Yesterday I did something that I haven't done for quite some time (so long that I'm afraid to check exactly): I sent off a manuscript.

When I first started out in this business, sending off a manuscript meant printing out a thick wad of paper and popping an Express Post envelope into the mailbox. Now it means clicking 'attach' to an email, and hitting 'Send'. But in both cases, it means sending up a little prayer that my story might be looked upon favourably by those who read it.

I've been working on this novel for many months. I actually finished one version, and then completely rewrote it, taking out a couple of key characters and inserting a new and different one. It's a kind of sequel to the Chanters of Tremaris series, which were the first books I ever had published. I was hoping it would be a relaxing, fun experience — revisiting a world which has been very good to me, and immersing myself again in high fantasy, which I haven't written for several years. And to a certain extent, that was true. But I also got caught up in the problems of back-story — how much to reveal, how much to assume, how much to keep hidden, in case new readers wanted to go back to the beginning? (That was why I cut out those two awkward characters.)

Events in the real world also got in the way. I was sick, my dad had a stroke. I couldn't (can't) spend as much time writing as I used to. And some days all I wanted to do was to lie on my bed and read; writing was work and I didn't have the energy to wrestle with it.

I'm prepared (I am always prepared!) for the possibility that my publishers might decline. In that case, I'm hoping there are enough Tremaris devotees out there to make self-publishing a viable option. It will be something new to learn, anyway, and these days I am all in favour of Learning New Things (have I mentioned my piano lessons?)

But the good news is, I have three ideas to work on next! So back to the keyboard I go…because even after you've 'finished' one book, this job of writing is never done.


The Angel of Mons

You know how sometimes you finish reading one book, and the book you're intending to read next is all the way over the other side of the room, so instead you pick up the book that happens to be lying around within reach, and you read that first? That's what happened here… I bought David Clarke's The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians for Michael at the library book sale, because it was about the First World War, which is His Thing, and also, after The Woman In Black, I was in the mood for more ghost stories.

I like to think (after many years of marriage) that I'm reasonably well-informed about WWI, but I must confess that I had only vaguely heard of the story of the Angel of Mons. Apparently after one of the earliest battles of the war, when the hugely outnumbered British forces managed to escape being completely wiped out by the mighty German Army, stories began to circulate that the British soldiers had been miraculously saved at Mons by the intervention of supernatural forces -- a cloud, a bright light, ghostly soldiers from Agincourt, St George, Joan of Arc, or (as the story finally settled) a troop of angels.

But the book turned out to be less about ghostly visitations and visions, and more about the power of rumour, propaganda and legend in times of severe social upheaval and fear. There was no direct evidence that the supernatural intervention took place; no reliable eyewitnesses were ever tracked down, and the story always had that familiar 'urban myth' air about it -- a friend of a nurse, who spoke to a soldier, whose brother had definitely seen something that day… It seems that the story was officially encouraged, not in the immediate aftermath of the battle itself, but in the dire months that followed, when the war looked bad for the Allies. It was comforting and socially useful for people to believe that God was literally on their side -- to the point of personally intervening to protect the British troops.

This was a very well-researched book (which was probably more heavy on the detail than I really needed it to be!), but an interesting read nonetheless. Something to think about, and watch out for, in our own scary times: what are the useful legends and apocryphal stories that our government might like us to believe?


The 10pm Question

The 10pm Question by Kate de Goldi is another book that's been on my radar for a while, and also been sitting in the pile beside the bed for an unconscionably long time. I'm making an effort to work my way through some of the books that have been there for a while, and so far the success rate has been striking! What a lovely, lovely book.

Frankie is 12, and his life is busy, filled with annoying siblings, larger than life relatives, cricket, birds, rituals, errands, private projects, lists and homework. He has a best friend, Gigs, who shares most of his interests, and a new friend, Sydney -- not his girlfriend! -- who is interesting and chaotic and asks all the questions that other people don't dare to ask… like, why hasn't Frankie's Ma left the house in nine years? Because Frankie's life is also filled with a secret undercurrent of constant worry -- about his health, about his mother, and about himself.

