19 July 2024

Review: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

I'm calling it early, but there's a very good chance A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke is going to make My Top 5 Books of 2024 list. Where to begin?

It's 1885 in Paris and our protagonist Aubry Tourvel is a precocious young girl of just nine years of age when she falls inexplicably ill. Suffering excruciating pain and bleeding from the nose and mouth, the only thing that soothes her seems to be movement.

In the first few pages the author convinces the reader of the seriousness of Aubry's condition with powerful descriptive writing that I'm not likely to forget. Here's a taste:
"And then the pain strikes - a terrible, venomous pain - a weeping pain, like an ice pick through a rotten tooth. It drives straight down her spine, from the base of her skull to the small of her back. She shudders as if electrified, then stiffens up, crushing all the slack out of her body. The old man stops his chattering, watches her face turn cold and pale, watches her lips form soundless words." Page 5
Forced to travel to keep her illness at bay from that point on, days and weeks pass but the narrative doesn't unfold in a strictly chronological sense. Given her circumstances change every 3-4 days, it would be impossible to include her journey and experiences throughout the course of her entire lifetime. Instead the reader experiences her travels in flashbacks and when sharing her encounters with people she meets along the way.

One such person is an old man in Chile who engages Aubry in conversation and explains why he detests travel. He tells Aubry he once fancied a trip to Santiago to see what the fuss was about but it didn't exactly go to plan.
"After an uncomfortable carriage ride to the station, where he discovered his train was running three hours late, he became hungry and ordered sweet potato empanadas. To his horror, he discovered these empanadas were not to his taste at all, far too sweet, and the cafe did not carry his favourite tea - in fact, no tea at all. He was forced to try a sweetened tonic water imported from America, which he'd heard of but never pursued. It was a disastrous meal. He thought if a mere trip to the train station had caused him so much unpleasantness, what horrors might a trip to Santiago inflict? He threw his ticket away and headed straight back home." Page 74
Perhaps you can relate to this sentiment, or - like others she meets on her travels - imagine Aubry's life of continual travel to be adventurous, spiritual or romantic. The old man continues to chat with Aubry, asking:
"And really, was there anything in Santiago or Havana or Madrid - any artwork or museum or towering mountain - he could not simply read about in a book?"
The author's vocation as a librarian in Ohio shines through this book in a huge way. I can only imagine the plethora of books which have inspired his writing style and fuelled his imagination because his own work was perfection on the page.

As well as containing engaging travel adventures that are often dangerous, sometimes desperate and occasionally warm and emotional, Westerbeke also manages to write some entertaining dialogue, particularly when it involves children or a language barrier.

Stories and doorways are important within the narrative and reading A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke reminded me of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow meets The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. It also reminded me of my idealised version of One Thousand and One Nights; idealised because I've never read them but this is how I imagine them to be, only in more detail.

For example, Aubry tells a woman from Heshou that she has "crewed with the cinnamon traders from Seychelles", "built a house in the Hawizeh marshes" and "slaughtered whales in the Faroe Islands." (Page 245)

A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke could be categorised multiple ways, it's a travel story, historical fiction, action adventure, science fiction and urban fantasy. It contains a mystery puzzle ball and a secret library, I mean what more could you want? If anyone possessed the talent to bring Aubry's story to the big screen it would be epic.

Highly recommended!

My Rating:

10 July 2024

Review: History Stinks! Poo Through the Ages by Suzie Edge

History Stinks! Poo Through the Ages by Suzie Edge audiobook cover

After enjoying Vital Organs - A History of the World's Most Famous Body Parts by Suzie Edge, I thought I'd give her latest non fiction book published this year History Stinks! Poo Through the Ages a look in. Geared towards a much younger audience, medical doctor and historian Suzie Edge does a great job teaching young readers about history through the lens of toilets and yes, poo!

Beginning with the Romans and their public foricae comprising a marble bench with openings side by side over a communal gutter with fresh flowing water, the author takes us through the latrines, cesspits, garderobes, chamberpots, privvies and water closets across time.

Uniting her medical knowledge with her penchant for history, the author also covers a variety of diseases caused by poor sanitation along with some humorous factoids like this one.

In 1972, archaeologists in York in northern England discovered the fossilised remains of an enormous human turd. It was discovered along with wood, cloth and leather that was left behind from the Viking settlement centuries earlier. Edge tells us:
"This 1000 year old poo measured a gigantic 20 centimetres long and 5 centimetres wide and is believed to be the biggest example of a fossilised human poo ever found." Chapter 5
That certainly had me hurriedly pressing pause on the audiobook and rushing to find a tape measure so I can only imagine the reactions of the 7+ target audience. The fossil is on public display in York - complete with the stench cleverly recreated by scientists - but finding out it was accidentally dropped in 2003 when being handled during a school trip and subsequently broke into 3 pieces was surprisingly distressing.

