The Big House

The Big House was an impulse buy from Brotherhood Books (temporarily out of action after their warehouse flooded), based on the appealing watercolour cover and the subtitle: A Century In The Life of an American Summer Home. I have a weakness for houses and architecture generally, a totally untutored weakness I should add, which finds expression in shows like Grand Designs and Restoration Australia and even House Hunters International. One of my favourite books is one I inherited from Sandra Eterović, called How Buildings Learn, a fascinating, lavishly illustrated study of the way houses and other buildings can adapt and morph over time... but I digress.

The Big House is in some ways a story of privilege -- the lovingly detailed history of one wealthy Boston family's beach house, a rambling weatherbeaten construction of (I think) nineteen rooms, surprising closets, random passageways, servants' bedrooms, a big sprawling house filled with family detritus, books and clothes and moth-eaten furniture and pennants and a tennis court... I must admit I began this book thinking, it's all right for some, mate

But as the chapters unspooled, revealing family tragedy as well as privilege, and culminating in the disclosure that the family could no longer afford to keep the house (land tax alone was crippling, let alone the expenses of upkeep on a massive building that was literally beginning to fall apart), I became caught up in the struggle to hold onto the property, a place that kept the family secrets and the family memories.

It took me a long time to wander through The Big House and it ended up overlapping with Swann's Way, with which it shared some striking, perhaps intentional parallels. I'm sure Colt deliberately set out to emulate, in his painstaking descriptions of individual rooms, the cove, the woods, historic boat races and tennis tournaments, the loving detail that Proust brings to his own childhood memories of summers past. If Colt doesn't quite reach the heights of Proust, he does at least provide something closer to a narrative, in the story of the battle to save the house from demolition. The tone is definitely elegaic, a melancholy farewell to a vanished way of life.


Swann's Way

I was persuaded to give Proust another go on the strength of a rave review by Helen Elliott in the latest edition of The Monthly. I had bought and read (and subsequently lost) part 2 of In Search of Lost Time, Swann in Love -- it must have been about thirty years ago -- and not got much enjoyment out of it. Okay, I thought, maybe I'm mature enough now to get Proust, let's try again.

Swann's Way contains the very first part of the opus, the childhood memories and reflections of Combray (including the famous madeleine scene) as well as Swann in Love. Reader, I must confesss, I only reached the end of Combray before deciding that there are so many other books I would rather have been reading. There are certain activities that I'm still waiting to grow into -- gardening, listening to classical music, and now I have to include reading Proust to this list.

Having said that, I think I did enjoy this attempt more than the first. (Maybe Proust is an acquired taste, like olives and oysters, you just have to keep trying??) Taken in small nibbles, I could relax briefly into his exquisite, meandering, attenuated sentences that can wander over an entire page before gently coming to a halt. And I think I have a better understanding now of his feeling that an ideal image, preserved and relived in memory or constructed in the imagination, is superior to the experience of reality while it is being lived. (I suspect many anxious people would agree.) The descriptions are extraordinarily beautiful, transporting, subtle, and intense -- and yet there is a part of me that yearns for a story, and it's that part of me that refuses to be totally seduced by Proust.

I might give it another ten years and then try again...


When Things Are Alive They Hum


When Things Are Alive They Hum was published last year and is the debut novel of Australian author Hannah Bent (not to be confused with Hannah Kent), though Bent, like her character Marlowe, was born and brought up in Hong Kong and studied in London. The novel centres around Marlowe and her younger sister, Harper, who has what she calls 'Up' syndrome, and whose heart is beginning to fail.

This book had a personal resonance for me. My own younger sister has an intellectual disability (though her general health, touch wood, is very good) so elements of Marlowe and Harper's relationship came very close to home. I belong to a Facebook group for siblings of people with a disability, and I know from there, as well as from my own experience, that the sib relationship can be a particularly tangled knot of love, responsibility, resentment, guilt and protectiveness.

When Things Are Alive They Hum explores this complex connection with delicacy and nuance, while also diving into the very political and horrific issue of forced organ donation. I honestly didn't know which way the story was going to swing until the very end. This is a touching and emotional novel -- not just for sibs!


Being Mortal

I can't remember how I learned about American surgeon Atul Gawande's Being Mortal (probably a Facebook discussion), but it is a remarkable and thought-provoking read. Sub-titled Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End, Gawande's book begins by discussing the advances of old age, and how to rethink what makes the end of life good, rather than just longer, and then moves into talking about terminal disease and similar issues there. 