This is a book about anxiety, and it beautifully and sympathetically takes us into the mind of a chronically anxious pre-teen. I could relate to quite a lot of it -- the obsessive list-making in bed, for one thing, and also Frankie's mother's need to stay safely inside her own house FOREVER. I suppose with such potentially dark subject matter, de Goldi had to balance the mood with lots of cheerful material about Frankie's quirky family, and while they are very real and totally loveable (even grumpy, sarcastic teenage sister Gordana, who I think might be living in my house), the novel sometimes veered close to too much quirk-territory. I also found the structure slightly confusing -- each chapter jumps forward two weeks, and we then get a recap of events that have occurred in the past fortnight, so there is a lot of 'Frankie had thought… Sydney had said…' which made for a slightly clunky read in places.

But these are mere quibbles. For being a book set in New Zealand (second one in two weeks -- weird), for its warmth and humour and gentleness, I loved this book. It hits my sweet spot -- between childrens' and YA. On the very first page, there is a grumpy older sister who steals the last muesli bar, an irrational fear of ants, and a teacher called Mr A. I think my (anxious) Ms 11 will find a lot to relate to.

PS Things You Find in Books
My ex-library copy of The 10pm Question had a photo inside it. Who are these lovely young people? Which of them used this photo as a bookmark and forgot to retrieve it? Anyway, I blow you all a kiss. You have good taste in books.


The Books I Didn't Buy...

The Darebin library book sale was on this weekend. I must admit I had an ulterior motive this time as I had a box of books I wanted to off-load -- I've been buying so many from Brotherhood Books, and we need to cull a bit anyway in view of our impending reno. So I had a stack of donations with me.

But the best intentions go awry… Ms 14 and I went together, and we came away with rather a big bag of loot. Ms 14 was responsible for most of it -- she bought some CD sets to teach herself Italian and French (ambitious -- she's planning a Family French Friday when we will all learn French together, yeah well, we'll see about that…), and a First Aid book, because she can't get enough of those. I bought a book about ghost soldiers in WWI for Michael, and a couple of silly Trinny and Susannah books because I can't resist them, and they're only a dollar! (I wish they would come to my house and tell me what to wear.) And I bought a Kate Atkinson family saga/mystery primarily for my mum.

But I was most proud of myself because of the books I picked up, and then put down again. In the past I've been guilty of picking up books that I feel I ought to read (because they only cost a dollar!) and then feeling bad as they moulder unread beside my bed because I don't really want to read them. For the Term of His Natural Life? Political biographies? That huge literary best seller from a few years ago that makes me feel exhausted just looking at it? No. This time I left them all alone.


The Woman In Black

I don't like scary movies, but I do enjoy a good ghost story, and this modern classic by Susan Hill has been on my radar for a long time. I picked up the movie tie-in edition from Brotherhood Books, and was surprised at how slender it was -- I'd been expecting a fat clunker! But this relatively short tale certainly punches above its weight, and is all the more effective for its economy. In this case, less is more.

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is quite excited at first when he's sent on a solo mission to sort out a dead woman's estate. But the eerie, isolated Eel Marsh House, set on the end of a causeway that's submerged at high tide, and beset by swirling mists, holds some sinister secrets…

Chills aplenty, simple but effective, and though it was published in 1983, stylistically it reads like a high Victorian ghost story (though it's certainly not a difficult read). This actually confused me in places, as I started out picturing the story taking place in Sherlock Holmes' London (peasouper fogs, fusty lawyers' offices, train journeys), and then suddenly there were motor cars and telephones and electric lights! I'm still not entirely sure exactly when the novel was supposed to be set. There were references to the ghostly figure's clothing dating from 'sixty years ago', but then the date on her gravestone was '190--', and I can't make out how that would possibly work!

I haven't seen the film, though I might if my 14 year old is keen (she is reading the book after me). From the google images, they seem to have done their best to make Daniel Radcliffe look like David Tennant. Which is not necessarily a bad thing...


Who Calls From Afar?

I borrowed Who Calls From Afar? by Hesba Brinsmead as part of my evening ladies' book group Hesba Brinsmead mini-readathon (not the Convent book group, the other one -- do keep up!)

