06 December 2019

Review: Things In Jars by Jess Kidd

Things In Jars by Jess Kidd book cover
RRP $39.99 AUD
Published May 2019
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

London 1863 and Christabel Berwick - a girl of striking appearance and unnatural powers - has been kidnapped. Investigating the kidnapping is our protagonist Mrs Bridie Devine, a pipe-smoking redheaded domestic investigator who also conducts minor surgical procedures.

This detective novel takes us into the seedier corners of Victorian London and the lives of nefarious doctors, anatomists and their collections of curiosities and a travelling circus renowned for showcasing the strange and wonderful.

The city of London is expertly described:
"But for now, the slums are as they have always been: as warm and lively as a blanket full of lice." Page 25
"Follow the fulsome fumes from the tanners and the reek from the brewery, butterscotch rotten, drifting across Seven Dials. Keep on past the mothballs at the cheap tailor's and turn left at the singed silk of the maddened hatter. Just beyond you'll detect the unwashed crotch of the overworked prostitute and the Christian sweat of the charwoman. On every inhale a shifting scale of onions and scalded milk, chrysanthemums and spiced apple, broiled meat and wet straw, and the sudden stench of the Thames as the wind changes direction and blows up the knotted backstreets." Page 25
As you can see, the writing in Things In Jars by Jess Kidd is superb. At one point she describes a character as having resplendent whiskers and I thought yes! Her writing is just that: resplendent. I paused often to enjoy a sentence or particular description which seemed effortless yet poignant and often quite funny. My mind was buzzing with sheer joy at her turn of phrase and the story became a mere byproduct.

Bridie Devine enjoys smoking Prudhoe's Bronchial Balsam Blend despite the possible side effects:
"But the list is long and includes many adverse reactions, from sweating of the eyeballs to sensitivity to accordion music." Page 14
It was difficult to rate Things In Jars by Jess Kidd; the writing was divine (see what I did there?) and definitely worthy of 5 stars however the story wasn't anywhere near as faultless, earning 3 stars.

As much as it pains me, I give this gothic historical fiction detective novel 4 stars. Highly recommended.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:



P.S. For more, check out my review of The Hoarder by Jess Kidd.
04 December 2019

Winner of Hide by S.J. Morgan announced

I had a lot of fun reading your answers to the Hide giveaway last week. You might remember S.J. Morgan used 20 words to describe her novel in our interview together and you needed to choose one to enter the giveaway. The most popular word chosen was dysfunction and our winner chose the word grit.

The giveaway closed at midnight AEST Sunday 1 December 2019 and the winner was drawn today.
Hide by S.J. Morgan cover

CONGRATULATIONS ODETTE!!


You've won a personalised signed copy of Hide by S.J. Morgan. I’ll be sending you an email shortly with the details and the author will be sending out your personalised prize directly.

Enjoy and stay tuned for more giveaways.

Carpe Librum!
02 December 2019

Review: The Royal Art of Poison - Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicines and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman cover
The next book I read for the Non Fiction November Reading Challenge was The Royal Art of Poison - Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicines and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman.

It covers all of the toxic poisons contained in cosmetics and the disastrous medicines used by doctors and well-meaning apothecaries. It examines a collection of famous figures from history and their deaths, with modern reviews and theories on whether they were poisoned.

Heavy metal poisons include: arsenic, antimony, lead and mercury. Some notable plant poisons include: belladonna or deadly nightshade, hemlock, henbane, monks-hood or wolf's bane. Post renaissance poisons included: cyanide, sarin and strychnine.

I'm interested in the food poisonings in royal courts and was amused to learn that when servants carried food into a royal dining chamber: 
"they placed them on a credenza, which takes its name from the various 'credence' tests for poison conducted there." Page 153
The horn of a unicorn was believed to show indications of poison when it was waved over or dipped into food or drink. It wasn't a real unicorn horn but the tusk of a narwhal, a creature not discovered until the eighteenth century. Bezoar stones were also used.

As we now know, many poisons were used in cosmetics. For white teeth, ladies applied a powder:
"that contained grain, pumice stone, aloe, vinegar, honey, cinnamon, pearls, scrapings of ivory, quinces, and walnuts crushed into a paste and cooked with silver or gold foil." Page 607 
The abrasive powder removed stains but also the tooth enamel.

Many medications contained heavy metals and the sicker a patient became, the more medicine they required often making them sicker. I knew about the humours, blood letting, enemas and poultices, but I didn't know that: 
"whenever a member of the royal family was gravely ill, doctors would remove saintly body parts and entire corpses from churches and monasteries and put them in bed with the invalid." Page 793
Outrageous! Herman introduces us to poisons used today that are almost untraceable and concludes with the poison hall of fame. This was an ingenious list containing the quickest poison (cyanide), the most painful poison (strychnine) and so on.

All in all, Herman gives us plenty of interesting tidbits from history to sink our teeth into. I could have done with less of the biographical history in each of the modern autopsies but it's a small complaint. The Royal Art of Poison was informative, unexpectedly funny (have you ever felt so sick you believed you were bursting in twain?) and highly recommended.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:

29 November 2019

Review: Dressing the Dearloves by Kelly Doust

Dressing the Dearloves by Kelly Doust book cover
* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

Sylvie grew up in the family manor of Bledesford, escaping the expectations that accompanied the Dearlove family name and fleeing to New York where she established her fashion label.