As a doctor, Gawande admits that he has often slipped into the role of 'Dr Information,' laying out treatment options, risks, benefits, side effects etc, and telling the bewildered, stressed patient to make a choice. Very few of us are well equipped to weigh up our options accurately, or even know what questions to ask, in such a situation. After observing skilled hospice and palliative care workers, Gawande has changed his approach, to ask what is most important to each individual patient -- prolonging life? Staying active? What would they be unwilling to trade off? What would make life no longer worth living? For one patient, being able to enjoy chocolate ice cream and watch football might be enough. Another might be unable to endure the risk of paralysis, or invasive medical treatments, or a greater level of pain. Gawande can then help the patient decide what approach is best for them, rather than just offering another treatment possibility, then another (there is always another treatment to offer).

With two elderly parents approaching the end of their lives and a friend in their final days, this felt like a particularly timely read, and one which has prompted me to think hard about what I want for myself in my last days. It's also made me determined to talk about this openly with my loved ones and not shy away from the difficult conversation. As Gawande points out, 'hard conversations can make wonderful things possible.' But it also makes my heart ache, because it's impossible to have this kind of nuanced conversation now with my father, because he just can't communicate with us well enough. I think I have a pretty good idea of his wishes now, but he can't spell them out for us in any detail. Don't leave it too late.


Treacle Walker


I was so excited when Alan Garner was nominated for the Booker Prize -- at 87, this may have been his last chance -- and I was disappointed when he didn't win it. However, having now read Treacle Walker, I have to agree with the critic who said while Garner may have deserved a Booker Prize, he didn't deserve it for this book. (I think The Stone Book is his masterpiece.)

Having said that, Alan Garner is a writer whose books are difficult to evaluate in isolation. He has said himself that he regards his novels as being one work, spread over a lifetime, ranging from the high fantasy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen all the way to this sparse, elliptical work, which is closer to mystical poetry than a narrative novel. Barely 150 pages long, broken up with lots of blank space, this is a very short book indeed; and yet for readers of Garner's other books, it is dense with references, resonance and echoes of other stories, dancing on the edge of dream and reality. Perhaps the entire book is a fever dream; perhaps Joe is dying or actually dead; almost certainly Joe is an echo of Garner himself as a young boy, who spent much of his childhood ill in bed, reading and dreaming himself into stories.

Some readers have complained that there is no plot to this book; I don't agree, though the events are strange and enigmatic. Joe seems to live alone, we never see his parents or any other family, though he does take an eye test at one point. He encounters two mysterious figures, the wandering Treacle Walker and the bog-man Thin Amren, and I like the interpretation that these two characters also represent aspects of Garner himself -- Treacle Walker, the educated intellectual who went away to university, and Thin Amren, the deep-rooted Chesireman, steeped in folklore and fixed in place.

I'm not sure someone unfamiliar with Garner's body of work will find satisfaction in Treacle Walker. Some have called it obscure, self-indulgent, inaccessible, nonsensical, messy, incoherent. I enjoyed it and I will read it again. I've found this is essential to get the most out of Garner's recent work -- should this be necessary to enjoy a novel? Let's just say this book won't be for everyone, but for Garner's fans, this will be a deeply rewarding, meditative delight.


The Tell-Tale Heart


I was put onto Jill Dawson by a friend on-line; I hadn't heard of her before but she is a prolific English novelist. The Tell-Tale Heart (in large print) was, alas, the only title available from my library, but it was a terrific, thoughtful and very accomplished novel and I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for her other books.

The Tell-Tale Heart threads together three narratives -- the story of Patrick, a middle aged professor who has just received a heart transplant; swooping back a couple of centuries, the true history of a young man, Willie Beamiss, caught up in the Fen riots of 1823; and swooping forward again to Willie's descendant, Drew Beamish, the donor of Patrick's new heart. Connections between these three characters unfold and echo across the novel, and ultimately Patrick, despite his protestations, finds his life irrevocably changed by his experience. 

I especially enjoyed the sections in the voice of Willy Beamiss, which were a delight to read and gave the book a real emotional and historical depth. These sections were based on court records from the Fen Riots, an episode in history about which I knew absolutely nothing; in fact, the Fen country in the east of England is an area I only know from books: Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors, and Elizabeth Gouge's novels set in Ely. The Essex Serpent and Arthur Ransome's Secret Water have something of the same flat, marshy atmosphere, though technically they're not set in the Fens.

