31.7.20

Too Much and Never Enough


I couldn't resist buying Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough on the Kindle after seeing her interviewed on A Late Show, and I wolfed it down quickly (partly while waiting in the queue while my daughter had a COVID test -- negative, thankfully).  This short but punchy book is sub-titled How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, and it's a sobering account of life in the Trump family which certainly helps to explain the sometimes baffling behaviour of the current US President.

Donald Trump's father, Fred, was a German immigrant who made his fortune developing and managing real estate in Brooklyn. The eldest son, Freddy, was being groomed to take over the family business, but Freddy wasn't suited to real estate and briefly became a pilot. Fred Sr despised this career and referred to him as 'a bus driver in the sky' and Fred Jr ended up crawling back to the family firm. His father constantly belittled and criticised him, and greatly preferred young Donald, whose arrogance and meanness displayed the 'killer' instincts that Fred Sr admired. Thus Donald was rewarded for the traits we see today -- ruthless lack of empathy and compassion, deriding the perceived weakness of others, talking himself up, an inability to see anything he says or does as anything other than 'the greatest' or the most 'tremendous.' 

According to Mary Trump (young Fred's daughter and Donald's niece), the Trump family was brought up to value nothing but money (and in Donald's case, TV ratings). Any sign of vulnerability was denied or mocked. Young Donald Trump received both 'too much' (financial support and approval from his father) and 'never enough' (the unconditional love and security that a small child needs to thrive). So President Trump has ended up as a blustering, apparently confident figure who knows deep down that he is hollow inside, terrified of the failure and weakness that lurks within.

An enlightening but scary read.

28.7.20

The Other Bennet Sister


I had reserved The Other Bennet Sister from the library before COVID-19 hit; I managed to collect it during the brief (oh so brief!) window between Lockdown I and Lockdown II, and I feel as if I've been reading it for weeks (in fact I have been reading it for weeks). I finished it just as the return chutes were closed again, so I will be hosting it on my bedside table for a few weeks more. But it has been a welcome guest.

Janice Hadlow's very new (2020) novel takes on a subject who has always been close to my heart, namely Mary Bennet, Lizzy Bennet's plain and pompous sister from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, whose piano playing is famously dismissed by her father announcing, 'You have delighted us long enough.' I've always felt sorry for Mary, eclipsed by her prettier, more flirtatious sisters, always overlooked, trying to be intellectual but only succeeding in making herself ridiculous.

Hadlow is also sympathetic toward poor Mary, and gives her a narrative where she is the centre of the story. She plausibly traces Mary's childhood as the middle sister, shut out from the closeness of both the elder daughters and also the younger two, scorned by her mother because she is plain and wears spectacles, overlooked by her father because she lacks Lizzy's sparkling charm. Mary earnestly tries to improve herself but without guidance, makes heavy weather of her studies (as well as the piano).

Over the course of this extremely long novel, Mary finds refuge with her kind aunt and uncle Gardiner (who also help out Lizzy in the original story) and after her own trials, finds an ending as happy as Elizabeth Bennet's own. 

There is plenty here for the Austen fan -- battles between sense and sensibility, plenty of prejudice and pride, dollops of persuasion, and cameos from many of the characters from Pride and Prejudice, some of whom are also given a more sympathetic portrayal than originally allowed by their inventor (notably Mr Collins).

At 658 pages and 95 chapters, one can hardly claim that The Other Bennet Sister is 'perfect in being much too short' but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

25.7.20

Just My Type


Judging from the huge number of different editions I found on the internet when looking for a cover image, I would guess that Simon Garfield's Just My Type has been wildly successful. It examines a ubiquitous but often overlooked aspect of modern life: the font.

Just My Type is an entertaining look at the history of printing and publishing, the development of different typefaces, and the careers of various font inventors. I must confess to being pretty font-blind myself, barely able to distinguish a serif from a sans serif and totally incapable of justifying a preference for one font over another (I generally write my rough drafts in a different font for each book, picking typefaces more or less randomly -- currently I'm working in Garamond, an earlier draft of the same manuscript is in Avenir, my last novel was submitted in Century Schoolbook).

That most reviled font, Comic Sans (which I'm ashamed to admit I frequently used for newsletters twenty years ago when I worked at Warner Music) was invented to accompany a 'friendly' software assistance package when the designer noticed that Times New Roman was too stiff and formal, and hardly deserves the hatred heaped upon it, though I groan like anyone else when I see it on the side of a van. I must say that reading this book has made me want to watch the documentary Helvetica, about a font which has apparently taken over the world (without me noticing).

