The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Looking for a cover image of this 1963 novel, I discovered that it had been made into a film only a couple of years later. Now I'm desperate to see it! I found this in a second hand shop and snapped it up, because I can't resist a Rumer Godden and I must have them all.

I love everything that Rumer Godden has ever written: her evocative descriptions, her delicately drawn relationships between children and adults, her subtle and technically brilliant structures, never cease to thrill me. And I found most of The Battle of Villa Fiorita deeply enjoyable. But it's a very old-fashioned novel in its treatment of divorce and its effect on the children involved.

Fanny (there's an old-fashioned note, right there) is staying with her new partner, Rob, at an Italian villa, waiting for her divorce to Darrell to be finalised. Her two children, fourteen and twelve, run away from England and track her down, intending to drag her back 'home.' Their quest seems doomed from the outset, but the struggle proves to be surprisingly even.

There is no happy ending here, which is the most old-fashioned aspect of the story; an outcome which will satisfy everyone is never going to be possible, it seems, and frustratingly, it is Fanny, the mother, who has to sacrifice her own personal joy in the end. It was fascinating to read Rob's bracing views on child-rearing (his own 10 year old daughter, Pia, also ends up joining the party) -- the man and woman should come first, not the children, he insists to Fanny, and he urges her to give her offspring less attention and let them learn to cope with the situation -- not necessarily advice that modern relationship counsellors would endorse! And Rob loses all his authority when he spanks Pia, so he's clearly no expert... It was interesting to see Rob and Fanny's bond unravel over their attitudes to the children, but Rob's conviction that they can exist in a bubble, ignoring their respective baggage, is obviously never going to be sustainable.

I would have loved this book even more if it had had a different ending.


Inside Out and Back Again

I bought this on the Kindle. It's a book group selection for next month, under the topic of Refugees. Given the traumatic subject matter, Thannha Lai's verse novel is a delightful, subtle approach to the refugee experience. The first section deals with ten year old Ha's childhood in wartime Saigon, overshadowed by a father missing in action, bombings and food shortages; but still preoccupied with everyday sibling battles and the promise of new papayas on her tree. The central section covers the family's last-gasp flight from the city and their ordeal at sea. The final, longest section of the book describes Ha's first few months of life in her new home, Alabama -- struggling with a new language, bullying classmates, and all the strangeness of a new culture. But by the end of the novel, Ha has begun to make friends, and the future looks brighter.

For a slim volume, Inside Out and Back Again covers a lot of ground, with grace, humour and pathos. It's not too confronting for kids, but any child would be able to relate to Ha's wrenching journey and her fierce determination to survive, even though her fellow students in America seem to loom as a larger threat than the bombs and soldiers of Saigon.


Big Little Lies

Sometimes you just want an easy, juicy, trashy read, and that was what I was in the mood for this week, so I reached for Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies (lent to me by my friend Justine). Well, I should have known better. An easy read, yes, and certainly juicy - but not trashy at all, and much more satisfying than I expected. Its account of playground politics and maternal guilt was wickedly funny, and almost too close to the bone, while the plot strand dealing with domestic violence was topical, insightful and moving. I raced through this spledidly fattish book at top speed and enjoyed every moment. (Fun fact: Liane is the sister of the equally talented Jaclyn Moriarty, whose Colours of Madeleine YA trilogy I am absolutely loving.)

One nitpick: this book was littered with annoying editing errors (I wouldn't even call them typos, because they were consistent), like the use of the adjective peninsular instead of the noun peninsula, which gave me a twinge of irritation whenever they appeared. Such a shame, because otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.


H Is For Hawk

This is a wonderful, disturbing, beautiful, very unhappy book. It recounts the year that Helen Macdonald spent taming and training a goshawk, Mabel, following the sudden death of her father. Grief and wildness, depression, nature's beauty and cold brutality, are all bound together in this compelling memoir. Threaded through it is a discussion of TH White (whose Once and Future King I loved fiercely as a teenager) and his own hawk-training memoir, The Goshawk, in which White does everything wrong that you could possibly do wrong, tormenting his hawk and himself as he exorcises his own personal demons. (The scene in The Sword and the Stone where Wart, transformed into a merlin, has to endure the ordeal of standing in the hawkhouse next to the mad goshawk, Colonel Cully, still sends shivers down my spine.) At times, Macdonald identifies so closely with her goshawk that she is in danger of losing her own sense of self.