Another example of a weird book coincidence -- I found myself reading three books centred on hearts and death at the same time: The Tell-Tale Heart, When Things Are Alive They Hum (a young adult title about two sisters, one of whom needs a heart transplant) and Being Mortal, a non-fiction exploration of growing old and wearing out. Strange how these things happen, totally by chance!


The Goodbye Year


Now this is a cover I could fall in love with -- all my favourite colours, books, cats, cups of tea, trees a dog and a ghostly soldier, as well as a touch of golden spot gloss -- yum! My only tiny niggle is that Harper isn't wearing glasses... How I longed for more protagonists with glasses when I was a glum bespectacled 12 year old.

Inside the lovely cover, there is also much to enjoy inside Emily Gale's The Goodbye Year, which is perhaps my first full pandemic novel. As 2020 begins, Harper is looking forward to her final year at Riverlark Primary School, but then she's mown down by a truckload of changes. Her parents move oeverseas, leaving her with Lolly, the grandmother she barely knows; all her friends becomes school captains of something, leaving Harper with the dreggiest job, Library Captain (ahem, the best job, I think you mean.) And then Harper starts seeing things -- could there be a ghost in the old library?

I loved the parallels that Gale draws between the Covid pandemic and the Spanish flu, and the disruptions of war and the global upheaval that gripped all of us in 2020. Harper is a lovable character, her school friends are sweet, and William's story is spooky and moving. Gale doesn't dwell too long on the lockdowns themselves, focusing more on the periods of freedom in between, but not shying away from either the difficulties or the unexpected joys of a year that none of us will ever forget.


None Shall Sleep

 New York Times bestseller! Go, Ellie Marney! One of Australia's very best YA authors, Marney produced a ripping mystery trilogy with her Every series, which I absolutely gulped down, and None Shall Sleep raises her bar still higher.

This book came out in 2020 but I must confess I was put off by the cover, which I think is... not great? But the words inside are brilliant. Marney acknowledges being a Mindhunter fan, and I also really loved the Netflix series and was hugely disappointed to learn that it hadn't been renewed after two seasons. Mindhunter was set in the earliest days of the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI, when psychologists were first being employed to track 'multiple murders', better known now as serial killers. None Shall Sleep takes us into the FBI a few years later, to 1982, with a YA twist -- two teenagers, both survivors of trauma at the hands of a killer, are recruited to help the FBI gain some insight into young serial murderers.

I keep saying that I don't like horror, I don't like gore, and yet I seem to keep reading gory horror stories... None Shall Sleep gripped me from start to finish. There are shades of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling's relationship in Emma and Simon's interactions, but they are very much their own characters. Marney is careful not to slip into horror porn with her descriptions of the repugnant actions of her killers -- the scenes are clearly horrific, but never explicit. Still, squeamish me wouldn't like to see any of this stuff on screen! The cover tagline reads 'a captivating and chilling psychological thriller' so I can't say I wasn't warned.

Gee, this was good.


Better Late Than Never

Last week, quite by chance, I found myself reading books by three authors with eerily similar names: Emily Gale, Emma Mahony and Ellie Marney. There's no significance to this coincidence, just weird!

Emma Mahony's Better Late Than Never, part self-help manual, part memoir, is subtitled Understand, Survive and Thrive Midlife ADHD Diagnosis, and I borrowed it from the library because my elder daughter has a theory that her father might have ADHD tendencies, which does seem to be a possibility (in fact, his whole family definitely lean that way, now it's been pointed out). However, Mahony's book focuses primarily on the experience of women with later life diagnosis, which is something unfortunately not indicated in the title or on the cover. (The title is clever because ADHDers often struggle with punctuality!)

I found this a really interesting read, not least because of Mahony's unflinching honesty in looking back over her own life with the benefit of hindsight and seeing where her own ADHD has pushed her off track, ruined relationships, and blinded her to her son's own difficulties at school. But it's not all bad: ADHD has also given her gifts which have helped her to thrive in her career(s) and filled her life with variety and richness. 

The three main characteristics of ADHD are restlessness, impulsivity and distractability, which Mahony reframes as creativity, energy and spontaneity, all of which can be invaluable traits if managed properly. Much of Better Late Than Never is a plea for greater understanding, especially of school children, which her mid-life career change to teaching has enabled her to see particularly clearly, though interestingly she often butts heads with authority in trying to help her fellow ADHDers. Published in the UK, the book's specific advice won't always apply to an Australian setting, but it's an insightful and fascinating glimpse into the condition.