I don't know if Just My Type will make me any more observant about fonts, but I'm going to try to pay more attention from now on.

20.7.20

Verity Sparks, Lost and Found


I was so pleased to see the second Verity Sparks book, Lost and Found, pop up on Brotherhood Books recently, because despite very much enjoying The Truth about Verity Sparks some years ago, I had never got around to reading it. And I very much enjoyed this sequel, too.

Verity has been reunited with her father and they have relocated (along with several friends from book one) to Australia, more specifically Melbourne. It's always fun to read books set in your historic home town! Lost and Found divides into two parts and two mysteries, one episode set at Verity's school, the next in the Macedon Ranges. 

Verity might have lost her gift for finding things (not sure how to pronounce teleagtivism) but she still has her wits, her kindness and her sense of adventure, all of which stand her in good stead when trouble arrives. As it's seven years since this book was published, I doubt that there will be any more Verity Sparks stories, which is rather sad. But it's lovely to have two!

13.7.20

The Reef


My friend Chris (my yoga teacher, not my piano teacher) had been talking about this book and then it popped up on Brotherhood Books. The subtitle of the book is A Passionate History, and Iain McCalman obviously does feel a passionate enthusiasm for the extraordinary natural wonder that is Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and its history.

McCalman has structured the book in twelve stories, each focused on an individual or a group who interacted with the reef in some way -- mostly white naturalists, colonists or ecologists, though McCalman is careful to acknowledge and pay tribute to the long interdependence of Australia's Indigenous peoples with the reef. 

McCalman brings a sense of wonder and awe to the history of the reef which made me long to see it with my own eyes -- I have never visited the reef and I fear now I never will. The reef has been, and is being, irreparably damaged by climate change, a sorry development discussed in the final chapter (and possibly the impetus for the whole book). This book is seven years old, and things have only got worse.

Younger readers will enjoy Kirsty Murray and David Hartley's Strangers on Country, which tells some of the same stories of shipwreck and rescue canvassed here. They really are incredible tales!

9.7.20

In The Woods


Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have developed a huge writer-crush on Tana French and I have now read all of her books. Weirdly I seem to have saved her first book, In the Woods, until last, and I have already watched the TV adaptation, which combined this novel with the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Likeness.

Even though In the Woods was published to huge acclaim and kickstarted French's highly successful career, for me it was the least satisfying and least accomplished of her novels. She has only got better as she's gone along. There are some themes here which French has returned to in later books -- the almost mystical bond of friendship, the power of memory and self-deception in the stories we tell ourselves, a touch of the supernatural.

Since it has been on TV and the book has been out for a long time, I don't think I'm spoiling too much to say that there is an element of the mystery in this story which is left frustratingly unresolved. The big twist of the novel also relies on the reader trusting a certain character, which I never did from the beginning. It's not that In the Woods is a bad book by any means -- it's still several cuts above your average murder mystery -- but I'm glad it wasn't my introduction to Tana French.

In the Woods came from the local library, which was briefly running a click and collect service for reservations. I'm guessing now that we are back under lockdown, that service will cease. It was good while it lasted!

6.7.20

Charlotte Sometimes


Charlotte Sometimes was a book that I admired as a young reader, but didn't return to very often - it was so eerie, so uncanny, that it disturbed me. With the benefit of age I admire it and enjoy it all the more. It is probably Penelope Farmer's best known work and inspired not one but two songs by The Cure ("Charlotte Sometimes" and "Splintered in her Head"; and also possibly the title of their next album, Disintegration?)

It was Penni Russon who enlightened me that Charlotte Sometimes is actually book three in a trilogy about Charlotte and her sister Emma, the first two being The Summer Birds and Emma in Winter. All three books share that dark, uncanny quality that makes Charlotte Sometimes such a haunting experience. (Thanks to Penni for lending them to me; I'm still on the hunt for copies of my own.)

In many ways this is a very bleak book. Set in boarding school, and later in grim lodgings, during winter, Charlotte swaps places with Clare in 1918. At first the girls change places every night, with no worse consequences than confusion over homework and bewilderment from Clare's sister; but then Charlotte finds herself in the wrong bed on the wrong night, with no way of getting home to her own time. 