I'd seen this discussed on the Antonia Forest forum (falconry features in the Marlow books, particularly in the third book of the series Falconer's Lure) and I bought it on the Kindle because impatience got the better of me. I'm glad I didn't wait.


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

My family was introduced to Yuval Noah Harari courtesy of a random podcast on a long drive one day -- I think it might have been from the ABC's Big Ideas series, which would be appropriate, because Sapiens is a big book packed with Big Ideas.

From Preston to Korumburra, all of us were spellbound by Harari's sparkling, provocative conversation. He speculated that if you abandoned one chimpanzee and one human on a desert island, the chimp would probably survive and the human probably wouldn't make it. But if you abandoned a hundred chimps and a hundred humans, the humans would win the survival game hands down. This is because humans can cooperate, and organise. He talked about the great con job of the agricultural revolution, which is supposedly a great leap of progress, but actually enslaved millions to back-breaking labour and a narrowing of nutritional choices. He talked about the power of imagination, unique as far as we know to us humans, which has led to our world being organised around invisible, intangible notions like religion, and money, and nationalism: things that exist only inside our own heads. He painted a picture of a possible future where the divide between the elites and the downtrodden is marked by the availability of cyber-enhancements to our bodies and brains. And when we reach that stage, would we still be human beings, or some other kind of creature entirely?

It's taken me a long time to finish this book (on the Kindle), despite its exciting breadth and sweep, and the bold, stimulating ideas Harari presents. It reminded me of Jared Diamond's ground-breaking Guns, Germs and Steel, which made me see history in a completely different light, and indeed Harari cites Diamond as an influence in his acknowledgments. I felt the book began strongly, but ran out of puff in the final third or so. Still, a worthwhile, challenging read.


Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly

Four weeks ago, my father had a massive stroke. For a few days, we thought we were going to lose him; thankfully, he is still with us, but he has lost much of his movement, most of his speech, and perhaps part of his memory. It's impossible for my mother to care for him at home, so this vigorous, independent, self-contained man has had to submit to his worst nightmare: a nursing home.

I've long admired Karen Hitchcock's columns in The Monthly; this longer piece is similarly compassionate, thoughtful, complex and confronting. Now my beloved father has joined their ranks, I share her fury at the ease with which the elderly in our society can be written off as 'not worth treating.' Dad received the best of care in hospital (and hopefully will continue to receive it in his new home), from gentle nurses and thoughtful orderlies (thank you, Theo, for taking Dad out into the courtyard to feel some fresh air on his face, and for turning on his radio so he could escape into music). But there were also the doctors who spoke over his bed as if he couldn't hear or understand, who treated him as a collection of symptoms, a failed procedure, rather than a person.

I urge everyone in the health profession to read this essay, and also everyone who has an elderly relative, or who hopes to live to be old themselves one day.

The Marlows and the Traitor

Girls Gone By Publishing are re-issuing the impossible-to-find 'holiday' titles of Antonia Forest's Marlows series, and I eagerly pre-ordered The Marlows and the Traitor, the second Marlows novel, which I had heard much about, but never read. Amazingly, a couple of weeks after I'd placed my order, I managed to find a copy for sale on a local secondhand book website… so I will have two copies soon…

This was such a terrific read. On one level, it is a fairly standard kids' adventure story, complete with seaside holiday, exploration of deserted house, discovery of spy, kidnap, shipwreck, and imprisonment in lighthouse. But nothing is straightforward in Antonia Forest's books; as someone put it on the Trennels forum, 'No motive is unmixed.' The villain is a charismatic, appealing character (though clearly behaving badly). The young protagonists are by turns courageous, terrified, sympathetic, resourceful, reckless, panicky… but their reactions are rarely predictable, and never stereotyped. It was eminently satisfying, too, to fit in this missing piece of the puzzle, and reflect on the lasting effects that this adventure has on the four youngest Marlows, and how they echo through later volumes -- Ginty's paralysing self-doubt, Peter's occasional bullying and fascination with treachery, Nicola's growing maturity, Lawrie's self-serving fantasy world.