Years later she returns home, her business in ruins and full of shame for tarnishing the Dearlove name.

Discovering Bledesford has deteriorated to the point of no return, Sylvie begins to help her parents prepare the estate for sale. In doing so, she discovers an attic full of vintage garments from the glory days of Bledesford, gets to know her mother and Grandmother better and begins to uncover some long-kept family secrets.

Dressing the Dearloves by Kelly Doust is a multi-generational family saga encompassing five generations. This is an historical fiction novel of secrets, family, love and relationships tied together by a thread of fashion. I don't know anything about fashion, but I enjoyed the sense of history Sylvie attaches to vintage clothing.
"She'd always wondered at the things those clothes had seen. Great parties between the wars, certainly, but also the insides of souks or palaces, or some clever dressmaker's studio on the Left Bank in Paris. But it was more than that, Sylvie thought - a dress could be a beautiful thing but it also held something of what the wearer had experienced when they were wearing it - love, joy, sadness, desire, anger." Page 89
This novel reminded me very much of The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley. There too the main character's home is a run down family estate (Admiralty House) on the verge of bankruptcy. Vintage garments worth a lot of money are discovered in the attic and are an inspiration to the main character. Of course, this isn't the fault of the author Kelly Doust; Dressing the Dearloves was published first in 2018 but if you enjoyed The Butterfly Room you'll love this.

Dressing the Dearloves by Australian author Kelly Doust will appeal to historical fiction fans who enjoy a feel good story about strong and determined women, secrets, family, romance and fashion. Also recommended for fans of Kate Morton.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:


P.S. For more, check out my review of Precious Things by Kelly Doust.
27 November 2019

Review: The Lying Room by Nicci French

The Lying Room by Nicci French book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Nicci French has published twenty-one bestselling books, but The Lying Room is the first standalone novel in 10 years. I've never read Nicci French before, but I was aware it's a pseudonym for married couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Curious about how this writing partnership works, The Lying Room was the perfect non-committal entry point.

Neve Connolly is our protagonist and after finding someone she knows murdered she decides not to call the police. (I was already shrieking at her to PICK UP THE PHONE, knowing this wasn't going to go well). Naturally this decision kicks off a train of events that gathers speed as it rolls on.

Neve is a busy working mum with plenty of friends and way too much on her plate. Her friends are always at her house and her work from home husband is a slouch. In fact, I really disliked Fletcher and was keen to give him a kick in the pants.

It's fair to say Neve got on my nerves too at times, but I have to remember characters aren't always going to behave the way I would.

DCI Hitching was a character with a small role but definitely the stand out for me. I didn't fall for the red herring which was a relief and the identity of the killer came as a mild surprise.

The Lying Room is about (you guessed it) lies, work, family, marriage, infidelity, jealousy and long term friendship dynamics. This was an easy to read slow burn domestic noir 'whodunnit' and the writing between the duo was seamless.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★

25 November 2019

Review: Rogue by A.J. Betts

Rogue by A.J. Betts cover
* Won in a Pan Macmillan giveaway hosted by The Very Hungry Thesaurus on Instagram *

Rogue by A.J. Betts is the conclusion to this duology that began with Hive. I can't say too much about this book without spoiling the ending of Hive for those who may not have read it yet, so this review will be brief.

The dystopian aspect of the story ramped up in Rogue and we learned more about the establishment of Hayley's original home. The author did a great job imagining a dystopian Australian future and painted a worrying picture for the reader.

Hayley continues to adapt quickly to her surroundings and fight for the future she wants. While an event close to the end of the book took me pleasantly by surprise.

Quick and easy to read with a satisfying conclusion, I recommend this Australian duology of Hive and Rogue to YA readers and those who enjoy dystopian fiction.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★

22 November 2019

Giveaway & Author Interview with S.J. Morgan

Hide by S.J. Morgan cover
Today I'd like to welcome Australian author S.J. Morgan to Carpe Librum for an interview and giveaway. You'll recall I reviewed her first adult novel Hide last month and gave it 4 stars. Now I get to ask her some questions! Welcome to Carpe Librum Sue!


Interview

If you had 20 words to convince a reader to pick up Hide, what would they be?
Oh gosh – that’s a challenge! I guess we hear things in soundbites or ‘grabs’ so I’d just throw twenty words in the air. And those words would be: menace, 80s, Wales, outback, grit, danger, fear, family, bikies, grief, loyalty, threat, violence, dysfunction, damage, healing, page-turning, friendships, crime, intrigue.

What was your favourite scene in Hide to write and why?
I loved writing all of it to be honest, but the scenes between Minto and Alec are my favourites. I had such a clear idea of both characters that I felt I was ‘there’ and I was just reporting what was going on. It’s such a great feeling when the words just arrive like that. I also really enjoyed writing the tense/tetchy scenes between Alec and Daniella and Alec and his dad – basically, it seems I love a good argument!

