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.


Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean Launch

Just a quick mention of the Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean launch which took place at Eltham High School yesterday afternoon, in truly Indian weather.

Stupidly I didn't think to take any photos (it's a bit awkward when you're one of the speakers!) but it was a wonderful event, chaired by Kirsty Murray, and featuring a plethora of speakers, including a representative from the Indian consulate, who selflessly sacrificed going to the India/South Africa World Cup cricket match at the MCG to be there. I also got to meet Mandy Ord, and hang out with Penni Russon and Nicki Greenberg, and hear their take on the experience of being Sky-Eaters and Ocean-Drinkers. I am continually fascinated by the range of collaborations this project has involved! and afterwards we got to gorge on samosas, curry puffs and lamingtons - a delicious combination.

Also you can hear Kirsty and Anita Roy discussing the book on Radio National here.

Thanks to everyone who was able to attend!


The Accidental Princess

I read The Accidental Princess by Jen Storer for one of my book groups, to fit with this month's theme of Fairy Tales. (Disclaimer: Jen is a friend.)

This is a gorgeous, old-fashioned magic story, in which two sisters stumble into the secret world inside the lilac hedge that rings their home, and become entangled with dark magic and charming creatures of fey. I particularly enjoyed the rivalry between the sisters, which is very realistic -- as well as their deep down love and loyalty to each other. This had echoes of Enid Blyton's magical stories, though it is a bit darker than most of Blyton, and I was also reminded of the atmosphere of the Elizabeth Goudge novels I adored  as a child (maybe Jen read them too??)

Special kudos to Lucia Masciullo's illustrations, which are delicate and beautiful, and suit the story perfectly. A lovely package which would appeal to young girls who like fairies and princesses, and deserve better fare than those bloody awful Rainbow Fairy books.


The Help

I borrowed Kathryn Stockett's The Help from the library, but the Elder Daughter grabbed it first. As assiduous followers of this blog may know, reading is not easy for the ED, but she persisted with this until the very end, despite its considerable length and the fact that at least half the book is written in dialect -- the stories of the 'coloured' maids, Aibileen and Minny, which form the core of the story. Once I started reading it myself, I asked ED if she'd found the dialect off-putting, but she said no, she liked it, and she felt she could hear the character's voices in her head. I guess that's the advantage of reading at speaking pace, whereas I tend to dash ahead and kept tripping over the language.

I had mixed feelings about this one. I must admit my heart sank a little when I realised the author was a white woman, writing from the perspective of, and literally in the voices of, Black women of 1960s Mississippi. This is tricky territory, as I am all too aware, having faced similar choices about authorial voice while writing Crow Country. Apparently Stockett faced a law suit from her brother's nanny, Ablene, who feels her story has been appropriated.

On the other hand, it's a very juicy, sympathetic, readable novel which (together with the movie made from it) has no doubt led a lot of people to think about history, and racism, and civil rights, when they might not otherwise have done so. Certainly ED, at 13, started asking questions about American race relations, the history of slavery and the struggle for civil rights, as a result of reading this. (Listening to To Kill A Mockingbird recently might have contributed, too.) So I have to say, on balance, that's a good thing.

ED wants me to buy a copy, so she can keep it on her shelf, as the first adult novel she has read independently. And I think I will.


It's an EVENT!

EAT THE SKY,DRINK THE OCEAN, is a unique collection of sci-fi and fantasy writing, including six graphic stories, showcasing twenty stellar writers and artists from India and Australia:
Isobelle Carmody, Penni Russon, Justine Larbalestier, Margo Lanagan, Lily Mae Martin, Manjula Padmanabhan, Kate Constable, Priya Kurian, Mandy Ord, Kirsty Murray, Nicki Greenberg transport you into dystopian cities and other worldly societies with stylish stories, poems, playscripts, fractured fairy tales and futuristic TV cooking shows.

"The tapestry of Eat The Sky, Drink The Ocean weaves in issues of food security, environmental destruction, class barriers, social justice and human rights to create lustrous narratives
this anthology stands out for plucky writing and bold imagery"

Co-editor Kirsty Murray, author of over twenty books and anthologies including India Dark, The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie and the Year It All Ended, will chair an audio visual presentation by a selection of contributing authors and graphic artists
Mandy Ord
Penni Russon
Nicki Greenberg
Kate Constable 
UNMISSABLE for avid readers 14 plus looking for the next best sci-fi, fantasy read.