How To Spell Catastrophe


I already knew that Fiona Wood was an author of superb young adult fiction (see Cloudwish, Six Impossible Things, Wildlife etc) and a really lovely human being (she once sought me out in an airport to invite me to sit with her in the Qantas lounge), but it turns out she can also write superlative novels for middle grade, too. * shakes fist at the sky* Damn you, Fiona Wood! Is there anything you can't do??

How To Spell Catastrophe is smart, warm, funny, subtle children's literature. Nell is in her final year of primary, that complicated time, half itching to move forward into the big new world of high school and the future, half clinging to the safety of the familiar, as she's torn between her old friends and the excitement of lawless new girl Plum. Nell's family is changing, too, when her mum proposes melding their cosy dyad with her boyfriend Ted and his younger daughter Amelia -- an idea which horrifies Nell. To cap it all off, Nell is a worrier, and jots down plans for dealing with any and all possible emergency situations. (I liked the way Nell's therapy sessions are discussed with a matter-of-fact lack of drama, as just another part of her life.) But climate change is such a big worry that it won't even fit into Nell's notebook --

There is so much to love about this book. Wood's writing is top notch, as you'd expect, and she is especially good on the dynamics of friendships. In a lesser novel, Plum might be a 'bad' person -- and she is problematic, encouraging Nell into reckless and irresponsible behaviour, being a bit mean sometimes -- but in Wood's hands the reader sees that Plum has her own issues to deal with, and perhaps what she really needs is a stable, cautious friend like Nell. Change is scary, and How To Spell Catastrophe handles the need to balance courage, careful planning, boldness and prudence in a really beautiful way.

(Ironically I managed to misspell 'catastrophe' twice while writing this post.)




I found out about Matthew Green's Shadowlands through Susan Green's blog. We have very similar taste, and if she ever gives up blogging about the books she reads, I think I will, too, because at this point I am pretty much blogging purely for book recs...

ANYWAY, Shadowlands is creepy and eerie and poetic and melancholy. Apparently Green was going through some personal upheaval at the time he was writing and researching this book (the death of a parent, the breakdown of a marriage) and it shows. Shadowlands is partly a physical exploration of these abandoned settlements (buried Neolithic houses, plague villages, victims of coastal erosion, areas taken over for military simulations) and partly a history of Britain. The book is arranged in chronological order, so it serves as an eclectic timeline of Britain's crises and disasters, mostly wars and epidemics, to end with Green's gloomy reflection that there are probably towns and villages in Britain today just waiting to be deserted for whatever reason -- perhaps a nuclear disaster, or another epidemic, or most likely victims of climate change. 

I do believe most of what Green tells us, but I have to point out that his account of St Kilda, the bayside suburb of Melbourne, being founded by refugees from the Scottish island of St Kilda, is unfortunately just plain wrong -- it was named after a steamship moored offshore (which admittedly was itself named after the island). So perhaps it's kind of true?

Shadowlands seems particularly poignant and timely as Victoria, having endured catastrophic bushfires a couple of summers ago, is currently in the middle of a slow flood calamity as one town after another waits for the rivers to peak and subside. This was a beautiful but sobering read.


The Prisoner


Jane Caro cited Kerry Tucker's memoir, The Prisoner, as a helpful source when she was researching her novel, The Mother, which I also read recently. The Prisoner was an absolutely fascinating and enlightening glimpse into a world which I know very little about. Kerry Tucker was an ordinary suburban mum (albeit with a painful personal history of sexual abuse) who fell into an ever-deeper spiral of debt and fraud, until she was finally convicted and received a fourteen year sentence, longer than some women who were convicted of murder (she was out a lot earlier on parole).

Yet again in my recenr reading, there were women in Kerry's prison who had killed abusive partners. She mixed with women from Melbourne's gangster underground, drug addicts, tough women and vulnerable women, women with intellectual disabilities (who shouldn't have been in prison at all), women with mental illness. There were kind prison officers and brutal prison officers. Kerry's descriptions of her experience are straightforward and unflinching; prison is no luxury resort, and the greatest punishment is separation from loved ones. Kerry finds being parted from her two young daughters especially painful.

And yet her account of her own years in prison is definitely positive. For the first time in her life she finds a clear purpose and place to belong, writing parole letters for her fellow inmates and eventually working as a peer support officer -- a counsellor, liaison with authority, problem solver, trouble shooter, go-between, legal and life adviser. As a middle class and articulate woman, she could offer gifts of practical common sense and language, and for once in her life, found herself indispensable. She should have been moved to a low security facility, but she was so useful that she was kept where she was.