History Stinks! Poo Through the Ages is a novel way for kids to learn about history, sanitation, historical figures, medicine and archaeology although the topical jokes and 'did you know' sections did begin to irritate this adult reader after a while. That said, there's plenty to entertain and a lot to learn in this short audiobook, from what people in the Roman and Tudor periods used to wipe their bottoms to how astronauts poo in space.

A sneak peek at the author's current writing project tells me that her next offering in the series History Stinks! Wee, Snot and Slime Through Time is due to be published in 2025 and I might just have to take a wee look.

My Rating:

08 July 2024

Review: Weyward by Emilia Hart

Weyward by Emilia Hart book cover

Weyward by Emilia Hart is a tale of three women from three different time periods covering a span of five centuries. In 1619 Altha is on trial for witchcraft, in 1942 Violet is fascinated by nature and insects and in 2019 Kate flees an abusive partner in London to seek refuge in her newly inherited Weyward cottage of the title.

Each of the three women face hardship and challenges to their agency. They each demonstrate resilience and struggle to harness their own inner power and strength stemming from the Weyward line of women before them.

All three characters have an affinity with nature and insects in particular, which gives rise to an accusation of witchcraft for Altha in the seventeenth century:
"Witch. The word slithers from the mouth like a serpent, drips from the tongue as thick and black as tar. We never thought of ourselves as witches, my mother and I. For this was a word invented by men, a word that brings power to those who speak it, not those it describes. A word that builds gallows and pyres, turns breathing women into corpses. No. It was not a word we ever used." Page 157
As you can see the writing is confident, the research seamless and the reading experience as enjoyable as any historical fiction novel by the likes of Philippa Gregory or Stacey Halls.
"She looked happy, hand in hand with her husband. Perhaps she was, then. Or perhaps I was standing too far away. A great many things look different from a distance. Truth is like ugliness: you need to be close to see it." Page 186
I was desperate for a makeover of the run down Weyward Cottage which sadly didn't come (I'm a sucker for a property makeover or fictional renovation of any kind) but each of the narratives were compelling and I enjoyed how they eventually fit together.

Born in Sydney and now residing in London, Emilia Hart is definitely an author to watch. Weyward by Emilia Hart is highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and strong female characters.

My Rating:

04 July 2024

Review: Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner

Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner book cover

Many readers will be familiar with the tragic death of Joe Cinque in Canberra in 1997 and the subsequent trial of his killer Anu Singh who administered a lethal cocktail of drugs and then, as he lay dying, failed to call an ambulance in time to save his life.

After reading my review of The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge last year, and my astonishment at the despicable cruelty by one of the most cold and calculating females in Australia, a friend I trust recommended I read Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner. Another reader familiar with my reading tastes also recommended it after seeing my review of Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner in 2018 so I guess it was time.

Briefly familiar with the crime and subsequent court cases, my initial hesitancy grew from a concern I would struggle to come to terms with the legal outcome. At the same time I was curious to see how the great Helen Garner would approach the case and decided to listen to the audiobook read by the author in conjunction with the paperback.

The book begins with a transcript of Anu Singh's 000 call and it infuriated me so much I could barely listen. It took paramedics 20 minutes to get the correct address from the caller who gave a false name and false address and was fuelled by her own histrionics, sense of entitlement and selfish fears about what was going to happen to her. Beginning with the most harrowing material first was an inspired choice and immediately set the scene on the despicable type of person Anu Singh was on that night, and no doubt still is.

Garner tries to remain impartial and approaches people from both sides of the case for their input, but I enjoyed her writing most when she shared her frustrations and irritations, from the very minor - as in the quote to follow - right up to the soul destroying question of justice and duty of care.

When describing the first expert witness in the case for the Defence, Dr Byrne, a clinical and forensic psychologist from Melbourne, Garner observes:

"Something about him got up my nose. Was it his debonair and stagy demeanour, his habit of addressing the judge man-to-man, his didactic listing and numbering of points as if to a room full of freshers?" Page 37

When reflecting on the culpability of Madhavi Rao and her role in sourcing the drugs and failing to prevent Joe Cinque's death, Garner fears Rao will end up serving more time in jail than Singh because she didn't suffer from psychiatric delusions; she wasn't mad.

"Where does one person's influence end, and another's responsibility begin?" Page 177

A really poignant question and not one I found a satisfactory answer to. Singh's relationship dynamic with Joe was possessive and manipulative and displayed the hallmarks of a narcissistic cycle of abuse. It's these characteristics and sheer disregard for Joe's welfare that place Singh in the same category as another cold hearted and self motivated killer, Natasha Darcy. How did these women control and manipulate their partners while hiding their torturous and ultimately murderous intent?

To her immense credit, Helen Garner built a personable relationship with the Cinque family and Joe's mother Maria in particular. Garner continually questions her involvement with the family but I genuinely believe she was a source of comfort during the trial of both women right through to their individual verdicts and beyond.
"Nothing I could think of to say or do would ever be of any use to her. I was helpless, only a vessel into which she would pour forever this terrible low fast stream of anguish. The pressure of her pain was intolerable. I would give way under it. I too would fail her. I did not know how to bring the phone call to an end. But then she got a grip on herself. Once more she drew on her deep reserves of formal grace, and let me off the hook. We would see each other - yes, we would meet again in Canberra. I asked her to give Nino my best wishes, and offered the same to her. With dignity she accepted my timid crumbs. We said goodbye. I hung up, exhausted, in awe. I longed to know her, but I was afraid that I would not be strong enough." Page 194-195
Garner bears witness to the never ending depths of the grief suffered by Joe Cinque's family, but in sharing her vulnerability she also demonstrates the toll it can take on those standing close to that chasm of emotional torment and loss. Maria's grace is an inspiration to Garner, just as the author's strength became an inspiration to me.

At the end of reading Joe Cinque's Consolation - A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law I'm left feeling utterly bereft and bewildered. The complete lack of justice for Joe or consequences for his killer and the person who could have stopped his death took my breath away. There's no justice in this case, both women seem to have no remorse and are now free to live their lives while the Cinque family continue to grieve the loss of their son and brother.

Helen Garner isn't able to offer any hope here, but using the gift of her writing and drawing on her own fortitude, she has successfully managed to shine a light on this terrible case, give comfort to Joe's family and educate readers and that will have to be consolation enough.

My Rating:

01 July 2024

Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is my third novel by Lisa See and this familiarity with her writing style made for a quick and easy entry into the narrative. Li-yan is born in a remote mountain village in Yunnan in Southern China.

While set in more recent times, the remote nature of the Akha people in the village and the tea growing and processing practices gave the first half of the novel a feeling of taking place much earlier than 1988.

Li-yan grows up learning the traditions of her people in a village without electricity and never having seen a car. We learn early on that the ruma - spirit priest - is the headman, and the nima - shaman - has the power to determine incantations to heal and determine vitality.

Furthermore, Li-yan explains the village hierarchy as follows:
"These men are followed next by all grandfathers, fathers, and males of any age. My mother is ranked first among women not only in our village but on the entire mountain. She is a midwife and so much more, treating men, women, and children as they pass through their lives. She's also known for her ability to interpret dreams." Page 4
Li-yan doesn't want to follow in her mother's footsteps to become a midwife in a culture where the birth of twins is considered taboo, as only animals, demons and spirits give birth to litters.

Relatably, Li-yan struggles against numerous elements of her culture:
"Until today, I've never been a troublemaker. I never cross my legs around adults, I accept my parents' words as good medicine, and I always cover my mouth to hide my teeth when I smile or laugh." Page 12
Instead Li-yan seeks knowledge, which eventually takes her out of the village and away from her heritage while maintaining her connection to the tea growing and selling industry. The narrative takes the reader through her discovery of technology and adjustment to China in the 1990s, but it always comes back to tea.
"The color of the brew is rich and dark with mystery. The first flavor is peppery, but that fades to divine sweetness. The history of my people shimmers in my bones. With every sip, it's as if I'm wordlessly reciting the lineage. I'm at once merged with my ancestors and with those who'll come after me. I grew up believing that rice was to nourish and that tea was to heal. Now I understand that tea is also to connect and to dream." Page 175
If you're a novice or dedicated tea drinker or have a passing interest in the manufacture and process of tea making then there's ample history and material here to whet your whistle. Thanks to extensive research, there's an abundance of passages and prose celebrating the benefits of tea, the philosophy of tea and even the poetry of tea. As it is, I don't drink tea, but thanks to the descriptive writing I was at least able to respect the heritage and imagine the allure of pu'er tea and the various effects achieved with every harvest.

What really drives the novel forward though are the relationships between mothers and daughters and Li-yan's own sense of self. These themes are echoed in Lady Tan's Circle of Women (2023) and The Island of Sea Women (2019), both written by Lisa See and set in China and Korea respectively. Published in 2017, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane precedes both of these titles and by reading these stand-alone novels in reverse order I can definitely see an improvement in the intervening years.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See is recommended for tea drinkers and tea aficionados who enjoy historical fiction set in China with a maternal undercurrent and a clever ending.

My Rating: