22.8.19

Constable and Toop

Well, no prizes for guessing why this book leapt out at me from the secondhand book stall at Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre (I was there with Dad, a different Mr Constable).

Apparently Constable and Toop is a real funeral firm in London, and it was sitting in a cafe opposite their building that sparked Gareth P. Jones to write this book. This is a real Victorian ghostly treat, teeming with spirits and colourful Dickensian characters. Young Sam Toop is a Talker, who can see and talk to ghosts; Clara Tiltman aspires to become a journalist; Tanner is a Rogue ghost, an urchin with a collection of spirit hounds; Lapsewood is also a ghost, but trapped in the coils of post-worldly bureaucracy. There are many, many more characters intertwining through the pages of this novel (including the wise and kindly Mr Constable!) but the short, pacy chapters never allow the complex narrative to become bogged down.

Constable and Toop is fairly gory, with several murders and ghastly exorcisms, so I wouldn't give this to the squeamish. But on the whole, it's a fun romp and very evocative of Victorian London.

19.8.19

The Vacillations of Poppy Carew

The Vacillations of Poppy Carew is the third Mary Wesley novel I've read, and I'm starting to see some definite patterns. There is a gorgeous but unconfident young girl, shackled to an unsuitable or unappreciative man. There is a highly suitable man waiting in the wings, with some obstacles thrown in the path to true love. There are farcical scenes (in this instance, the rescue of a still-living trout from the fishmonger's slab), moving moments (a lovely horse-drawn funeral) and touches of black humour or horror (the death of a dog, the unexpected hanging of North African rebels in a public square). There is much frank talk of sex and lust, impulsive passion and a background of stifling social convention.

I'm full of admiration for Mary Wesley, who only started writing novels in her 70s and went on to produce a raft of best-sellers. She was no cosy sentimentalist, and no prudish fuddy-duddy. I suspect that the character of elderly Calypso Grant, who reappears in this novel, with her gorgeous woods and garden and her much-mourned husband, might be based on Mary herself. Maybe I'll just read one more novel and then tackle her biography, to see how many of my surmises are actually true.

12.8.19

Why Weren't We Told?

Twenty years old, Henry Reynolds' personal account of his journey of growing awareness of Aboriginal history, Why Weren't We Told? is sadly more relevant today than ever. Perhaps more people are aware of the truth of what happened when Europeans invaded Australia than they were in 1999, but plenty still aren't. There are still lots of myths and misinformation, still plenty of denial and ignorance, and the need for understanding and truth-telling is as urgent as ever.

Reynolds wrote this memoir in the heat of John Howard's condemnation of the so-called 'black armband' History Wars, a conflict in which Reynolds himself was one of the most outspoken voices. And yet just last week I heard a caller to the ABC complaining that the broadcaster placed too much emphasis on telling Aboriginal stories, whingeing that they had an 'agenda.'

I finished reading Why Weren't We Told? during a trip to a regional high school to talk about Crow Country (itself now nearly ten years old). A number of schools have found studying Crow Country to be a useful and not-too-confronting way to raise the troubled history between Europeans and Indigenous people, and I'm very happy to add some extra information into the mix. One student asked me what I thought of the Adam Goodes affair* and I said I was deeply saddened and angered by it. The students had just watched The Final Quarter, and I got the impression that most of them agreed with me. So maybe, slowly, we are getting somewhere? God, I hope so.


*An extraordinarily talented AFL footballer, Goodes started being booed during games when he bagan to speak out on race relations. Eventually he retired, basically driven from the field by the hostility of the crowds. Two recent documentaries have explored this shameful episode.

7.8.19

Staring At The Sun

Irvin D Yalom, psychotherapist and author, wrote Staring At The Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death when he was only 72! Now he is 88 and still meditating on the same human, existential dilemma -- the reality that death will come to us all.

Staring At The Sun was lent to me by my friend Chris, one of whose jobs is in pastoral care. I found it both confronting and comforting. Yalom is unflinching in facing 'the dread of death' (or 'the terror of death' as it's subtitled in the US), and traces many of the seemingly minor crises of therapy back to the ultimate fear, the fear of ceasing to exist. Yalom is an atheist, and while he doesn't try to talk people out of their personal religious consolations, he doesn't believe in any kind of afterlife. He is quite certain that death is a state of non-consciousness, exactly the same as before our birth.

