, whose poem "Strange Meeting" was the starting point for Freddie's story." Afterword, Page 378
What a terrific tribute to the poet and for those interested, you can read Wilfred's short poem Strange Meeting in full on the Poetry Foundation website.

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden is difficult to read at times. It's brutal and graphic yet also tender and achingly beautiful while accurately conveying the destruction and hopelessness of war without flinching away from the horror. Reading this in the lead up to ANZAC Day enhanced my sense of gravitas while reading but the kiss at the end was one step too far for me.

Highly recommended for experienced readers of WWI historical fiction with a strong stomach looking for a new story that stands apart from the rest. Not sure? Read a free EXTRACT.

My Rating:


03 May 2024

Giveaway: Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck

Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck book cover

Intro

It's time for another giveaway and today you have a chance to WIN a print copy of Suddenly Single At Sixty by Jo Peck thanks to Text Publishing. Valued at $36.99AUD, this giveaway is open to eligible entrants with an address in AUS or NZ. Entries close at midnight on Sunday 12 May 2024, so good luck!

About the author

Jo Peck grew up in Healesville, Victoria and worked in advertising for thirty-five years. She lives in Melbourne with her new partner. (Is that a spoiler alert?)

Blurb

Dumped by her husband of twenty-five years, Jo Peck—smart, successful and sixty—is totally floored.

There’s the complete bombshell of the news, the cliché of a younger woman—a much younger woman—there’s the disappointment of cancelled retirement travel plans, and there’s the foundation-rocking loss of her sense of identity—if she’s no longer Rex’s wife, who the hell is she?

She’s lost and angry and hurt and confused.

But not for long!

There’s the comfort and support of excellent friends and newly forged connections with extended family, there’s therapy. And there’s internet dating.

This inspiring, witty and at times hilarious memoir tells the story of the road from shock and despair to an unexpected new life, of friendship, romance and racy sex—proof that being suddenly single at sixty is not the end, it’s an opportunity for a fabulous new beginning.

Giveaway

This Carpe Librum giveaway has now closed.

02 May 2024

Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg book cover

Earlier this year I saw Charles Duhigg was releasing Supercommunicators - How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. Keenly anticipating the pearls of wisdom within yet frustrated by the future dated release, I noticed he had an earlier title The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change. 

Every now and again I feel ready for some self improvement and self help literature, so I decided to try The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I'm always hopeful I'll experience an 'a-ha' moment or discover a new insight that'll help me achieve my goals.

In retrospect, I should have just waited for Supercommunicators, but I had one particular habit I wanted to change by mid year and was optimistic this book might give me a new perspective or strategy to try. Instead Duhigg didn't offer this reader anything new.

There were plenty of examples of workplace habits and habits embedded in a range of companies and industries which I interpreted as mere company culture. Examples highlighted the benefits of changing individual habits for better practices across the workforce, but this just left me feeling like I'd read a business book on change management.

Listening to the audiobook, I also began to notice a repetition in the text read by the narrator that I might not have noticed in print; in fact I'm sure I wouldn't. When recounting pretty much anything - an anecdote from a worker or employee for instance - the author would say the person "told me". Well, I'd love to be able to count the number of times the author/narrator said "she/he/someone told me" because I'm sure it'd be impressive, but perhaps it's better I don't. Besides, it's time better spent reading anyway.

Ultimately The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg didn't offer me any new insights into habits and behaviour, but perhaps that's not surprising given this isn't my first time reading a book about habits. Perhaps it's becoming a habit? (pun intended).

The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg is a solid read recommended for readers new to the topic.

Check out my reviews of:

My Rating: