2.6.20

Re-reading: Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two

It's not very often I acquire a whole series all in the same edition: the Melendy books are an exception in my collection, thanks to the fact that I bought all four at a library book sale. I don't mind these covers, except for Spiderweb for Two, where Randy looks as if she could be Oliver's mother, she's so unnaturally mature (be grateful the resolution on this image is so bad).

Daughter (15) was taken aback by the title of Then There Were Five, suspecting a murder mystery. On the contrary, this is the book where the Melendy acquire, rather than losing, an extra member -- orphan Mark joins their family after his evil cousin Oren sets their farmhouse on fire and perishes in the flames. Apart from this grisly and dramatic episode, the bulk of the book is very gentle -- the kids build a swimming hole, meet colourful local characters, decide to can and preserve all the garden produce on their own, collect caterpillars, hold a fair. The book ends with the unanimous decision to adopt Mark, who gets to sleep in the cupola (lucky Mark).

Spiderweb for Two must have been my favourite book of the quartet when I was young, because I remembered quite a bit of it. Randy and Oliver, the two youngest Melendys, are left behind when the elder siblings go off to boarding school. But to stop them from being bored and lonely, the rest of the family devises a treasure hunt, with clues in enigmatic poetry. Randy and Oliver have to puzzle out fourteen clues in all before the final triumphant unveiling, which take them all over the countryside, into cemeteries and cellars, into butcher's shops and up trees, with plenty of mishaps and misunderstandings along the way. This is an elegant and fun book, with many digressions into the past, which I'm realising were a feature of all Enright's work.

I think the aspect that really distinguishes the Melendy books is that they are truly about a whole family. They aren't based on one sibling, with the others making cameo appearances; everyone shares the story equally. They aren't books aimed at either boys or girls; anyone could enjoy them. It's sad that this strikes me as being such a rarity.


28.5.20

Nine Days


Gee, this is a terrific book! Nine Days is an adult novel, but it would work equally well as a YA title. It tells nine interconnected stories, over four generations of a single Richmond family. The story swoops back and forth in time, from the 1930s to the present day; we get hints of what's to come, and sometimes misdirections. Most of the nine narrators are young, but not all of them.

Toni Jordan has achieved the difficult feat of giving each of her nine characters a distinct voice; sometimes in these kinds of collections, all the chapters end up sounding quite similar, but Jordan has avoided this trap. The book was inspired by the wartime photo shown on the cover, a soldier and his girl kissing goodbye, and Jordan has woven a moving, sometimes tragic (but also often funny) story around the pair.

Nine Days is a deceptively ambitious project that absolutely works. Skilful and satisfying, the nine individual stories click together into a perfectly shaped whole.

21.5.20

Gods and Angels

I feel as if I've been immersed in Irish literature lately -- what with Tana French and Sally Rooney -- and David Park adds a masculine perspective. Gods & Angels is a collection of short stories which was lent to me by my friend Suzanne (we have very similar literary tastes!)

Gods & Angels took me a long time to read. In some ways it was a very sad volume. Many of the stories deal with loneliness and isolation, which have an extra resonance at this time. There is also a wry humour and some touching moments. One long story deals with a tentative relationship between an elderly widower and a young single mum, its ebbs and flows of trust and betrayal, comfort and reserve. I particularly enjoyed Man Overboard, in which a group of men attempt, in their own clumsy but sincere way, to support their depressed friend. In Heatwave, the balance of power in a marriage shifts during a disastrous excursion to the beach. In the gentle and bittersweet Gecko, a teacher takes his wife of twenty five years to see the Northern Lights.

Perhaps the most moving story is the last of the book, Crossing the River, in which the ferryman conveys his mother across the river of death. Dedicated to Isabel Park, this is obviously Park's tribute to his own mother. The writing is dark and lyrical, but ultimately comforting.

12.5.20

Al Capone Does My Shirts

I really enjoyed this book! Set in 1935, Al Capone Does My Shirts follows twelve year old Moose Flanagan, who moves to the prison island of Alcatraz when his father takes a new job as guard and electrician. It's a demanding job, but the family needs the money to pay for Moose's sister to attend a special school on the mainland. Natalie is "ten" and has been "ten" for several years; she has autism, though Moose never uses the word and has probably never heard it. But when Nat's school rejects her, the family must make other plans for her future.

The relationship between Moose and Nat is beautifully drawn -- his love for her and the close bond between them, his occasional embarrassment and exasperation with her behaviour, all have the ring of truth, and indeed author Gennifer Choldenko's own sister has severe autism. Moose's quiet connection with his father and his problematic relationship with his mother are also skilfully explored.