As usual, the greatest strength of Yalom's writing lies in his case studies, accounts of his clients and their struggles, and his own role in teasing out their fears and assumptions. He readily and refreshingly admits his own mistakes, his own biases and fears; to Yalom, we are all humans travelling the same road together.

As for myself, I think an experience I had a few years ago has done a lot to soften my own dread of death. It was when I went under general anaesthetic for abdominal surgery; I was terrified that I might gag or vomit and die under the anaesthetic, and as I went under I was earnestly explaining my panic to the anaesthetist. Just as I was losing consciousness, I was aware of a sense of liberating surrender. If the worst happens, I thought, I can't do anything about it now. If I do choke and die, I won't know anything about it. This was an immensely comforting thought. So I slipped easily into the dark, and woke up hours later, when it was all over.

Of course I don't know what my own death will be like, and if there is a 'waking up' afterwards, I'll be extremely surprised. But I hope it's something like that experience of losing consciousness under the anaesthetic -- just an inexorable falling asleep.

1.8.19

War Horse

Michael Morpurgo's 1982 short novel War Horse, the story of Joey, a horse who is pressed into service in World War I, is a modern classic. I think it's been constantly in print, made into a film, and adapted into an extraordinary stage show with life-size puppet horses (coming to Australia in 2020, I see).

Therefore it feels slightly churlish to admit that I wasn't completely enamoured of Joey's adventures. Now that I'm thinking about it, it reminds me a lot of Black Beauty, which I read several times as a child -- it shares the same calm, slightly ponderous first person voice, and the same panoramic sweep of potential equine experience. One difference is that Joey doesn't converse with other horses; he makes friends with them, but it's a silent communion. He does overhear many human conversations, on both the English and German sides of the fighting, and he experiences even-handed kindness and cruelty from both sides.

The aims of War Horse are admirable, showing the humanity and futility of the conflict and the way in which innocent animals (and people) became caught up in the machine of war. But somehow I couldn't completely sink myself into the narrative. I've always had a bit of resistance to stories told from an animal's point of view; perhaps this is just my prejudice showing. I'll be interested to see what the rest of my book group make of it.

23.7.19

Parenting from the Inside Out

Another parenting book! Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel J Siegel and Mary Hartzell comes highly recommended (by Gwyneth Paltrow) and has been in print for over a decade.

But... I have to say that this book wasn't quite as helpful as the last. There were long chunks of text explaining the science behind the psychology, which made my eyes glaze over. My favourite sections were personal examples from the lives of the authors of where they had failed as parents -- this was reassuring and relatable, and if the whole book had consisted of these stories, I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

The theory covered a lot of ground that I was already familiar with, which is my own fault for reading so many of these damn books.

I'm relieved I only borrowed this from the library and didn't actually buy it.

22.7.19

The Scorpio Races


This month's theme for the Convent Book Group is Horses. As a child, I read pony books and ballet books with equal fervour, though I actually had ballet lessons and I had only once in my life sat on the back of a horse. I longed for a pony, though I don't know what I would have done with one if I'd managed to get one. It was all theoretical, but I never gave up loving the idea of owning and riding a horse of my own.

But the horses in The Scorpio Races are not tame, dependable companions. The capaill uische are mythical Celtic horses from the sea -- fierce, wild and lethal. They literally eat people. And on the island of Thisby, the locals catch these horses, tame them as much as they can (using magical charms), and once a year, they race them. Sean Kendrick has won the Scorpio Races four times. Puck Connolly needs to save her family home. They both have a lot at stake, but by the end of the races, they will be risking even more.

This is a thrilling adventure, where the only overt magical element is the wild, terrifying horses. It's also a great love story -- I got chills down my spine toward the end. Maggie Stiefvater is just a terrific writer, knotting plot and atmosphere, emotion and action, into a tight and satisfying pattern. 

The only uneasy aspect of this book for me was that I had trouble pinning down exactly when it was supposed to be taking place. There were cars, and radios, but no computers. The characters talk like twenty-first century people; it wasn't until I was about halfway through that it occurred to me to wonder about the time-setting. Unfortunately, the fact that I couldn't place it made the rest of the novel feel a bit slippery. But overall, that's a minor flaw in a very strong YA novel.

15.7.19

Harnessing Peacocks

I've fully committed to exploring Mary Wesley -- I've bought a box set of her books and her biography. She seems to have lived a full and interesting life before embarking on her writing career at the age of 70: her biography is called Wild Mary.