Not many children's books of this era would have dared to allow one of their young heroes to actually shoot (and presumably kill) an adult enemy. It's just one of the risks that Forest takes in this book. I can't wait to re-read it.


A Sapphire for September

Hesba Brinsmead was a prolific Australian writer for young people, who has been criminally neglected in accounts of Australian YA. Born and educated in the remote Blue Mountains bush, until she was sent to school in her teens, she lived all over the country, working as a teacher. This is reflected in the breadth of her writing; her many diverse novels are set in urban Melbourne, the north coast of New South Wales, the Tasmanian bush. She was ahead of her time in many ways, writing about race relations and the environment long before such issues were fashionable.

One of my book groups set themselves a project to read a range of her books, and we were so impressed that we've all swapped around our titles so we could read some more. I had already read (and adored) Pastures of the Blue Crane, her best known book, for which she won the CBC Book of the Year, and a couple of other novels, so I chose A Sapphire for September. Set partly in Sydney and partly in the rural hinterland where the characters seek for gemstones, it follows 16 year old Binny and her young friends as they foil the plans of a developer to despoil a beautiful valley, by staking out mining claims all over the land.

It took me three weeks to finish this book. No fault of the writing, or the plot, which I can now barely recall; but sometimes a book is just a prop in your hand as you sit in a hospital waiting room, something to stare at while your eyes and mind glaze over with anxiety. My family underwent a medical crisis while I was reading A Sapphire for September. It's no reflection on the book when I say that I will never want to pick it up again.


Run Away Home

Is there anything more exciting than finding a book by a favourite author that you haven't read yet?

Last week, on a whim, I checked Brotherhood Books (the Brotherhood of St Laurence secondhand book service) to see if they had any Antonia Forest titles -- and they did! I almost felt guilty buying Run Away Home, the final book in Forest's series about the Marlow family, so cheaply*. It was wonderful timing, too, to coincide with the read-through of this book currently running on Live Journal.

Most Forest fans will admit that this novel, the tenth Marlow book, is not the strongest of the series; but even a weak Antonia Forest book is streets better than your average lit, kid or adult. Forest wrote children's literature for adults who love kids' books -- though I, and most other fans I've come across, got hooked young.

The Marlows are a sprawling family of six daughters and two sons, and the books mostly focus on the youngest two, the twins, Nicola and Lawrie (I adore Lawrie). Four of the novels deal with the sisters' experience at a boarding school, Kingscote; the other six are 'home' stories, some focussed on domestic events and some on wild adventures (drug smuggling pigeons, anyone??). In Run Away Home, the Marlow siblings (Dad is away in the Navy and conveniently Mum has to go to Paris for Christmas in this book) decide to assist a runaway 'tug-of-love' boy reunite with his Swiss father; at first they shelter him in one of their outbuildings, then, when he's recaptured by Authority, concoct a very elaborate plot to spirit him away from the local panto performance and sail him across to the Isle of Wight, where he's supposed to be collected by his father's friend… Of course, the plan goes awry and almost ends in catastrophe.

But the pleasure of this book doesn't lie in the (frankly ridiculous) adventure stuff. The conversations and arguments between the brothers and sisters, most of whom we know very well by now, and their sympathetic neighbour Patrick; the descriptions of sailing; the complex, sophisticated, nuanced interactions and relationships between this group of siblings and their rich inner lives, are the true delights of a Forest book, and even when the actual plot is weird or disappointing, there are always redeeming scenes that make it worth re-reading (Christmas dinner in a cave at the beach; Patrick's midnight vigil; Lawrie impersonating the runaway boy in a monkey costume).

And I still have that particular pleasure yet to come.

* It was $5.50. The next cheapest version I've found was $150, plus shipping from the UK.


Shatter Me

EDIT: for clarity
I bought this book very cheaply on the Kindle, for book group. We're reading it for Unusual Styles, because one of the quirks of its narrative is that every so often words are crossed out.

This is going to be the kind of post I was dreading when I decided to write something about every book I read this year. Lord knows Tahereh Mafi doesn't need my approval. Shatter Me has been a massive best-seller, with two sequels, and (I gather) is going to be made into a film, so she will be crying all the way to the bank when I say that... it wasn't really my cup of tea!