The history and the setting are fascinating. The children who live on the island are understandably intrigued by the glamour of Al Capone and the other dangerous prisoners with whom they share the rock. Capone himself ends up playing a very significant, albeit off-screen, role in Moose's story.

Al Capone Does My Shirts (in the prison laundry) is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful and touching read.

7.5.20

The Winter Book UPDATE

A Winter Book was obviously put together as a companion volume to Tove Jansson's classic The Summer Book. And it worked, because that was why I bought it. But it's a very different kettle of fish.

Tove Jansson is best known (certainly outside her native Finland) for her Moomin books -- strange, melancholy stories shot through with longing for travel and longing for home. I owned and loved several of them as a child and they always made me feel enjoyably sad. I came to The Summer Book as an adult. It's a series of vignettes, set on a summer island, centred on the relationship between an old woman and her grandchild. It's beautiful and strange and wise, with the same enjoyable sadness and mood of nameless nostalgia and yearning as the Moomin stories.

A Winter Book is a selection of pieces from throughout Jansson's life, many taken from the memoir of her childhood, Sculptor's Daughter. I think I enjoyed these pieces the most, especially the story about the little girl who throws her torch onto an iceberg so it can drift away, lit with a greenish glow. A couple of chapters of  letters sent and received were poignant and sometimes very funny.

But there were two stories that made me feel deeply anxious! One was set on a cruise ship (which I think was enough in the current climate to trigger unease). The other long story was called The Squirrel, and it was about a woman living alone on an island who develops an uneasy relationship with a squirrel who turns up there. I can't describe how anxiety-provoking I found this story. Perhaps the theme of solitude, the protagonist's attempts at self-discipline (she's a writer) and her eventual retreat into depression were just too close to the bone at the moment. Anyway.

The Moomin stories are often held up as simple, sweet, charming tales; you can buy loads of Moomin merchandise for kids. But there is a vein of darkness (Finnish noir?) in Jansson's work that surfaces quite plainly in this volume. If you're only after Moomin sweetness, don't look for it here.

UPDATE: By chance I just saw this article in The Guardian by Tom Holland about Mooninland Midwinter, which has both haunted and comforted him since childhood, and which he finds particularly pertinent in this time of lockdown -- Moomintroll wakes up in the midst of hibernation and finds his world changed and cold and frightening. I don't remember reading this one as a child but  it does sound scary in the same way that A Winter Book is sometimes scary.

4.5.20

Depends What You Mean By Extremist

I vividly remember when John Safran burst onto Australian TV screens twenty years ago with Race Around the World. He streaked through the streets of Jerusalem wearing only a St Kilda beanie and scarf. He's been shocking, provoking, asking awkward questions and popping up in strange places ever since.

Depends What You Mean By Extremist begins with Safran poking around in his area of special interest -- political extremism. We quickly discover that nothing in this murky world is straightforward or predictable. Safran hangs out with ethnically white fanatical converts to Islam (one was later arrested for attempting to join ISIS), brown-skinned activists against multi-culturalism (yes, I said against), supporters of Pauline Hanson who are married to Asian immigrants (despite her notorious opposition to Asian immigration), socialist and anarchists who get into punches at supposedly peaceful protests (but it's okay because it's 'non-structural violence.') Race, religion and ideology are hopelessly tangled, and Safran is gleefully romping in the middle of it, growing a beard and pulling on disguises, buddying up and needling almost in the same breath.

I think he gets away with it because he's so non-threatening. Slim and weedy (despite all those workouts at the Jewish gym where the trainer is trying to recruit troops for Israel), he has a distinctive lisp which makes him seem immediately harmless. He doesn't take himself or any of his subjects too seriously and he has a keen eye and ear for absurdity.

But by the end of the book, he admits that the topic has got out of hand. He begins his journey with  a weird community rally and ends it with the election of Donald Trump. Extremism has gone mainstream.

Two things stood out especially clearly. Firstly, Safran's observation that most of the organisers of Reclaim Australia and the like are really out for political power and are just using the muddled prejudices of ordinary people to hoist themselves to a seat at the table.

 Secondly, when dealing with religious extremists (a different kettle of fish altogether), 'It's hard to cut a deal with people who think that what they're doing will bring on the Messiah.' Something I sometimes wonder about our own proudly pentecostal Prime Minister...