There are some pretty intimidating bikie characters in Hide. Have you met any bikies in real life?
I wish I could say that I once led a completely different life and was actually involved with a key member of a bikie gang myself, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. I’ve just always been fascinated – plus, one of my strongest memories of arriving in Australia was when we went on a big road trip and encountered a massive gathering of bikies along the way. I suspect that experience gave me the initial spark for the story. While I was writing the book, I also discovered some local connections to the bikie world so that gave me some great starting points from which to do research.

You’ve written books in several genres, including: short stories, young adult, children’s fiction and now your first adult novel, Hide. Tell us more, do you thrive on variety?
I don’t set out with the idea to write a children’s book or a thriller or a YA novel - I tend to simply start with a scenario, which appears quite clearly, but randomly, in my head. It’s that spark of an idea that then directs what sort of book it’s going to be – whether for teens or adults or children. I think ‘intrigue’ is probably what binds my stories together; I like that mounting sense of something ‘not right’ on the horizon. I guess I must just be drawn to mystery, generally.

Where do you do most of your writing? When do you do your best work?
It depends what stage I’m at. At the very beginning of an idea, it’s usually middle of the night scribbles from my bed. My favourite bit is the first draft when all the ideas are buzzing. At that point, my preference is to use a favourite pen and a gorgeous new notebook; then I like to get up early and go to my local cafĂ© where there’s a mezzanine area that is almost always quiet. It’s like my own little nook and I love going there to write. I do have a study at home, with a desk which overlooks our garden. Unfortunately, I’m a total clutter-bug and the desk is often awash with papers and books, so I often end up working at the dining room table. Our two greyhounds, Dylan and Maxie are always stretched out, close by - and at some point, I try to remember to take them out for a walk so that I’m not sitting down all day! After dark, I’m not very productive in terms of words-on-a-page, but I do most of my thinking, planning and plotting just before I go to sleep.

What books are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island which I’m really enjoying. Unfortunately, with so much going on in the run up to Hide’s release, I’ve been reading it in fits and starts which is definitely not my favourite way to enjoy a good book! Next up is Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love and after that, David Nichols, Sweet Sorrow. I also bought Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again recently, to add to the TBR pile before Santa (hopefully!) brings more.

What are some of your favourite books/authors?
I like variety in what I’m reading as well as what I’m writing. Last year, before Heaven Sent came out, I was fully immersed in YA. My Sister Rosa, Between Us and It Sounded Better in my Head stand out in my mind as ones I read and loved. I also enjoy women’s fiction, so I race through Liane Moriarty books and just about anything by Anne Tyler. I think my favourite books of the last couple of years would be Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden which was just delicious, as was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

I loved Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine too and have My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier on my TBR. Do you have a favourite bookshop in Adelaide?
Well now, authors need ALL the bookshops so there can’t be favourites! Adelaide is blessed with lovely bookstores, so I feel very lucky to be so spoilt for choice. I recently visited Harry Hartog’s in Burnside and Dymocks Adelaide – both have staff who are wonderfully supportive of local authors and they both gave me a very warm welcome. We also have the beautiful Shakespeare’s Bookshop in Blackwood run by Becky and Mike Lucas, Dillons in Norwood, and up here in the Hills – my local – Matilda Bookshop. I’m fortunate to have so many gorgeous places to buy good books.

What books have you always meant to read and haven’t got round to yet?
Ooh, that’s an interesting question and I suspect I will think of a dozen more as soon as I’ve finished answering. There are quite a lot of classics that I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read: Little Women, for instance; Moby Dick; Huckleberry Finn. The trouble is, with so many new, enticing books coming out, I can’t imagine ever finding the time to go back and read all the ones I should’ve read years ago.

It's a hard balance, isn't it? Is it true you love stationery? I would love to hear more. (I collect bookmarks and love washi tape, notebooks, pens and more).
Oh yes, I adore stationery – pens, pencils, notebooks, stick-on notes, paperclips, binders, folders – no amount of it can ever be too much. And I love drawers, boxes and ‘organising’ systems, so I like storing stationery as much as having it. Basically, I love anything with compartments, drawers and shelves. I also have a passion for old cash registers, adding machines and typewriters too – things with buttons/keys that make a nice mechanical sound. If I could buy an old library or an old post office from the 50s, with all its fittings and fixtures intact, I would be in heaven!

Oooh, sounds perfect! I'd love to have a peek through your stationery drawers. So, what's next?
Well, I have been almost-at-the-end of my next contemporary YA book for ages, but I feel I need some mental quietness to get it finished and that seems to have been in short supply for a while. I’m looking forward to completing it though. Then it will be back to sending submissions out to publishers and agents again …

Anything else you'd like to add?
Just to say thanks so much for having me as a guest on your blog and for reviewing my book. I knew nothing about book blogs when I started this whole publishing journey, but it’s been one of the great things I’ve discovered along the way: a whole raft of people who love reading and who love talking books. I’ve become quite addicted to reading book blogs, so thank you again for having me on yours!

Thanks for the kind words Sue, it's been a real pleasure. Readers in Australia were invited to enter the giveaway to win a signed copy of Hide valued at $32.99AUD. Entries closed 1 December 2019.


