All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

Gulliver’s Wife
Lauren Chater
Simon & Schuster AUS
2020, 390p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Birth. Death. Wonder … One woman’s journey to the edge of love and loyalty from the bestselling author of The Lace Weaver

London, 1702. When her husband is lost at sea, Mary Burton Gulliver, midwife and herbalist, is forced to rebuild her life without him. But three years later when Lemuel Gulliver is brought home, fevered and communicating only in riddles, her ordered world is turned upside down.

In a climate of desperate poverty and violence, Mary is caught in a crossfire of suspicion and fear driven by her husband’s outlandish claims, and it is up to her to navigate a passage to safety for herself and her daughter, and the vulnerable women in her care.

When a fellow sailor, a dangerous man with nothing to lose, appears to hold sway over her husband, Mary’s world descends deeper into chaos, and she must set out on her own journey to discover the truth of Gulliver’s travels . . . and the landscape of her own heart.

This is a really excellently researched book. Set in very early 1700s London, Mary is a midwife who has struggled to eke out a living. Her husband was often away at sea and when he’s believed lost, he left her with piles of debts. She’s worked hard to pay them off and earn enough for her and her children to live. She helps the local women birth their babies but it’s a dangerous time to be a midwife. There are doctors, surgeons (men) who think they know better and want to be included in births. Maybe even see midwives stamped out entirely.

Then her husband is returned to her but it’s not a joyous reunion. He’s borderline raving, feverish and Mary fears that his strange talk will bring suspicion down upon them and ruin all the good work she has done to carve out a life. And then there’s their teen daughter Bess, who has always idolised her father and resents Mary, believing her to be trying to drive a wedge between them. At every turn, Bess is resentful of her mother, even as Mary seeks to do everything to protect her.

I’ve read a few books that focus on the art of midwifery but most have taken place later than this one. Mary lost her mother young, her father encouraged her in a match that was a mistake. Her husband was a dreamer, unable to keep a penny and with his death came a sort of freedom, even as Mary struggled to pay off his every debt. His return is only filled with problems and Mary has enough of those already. I felt that this area of 1700s London, rife with poverty and crime, came to life vividly. Women are often abused, with few options other than endless cycles of pregnancy and mouths to feed. Mary seeks to protect her young daughter Bess, who is 14 but desiring of a freedom far beyond her age. Bess is difficult, strong willed and headstrong…stubborn. She’s a resentful teenage girl without the benefit of the clarity that will come with age, that will enable her to see how much her mother has sacrificed, how hard she has worked, what she has done in terms of raising her and her younger brother. At the moment Bess can only see her father, who comes and goes, always filled with stories and fantasies. For Bess, her mother is an obstacle, something in the way of her being able to live her dreams. She seeks to escape at every opportunity, even after her first few attempts don’t exactly go well. Not going to lie, Bess was a trying character for a large portion of this book. She’s so combative and resentful, but it’s not to say that it isn’t an accurate portrayal of a fractured mother/daughter relationship.

This book focuses on the wife of Gulliver, of Gulliver’s Travels, but I have to admit, that part of the story wasn’t at all what drew me in, perhaps because I’ve not read it and have only the most passing of familiarity with it. It was about Mary herself, the midwifery and the relationships she forged with other women within the narrative – specifically her teacher Anne Clifford, her servant/maid Alice, her daughter Bess and even her clients, the women she helped through their births to both good result and not so. Particularly the relationship between Mary and Alice. Alice lives with them and assists doing pretty much everything – she helps shop for and prepare food, clean, take care of Bess when Mary is out seeing women during their pregnancies or helping with a delivery. She’s the only one left, after the other staff left when Mary could not pay them. Alice has her own reasons for staying on and the friendship they have developed transcends their roles.