1.5.20

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

This is the book that inspired last year's addictive Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I adore Marie Kondo and I was so excited when her book turned up on Brotherhood Books -- I'd been waiting to nab it for ages. After watching the show, I was inspired to reorganise my drawers and discard lots of clothes. This is stage one in the Marie Kondo de-cluttering process. Then I managed to clean out the kitchen cupboards. But alas, I got stuck after that.

Marie Kondo comes across on TV as a sweet, quirky, almost elfin presence -- kneeling to commune with the house before she begins the tidying process, thanking each article of clothing for its service before she discards it, squealing with delight and clapping her hands in her swirly skirt and neat blazer. But under this dainty persona lies a will of steel and a ruthless determination.

There are two parts to the Marie Kondo process. The Netflix series focused primarily on the first part: throwing stuff out. But the second part is just as important: finding a home for everything. This is the part we have trouble with at our house. I'm pretty good with my own personal possessions but there are lots of things in our house that 'float' -- just looking around me now I can see remote controls, magazines, jigsaws, notebooks, textas which are picked up and put down randomly as required. This is the very definition of clutter!

Then there are the contents of laundry and hall cupboards which might be cleaned out periodically and reorganised (my other half is very keen on this activity, which we call 'shifting deckchairs'), but not really in a systematic way. So we end up with three lots of extension cords, two boxes of batteries, several rag bags etcetera. One area I can't agree with Kondo is books: she says get rid of them all! (Okay, almost all.) But my books spark so much joy that I'm going to break that rule.

You could summarise Marie Kondo's philosophy very simply as 'when in doubt throw it out.' This works well unless you start to get squeamish about landfill, but the real point is not to keep acquiring stuff you don't need (because you probably already have it but don't realise it, because it's lost in the back of a cupboard somewhere), and to truly care for the things you do have. I think I'm inspired to have my life changed again!

29.4.20

Broken Harbour

I was actually looking on my Kindle for Tana French's Into the Woods after watching Dublin Murders on SBS (and feeling quite frustrated by the ending, by the way) but then I saw that number 4 in the series, Broken Harbour, was available for a ridiculously low price, so I couldn't resist buying that instead.

I was very surprised to find that our narrator this time was Scorcher Kennedy, a character I had paid absolutely no attention to up till now -- an old school, unimaginative detective who sees the world in black and white. Despite his own troubled family history (mother suicided, sister has severe mental illness), he believes that basically you bring your fate on yourself -- murder victims, he tells us and his newbie partner Rick, are mostly asking for it. Hm... let's say we don't really warm to Scorcher.

At first glance, this horrible family murder scene looks like a bog standard domestic abuse situation. But Scorcher doesn't want to believe that dad Pat Spain, trying so hard to do everything right, could have been responsible. So he starts looking for other explanations.

Broken Harbour, set in the wake of the crash of the Irish boom, felt eerily apt. People suddenly out of work, struggling financially, the promise of prosperity betrayed. The Spain family, trapped in their house (from shame not quarantine, though), going slowly nuts... it all felt uncomfortably close to home.

One of the complications Scorcher and Rick discover is that Pat was obsessed with an animal he kept hearing in the roof -- a mink, a rat, a wolverine? He has set up monitors and traps, haunted internet chat rooms, stayed up all night on guard. I swear it is pure coincidence that it was this week that a possum has chosen to expire in MY roof! It took us several days to figure out that was where the hideous stench must be coming from... and now the possum guy has to open up the roof to extract it, but he can't do that until the rain clears... So we are stuck in lockdown with the delightful aroma of rotting brush tail. Ah, quarantine!

26.4.20

Re-reading: The Saturdays and The Four Story Mistake

Years ago I picked up all four of Elizabeth Enright's Melendy family books at the library book sale, but I don't think I re-read them at the time. The editions I read originally were hardback copies from the Mt Hagen library, and I remember being enchanted by these first two books in particular -- I'm looking forward to re-visiting And Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two, which I don't recall much about at all. Someone got adopted? And in Spiderweb, the older kids make a treasure hunt for the younger ones. I think that was fun.

The Melendy family are almost too good to be true. They get along so well together, they have small adventures, but there are no wrenching dramas. Mona wants to be an actress, she is given a part in a radio serial, but she gets into terrible trouble when she cuts her hair and has her nails painted red without permission. Rush plays piano and builds stuff, Randy draws and dances, Oliver (much younger than the others) enjoys his food and looks forward to tomorrow.

My copy of The Four Story Mistake (which to my Australian eyes should really be Four Storey Mistake) has the library sticker right over the cupola. I always loved the cupola, but I've never been sure how to pronounce it. Couple-a? Cup-ole-a? Coop-ola? If anyone knows, please enlighten me! (Google has just informed me that it should be cue-pella, which I never even thought of. Oh well.)