Giveaway

This giveaway has now closed.

20 November 2019

Review: Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold

Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold cover
The first book I read for the Non Fiction November Reading Challenge this year is Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold. The author tackles the fascinating history of London burials from pre-historic and medieval times to the present day.

According to the blurb:
"The city is one giant grave, filled with the remains of previous eras. The Houses of Parliament sit on the edge of a former plague pit, St Paul's is built over human remains; Underground tunnels were driven through forgotten catacombs, thick with bones."
I found the earliest history the least interesting. My fascination really begins as burial space in London and the surrounding areas became cramped and Londoners began to run out of places to bury their dead.

Arnold shines a light into the darkness of countless horrific practices in graveyards all over London. Remains were shoved into crevices within churches, often dug up and relocated to charnel houses or pits without notifying the families and bodysnatchers were a real concern. Some graveyards had significantly grown in height due to the placement of bodies on top of each other in layers that in some cases, the burial grounds were reaching the first floor windows of churches and neighbouring houses.

Many proposed the move away from inner city burials in churchyards and burial plots, and championed the establishment of new cemeteries in consecrated ground in the countryside. Arnold takes us through the movers and shakers across decades and centuries as this began to take form, including the key figures involved in designing these cemeteries.

Countless cemeteries and graveyards are mentioned here including the iconic - and my favourite - Highgate Cemetery, which provides a rich history for amateur sleuths and family historians. Many of the old graveyards scattered throughout London were soon forgotten together with the plague pits which had never been marked with gravestones or markers.
"As time passed, London has constructed houses, churches, streets, entire railway stations, over these mass graves, and it is only by chance that they come to light due to building excavations." Page 65
"In fact, the tunnel curves between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations because it was impossible to drill through the mass of skeletal remains buried in Hyde Park." Page 2
I knew how devastating the Great Fire of London was in 1666, however it was shocking to read: 
"Seventy per cent of its houses vanished into the flames. Thirteen thousand buildings, including eighty-nine churches, disappeared for ever." Page 68
After the fires and the razing of so many structures, new construction began and the dead were swiftly forgotten in favour of rebuilding London. Gravestones, rubble and in some cases human remains from the fires were used in the foundations of new buildings.
"Inevitably, the final remains of many Londoners went into the latest foundations of their great city." Page 172
I enjoy fiction set - or written - during the Victorian era with a particular interest in the rituals and etiquette surrounding death and mourning. Arnold gives the reader much to digest in Necropolis, with the introduction of the great Victorian cemeteries and the detailed mourning practices of the era.

The horses used in Victorian funerals to pull hearses and mourning coaches were: 
"strong, handsome, blue-black animals, worth 50 [pounds] each, were imported from Holland and Belgium. Constantly in the public eye, they were always well groomed. A patch of grey would be painted out, a thinning mane or tail supplemented with hair from a deceased comrade. Mostly gentle and docile they were sturdy animals." Page 196
The introduction of cremation and society's changing attitudes towards it were interesting as were the impact of both world wars on the notion of grief and mourning. Although I could have done without the remarkable level of detail with regard to the individual cemeteries.

Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold reads like an academic text and isn't for everyone. If you enjoy history, anthropology, urban development, changing attitudes to death and mourning or learning about the macabre, then this is for you.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★

18 November 2019

Review: Hive by A.J. Betts

Hive by A.J. Betts cover
* Won in a Pan Macmillan giveaway hosted by The Very Hungry Thesaurus on Instagram *

Hive is the first in a young adult duology by Australian author A.J. Betts. Set in a dystopian future, Hayley's world is made up of hexagonal houses where everyone has a vocation.

Hayley is a gardener and tends the bee hive and plants with her best friend Celia. Grow lights change colour to dictate the passage of time and all 300 inhabitants have a job to do. Each person contributes to the running of the settlement that almost operates like a hive.

Isolated from the rest of the world, governed by God where nobody knows their birth parents, this community also had the feeling of a religious cult.

Hayley is naturally inquisitive and when she notices a drip in an area that is off limits to her, she's desperate for answers. If she's going mad then she'll have a bleak future, but what if something else is going on?

The world building was clever, the writing was evocative and I enjoyed learning about Hayley's settlement and the goings on within the group.

I don't often read YA or dystopian fiction, so it took me a little while to settle into Hayley's world, but reading Hive was a refreshing palate cleanser from my usual eclectic fare.

The next in the duology is Rogue and I'm planning on reading that next.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★

14 November 2019

Review: Sh*t Towns of Australia by Rick Furphy & Geoff Rissole

Sh*t Towns of Australia by Rick Furphy & Geoff Rissole book cover
Published November 2019
RRP $19.99 AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I really enjoyed reading Sh*t Towns of New Zealand last year. A year on and Rick Furphy and Geoff Rissole have given us Sh*t Towns of Australia. Unlike the sister book, I wasn't chuckling and rushing to look up factoids from the book while reading and overall I found it a little underwhelming.

The town slurs were unimaginative and there were so many references to deros, drugs, hand jobs, STDs and the unemployed that it quickly became repetitive.