So far, her novels bear out that theory. There is plenty of sex and high jinks, more than I would have expected from a septuagenarian novelist, but that's my prejudice showing. Harnessing Peacocks stars the gorgeous Hebe Rutter, a single mother who supports herself as a highly selective sex-worker (for middle-aged blokes) and gourmet cook (for old ladies). But who was the father of her son? Even Hebe doesn't seem to know.

There is waspish class commentary, comic misunderstandings, improbable coincidences and social awkwardness galore before the hard-won happy ending. It might not all be quite so funny and jolly if Hebe wasn't from such a posh background and I didn't have to read the novel with Google Translate beside me to translate all the rude bits written in French.

I've just discovered that Harnessing Peacocks was made into a TV movie in 1993, starring someone wearing my glasses (because sex workers never wear glasses) and the love of my life, Peter Davison. It's on YouTube. I might just have to watch it...

10.7.19

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Clare Wright's history of the Eureka Stockade, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, was justly awarded and widely discussed when it was published a few years ago, so when I saw a copy on Brotherhood Books, I snapped it up.

It's taken me a while to work my way through it, because it is a very thick book, and quite densely packed with information. I found it best to digest it in small chunks, something that was easy to do because of the clever, readable way that Wright has arranged her story. This was a fascinating account of an episode of which I had only the dimmest knowledge, capturing the full background of the unrest on the Victorian goldfields, the back stories of many of the individual protagonists in the drama, and the tragic lead-up to the disastrous attack on the 'stockade' itself (in reality, a hastily erected and ramshackle defense that never stood a chance against the soldiers).

This is a colourful, intelligent and engaging history which managed to be both educational and entertaining. A deserving winner of all those awards!

8.7.19

Knitting in Plain English

This is not the cover of the edition of Maggie Righetti's Knitting in Plain English which I have. My cover is not as pretty as this, in fact it's a very poor design, which is a shame, because the contents are fabulous.

This was one of several books about knitting which I gathered from Sandra's shelves along with her wool stash. Sandra was my knitting mentor and adviser, and she was always very generous with her encouragement. The other day I pulled out the jumper I knitted for Alice without a pattern, nearly two years ago, and was horrified by its rough edges and general dodginess -- but Sandra, God bless her, had praised it and offered advice without criticism, though she must have been appalled at the sight of it. She was such a good friend.

Anyway, I can see why Maggie Righetti appealed to Sandra. In this book, she offers practical, hands-on, no-nonsense tips on the basics of knitting and explains many things which still mystified me, self-taught novice that I am, such as 'picking up' stitches. Righetti is a big fan of knitting on circular needles and I must admit that at least they don't poke holes in my clothes!

At the end of the book, Righetti offers three practice patterns to demonstrate many knitting techniques: the Dumb Baby Sweater, the Stupid Baby Bonnet and Suzanne's Baby Booties. I managed to successfully produce the Dumb Baby Sweater, here modelled by Octavia the teddy bear:

It's knitted in one piece on circular needles from the neck down, and I'm now going to attempt to scale it up to adult human size. There is something appealing about knitting to size without a pattern, so I'm up for the challenge. I hope Maggie and Sandra are both looking down and wishing me luck.


3.7.19

The Aitch Factor

Another speedy, fun read. Susan Butler has been editor of the Macquarie Dictionary since the 1980s, so she is well placed to comment on the various controversies and dilemmas of Australian language.

The Aitch Factor is essentially a collection of short pieces, like newspaper columns, on a bewildering variety of topics -- aitch or haitch? Maroon or marone? (I was surprised to learn that marone is exclusively Australian, probably a pseudo-posh pronunciation.)

There are also insights into how the dictionary is produced and the criteria used to decide whether a new word or usage makes the cut. Some of Butler's predictions (the book was published in 2014) have come true, some have proved misplaced, which goes to show that even an editor with her finger right on the pulse can get it wrong. For example, she dismisses doing a Steven Bradbury as already extinct, and credits having a barry of a day as still persistent. But I'm sure I've heard references to doing a Steven Bradbury more than once just in the past week, whereas I can't remember ever hearing anyone saying they're having a barry today.

But then, language is one area where we can all claim to be experts, even if we're not. This is a great book for dipping, and all the more interesting because, unlike most books about the English language, it's Australian-focused.