This is the kind of book that gives YA a bad name. It was drenched in high emotion, rendered in the purplest of prose, with an improbable, dystopian setting and high action scenes to break up the heavy breathing love drama. It was like reading an extended Year 8 creative writing exercise -- not that there's anything wrong with that when you're in Year 8 and still learning. And I suppose Mafi was only 23 when this was published, so I'm prepared to make some allowances. But it was not fun (for me) to read. It was all on one (very intense, melodramatic) note.

To pluck out an example at random:
I'm embarrassed and excited and anxious and eager. My stomach is filled with drums pounded into synchronicity by my heart. I'm practically humming with electric nerves…

If 300-odd pages of this kind of thing sounds good to you, then you will love this book (and plenty of people do!) But it's not for me, I'm afraid.


Murphy's Lore

I'm not supposed to be buying any new books this year, until the pile-beside-the-bed has gone. (Needless to say the pile-beside-the-bed has not diminished at all, being steadily topped up with loans from the library and friends, and second hand purchases from here and there; also there have been a couple of Kindle purchases which…don't count…)

But I had to make an exception for Bob Murphy's new book, Murphy's Lore. It's a collection of the columns that the Western Bulldog's veteran (and now captain -- about time) has written for The Age over the past seven years -- sentimental, funny, passionate, an insider's view of the football field by someone who doesn't just play the game at the highest level, but thinks and feels deeply about football's place in our society. He writes about community, family, the bond between team-mates, the theatre of sport, the  history of struggle and loyalty that has formed that weird entity that is a football club, and the place of the players inside that entity. He writes about belonging, and fun, and pain; and trees and shoelaces and music and sausage dogs. I suspect without Bob's columns, I might not have become a football fan.

When I joined a fan forum for the Western Bulldogs a few years back, I chose the username Murphy's Lore as a tribute to Bob's whimsical wisdom. Last Friday I trekked out to the Whitten Oval to get my copy signed, but I was too shy to tell him that. I don't have many heroes, but Bob Murphy is one of them.


Red Shift

Alan Garner's Red Shift is part of my collection, I've owned it for years. I suggested it for the Convent book group (theme: Unusual Styles) and I'm hoping it will provoke a good discussion. I'm leading the session next time so I'd better be prepared! I read this slim volume all in one day, yesterday, partly on the tram and train, going to a book signing at the Whitten Oval (more on that later). I think it benefitted from being read all in one sitting.

I found Red Shift really tough going the first time I read it, oblique, opaque and totally confusing. This time seemed much easier, and I had a better handle on what was going on. It's basically three intertwined stories, all centred on a young man called Tom/Thomas/Macey, who share a tendency to instability. The three men are separated in time (present day, English Civil War, Roman Britain respectively) but joined by a shared landscape on the borders of Cheshire (all the places in the book are real), and seemingly by a felt awareness of each other. They are also linked by an object, an ancient axe head, which comes into each of their possession. Events and dialogue echo back and forth and the story is told almost completely in dialogue and very sparse descriptions. Apparently Garner based the story on the myth of Tam Lin, and the Tom character in each strand has a close relationship with a young woman, to whom he holds tightly (as in the legend) and who also holds onto him.

Red Shift can have several meanings -- Tom laments that he needs a 'red shift' (a la the Doppler effect) to get him out of his depression (ie the blues), and in Civil War times, Margery wraps the precious axe head in her red-dyed petticoat. There is also a reference to a figure on a tomb wearing a skirt with traces of red paint. But to me it stands for the echoes of the past, leaving their resonance as events zoom by.

I'd forgotten just how brutal this book is -- there are killings aplenty, and rape, and casual violence, and betrayal, and the threat of suicide. Apparently it was made into a TV special, I don't know how they did it without an R rating! It feels like an adult book to me, except that the protagonists are young -- about nineteen or twenty (not really teenagers). There are hopeful (sort of) endings for two of the three couples, but even the hopeful endings are pretty bleak! It's definitely challenging, and for such a slender novel there is a tremendous amount packed in.

I'm really looking forward to talking about this one with the group. I'm going to quickly read it again and take some notes. I think this is a masterpiece.