The humour was crass and the fan mail sections were a missed opportunity. Appearing to be fabricated feedback from readers defending their towns, the authors could have had real fun with this concept. Unfortunately the fan mail comments appealed to the lowest common denominator and didn't even raise a smirk.

The only thing I enjoyed was the section on 'big things' which was uniquely Australian and amusing and the mention of bin chickens. Despite being Australian, I've somehow missed the slang name 'bin chicken' for ibis birds. This then lead me to a very funny and catchy YouTube video about ibis' which is what I'll think of when remembering this book.

Featuring sixty towns and cities, Sh*t Towns of Australia will make a great stocking stuffer or gift for the bogan in your family who enjoys gutter humour. I guess I'm just not the target market for this book.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★ ★ ★

11 November 2019

Review: Him by Clare Empson

* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia competition *

Him by Clare Empson begins with Catherine driven mute by earlier events. I was intrigued by the premise and wondered what triggered her to withdraw so far into herself. As the novel jumps back and forth in time, the events that lead to the mutism four months previously are slowly but surely brought to the surface.

Catherine and Lucian fell in love at university, their relationship was relatable and their mutual infatuation believable. Welcomed into Lucian's elite circle of friends, their unexpected breakup took a toll on Lucian and the reason behind it is one of the novel's mysteries.

Told in a multitude of timeframes: now, 4 months earlier, 15 years earlier and from the perspectives of both Catherine and Lucian, the narrative did feel somewhat jumpy and disjointed as a result.

I didn't feel terribly invested in either of the main characters and found the supporting characters to be either vacuous or vulnerable. Their rich lifestyles may interest some readers, but I couldn't help but roll my eyes at their behaviour (now and then) and sense of entitlement.

While I had very little empathy for Catherine, I did care for one of the characters and found her unique story quite moving. Catherine's mutism almost frustrated me as much as it did her husband, and the big 'reveal' or denouement wasn't really worth the reader investment or the build up in my view.

Him is a story of obsessive love, lies, secrets and regrets populated by wealthy young people battling addictions and depression trying to find real love.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★ ★

08 November 2019

Review: The Confession by Jessie Burton

The Confession by Jessie Burton cover
* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

The Confession by Jessie Burton is a dual narrative story about three women, Elise, Constance and Rose. Elise and Constance are lovers in the 1980s and in the present day, Rose seeks answers about her mother Elise, who left when she was a baby.

Constance is a successful author, and the reader is given an insight into her career during the 1980s and her life as a reclusive writer in the present day. Rose devises a ruse to meet Constance and drill her for answers about her mother.

The Confession is my first time reading Jessie Burton and I was gripped by her writing. (Oh and the cover design is stunning!) Essentially a story about love, purpose, motherhood, relationships, choices, secrets and regrets, the narrative kept me turning pages as the confession of the title drew nearer.

Of the three characters, Constance was easily my favourite. Her life was deeply compelling and I thoroughly enjoyed her personality. Rose I liked the least, the ruse and her dishonesty being part of it, but I also found her aimlessness a little irritating.

While I enjoyed the story and the writing, the unresolved ending prevented this from being a five star read for me. While Rose says she's moving on, the book ends with her still searching for answers. (I hope that's vague enough to avoid any spoilers). This was frustrating and coming so soon after another unresolved ending - in The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean - the frustration was compounded. I need more answers people!

Once the 'high' of the confession - or conversation - I'd been waiting for during the entire book was over and I spent a few days reflecting, the effect wore off. If you love a mystery and a deep and meaningful tale of women finding their way in life, then The Confession is for you. I'll definitely keep an eye out for more from Jessie Burton.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:

05 November 2019

Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean book cover
* Copy courtesy of Harper Collins *

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Australian author Felicity McLean has been incredibly popular this year. It begins when our narrator Tikka returns to her suburban home in Sydney. There she's forced to recount the summer of 1992 and the disappearance of the Van Apfel girls during their school concert.

Tikka Molloy was eleven years old at the time and the Van Apfel family (with three daughters) were neighbours. Tikka and her older sister were friends with the Van Apfel girls and their disappearance shocked the local community at the time.

The writing is evocative and atmospheric, and managed to capture Tikka's childhood with every ice cream, school project and ride in her parent's car. Even the simplest scenes like walking to school or a sleepover took me right into the heart of the story while also making me feel incredibly nostalgic.

I enjoyed the coming-of-age elements and the descriptions of the girls, including the dynamics between the two families and the sibling relationships between them.

Where I had a few issues however is that the story is not linear.

Similarities have been made to The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and I can see why. The Lisbon girls (from The Virgin Suicides) and Van Apfel girls are both raised in strictly religious households. The narrators in both novels are haunted and slightly obsessed by the loss of the girls.

Similarities have also been drawn to Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay in that several girls disappear into the Australian bush in the harsh summer and only one comes back. While comparisons like these do attract interest to the book and presumably boost sales, these links are somewhat tenuous in this case.

What made this a 3 star read for me was the unresolved ending. I can guess what led up to the girl's disappearance but this is never confirmed. The details of their disappearance are unsolved in the beginning of the book and remain so at the end which drove me nuts.