I think I've read four Brinsmead novels now, and although they all had wildly different settings (this one takes place in the NSW country town of Moree, at the earth station there), and explore very different topics (gemstone prospecting, urban gangs, this time space communication!), there are common themes that recur in all the books. The importance of making connections between people is probably the most significant; an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world is another.

Brinsmead certainly wasn't afraid to tackle a wide range of geographic locations or social milieux. Published in 1971, Who Calls From Afar? tells of young Lyn, who finds a job as secretary at the Moree earth station, one step in the string of bases passing on satellite signals from geo-stationary orbit to headquarters in America. Lyn has felt lonely in the big city; communication, the failure to communicate, the need to communicate, is the keynote of this book. On the eve of the moon landing, a NASA bigwig becomes stranded in the outback and a road trip ensues with a cast of various characters.

I wonder what Brinsmead would have made of this moment in time, with everybody both hyper-connected and yet more atomised and individual than ever before?

For me, this is not the most successful of Hesba Brinsmead's novels -- my favourite is still the luminous Pastures of the Blue Crane, her debut. Despite the theoretically interesting subject matter, WCFA? seemed to be missing some essential emotional element that made for an ultimately unsatisfying read.


The Wild Places

Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It is so beautiful I had to ration it, reading only a chapter or two between other books, eking it out and savouring it. It's not a book to gorge on; it's a book to read slowly and carefully, like a meditation.

I found this on Brotherhood Books after seeing it recommended in The Week (now my mum lives with us, I get to read my parents' subscription copy of The Week as soon as it arrives). I also want to get hold of his later books, Landmarks and The Old Ways.

Macfarlane starts out this journey wanting to experience and describe the wild places of Britain; as he thinks of it, the pockets of wilderness left untouched by human interference, the mountaintops and isolated moors, the remote, the pristine. And he does find those places, and he is exhilarated and frightened by them. But about halfway through his pilgrimage, he finds his internal definition of 'wildness' changing into something more dynamic and vigorous -- the tangle of plants thrusting from a ditch into the light, the inside of a hedgerow. He comes to see wildness not as something separate from humanity, but intertwined, parallel and within our reach, in small, everyday moments -- a dandelion bursting from a crack in the pavement, the tossing of treetops in a storm.

Reading this book was an almost spiritual experience for me. Macfarlane's observations are both precise and radiant, his use of language halfway between poetry and prayer. Is it better to read about sleeping out on a snowbound mountaintop, or to actually experience it? For me, the reading is better, because I get to appreciate the beautiful words as well as imagining the crispness of the moonlight, the sheen of the snow… Hm, this might be betraying an old bias of mine that favours imagination over the real. That's something I'd like to write about one day.

Anyway, this book is highly recommended. If anyone knows of an Australian equivalent, please let me know. I would love Robert Macfarlane to turn his keen eye on our wilderness. Has anyone invited him?


The Forrests

I'm ashamed to say how long ago it's been since my friend Penni lent me Emily Perkins' The Forrests. 'It's good,' she assured me, and it was.

A novel in short scenes, each chapter tells an incident from a life, the life of Dorothy Forrest, from her chaotic, slip-shod childhood, through marriage and children and love and lust and tragedy, all the way to her deathbed. The stories of her siblings, parents, children, friends, weave in and out of the central story. We jump several years at a time; suddenly there are extra children, retrospectively we learn of catastrophe narrowly escaped, or brutally, unexpectedly falling, a blade from the sky.

The writing is extraordinary, dense with observation and sensory detail that reads almost like poetry. It's a reminder that even the most ordinary of days contains droplets of wonder, humour, memory and pathos. The thread that pulls the story together is Dorothy's lifelong connection to Daniel, the sort-of brother who became her secret lover and then ran away. Even when he spends decades absent from her life, his memory haunts her.

Perkins is very good on siblings, and children, and marriage -- I don't know how old she is, she doesn't seem to be that old, but her observations of how it feels to be inside every stage of life feel true, as if she's lived a long life and remembered everything. The book is set in New Zealand, but the details feel true of an Australian life, too -- suburban shops, a night in a hospital, a boozy reunion, a commune in the bush.

So, Penni, you can have it back now. Sorry it took me so long.


More Thoughts on Laurinda...

Thoughts prompted by Laurinda, perhaps I should say, rather than reflections on the book itself.

I felt quite ambivalent reading this novel, and I'm not sure if that ambivalence came from Alice Pung herself or if it's my own attitude to my education which I'm projecting onto Lucy's story. As I said before, I also went to a posh private girls' school (Presbyterian Ladies' College), and I was a scholarship girl. There is no way that my family could have afforded to send me there and pay the fees, though quite a few of my contemporaries were not particularly wealthy. Their attendance at the school was pretty much the only luxury their families allowed themselves (I should add that the fees weren't at the astronomical levels they seem to sit at today, either).
Coming straight from living a pretty simple life in PNG, and years of vague money worries, I used to fret that we couldn't afford for me to go on excursions, buy a new blazer, pay for textbooks etc. I never actually had to go without, but I never assumed that I wouldn't. This bred a faint anxiety that dogged me through all my years at school.

Because the school had moved to a new campus in Burwood in the 1950s which was quite ugly and daggy, there was none of that atmosphere of romantic, ancient privilege in the buildings themselves that I found later at Janet Clarke Hall and Melbourne University generally, so our elite, privileged status was not so obvious in our physical environment. But it was constantly drummed into us that we were a) very lucky and b) obliged to pay for that luck by 'giving back' -- through leadership, social work, good causes etc. The emphasis was less on encouraging ambition for ourselves, and more on what we could do For Others. It was just assumed that we would achieve for ourselves, I think.

I adored school and I was (mostly) very happy there. I had some wonderful, inspiring teachers, read some amazing books from the fantastic library, and made some good friends. My interests in literature, history, politics, philosophy and social justice were encouraged, and I came out at the end with an excellent HSC score that got me into the university course I wanted. I took it for granted that women could do anything; it wasn't even a question. Our headmistress was an amazing, strong, gracious woman who was a wonderful role model (Joan Montgomery), and oat of our teachers were women. I was very disappointed when, after I left, the church appointed a male principal.


I did well academically in the supportive environment of school, but I struggled in the self-directed free-for-all of university. I didn't really get how university worked, and I was dazzled and paralysed by the presence of boys. Socially, I was completely out of my depth. I don't blame my school for that, but it didn't help. It took me so long to adjust to life outside school that I wasted a lot of my years at uni. (It also didn't help that I was doing the wrong course.) I see the easy, teasing friendships with boys and girls that my daughter is establishing at her state high school, and the way they encourage the students to navigate life outside the school, and I'm envious.

I'm grateful for the opportunities that PLC gave me, but I'm deeply uncomfortable with the begging letters they send me, as an Old Girl, to contribute to the new swimming pool or the performing arts centre or whatever. It's embarrassing, and I feel like it's a betrayal of the ethos they tried to teach me back in the 80s. I was sheltered there, but maybe it would have been better for my development to be a little less sheltered, toughened up a bit.

This has been a long, rambling post. I hoped it might help me disentangle the good from the bad, but it's all still mixed up in my mind. I go to lots of private girls' schools for work, and I instantly feel at home there, comfortable and at ease. The teachers are usually fantastic, and the girls are always lovely, polite and friendly and often very clever -- just like I was.

But I'm not going to send my daughters to any of those schools. Not even if they win scholarships. And I still can't quite articulate why.

Gatty's Tale

Gatty's Tale by Kevin Crossley-Holland has been sitting next to my bed for so long I've forgotten how and where I acquired it. It's second hand, but not from Brown and Bunting; nor is it an ex-library book, and I'm sure I didn't buy it from Brotherhood Books either. Mystery! Perhaps it was one of those books that turns up in the library book sale, donated by other people?

I read and loved Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy a few years ago, and Gatty's Tale is a stand-alone follow-up to Arthur's story. In this novel, set in the Middle Ages, fifteen year old Gatty is sent to serve as a chamber maid to Lady Gwyneth, who decides to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. With eight companions, including Gatty, they set out on the perilous journey to the Holy Land -- but not all the pilgrims will reach the end of their quest.