The Book Group Book

I picked up The Book Group Book: A Thoughtful Guide to Forming and Enjoying a Stimulating Book Discussion Group (2nd ed) by Ellen Slezak in the library book sale; it's from 1995, so pretty much pre-internet. I belong to two very different book groups at the moment (actually, maybe three!) and I belonged to another about ten years ago (we read literary fiction, mostly), so I thought it might be fun to find out how it 'ought' to be done, and to see if my groups were obeying the rules.

Well, it turns out the title is a bit misleading. This is a collection of short essays written by members of various US book groups, discussing their own experience of what works and what doesn't, and the contribution book groups have made to their lives. There are also lists of the books some of these groups have read (some with comments) at the end of the book. The same titles kept cropping up, some I'd never heard of, which are now on my radar.

All my current book groups are based on children's literature and YA, and none of the groups in this book were, though there were feminist/ classic/ non-fiction groups represented. One of my groups is very informal; people just turn up and show-and-tell what they've been reading lately (though we have recently instituted a regular 'classic' title or author for us all to read and share; next month we are all going to read something by Hesba Brinsmead). The other group reads three books on a common theme: a picture book, a junior fiction and a YA title. This always provokes a stimulating discussion -- next month we are doing Unusual Styles, and upcoming themes include Ships and Fire.

My third, sort-of, book group experience is an on-line forum for fans of Antonia Forest, where we are enjoying a communal read-through of all her books in order, a few chapters per week, with a flurry of comment-posting to follow. This has really shown me the benefits of the internet for niche interests like this -- for decades I thought I was the only person who had ever read, let alone loved, Forest's books, but through this site I've discovered a whole community of intelligent, thoughtful and extremely thorough readers who are willing to contribute fan-fic to fill in the gaps and endlessly discuss the minutiae of the books themselves. This has enriched my reading of the books no end, and also alerted me to the re-release of titles I don't yet have! Members of the forum hail from all over the globe - ain't the internet a wondrous thing?

But I think three groups is probably enough!


In Praise of Quiet Books

A brief digression to mention something that occurred to me lately - that the books I generally prefer are the 'quiet' books. Books without high drama or flashy action scenes; books that focus on character rather than plot; books that unfold gradually, drawing you deeper into their world. They often have a reflective quality, musing implicitly on history or philosophy, or even religion, books that possess a quiet, atmospheric magic.

It's often easier to find this sort of book among children's books of days gone by: I'm thinking of books like When Marnie Was There, Ballet Shoes, Charlotte Sometimes, the books of Rumer Godden and Lucy M. Boston (the Green Knowe books), or The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. These are books that are hard to 'sell' in a single tagline; because they lack a gripping plot, they are difficult to summarise. But these are the books that can be re-read over and over, the books that sink deep into your soul.

Kirsty Murray's The Four Seasons of Lucy Mackenzie is an example of a recent 'quiet book.' But I fear they have become an endangered species in this day and age, when a marketing hook is mandatory. Can anyone recommend any others?


Fairytales For Wilde Girls

We are doing Fairy Tales as our topic in the Convent Book Group this month (this morning actually!) and I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have suggested Allyse Near's Fairytales for Wilde Girls myself, after a rave review by a member of my Other Book Group.

I must confess that I found the early chapters a bit of a struggle. I could appreciate the clever way Near was using fairy tale tropes, but the writing style seemed a little laboured; if I hadn't had to read it for book group, I might have abandoned it. It was only around page 150 that I really got caught up in the story -- at last, I thought, things are starting to happen! But then I was hooked -- I whizzed through the rest, and the payoff, when it came, was well worth the wait (though I may have been slightly dim for not foreseeing the big twist at the end…)

So my advice with this one is to perservere -- it is worth the initial effort. I think this is one of those books I would have enjoyed more when I was about fourteen, wallowing in the lush imagery and the doom-laden atmosphere. One element I really enjoyed was the presence of  Isolda's 'brother-princes', her imaginary companions and comforters. I'm particularly interested in imaginary worlds and imaginary friends at the moment (have I mentioned that??) and I was very impressed with the way Allyse Near handled this aspect of the story.

I'm sorry to say that I'm not a person who is generally very attracted to fairy tale adaptations (gulp!) but this one did work for me in the end, and I'm glad I stuck it out.

EDIT: A wise person in my book group suggested that this novel provides a vivid and compelling account of gradually worsening mental illness; I think this is a valuable insight and made me appreciate the book in a different way.