I'm also not okay with people withholding information from the police, even years after an event.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean is recommended reading for those who enjoy an Australian coming-of-age novel with a mystery at its heart.

In the spirit of 'if you like this, you'll also like this' fans of this novel should check out The Yellow House by Emily O'Grady.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★

01 November 2019

Review: Hide by S.J. Morgan

Hide by S.J. Morgan cover
*Copy courtesy of the author & Midnight Sun Publishing*

Hide is Australian author S.J. Morgan's first adult novel and it's a thrilling read.

It's 1983 in Swansea, South Wales where we first meet Alec Johnston. A somewhat flawed character who doesn't quite know what to do with his life, Alec is sharing a flat with bikies, Minto, Stobes and Black. (Great names right?)

The overbearing Minto has a girlfriend Sindy and while Alec knows he should mind his own business, he can't help but be drawn in by Sindy's vulnerability and the situations she finds herself in. Try as he might, Alec just can't seem to get out from under the gaze of his bikie housemates; Minto in particular.

Alec seeks help from his parents who live in Cardiff and are easily the most memorable fictional parents I've encountered in a long time. I was definitely rooting for the parents the whole way; perhaps even more so than our protagonist Alec at times!

What develops is a slow burn domestic noir which ramps up the tension as the short punchy chapters progress. The action moves to Australia (not a spoiler, this is in the blurb) and the novel develops into a crime thriller which kept me turning the pages.

Ultimately, I would have liked more information on Sindy and a watertight ending but the conclusion was a satisfactory one, just the same.

With an atmospheric cover design which accurately conveys the trouble ahead for Alec, I believe Hide will appeal to crime fans who enjoy a good domestic thriller.

I'll be running a giveaway on 22 November alongside an interview with the author S.J. Morgan so stay tuned for a chance to win your own signed copy of Hide.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:

29 October 2019

Winner of Stormbird Press giveaway announced

Many of you entered my giveaway last week which was great to see. Up for grabs was a goodie bag from Stormbird Press chock full of bookish treats valued at $83.93AUD to promote Tales from the River - An Anthology of River Literature.

The giveaway closed at midnight AEST Sunday 27 October 2019 and the winner was drawn today. Drum roll......

CONGRATULATIONS LIZ HARRISON!!


Congratulations Liz! I’ll be sending you an email shortly with the details and Stormbird Press will send your goodie bag to you directly.

Find out about the upcoming giveaway on 22 November over on my Giveaways page.

Carpe Librum!
Stormbird Press goodie bag
Stormbird Press prize pack

25 October 2019

Review: The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank cover
* Copy courtesy of Harlequin Australia *

October is the perfect time to read a spooky ghost story. I live in Australia and even though the weather is heating up and daylight savings has begun, I'm still in the mood for a creepy read. Booklovers are engaged in Halloween themed reading challenges and spooky readathons all around the world and it's hard not to be tempted. A talented writer should be able to give their reader the chills no matter the weather or reading environment and debut author Anita Frank has certainly done so here.

Set in England in 1917, The Lost Ones takes place during World War I, when many were grieving the loss of a loved one; be it a son, sibling, spouse or sweetheart.

Stella Marcham is no different. She is grieving the loss of her fiance and is asked to visit her sister Madeleine at Greyswick. Madeleine is pregnant and grieving the loss of an early pregnancy while claiming to hear crying at night.

Greyswick is located in the country and is the classic imposing creepy country mansion. Complete with stern housekeeper and servants quarters, the house conveys quite a gothic presence throughout the novel. In addition to this, the overbearing male characters in the novel dismiss Stella and Madeleine's claims with the excuse they are paranoid and you guessed it, hysterical!

The Lost Ones is a ghost story about grief, family secrets, legacy, class, healing and hope.

Readers concerned about ridiculous ghostly encounters needn't worry here. The supernatural element of the story is subtle and you could easily read this as a haunting historical fiction with a mystery that needs to be solved.

If that doesn't entice you, the cover art is simply superb. How can you resist?

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:

P.S. For more gothic fiction reviews, check out my list of Gothic Tales to read.

21 October 2019

Review: Mudlarking - Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem

Mudlarking - Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem book cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Circus *

Mudlarking is the act of searching or scavenging in the river mud at low tide seeking items of value. Modern mudlarks forage in the mud in search of items from history - regardless of value - and it's amazing what they find. I saw the River Thames in person for the first time in 2012 but it's always been fascinating to me as a repository of history.

Author Lara Maiklem is a proud London mudlark and shares her finds in Mudlarking - Lost and Found on the River Thames. First, some interesting facts about the Thames from the book.

Facts

"...the height between low and high water at London Bridge varies from fifteen to twenty-two feet [and] it takes six hours for the water to come upriver and six and a half for it to flow back out to sea." Page 3
"The tides today are higher than they have been at any time in history." Page 13
"... in 1957, the Natural History Museum declared the Thames 'biologically dead' ... A campaign to clean up the Thames began in the 1960s and by the end of the 1970s the river was considered to be 'rehabilitated'. It is now cleaner than it has been in living memory and supports over 125 species of fish." Page 259

Finds

In Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem takes us down the river from Teddington to the Estuary and the open sea in a combination of memoir, archaeology, science and history in a narrative non-fiction style of writing. She tells us her preferred method of searching the river bed and banks is to kneel with her 'nose barely inches from the foreshore' where she completely immerses herself in the task.

