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.

10.6.19

Light On Yoga

Okay, confession: I didn't read every word of this seminal yoga handbook. I was too gobsmacked by the positions that the human body can assume -- BKS Iyengar's body, that is, definitely not mine!


Light on Yoga was one of the first yoga texts to be published in the West and I can clearly see its influence on several of the books that followed, particularly my own personal yoga bible, Richard Hittleman's Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan, which offers a simpler and less strenuous program targeted at 1960s 'housewives.'

In contrast, Iyengar demonstrates 200 postures, some of which are extremely demanding! But the structure of the book, which offers step-by-step instructions, many photographs, suggested postures for different ailments, and comprehensive practice courses, has obviously provided a template for many yoga books which followed.

I'm tempted to label this book as fantasy, because there is no way I can aspire to anything other than the most basic asanas. Perhaps I'll file it under 'inspiration!'


6.6.19

Attachment-Focused Parenting

Our family has been travelling a bumpy road over the last couple of years. I won't go into detail, but it's been (being) a pretty rough ride. So I am up for any help I can get!

You might think that with children of (nearly) 18 and (very nearly) 15, I would be putting my feet up and relaxing on the parenting front. No way! If anything, this game gets harder and more complicated the longer you stick at it. In many ways, Daniel A Hughes's book, Attachment-Focused Parenting, has been very reassuring -- a lot of stuff that we've done by instinct turns out to have professional approval (phew!) But it's never too late to add a few tools to the toolkit, and I've found this book very helpful in suggesting alternative strategies, or holding back when necessary.

The heart of the book is the PACE strategy of building relationships with your children (or any children, or adults, for that matter). PACE stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy -- all underpinned by L for Love: an unconditional commitment and pleasure. At its core, PACE recommends accepting and sitting with your child in their difficulties, rather than jumping in with solutions, lectures, discipline or punishment. Sometimes, as a parent, I've found holding back is the hardest skill to master.

Highly recommended for all parents, new or not-so new.

31.5.19

Just Breathe

This month's theme for the Convent book group is Celebrity Authors, and I will put my hand up and admit that I came prepared to sneer. As a professional non-celebrity children's author, I have always enjoyed growling when someone like Madonna or Ricky Gervais gets a publishing contract on the strength of their name. Okay, maybe Ricky Gervais can write, he has written other things, after all, but there are a LOT of film stars who seem to think, hm, children's book... not many words... how hard can it be?

So it is with some chagrin that I am forced to admit that Andrew Daddo's Just Breathe is really good. (This is his 26th book, so I guess he is more of a writer than an actor by now.) Hendrix is a runner, with every aspect of his training, his food, even his breathing, regulated by his controlling father. Emily has moved from Benalla to be closer to her doctor... yes, it's not good, Emily has a time-bomb in her head. I'm not giving anything away to reveal that Emily and Hendrix fall in love. The obstacles to their togetherness all come from outside -- Hendrix's ambitious dad, and Emily's illness.

I became hugely invested in the young lovers. Maybe I felt Emily's situation all the more keenly because of my friend Sandra's recent swift death from a brain tumour, I don't know. Daddo writes really well, though the occasional teen term seemed slightly off to me, maybe his kids speak a different dialect from mine! (My kids would never say 'gatho', except ironically.)

But one thing which continually pulled me out of the story and actually made me really angry was the number of typos and outright spelling mistakes in this edition. For example: eek for eke (twice!), Sherin for Sherrin, antioxidents for antioxidants, misplaced apostrophes, taught for taut... and sadly, many more. Aaargh! I am told that a high level of these mistakes tends to de-bar a book from award consideration. If that happens to Just Breathe, it would be a real shame.

28.5.19

Marge in Charge

When I was a very small child, my father used to tell me bedtime stories about someone called Trixie. Sadly, I cannot remember any more details than that, but I know I clamoured for more Trixie stories whenever Dad was home at bedtime.

Though I preferred reading aloud to my own children, when we were in the car I sometimes resorted to making up stories -- something I found surprising difficult, considering it's supposed to be my day job! The favourite tale was called the Story of the Coin, which was a tedious, endless, rambling adventure of a coin which found itself variously swallowed by a crocodile, spent by a small girl on lollies, swept down a drain and out to sea -- you get the picture.

I guess my point is that stories we make up for our children don't have to be inspired masterpieces for our kids to enjoy them. And the fact that our kids enjoy them doesn't mean we should necessarily inflict them on the rest of the world.

There is nothing wrong with Marge in Charge by Isla Fisher, about whacky baby-sitter Marge who enjoys making mess and noise and turning the rules upside down. A lot of children would delight in these amusing tales. They are the kind of stories that made me desperately anxious as a child -- Pippi Longstocking and the Cat in the Hat disturbed me for the same reason. But I can't help a nagging suspicion that if Marge's adventures hadn't been invented by Isla Fisher, they might not have made it into print.

20.5.19

Dog Boy

Eva Hornung's 2009 Dog Boy has reminded me how vividly and completely a novel can transport us into another's life, however bizarre and improbable it might seem.

Four year old Romoschka, abandoned by his family, is adopted into a clan of wild dogs scraping an existence on the edges of Moscow. Initially we see everything from Romoschka's point of view -- the loving comfort of the mother dog, the wary sibling relationships he establishes with Black Dog and Golden Bitch, the loving bonds he establishes with the other puppies. As he grows older, he feels keenly his inadequacies as a dog; he can't match his canine brothers and sisters in smell or tracking. But gradually his strength and cleverness establishes him as the leader of the pack.

It comes as a shock when our point of view suddenly shifts to a pair of researchers who have discovered the existence of the 'dog boy.' Now we see Romoschka's life with new eyes -- the squalid den, the abominable stench, the feral, hairy child. There is a creeping sense of doom; Romoschka's life is impossible, and one way or another, it has to come to an end.

Dog Boy is not a happy book, but it is an extraordinary, moving experience.

13.5.19

The Cricket in Times Square

My friend Pam passed this book on to me because she thought it looked like the kind of book I like, ie old. The Cricket in Times Square was a Newbery Award winner in 1961, so it's even older than I am! As I read, dim memories returned -- I think I did read this in Mt Hagen, but only once.

This is a sweet story, whose charm is enhanced by the Garth Williams illustrations (Little House on the Prairie for me will always look the way Williams drew it, just as Narnia will be forever filtered through the vision of Pauline Baynes). However, the charm is marred by a couple of chapters where Mario meets a pair of venerable Chinese gentlemen who sell him a pavilion for his cricket. The characters themselves are treated with respect by the text, but sadly there are pages and pages of dialogue where they speak in supposed Chinese accents ('Velly solly' etc) which these days reads as horribly racist. Perhaps newer editions of the book have had this dialogue altered; it would be easy enough to do, and it would make me feel much more comfortable about sharing this otherwise lovely story.

My favourite scene comes towards the end of the book, where Chester the cricket plays music which drifts up out of the subway and onto the street, and a section of the city falls still to listen. Just gorgeous.