The Prisoner does not gloss over the pain and trauma of incarceration, but Tucker maintains that 'prison works.' Maybe, if you have someone like her by your side... I'm not so sure. Still, I learned a lot from this book.


Never Forget You

I ordered Never Forget You as a birthday present for myself after reading a review in The Guardian and thinking, ooh, this sounds just up my alley. To my shame, I've never read any of Jamila Gavin's books before and had never even heard of her until my mate Kirsty Murray told me all about her at book group.

Never Forget You is yet another WWII story (I seem to be on a bit of a binge at the moment!), but this novel focuses on four women, school friends who end up following very different paths through the war -- from working in the French Resistance in Paris, to flying planes, to infiltrating fascist groups within England itself. One of the characters is a real person, Noor Inayat Khan, though Gavin fictionalises aspects of her life. Inspired by reading this novel, I went on to watch the movie A Call to Spy on Netflix, which also features Noor's experiences (warning: it's pretty sad).

Unlike The Castle on the Hill, Never Forget You doesn't pull its punches -- not all the friends make it safely through the war. With her links to India, Gavin was obviously drawn tothe figure of Noor, and describes this novel as a 'tribute' to her. I must admit I did struggle a little with Noor's encounters with the fairies, which sat rather oddly in an otherwise bitterly realist story, though it does chime with her parallel career as a children's writer. But overall Never Forget You is absorbing and moving, and it definitely sent me down a rabbit hole of spies and resistance fighters.


The Twelfth Day of July


When venerable children's and young adult author Joan Lingard died earlier this year, I realised to my dismay that I had never read any of her work. A quick search on Brotherhood Books turned up The Twelfth Day of July, from 1970, the first in a series of five books about a young Belfast couple, one Catholic and one Protestant, who meet and (I guess, in later books?) fall in love across the sectarian divide.

In The Twelfth Day of July, Kevin and Sadie are young teens who become caught up in an escalating series of dares, raids into each other's territory, in the lead-up to the Protestants' big celebration and march on the 12th July. With their friends and siblings egging them on, they daub paint on enemy walls, break into each other's houses, hide out in enemy backyards, and confront each other in the streets to hurl insults, and finally, fists.

The structure of this slim book is deceptively simple, a fable of provocation and gradually escalating violence where the protagonists also slowly develop a growing respect and admiration for each other's guts and daring, ending in a satisfying truce where both sides boycott the 'Twelfth' for a day at the seaside, in neutral territory, just hanging out as young people together. 

I'd be interested to see how the story develops across the next four books. The Twelfth Day of July is an engaging introduction to the Belfast Troubles, with quite low stakes at this stage, though I'm sure as the series progresses things will become more serious. It's hard to believe this book is over 50 years old -- though the period detail has dated, the characters and action are as fresh and lively as anything written today.


The Castle on the Hill

Goodreads describes The Castle on the Hill as 'Elizabeth Goudge at her best.' Hm, I'm afraid I disagree. It's certainly Elizabeth Goudge, with many of the familiar ingredients of a Goudge story -- a fresh blonde heroine, a damaged artist, a kindly older man, a self-sacrificing older woman, a brave young soldier, a tortured idealist, and a couple of charming children to provide lightness and comic relief. However, there's a rather strained quality to this novel that prevents it from reaching the heights Goudge can be capable of.

This is another Coronet edition with a terrible cover -- absolutely no idea who these two are supposed to be. The woman has to be Miss Brown, she's not young or pretty or blonde enough to be Prunella. But who is the bloke? Presumably Jo Isaacson? But their whole pose is wrong, and oh my god, the hat and stripy shirt, the white suit, not to mention the woman's wraparound skirt and flowery blouse -- did I mention this book is set in 1940?? I despair!

The Castle on the Hill was published in 1942 and set a couple of years before, in the darkest days of the early war, Dunkirk and the Blitz, and I think this accounts for the slightly breathless tone in which it's written. It swerves uncomfortably close to being pure wartime propaganda, and it pulls too many of its punches to be really successful. The young pacifist finds an 'out' by performing courageous ambulance service in London; when a young woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock, the baby conveniently dies. There are pompous patriotic speeches and lyrical descriptions of 'this England' which 'we're' fighting for. For a Goudge novel, there is a surprisingly high body count, but hey, that's war I guess. I did enjoy the slightly more subtle spiritual thread that weaves through several characters and the thorn tree in the wood, and even that is not really that subtle!

I'm glad to add The Castle on the Hill to my collection but I don't think I'll revisit it as often as the Torminster books or the books about the Eliot family.