Kevin Crossley-Holland's writing is among the best I've ever encountered -- shining, spare, and lit with a bright flame of faith, it's utterly suited to the recreation of the medieval world. But there are striking modern parallels here, too -- principally, the distrust and fear of the 'Saracens' (Muslims) who possess the Holy Land. Gatty comes to realise that Christians, Jews and Saracens are all 'good and bad, mixed up together' and that demonising one race or religion is pointless.

I loved this book, and I really hope that it found the audience that it deserves.



I grabbed Alice Pung's Laurinda the second I saw it on the library shelf (even though I was at the library to return books, not borrow). I've wanted to read this since it came out. I greatly admire Alice Pung as a writer, and I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at a literary festival in Perth a couple of years ago, and she was absolutely lovely. Laurinda is her first work of fiction, and it's a YA novel, so of course I've been hanging out to read it.

I raced through this novel in a day (thanks partly to the fact that I was immobilised in bed). It's the story of Lucy Lam, who wins a scholarship to a prestigious girls' school in Year 10 and finds that she turns into a different person -- quieter, less opinionated -- in her new surroundings. And she soon falls foul of the powerful trio, 'the Cabinet', who are the self-appointed guardians of school excellence, taking it upon themselves to weed out those they perceive as weakening the institution -- feeble teachers, conceited students.

I think I almost felt too invested in this book. I went to a school very like Laurinda (albeit in the 1980s, not the mid-90s, when Pung's book is set), and I was also a scholarship girl (albeit from Upper Ferntree Gully, not Stanley/Footscray) -- and I hasten to add, a very white scholarship girl. But I still found a lot to relate to in Lucy's story. My school was a privileged place, and we were constantly reminded how privileged we were -- but paradoxically, the true sources of our privilege were often invisible to us, and thoroughly internalised.

I did spent rather a lot of the novel silently yelling at Lucy to find some better friends -- or just to give the nice girl from the first chapter another chance (which she eventually does). Lucy's desire to both fit in and also to rebel against the injustices she observes, and her love and loyalty to her family and neighbourhood, mingled with shame and embarrassment toward them, were realistic and moving. I'm still processing how I feel about this book; I think I need to discuss it someone! Any takers out there?


The Second Mrs Gioconda

Picked up E. L. Konigsberg's The Second Mrs Gioconda at the library book sale several moons ago after reading and very much enjoying From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, and I finally got around to reading it -- threw it into my handbag when I needed a slim volume to take on a tram trip.

What a delightful little book this was. In just over a hundred pages, we explore the relationship between the great Renaissance artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, his (real) apprentice Salai, and the (real) Duchess of Milan, Beatrice d'Este, who is used to being the plain second choice to her beautiful older sister. Beatrice and Salai form a bond of shared mischief and delight, despite the difference in their social stations. When Beatrice dies at only 22, Salai grieves; but he finds some solace in encouraging Leonardo to paint the portrait of the humble merchant's wife, the second Mrs Gioconda, who possesses the same inner beauty and outward plainness as their lost Beatrice. Of course, this portrait will become perhaps the most famous painting of all time, known to us as the Mona Lisa.

It's an interesting and plausible thesis, and Konigsberg makes clever use of Leonardo's artwork, included at the back of the book, to support her story. A wonderful introduction to Leonardo, Renaissance Italy, and some magnificent pieces of art. I would have loved reading this when I studied European History for HSC, a long long time ago; it had been published nine years before.


Egg and Spoon

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire is our YA selection for the Convent book group's Witches month, and it's quite long -- more than 450 pages. I borrowed it from the library, let it languish by the bed for a while, then had to finish it in a gallop because the due date came up and I couldn't renew it because someone else (perhaps another member of my book group) had reserved it!

Possibly this haste means that I didn't get to savour the book as much as it deserved. I haven't read any other Gregory Maguire titles, though he is probably best known for writing the book on which the famous musical Wicked was based -- he is clearly drawn to witches. And there were certainly echoes of Wizard-of-Ozzery in the presentation of the witch featured here, even though she is the figure of Russian folklore, Baba Yaga.