There are some genuinely terrifying moments: when Charlotte fears she's swapped places with Agnes, the spinster daughter in their lodgings, even further back in time; when she's spent so long impersonating Clare that she begins to forget that she was ever Charlotte; the excursion to the shadowy sick bay. It's almost a horror story, truly creepy. It's a story about the slipperiness of identity -- who is Charlotte, what makes her Charlotte apart from people seeing her that way? The theme of identity and twinship is one that Farmer, herself a twin, has returned to repeatedly.

I've just learned that my 1985 copy is different from the original. The ending was changed by the author  and some material was removed. So now I'll need to find myself a 1969 edition too, because that would have been the one that I first read.

3.7.20

Jane Austen: A Life


Despite this very ugly cover, I picked up Jane Austen: A Life on impulse to fill out a Brotherhood Books order, as part of a Jane Austen binge I have going on, and I am SO glad I did. 

This is a superlative biography -- warm, sympathetic, acute and fascinating. I am sure that Jane herself could not have selected a better biographer than Claire Tomalin. She rounds out the crowded Austen family background, seeks her evidence with care and discrimination, and paints such a lively portrait of her subject that you almost forget how little she left behind for us to pore over.

I wasn't aware of the huge gap between Austen's first three novels and her last, and when I discovered why I was outraged and indignant. Austen's parents, apparently on a whim, decided to sell up the Steventon parsonage where the family had grown up and where Jane had a settled writing routine, and moved themselves (and Jane) to Bath, which she loathed. Ten years were lost while the Austens flitted about between rented lodgings and visits to family, with Jane unable to recapture the stability she needed for her work. It wasn't until after Mr Austen's death that a more permanent home was found for Jane, her mother and sister at Chawton, where (you can almost hear the sigh of relief) she was able to pick up her pen once more. 

It's infuriating to think how many novels we might have lost, thanks to the family's disregard for Jane's work, and bizarre to contemplate that, out of this large, colourful, active and largely successful family, it was Jane and her scribbles who have been remembered the longest, and don't seem likely to be forgotten any time soon.

29.6.20

The Owl Service


The Owl Service is a modern classic, first published the year after I was born. I remember seeing it on the classroom shelf at one of my primary schools, but I didn't pick it up; I had some confused idea that the owl service must involve a squadron of owls delivering messages, like the postal service, which didn't appeal to me particularly. I'd never come across the word 'service' to denote a set of plates.

The novel is a retelling of a Welsh myth, a love triangle centring on a woman made of flowers, made into an owl. The tragic triangle pattern has recurred in the valley in every generation since (I didn't realise until this re-reading how this idea had influenced my own book, Crow Country), but in this incarnation, it's also tangled in class and wealth (not the same thing) as well as culture. Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves in the grip of the myth as the book unfolds, with really creepy touches -- the scrabbling in the roof, the recurring noise of a motorbike, the smell of petrol, the disappearing paper owls, the shadowy figure in a photograph. It's brilliantly done, not a word wasted, with Garner beginning to hone his elliptical style. One character, Alison's mother, never actually appears on the page, though she hovers over the action throughout.

The first time I read this book as a teen, without the benefit of the internet, I found it hard to visualise the pattern on the plates which could be read as flowers or owls. Here is an image of the plate that inspired the story:

And here is an example of the paper model owls that Alison compulsively makes:

The book was adapted into a TV series (which I've not seen) a couple of years after publication, and apparently there were creepy incidents on set. The actor who played Gwyn was killed in a pub fight a few years later, and Alan Garner himself suffered a mental breakdown during the filming. 

The Owl Service is a spooky, disturbing story, a masterclass in spare, powerful writing. Genius.


25.6.20

The Flight of the Maidens


I can't believe I completely forgot to talk about Jane Gardam's 2000 novel, The Flight of the Maidens! What a dill. My system broke down because I put the book straight onto the shelf instead of next to my laptop for review.

I enjoyed this novel so much. It's set just after the war, and follows three clever young women who have just finished school and are about to set off to various universities. (Jane Gardam was this age when the war ended.) 

Una is headed for Cambridge, and unsure whether she should persist with her working-class boyfriend, Ray, the son of the local coal delivery woman. But (slight spoiler) Ray turns out to have hidden depths. The saga of Una and Ray attempting to consummate their relationship in a series of remote youth hostels, none of which turn out to be as deserted as they should be, is hilarious.