Date: Sunday Feb 22nd
Time: 4.00pm for 4.30pm-6.00pm
Venue: Eltham High School, Withers Way, Eltham
Cost: $20 includes a signed copy of the book or a $15 gift voucher, authors' presentations and Aussie Indian treats.
Prepaid, early bookings are essential: 94398700


Friday Brown

I found this on a bargain table and grabbed it, because it was a new-ish release and I'd heard nothing but good stuff about Vikki Wakefield. I haven't read her first novel, All I Ever Wanted, but judging from Friday Brown, all the rave reviews are justified. Wakefield's writing is strong and unsettling, her characters vivid and memorable. Friday Brown is a story in two parts. The first half finds the freshly grieving Friday adrift in the city, taken into a self-styled family of wounded, sometimes menacing street kids, where she finds herself increasingly out of her depth. In the second half, the tables are turned as the gang takes to the country where Friday's superior knowledge and confidence gives her the edge, and the means to survival.

I was a very sheltered teenager, and if I'd found myself in Friday's shoes, I can't imagine that I would ever have turned my back on the shelter of a concerned grandfather and taken to the streets. But hey, if everyone was like me, there'd be no stories (well, not stories like this). I always find this kind of gritty YA uncomfortable to read. But then, I guess that's the whole point of it.


Beat of the City

I bought Hesba Brinsmead's Beat of the City second-hand last year, as part of my getting-to-know-early-Australian-authors project. I'd never heard of it, but I really love Pastures of the Blue Crane and I hadn't read any other Brinsmead books.

Well, it hasn't aged as well as Pastures, despite being published only a year later. Pastures is set on the Queensland coast, but Beat is completely urban. It's set in Melbourne in the mid-60s, published in the year I was born, in fact. This aspect was absolutely fascinating -- the story swirls around the axis of Johnston St, from the students of the university at one end to the Convent and the river at the other, and there's lots of nostalgia for a Melbourne resident: Allans Music Store, Abbotsford and Fitzroy's 'hugger-mugger of factories, tenements, migrant hostels, and almost brand-new slums', Whelan the Wrecker, Russell St police headquarters.

But it's very self-conscious about examining the 'with-it', 'way out' yoof with their dead, empty eyes, pursuing the dead, empty pleasures of 'canned' rock music and dancing; redemption is found when the characters are exposed to the delights of 'real' folk music! I must say I was drawn deeper into the story the longer I persisted, and I ended up enjoying it, though it was a bit of a struggle at the start. The illustrations didn't help, I felt they were quite unsympathetic, almost cartoonish, and I found them alienating.

I only discovered this morning that there was a TV miniseries made from the book, in 1975! Now that would be interesting to see!


When Marnie Was There

I bought Joan G. Robinson's When Marnie Was There new, on an impulse, last year, because it's one of my favourite ever childhood books, and I decided I couldn't bear not to own it any longer. It arrived with the intriguing tag-line Major motion picture coming soon, and I now discover that a Studio Ghibli version was released in December -- so I might have to buy that on impulse too..!

My first experience of Marnie was when it was read aloud to my class, at the end of Grade 5, in Mt Hagen, in Papua New Guinea -- worlds away from the desolate Norfolk marshes where the story is set. But the gentle, wistful tale of lonely Anna and her mysterious friend Marnie gripped my imagination. At the end of the reading, the teacher asked, 'Do you think Marnie was really there?' I was indignant; of course Marnie was real, in the story. But our teacher pressed on, insisting, 'That couldn't really happen, could it? It must have been Anna's imagination.' (I wonder now why she read it to us at all, if she was so determined to deny the magic of the book!) But I was hotly resistant to any interpretation that reduced Anna and Marnie's magical connection to dry psychology. I remember the strength of my outrage, and the feeling that I was standing up for the book, somehow, that I needed to defend it. It might have been the first time that my personal interpretation of a book was ever challenged by adult authority. But I didn't give in.

Reading it again, it's just as magical as I remembered, written with such subtle skill that both interpretations are indeed possible. But I still prefer my original take on it (if there's a timey-wimey option available, I'll take it every time!) And I see now what a strong influence Marnie was on Cicada Summer; I even named one of my own characters Anna, without realising.

In many ways, When Marnie Was There is my perfect book.


The Book Thief

This was the second time I've read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (it's coming up for next month's book group) and I have to say that I approached it with a little trepidation. I've struggled to find a way of expressing how I feel about the experience of reading this book, and finally I came up with this: it feels like walking along a beautiful shoreline, barefoot, on sharp stones.

The first time I read it, the discomfort of the sharp edges underfoot was overwhelming. The Book Thief is written in a very distinctive, deliberate style. Almost every adjective choice is unexpected: wooden tears, glittering anger, the sun was blond, her cardboard face, the bumpiness of love. You can never forget that you're reading a text; it's impossible to lose yourself in the story, because the jarring (often apt and beautiful, sometimes awkward) language constantly jerks you back. And that's without even mentioning that the book is narrated by the character of Death...

On second reading, I was able to adjust better to the language choices, and admire them, and find my way to the actual story. I could lift my eyes to the landscape I was passing through, and appreciate its shape and sorrow. I'm glad I've read it twice.

The Book Thief has been incredibly successful, and ardently loved, and made into a movie (which I haven't seen). It would be a very hard act to follow.