I found Egg & Spoon in the adult Fantasy section of the library; the cover has a bet each way by claiming it's a book 'for readers of all ages' and I think this time I might have to agree. While it features two youthful protagonists in the 13 year old peasant girl Elena and young noblewoman Ekaterina, it's emphatically not a stereotypical 'YA' story -- it's crammed with magical allusions, historical asides and imaginative leaps. It might belong in that select category of Books for Adults Who Like YA. In the early stages it reminded me a lot of The Book Thief (also a member of that group) but the slightly laboured pyrotechnics of the writing settled down after a while and I relaxed into the story. I could imagine it being enjoyed by able primary school readers, young adults and adults.

I ended up liking this book much more than I thought I would at first -- maybe the lesson is to push on past the first fifty pages, because it really picked up steam after that.


The Witches

I borrowed Roald Dahl's The Witches from the library for the Convent Book Group next meeting, which has the theme of, you guessed it, Witches. We have done Witches before, but there are so many options out there, we had no trouble coming up with fresh titles!

I approached this book from the odd position of being extremely familiar with the first half of the story, and knowing nothing at all about the second half. This is because we had the first disc of the audiobook version in the car for a long time, so I heard the first part many times, read by the brilliant Simon Callow, rolling his Rs beautifully and relishing the Norwegian and other accents (especially the grandmother). (I've just realised, I don't think the little boy narrator is ever given a name! I hadn't noticed…)

Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the first section much more than the second part -- the spooky stories of the disappearing children, who are turned to stone, or vanish into paintings, are really creepy. But the rest of the book, where the boy encounters a mass meeting of witches and falls foul of their evil ways, before giving them a taste of their own medicine, didn't engage me as much.

Can I make a confession, possibly at the risk of being thrown out of the ranks of children's authors? I don't really like Roald Dahl's books. There, I've said it. Dahl's much celebrated 'streak of darkness' I find just plain cruel. The gruesome and repulsive hi-jinks leave me cold. I do quite like Matilda, but her parents were so repellent I found it hard to believe that they could have produced such a sweet and gifted daughter…

Anyway, The Witches. It's unusual for a kids book in that the child hero ends up as a victim of the evil-doers -- he is turned into a mouse, and not turned back. And the book ends with his being quite pleased that mice don't live very long, because he will die at the same time as his beloved grandmother -- which is a refreshing attitude! So I give points for that.

Or is it just disturbing??



Again, I must confess that my copy of Noel Streatfeild's adult novel, Judith, is not the one pictured here -- mine has a very boring plain black hardcover, which wasn't worth reproducing here. I bought it from Brotherhood Books, though I hadn't heard of it before, and it was relatively expensive for a secondhand book.

I knew I would enjoy Judith, and I did. I galloped through it in two days. Noel Streatfeild's authorial voice is the voice of my childhood reading; I read Ballet Shoes so many times that I still know it almost by heart, and I read every book of hers that I could lay my hands on. And even though this is an adult book, the voice is the same -- calm, astute and wise -- clear-eyed but compassionate about human psychology and the infinite ways that people can torment and test each other. Noel Streatfield is the story-telling voice I think of when I talk about being 'in safe hands'; I trust that she will carry me through a story without jarring, without hysteria, but always with something interesting to say. I can settle down into her writing like I'd settle into a warm bath.

BUT having said all that, I was amused by many aspects of this book, not in the way the author intended. Published in the mid-1950s, it bears the assumptions of its time. Judith, at the centre of the story, is a needy and vulnerable adolescent who clings to whoever will show her love, and the novel charts her interactions with her various family members, who mostly let her down. I did balk at the very end when Judith, who has been exhorted to find her independence throughout, is married off at nineteen; and also that her final moment of standing up for herself, which fills her husband with a warm glow of happiness, follows a car crash where someone is killed… Hm!

Noel Streatfeild often breaks the rule of 'show, don't tell.' She does a lot of telling; often, the dramatic and decisive moments of the plot occur off-screen, and are recounted by one character to another (and the reader) long afterwards. In fact, plot is not really Streatfeild's strong point; her strength is character. She's not a radiant writer like Rumer Godden, but for my personal comfort reading, she's my first choice.