26.6.19

Diary of a Baby

Daniel Stern's 1990 book Diary of a Baby also falls into the Fun read category. This slim volume, which was published together with a companion book, The Birth of a Mother (which sounds less fun, to be honest), purports to be snapshots from the diary of an infant, from six weeks up to four years old.

The earliest entries imagine the interaction of a very young infant with a patch of sunlight on his wall, the pure sensory and emotional experience of hunger and feeding. Then a slightly older baby delights in simple mirroring interaction with his mother, then is overwhelmed when she takes the game too far. The book traces similar everyday experiences until we end with a four year old who is able to tell his own story.

The somewhat poetic 'diary' extracts are interposed with science and observations from Stern, an experienced parent and expert on infant development. I wouldn't be surprised if the science has progressed in the thirty years since this book was written, but I admire the imaginative effort that has gone into recreating the baby's own consciousness. I would recommend this to a new parent faced with one of those mysterious little creatures who obviously feel so intensely but can tell us so little.

24.6.19

The Capsule Wardrobe

My non-fiction purchases tend to fall into two categories: Worthy Educational, or Fun. Which is not to say that I might not learn something from the Fun reads, or that the Worthy Educational books can't be enjoyable to read (to wit, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, a terrific, engaging history, which I am slowly making my way through).

The Capsule Wardrobe falls squarely into the Fun basket. I have a weakness for books that promise to transform my clothes. I have loads of Trinny and Susannah books, I am tempted by books that will tend me what clothes to buy for my body shape (not that I can ever decide what my body shape actually is), or what colours I should wear. I don't enjoy buying clothes and I want to get it right. "1000 outfits from 30 pieces" sounded too good to be true.

I think what I really wanted was for Wendy Mak to come to my house and show me how to combine the clothes I already own in new and exciting ways. But that's not what this book does. It's not rocket science: get a dark jacket, a light jacket, dark pants, light pants, make sure everything goes with everything else, and mix them up. Yeah, I can probably manage that on my own.

I'm not a sophisticated fashionista and to me, putting on a different pair of shoes with the same top and bottom does not count as a new outfit! Also, nearly half the book (and it's not a big book) consists of spreadsheets of different combinations. I seriously doubt that anyone would bother trying on every single outfit on this list.

The Capsule Wardrobe was a quick, fairly fun read but it's going straight back into the donation box.

18.6.19

A Corner of White

Was it cheating for me to add A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty to the list of Umbrella books for this month? Almost certainly. While Madeleine's tangerine umbrella is pictured on the cover, it's only mentioned once, and (spoilers) it doesn't have any part in the story.

But I love A Corner of White, as well as its sequels in the Colours of Madeleine trilogy, The Cracks in the Kingdom and A Tangle of Gold, so I invented a spurious excuse to read it again. This was the first Jaclyn Moriarty I'd ever read, and her fresh take on fantasy was delightful. Now I know what's coming, I can appreciate the subtle clues and clever plotting that will pay off later in the series.

In fact, the two words I'd use to describe this book are whimsical and clever. Whimsical can be a loaded adjective, but the whimsy here is logical, fresh and funny, with a touch of grit that keeps the story grounded. For all its shifting seasons, parallel worlds and travelling princesses, A Corner of White is really about grief, upheaval and loss.

I suspect this book won't be to everyone's taste, but I can't wait to find out what the rest of the group will make of it.

15.6.19

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

This month's theme for the Convent book group is (wait for it) Umbrellas. Okay, we might have been in a silly mood when we came up with this one, but it has netted us some quality fantasy for our To Read lists. And we didn't even include Mary Poppins! There is something undeniably magical about the umbrella.

Jessica Townsend's debut novel Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow has taken the world by storm, and deservedly so. It's energetic, original and playful and will provide a hefty hit of fantasy for those readers looking for a follow-up to Harry Potter. And she's Australian!

Morrigan is a Cursed Child, held responsible for every misfortune, and doomed to die at Eventide. Luckily for her, she is whisked away by a charismatic rescuer called Jupiter North to his magical hotel in a parallel world (the hotel is great -- it alters Morrigan's room according to her mood). At first Morrigan is relieved, but then she discovers that Jupiter has entered her in a competition for which she needs a special, astounding gift, and she doesn't have one -- or does she?

Thoroughly enjoyable, and with probably lots of sequels to follow, and a film version on the way, we will be seeing a lot more of Morrigan Crow.