I enjoyed this but at times I did find the denseness of the story and the pacing a bit of a struggle. It does feel like quite a lot of the book passes without a lot of actual happenings, it’s all just mostly Mary going about life and her struggles with her relationship with her daughter Bess – and given I found Bess quite a tough character to really read about a lot of the time, because she was so hideously bratty, it occasionally meant this was heavy going for me. But towards the end, as everything pulled together and I felt more settled into the story and the way it was being told, it felt like it had more to say and it resonated with me more. It does feel like an excellently portrayed snippet of this time period, encompassing a lot of the struggles of poverty, inequality, gender roles, crime and the struggle to survive.


Book #65 of 2020

Gulliver’s Wife is book #20 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020


Review/Feature: Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater

Well Read Cookies
Lauren Chater
Simon & Schuster AUS
2018, 175p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

This gorgeous, whimsical gift hardback celebrates beloved works of literature in the shape of beautiful iced biscuits. Feast your eyes on 60 mouth-watering classics in full colour from Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to Tolkien and F. Scott Fitzgerald, modern masterpieces by Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Geraldine Brooks and Melissa Ashley, and beloved children’s tales by Dr Seuss and J.K. Rowling.

With all the tender love and care of a true book lover, author and baker extraordinaire Lauren Chater shows you how to translate your favourite books to the plate – and start making your very own sweet morsels of edible art. Filled with beautiful photographs and insider tips on achieving cookie nirvana, now you can have your books and eat them too.

Lauren Chater is the founder of the popular blog, The Well-Read Cookie, and author of the acclaimed historical novel The Lace Weaver.

This book combines two of my favourite things – books and food, specifically sweet food. I’m a big cookie/biscuit fan. But food inspired by books? That’s even better so I was really keen to see just what books had inspired author Lauren Chater to bring out her artistic side in the form of shaped and decorated cookies. Thanks to the wonderful people at Simon & Schuster AUS, I have permission to share some of the photos of my favourites and the accompanying pieces that go along with those photos in the book.

Firstly I do want to say that there are decorations for all types of skill levels here and it’s quite easy to start with something more simple and then work your way up to some of the more complicated pieces. Although I do bake, including biscuits, I’m not really a decorator and my freehand drawing skills are woeful but I think with practice, I could probably accomplish quite a few of these. Some of them though……some of them are seriously, seriously clever and intricate and they look like they take a little bit of skill. There’s also several recipes (one of which I will be sharing here also) included at the back of the book.

The first one I knew I had to share, is one of my favourite books and has been since I was a child. I have kids of my own now and they have loved it too and it’ll probably always be a favourite in our house. I don’t think it matters how old you are, this book is a timeless classic and I can honestly see these decorated cookies as being a hit at any birthday party. The book is of course…..The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Are these not the cutest? I absolutely love them! I showed these to my kids too and they got a huge kick out of them, it’s perhaps something we will try as a school holiday project. You could have so much fun with these, making not only the tiny caterpillar from the beginning of the story but everything he eats and how big he is at the end plus his metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly! Here’s what Lauren had to say on this book…..

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle

Why are children so obsessed with books about food? From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Possum Magic, food and literature continues to be an utterly magical combination. What is it that makes us go gaga for Suessian green eggs and ham and dreamy Sendak-style aeroplane doughnuts? Psychologists suggest food is associated with memory, so perhaps when parents read to children from picture books which feature fantastical feasts and pleasant picnics, a love of food is absorbed along with the language.

Nowhere is this combination of edibles and idioms more apparent than in Eric Carle’s classic tale of gluttony and greed, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Brimful of fruit, condiments and sweets, it’s the ultimate guide to a week’s worth of overeating, but it’s also a lesson in growth and transformation.

The compulsion of the caterpillar to consume everything in sight is an instantly recognisable childish trait. The mere whiff of a pickle takes me straight back to my school days, and whenever the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘cake’ are mentioned together, I find myself reaching for the fridge – because, as everyone knows, the perfect accompaniment to a Matilda-style Bruce Bogtrotter chocolate cake (thank you Roald Dahl) is a slice of Swiss cheese.