One of my favourite finds from the book was the legend of the Doves Type. A bookbinder by the name of Cobden-Sanderson tipped 500,000 pieces of lead type into the river at Hammersmith. Following a dispute about the ownership of the type with Emery Walker, he bequeathed the type to the River Thames between 1913 - 1916 and mudlarks have been searching for them ever since. Such a fascinating story.

In January 2018 I thoroughly enjoyed How To Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman and the tidbit that pins from this era are still being found in the Thames today. Maiklem expands on the humble pin on page 86 and I was transfixed by her words. She tells us pins accumulate and wash together in tangled metallic nests and that pins are one of her favourite treasures to find because they're so ordinary.

History

I also enjoyed the London Bridge chapter, particularly the information about old London bridge.
"The old bridge was built with nineteen arches of varying widths and wide piers... which created a virtual barrier across the river, impeding its flow and trapping the tide." Page 145
I had no idea the construction of the old bridge slowed the water to such an extent the river froze over in harsh winters. I knew about the festivities that took place when the Thames froze over in the 1600s but wasn't aware that it doesn't do so now because these obstructions were removed when the old bridge was demolished.

Turning to more recent history and how did I not know about London's Riveria known as Tower Beach?
"The half-moon of soft yellow sand that forms a gentle hill in front of the river wall and peters out to shingle towards the river, is all that remains of 'London's Riviera', 1,500 barge-loads of Essex sand that was spread over the foreshore to create a public beach in 1934." Page 165
Apparently Tower Beach was a great success and in 1935 approximately 100,000 people came to 'holiday' beside the Thames. What a sight this must have been.

Memoir

From the very beginning, Maiklem tells the reader just what mudlarking means to her:
"I have carefully arranged meetings and appointments according to the tides, and conspired to meet friends near the river so that I can steal down to the foreshore before the water comes in and after it's flowed out. I've kept people waiting, bringing a trail of mud and apologies in my wake; missed the start of many films and even left early to catch the last few inches of foreshore. I have lied, cajoled and manipulated to get time by the river. It comes knocking at all hours and I obey..." Page 3
Armed with this information on just how much this obsession controls the author's life, I formed the opinion she'd make an unreliable friend and frustrating partner but is no doubt a highly experienced mudlarker.

However she makes mention several times throughout the book that she won't share specific locations. By omitting them the reader can join the dots on their own (or not), but openly stating she won't share the locations made her seem arrogant in my view.

Here's an example:
"I have two American plantation tokens, both of which I found within a few feet of each other (I'm not saying where), and several years apart." Page 203
What's the point? Trust me, her finds are fascinating enough (buckles, coins, leather shoes, buttons, clay pipes, beads, ink pots and more) and I don't think anyone would expect her to disclose her secret locations.

Another thing that irked me was her belief that a portion of the shore had been taken away from her. When telling the reader about nets of stones placed against the river wall in Greenwich in an attempt to prevent erosion, she says:
"My special patch has been covered up, ... and half an hour on every tide has been taken away from me." Page 248
I'd like to tell the author 'your special patch isn't yours and so it can't be taken away from you'. Losing access may be a sore point, but have gratitude for the access you do have and what you managed to find there in the past. While Maiklem acknowledges the perils of erosion, she notes that it also washes out treasures for mudlarks to find.

Conclusion

On a lighter note, Maiklem has a marvellous ability to bring history to life. She uses her imagination to breathe life into the objects she unearths and I enjoyed this immensely.

However, I wish there had been photographs to accompany the text. So much of what the author shares with us has a visual component and I felt this was missing in Mudlarking. The only saving grace is that Maiklem has an awesome Instagram account and I was able to go there to see photographs of some of her finds.

In summary, I adored learning more about the history of the River Thames, I was gripped by every item the author discovered and researched but I could happily have done without the memoir aspect with no sense of loss at all.

Recommended reading for amateur and professional historians and genealogists; archaeologists; aquaphiles; environmentalists; museum lovers and the curious.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★

18 October 2019

Friday Freebie: WIN a goodie bag from Stormbird Press

Today I've teamed up with the lovely folk from Stormbird Press, a not-for-profit indie Australian publisher. They publish fiction and nonfiction that defends nature and empowers communities through the power of story. Today they're offering Carpe Librum readers the chance to win a goodie bag chock full of bookish treats to promote Tales from the River - An Anthology of River Literature.

Blurb

At a time when wild rivers are imperilled, Tales from the River presents a timely collection of river literature from twenty-one authors exploring our vital relationship with rivers and how they shape our lives. 

Featuring original writing by award winning authors, and exciting new voices in eco-literature, each writer draws on their wisdom, compassion, and ecological consciousness to create a range of dramatic and timely stories. 