Hetty -- sorry, she's calling herself Hester now -- takes herself off to a B&B in the Lake District to catch up on her reading, horribly suspicious that she's won her place on the coat-tails of her condescending boyfriend. She's also trying to avoid her helicopter mother and damaged father, but she's soon plunged into a new milieu with its own pitfalls. Gardam's genius for eccentric characters is in full flight here.

And then there's Lieselotte, a Jewish refugee rescued by Kindertransport. She is whisked away, first to unknown sponsors in London, and then to an unsuspected relative in America. In many ways, Lieselotte's journey is the oddest of them all.

The three girls are only together at the very beginning and the very end of the novel, but their stories intertwine and resonate throughout the story. Jane Gardam is at her best writing about young women, with their inchoate passions, self-doubts and determination. The Flight of the Maidens was a highly entertaining, and at times poignant, ride.

22.6.20

Black Faces, White Faces


I'd almost forgotten picking up this (very) slim volume of short stories by Jane Gardam in a second hand bookshop in Ballarat last year -- or maybe it was the year before. It's a funny little book, and I'm not sure that it would be published today. 

Originally published in 1975, it's a format I really enjoy, a suite of interconnected short stories where characters wander in and out of each other's tales. It seems to have arisen from a trip by Gardam to Jamaica, and it won two fiction prizes. But though the writing is vintage Jane Gardam -- funny, sharp, eccentric and unsentimental, reading it was not an altogether comfortable experience. 

The title of the collection is Black Faces, White Faces, but the emphasis is definitely on the white faces and voices of a group of English tourists and the way they are affected by the exotic location of the West Indies. There is no story from the point of view of a Black character, and the very first story contains some offensive language. On the other hand, I wouldn't have loved it if Gardam had spoken in the voice of a Black character either, without doing a lot of work first. Perhaps that means that there is simply no longer a place for a collection like this, presumably inspired by a brief visit to an unfamiliar setting.

This is a slight book, in every sense. I'm not sorry to have read it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it again.

10.6.20

Thimble Summer

I bought Thimble Summer on the Kindle and it didn't have a cover image at all, so I've picked the one from the many editions this book that appealed to me most. However I'm not sure about the tagline, which reads: Do you believe in magic? Garnet finds a silver thimble in the creekbed at the start of the book, and good things do flow for the rest of the summer, but there's no real suggestion that magic is responsible. (So I guess the answer to the question is no.)

Thimble Summer was Elizabeth Enright's first book, after she'd already embarked on a career as an illustrator, and she immediately won the Newbury Medal. Talk about starting on a high. Thimble Summer shares many of the characteristics of Enright's later work -- the episodic storylines, the small, undramatic events, a rural setting, stories about the past. I would say the defining feature of Enright's novels is a gentle charm. About the most exciting thing that happens is that Garnet and her friend Citronella get locked in the library -- they don't even stay there all night!

Interestingly, just like in Then There Were Five, a stray boy appears and joins the family. This time it's Eric, who has travelled across country and experienced much hardship before he finds refuge on Garnet's farm. Although Thimble Summer won the Newbury, I don't think it's Enright's best work, but the seeds of her future books are discernible here.

7.6.20

Daydreaming and Fantasy

I ordered this 1975 psychology textbook from AbeBooks at vast expense -- well, a lot more than I usually pay to feed my book habit! -- but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. It was a very earnest discussion of the benefits of fantasising and daydreaming.

Jerome Singer reminds me of those people who argue in favour of the arts or healthcare in terms of their economic benefit, rather than their intrinsic worth. He was very keen to point out that daydreaming about possible futures can help the daydreamers turn those futures into reality; that imagination and creativity can lead to invention and innovation (and economic benefit, presumably); that fantasising can help develop empathy and compassion, and often hardcore daydreamers spin their fantasy habits into an artistic or literary career. Well, that's all great, but it came across a little too try-hard for me.

My favourite section of Daydreaming and Fantasy was where Singer discussed his own daydreaming habits -- putting himself to sleep at night with imagined baseball games, spinning elaborate childhood stories where he became a senator and a famous singer. I wanted more of this stuff, and less of the experiments on distractibility!

My reading of Daydreaming and Fantasy coincided with a family obsession with Bluey, and reinforced the importance of play and imagination games in early childhood. Bluey is all about the benefits of pretending -- imagination, negotiation, processing troubling events, trying on activities and feelings, and most of all, fun. Unfortunately Daydreaming and Fantasy mostly neglected the enormous enjoyment that imagining can provide.

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.