When I was making these hungry caterpillar cookies, my children offered very helpfully to cut the holes out of the ‘fruits’ instead of what they usually do, which is squirt the icing straight into their mouths. I recommend using the bottom of an icing tip to get a good-sized hole and piping an outline around the hole first before you flood so that the icing doesn’t drip down inside. You’ll need a 1.5 mm tip for the caterpillar’s details.

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

I actually haven’t read this next book but honestly these cookies are so beautiful I couldn’t not choose them to share. These strike me as being a bit more ‘next level’.

These are so beautiful. The detail is incredible and you could really use decoration to give each cookie an independent look and feel, based on the amazingly colourful birdlife we have here in Australia. The book these are inspired by is The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley, which I vaguely remember being published a couple of years ago. I went and looked it up upon reading Well Read Cookies because I found these so amazing to look at and I think I might have to read it.

The Birdman’s Wife
Melissa Ashley

Books about taxidermy occupy a very unusual spot in literature. After reading Melissa Ashley’s debut novel, a vibrant reimagining of the life of 19th century artist Elizabeth Gould, I was keen to explore the dark side and find out if anyone else had been brave enough to write about this macabre topic.

My research led me to quite a few places (including the hilarious Crap Taxidermy – I recommend), but none of the books I read were as good as The Birdman’s Wife. Somehow, Ashley manages to get right under the skin (oops!) of her characters and inject the perfect amount of tension into the story of this little-known Australian artist. Bad puns aside, the book was an eye-opener into the way 19th century English migrants responded to the Australian landscape by attempting to study and tame its elusive fauna and wildlife – and thereby understand themselves. And thankfully, attitudes about the preservation of wildlife are changing as society develops a more respectful response.

I used a copper cookie cutter to make these delicate hummingbirds – which were painted by Elizabeth Gould and referenced in the book – and edible paint to create the watercolour effect of the feathers.

A few tips about using edible paint:

  • It’s best to apply edible paint sparingly using a good brush. If you use too much in one go, it creates pockmarks or holes in the icing which is not the look you’re going for.
  • I recommend a nice watercolour sable-hair brush if you can get it. Your cookies are works of art, like Elizabeth Gould’s, so you want the best quality brush you can afford!

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

It’s pretty hard not to want to create some of these amazing cookies (and there are so many more in the book) so to get started, I can share Lauren Chater’s recipe for a basic vanilla sugar cookie:

Vanilla Sugar Cookies

makes around 16

250g unsalted butter, softened

1 egg

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla essence

6 cups flour, plus extra for rolling out

1/2 tsp baking powder

STEP 1 Place softened butter and caster sugar in a large bowl and mix until smooth and light in colour (about four minutes).

STEP 2 Add in vanilla essence and beat in egg, until combined.

STEP 3 Slowly beat in the baking powder and flour, one cup at a time. After two minutes or so of beating the dough should start pulling away from the edge of the bowl and form a lump. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a lightly floured surface.

STEP 4 Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in fridge for at least four hours.

STEP 5 Preheat oven to 180°C (355°F). Roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut out desired shapes. Place them on flat baking trays and put in freezer or the fridge for at least 20 minutes before baking to preserve shape.

STEP 6 Bake each tray for 18 minutes, turning halfway to ensure consistency.

STEP 7 Allow to cool completely before decorating.

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

Honestly, if you love books and enjoy food, especially food that’s related to books, then I can recommend this. There’s so many interesting little tidbits in here about the books chosen, a lot of which I think are books many people have read and can connect to. If you’re part of a book club, so many of the ones included here would make such an awesome snack and there are ones like the caterpillars that would work so well for kids. Even some of the cookies which are based on books that aren’t children’s books, would be great for kids to try, such as snowflakes, dogs, witches and more. The pictures are all incredible (and all taken by the author!) but I loved reading about the books as well. I always find new ways to add books to my TBR and this book was honestly just one more way.

This was so fun and the sort of book you can go back to time and time again and always get something different.


Book #182 of 2018

Thank you to Simon & Schuster AUS and Lauren Chater for allowing me to use the photos, extracts and recipe!