The stories are grouped by eco-regions, showing that connections with rivers also exist across space. The book asks: How do we stop the terrible decline of our wild rivers? We protect what we love, by standing together on the bank of a river.
Stormbird Press prize valued at $83.93AUD


Prize

Valued at $83.93AUD, the Stormbird Press gift bag contains:
  • One signed copy of Tales from the River ($32.95)
  • Bookmark ($2.50)
  • 2 eBook gift cards ($19.98)
  • Tote bag 35.6 x 35.6 x 7.6 cm ($25.00)
  • Fridge magnet $3.50

Enter below for your chance to win.

Giveaway

This giveaway has now closed.

13 October 2019

Participating in Non Fiction November 2019

I love reading non fiction and last year I learned about the Non Fiction November Reading Challenge hosted by one of my favourite Booktubers, A Book Olive.

It's just been announced again and this year will be my first time officially participating. Here are some of the titles (listed alphabetically by author) from my TBR I'm thinking of reading:
  • The Innocent Reader: Reflections on Reading and Writing by Debra Adelaide
  • Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold
  • The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey
  • Gothic by Fred Botting
  • Death on the Derwent: Sue Neill-Fraser’s story by Robin Bowles
  • Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox
  • The Royal Art of Poison: Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicines and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman (already started reading)
  • Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
  • Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (reading now)
Have you read any of these books? Are you interested in reading any of them or doing a buddy read together?
I went back to see what I've read so far this year, and it's quite a lot! Here are the non fiction titles I've read so far in 2019 in chronological order:
Remember, non fiction doesn't have to be dry. It can include true crime, cookbooks, self help and more.

Let me know if you want to join me for Non Fiction November and what you'd like to read to celebrate this sometimes under-represented genre. You can find out more on TwitterGoodReads or YouTube.

Carpe Librum!

10 October 2019

Review: Bone China by Laura Purcell

Bone China by Laura Purcell cover
* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

A gothic Victorian novel about consumption, grief and folklore set on the wind ravaged cliffs of Cornwall? Yes please! The Corset by Laura Purcell made my list of Top 5 Books of 2018 last year, making her latest novel Bone China my most anticipated release of the year. And I loved it!

Hester Why is a lady's maid and nurse running from her past when she applies for a post at Morvoren House in Cornwall. Her mistress Miss Pinecroft is seemingly affected by a stroke and in poor mental and physical health.

Hester slowly uncovers the mysterious workings at Morvoren House and the reader gains some insight into her previous positions. We're then taken back in time 40 years to when Miss Pinecroft assisted her father Dr Pinecroft in the attempt to find a cure for consumption. Ministering to prisoners under their care on the proviso their freedom would be assured upon recovery, Miss Pinecroft and her father could have no idea what was in store for them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the multiple plot lines however Hester's previous positions as lady's maid were the most gripping.

The forbidding landscape and gothic setting of Morvoren House combined with the local Cornish folklore created a menacing and creepy atmosphere, making this perfect for an October read.

Bone China by Laura Purcell was a highly enjoyable gothic historical fiction novel and although it didn't achieve the dizzying heights and absolute brilliance of The Corset, it certainly kept me in suspense the entire time and I highly recommend it.

Laura Purcell is now an automatic must-read author for me.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:

P.S. You can read my review of Laura Purcell's debut novel The Silent Companions here or my favourite novel of hers The Corset.
03 October 2019

Review: Silver by Chris Hammer

Silver by Chris Hammer book cover
Published 1 October 2019
RRP $32.99 AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Bursting onto the scene in August 2018, Scrublands by Australian author Chris Hammer was a bestseller. I predicted it would go on to win awards and I was right. Now, seasoned journalist Martin Scarsden is back in the much hyped sequel Silver.

Martin has finished writing his book about the dramatic events at Riversend and moves with his girlfriend back to his hometown of Port Silver. No sooner does he arrive than his girlfriend is a suspect in the murder of an old school mate and the story begins.

The victim runs the local real estate company and the plot contains a complex series of proposed developments and land sales that required me to continually flick back to the delightful map of the township at the front of the book.

Port Silver really shines here. While Riversend was a dusty, hot town in the grip of drought, Port Silver is a coastal town, fresh with retirees seeking a sea-change and delicious fish and chips.

Being back in his hometown after so many years away brings up painful memories for Martin and the reader learns more about his tragic past in flashbacks. These include revelations about his father and I really enjoyed learning more about Martin's backstory.

Coming in at 563 pages, Silver is a hefty read and in my opinion there was too much description. The pace of the novel often slowed as Martin observed his surroundings and contemplated nature while I was urging him to 'get on with it'. As in Scrublands, Martin does a lot of driving from place to place in his investigations in an effort to uncover the truth, and this started to wear thin too.

Apart from the initial murder, something happens further into the book that highlights the seedy underbelly of the town and really lifted the tension. However by the time Martin uses his journalistic skills to get to the bottom of it all - which includes his return to paid journalism - the thrill lost a little of its edge for me.

The property development mystery wasn't able to hold my interest through the various computations and variations and I soon lost interest there too.

In my opinion, Silver can be read as a standalone, but readers familiar with Scrublands will receive greater enjoyment from Martin's backstory. Scrublands is a whydunnit and Silver is a series of multiple whodunnits which I'm sure will find a deserved place on the Australian crime shelves of dedicated readers.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:
★ ★