Having recently re-read the Gone-Away Lake books, Enright's fascination with the past has leapt out these pages too: there is the mysterious sealed room the children discover in their new house in the country, and the story old Mrs Oliphant tells about having her portrait painted as a child in The Saturdays. Not surprisingly, it's these stories that have stayed with me most vividly, while the everyday adventures of Rush finding a stray dog and Randy riding her bike into the back of a bus have faded from my mind.

Of course, all the Melendy stories are historical stories now. They were first published nearly eighty years ago. But I wish I'd thought to read them to my girls; they are such fresh, natural stories, it's been a delight to rediscover them.

24.4.20

H is for Hawk

I read H is for Hawk a few years ago on the Kindle but I loved it so much that when it appeared on Brotherhood Books I snapped it up. It certainly bears re-reading; a beautifully written, deeply felt meditation on many things -- wildness and grief, TH White, the history of falconry, the lust of the hunt, depression and obsession.

The aspect that seemed particularly apt to me at the moment, in this time of isolation, was the contrary pull of the solitary, and community. McDonald loses herself in identification with her goshawk, Mabel, but the more closely she sees the world through Mabel's eyes, the more she risks losing touch with what makes her human. In the end, it's connection with people that pulls Helen back from the brink of depression and grief.

Is it perverse that some of us have embraced this enforced isolation, and are even becoming fearful of the time when it will come to an end? Someone on social media yesterday said that she would prefer to stay 'cocooned away from the world.' I must admit I know how she feels, and it's quite a dangerous feeling.

Though H is for Hawk is a dark book in places, it's ultimately a moving and uplifting reading experience. Highly recommended.

22.4.20

How to Make a Movie in 12 Days

This is such a good book! It was a really enjoyable, satisfying read, with some quirky touches that set it apart. How to Make a Movie in 12 Days opens just after the death of eleven year old Hayley's beloved grandmother, who had helped her to write and plan her very own movie. Hayley decides to use the use the last couple of weeks of the holidays to make those plans into reality, by shooting Rosebud, a horror story about a vengeful rosebush, in Grandma's honour. But it seems that someone is sabotaging the shoot...

Fiona Hardy has skilfully woven together a story about friendships, trust, grief and film shoots. I loved the inserts like the filming schedule, the list of sabotage suspects, and especially the film appreciation course at the end of the book, complete with fun activities and an age-appropriate introduction to film criticism.

Bonus points for making Hayley a heroine who openly states that she has no interest in romance. It's increasingly hard to find protagonists who don't sneak in a little romantic interest on the side, even in middle grade fiction, and as a parent of a child who steadfastly resisted romance in all her reading, it's lovely to have a really solid option out there.

Thoroughly satisfying. This is Fiona Hardy's debut, and she is one to watch.

20.4.20

Part of the Furniture

I've had a break from Mary Wesley for a while after a huge binge last year; I was starting to find her novels a little repetitive. But perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder, or the brain less critical, because I very much enjoyed Part of the Furniture. I think I prefer Wesley's wartime novels to the contemporary stories -- the wild coincidences and twists of fate seem to make more sense in that topsy-turvy setting (not unlike the emergency in which we now find ourselves, come to think of it).

Seventeen year old Juno has just farewelled her childhood companions, Francis and Jonty, who are off to war, but when she's trapped in an air raid she takes shelter in the house of a stranger, Evelyn. But in the morning Evelyn has died, leaving Juno with a letter of introduction to his father in the country. (All this happens in the first chapter, so no spoilers.) With nowhere else to go, Juno takes refuge with Evelyn's father and embeds herself at the farm. But her last encounter with Francis and Jonty has consequences.

One thing I struggled with was that I didn't have a clear picture of Evelyn's age. He is described as having almost-white hair, and he is obviously ill and frail, which led me to imagine him as quite old - but then his father turns out to be only in his fifties! This confused me for ages (Robert married very young but I still had trouble with the maths). I love the way that Wesley plunges the reader into the action from the very first page. There are several familiar Wesley themes in this book: the upheaval of war, an idyllic country refuge, pregnancy and social disapproval, quite a lot of sex, an age disparity. Juno is appealing in her self-sufficiency and reserve, though at times she seemed a lot more mature than seventeen. The whole plot is terribly unlikely, but it was a romp that I was in the mood for.

14.4.20

The January Stars

I suppose it's about time I talked about MY book: The January Stars.

The plot of The January Stars is quite simple. While their parents and brother are away dealing with a family emergency, Clancy and Tash accidentally kidnap their grandfather from his aged care facility, and take him on a road trip to find him somewhere better to live. Along the way, Clancy becomes convinced that the spirit of their grandmother is guiding them, and the adventure ends up drawing together a family that has drifted apart.

The genesis of the story was my own father's stroke, five years ago, which left him paralysed on the right side and living with aphasia, which means, in his case, that he can read and understand speech, but can't speak (apart from a handful of involuntary words) or write. So he is in very much the same situation as Pa -- except that he is much better off than Pa, as he still has my mum.

The single hardest aspect of the COVID-19 emergency for my family has been that Dad's home has a strict ban on all visitors. Usually my parents spend every day together, either at Bill's home or at our place. Now their only real contact is a nightly FaceTime call, which is a lot better than nothing, but still not enough.

So while in one way it has been absolutely terrible timing to have a new book out, in some ways it's a perfect book for the weird and stressful times in which we find ourselves. It's about pulling together (and pushing -- wheelchair joke there); it's about family and taking care of elderly, vulnerable relatives; it's about community; and it's about travel, which is something we're not allowed to do at the moment.

I've been getting some lovely feedback about The January Stars already. If the virus hadn't happened, I would have had a launch this weekend. I'm really hoping that when this is all over, I can still have that launch, and that my Mum and Dad can both be there. Fingers crossed.

8.4.20

The Voice That Thunders

What a pleasure and a privilege to revisit this book of essays and speeches by Alan Garner. Not surprisingly, he returns repeatedly to the same themes from slightly different angles: the strength and centrality of myth and story-telling; his personal experience of being torn between his own place and people, and the world of the academy, and his long battle to reconcile those two aspects of himself; his harrowing experience of mental illness and eventual bipolar diagnosis.

Sometimes he is angry. There is a ferocious chapter on the deadening effect of studying books in schools (gulp) wherein he quotes some truly dreadful letters he's been sent by students and teachers. But he also shares some uplifting correspondence, particularly from young readers, and emphasises that this private communication, between writer and reader, is the whole point and purpose of his work.

Sometimes he is sad. His account of his battles with mental illness is difficult to read.

There are gems of insight scattered all through this book. What about this:

A more general aspect of English is that vowels may be seen to represent emotion and consonants to represent thought. We are able to communicate our feelings in speech without consonants, and to understand a written statement when the vowels are omitted. The head defines the heart, and together they make the word.

Garner writes movingly and illuminatingly about the background to his work -- the Welsh myths behind The Owl Service (next on my re-read list), and the story of William Buckley, which inspired Strandloper. Garner is a brilliant man, learned in languages, archaeology, geology, layers of history and legend, psychology and philosophy, and his fiction concentrates all this learning into rich, distilled story, which nourishes and repays repeated reading.

Alan Garner, as I've said before, is the writer I admire above all others. We are so fortunate to be able to glimpse inside his mind and share his hard-won wisdom in The Voice That Thunders.

2.4.20

Re-Reading Alan Garner: Elidor

For my money, Elidor is where things really start to pick up. Alan Garner once observed that as his writing career progressed, his protagonists grew older, but always staying about the same distance from his own age. With Elidor, we move from children's literature to young adult, from high fantasy to what we would now label 'urban fantasy.'

The children (we are never told their ages, but they seem like young teens to me) enter the ruined land of Elidor through a portal in a derelict church. After a brief quest-and-test journey, they are sent back to our own world with four Treasures -- a sword, a spear, a cup and a stone (these reminded me of the four suits of the traditional tarot deck). But once in our world, the Treasures are disguised as a pair of nailed lathes, an iron rod, a cracked china bowl and a rock: the kind of imagined 'treasures' that any kid might pick up in a game of pretend. But the children are being pursued from the other side of the veil...

The section where the Treasures give off an electrical charge, causing household appliances to malfunction, is funny, and the part where intruders from Elidor rattle the door of the house is genuinely creepy. Garner's prose is beginning to be more carefully pruned in this book, and is much more powerful for its restraint.

The door of the children's house, which Roland conjures in Elidor, is the door of Garner's own childhood home, and the blasted landscape of Elidor is based on the 'ceiling world' he lost himself in as a sick child lying in bed. I think this is my favourite aspect of Elidor, the collision between real and imagined, created and remembered, mythic and quotidian, until the climactic scene with the unicorn rampaging in the demolished slums of Manchester. This is a very strong book.