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.

10.5.19

The House of Arden

When I was about nine or ten, Edith Nesbit was one of my favourite authors. Luckily for me, the Mt Hagen library had a good stock of her works, and I read and re-read The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Five Children and It, The Would-Be-Goods and more. She was one of those authors, like Noel Streatfeild, with whom I knew I was in safe hands.

Alas, when I tried to share the Nesbit magic with my own children, it didn't cross the generation gap. Perhaps her humour was too subtle, perhaps the Victorian-era setting was too far from my daughters' world, or maybe I was too eager and tried when they were too young. All my favourites sit on my bookshelf, but they haven't been read for many years.

Then I found The House of Arden in the local op shop. I hadn't read this one, but for fifty cents, it was worth a punt. (I must say that Edith's prolific output did produce a few duds, and I'd been disappointed by Wet Magic and The Magic City.) But The House of Arden, I'm pleased to say, was right up there with her best.

It's a time slip story, in which two children (unfortunately named Edred and Elfrida) travel through their own family history, encountering highwaymen, the Gunpowder Plot and a mysterious South American civilisation among other adventures, as well as a random fellow traveller from their own time (who is a loose end left dangling -- perhaps resolved in the sequel, Harding's Luck). They are searching for treasure, and eventually find it, though not in the form they were expecting.

I'm delighted to add The House of Arden to my collection, and it's reminded me how much fun Nesbit's books can be. She also had a very complicated personal life, (which possibly explains her fascination with absent fathers??) and I've been promised her biography to read (thanks, Kirsty!) I can't wait...

4.5.19

Ellen and the Queen

I picked up Ellen and the Queen from my local op shop, where I occasionally find unexpected treasures. Gillian Avery made a speciality of novels set in Victorian times; The Warden's Niece is a much beloved childhood favourite of mine, and it's only in latter years that I've discovered that she wrote several more books in the same vein.

Ellen and the Queen is a very slim little book -- hardly more than a short story, really. It's the tale of fiery, red-haired Ellen, whose home village is turned upside down when Queen Victoria comes to stay at the Great House. The very naughty Ellen trespasses into the grounds of the House; then into the House itself; and by a series of misadventures, eventually penetrates the bedchamber of the monarch herself...

A slight volume in every sense, but great fun.

2.5.19

Summer of My German Soldier

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene is one of those classic books that I had never quite got around to reading -- perhaps because it's American, and I tend to neglect the American canon (my bad).

First published in 1973, the novel is narrated by 12 year old Patty, daughter of small town storekeepers in middle America in the middle of World War II. A group of Nazi prisoners of war is stationed nearby, and when one of them escapes, Patty makes the momentous decision to shelter him.

I expected a lot more of the book to be devoted to Patty and Anton in hiding, but in fact she only shelters him for a very short time (though with huge consequences). Much of Patty's background is autobiographical, including the loving Black housekeeper Ruth, who stands in stark contrast to Patty's cold and frankly brutal parents.

I was actually really shocked by how cruel Patty's father is to her; he regularly beats her with a leather belt to the point where she loses consciousness. The obvious parallels are drawn between the domestic brutality of Patty's father and the political cruelty of faraway Hitler. The power of love is raised to counter the horror, but with only limited results. Patty's parents never give her the love she craves, Ruth is helpless to save Patty from the consequences of her actions, and Anton's story has a tragic end.

This is a powerful, sobering story, though old-fashioned in the telling. I'm glad I finally gave it a go.

1.5.19

In the Teeth of the Evidence

I picked up In the Teeth of the Evidence from my favourite secondhand bookshop, Brown and Bunting, because I couldn't resist a Dorothy L Sayers, even though this one is short stories and I generally steer clear of short stories (why? I used to write them!) Only two Wimsey stories here, several featuring the observant travelling salesman, Montague Egg, and a few more with random narrators, some humorous, some creepy.

This was an interesting reading experience, and historically educational, because many of the stories in this volume turn on a single plot trick, often centred on a quirk of 1930s technology -- the specifics of a pair of telephones connected in parallel, to enable someone to fake being miles away while they were actually in the next room; a 'repeating' alarm clock, which apparently chimes the last hour gone if you wake in the night and can't read the clock-face. Even my ancient mother had never heard of that one.

I do honestly believe that reading books like this are the best way to immerse yourself in the everyday detail of the period -- the way households run, the way people talk to their peers, to their doctor, to their servants. Often modern stories set in the past strike a slightly 'off' note, particularly around social mores. It's the things that are left unsaid, the unspoken assumptions, that are the most fascinating element of stories like these.

30.4.19

Kids Who Did

Oh dear, I'm very behind with my book diary! I actually flew through Kids Who Did by my friend Kirsty Murray, which is a revised and updated edition of Tough Stuff, which has been in print for twenty years. I haven't read Tough Stuff but Kids Who Did is a really terrific book.

Kids Who Did consists of very readable, funny and inspiring potted biographies of real kids who achieved all sorts of things in all sorts of circumstances. Chess champions, wild children, activists (there is a section for Climate Change Warriors), monarchs, inventors... they are all here. Kids Who Did never gets bogged down, but tells you just enough of each young person's story to send you hunting for more.

There is something here for everyone. I fully expect Kids Who Did to stay in print for at least another twenty years!

21.4.19

Force of Nature

So much did I enjoy The Dry that I plunged straight into Jane Harper's second Aaron Falk novel, Force of Nature. This time the setting is not the bone-dry, parched paddocks of rural Victoria, but the soggy, impenetrable slopes of the (imagined) Giralong ranges national park, once the haunt of a notorious serial killer -- shades of Ivan Milat in the Belanglo State Forest.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic as Harper again employs parallel narratives to trace the events of a three day corporate bonding hike which quickly unravels, and the subsequent search for a missing hiker, which is entwined with Falk's investigation into corporate wrongdoing. Harper avoids the trap of spending too much time outlining the details of the firm's corruption -- they're just bad, and that's all we need to know. Instead Harper focuses on the interpersonal relationships between the five women on the hike, and their family backgrounds.

This was another absorbing, satisfying story. I'd heard that it was supposed to be less good than The Dry but I disagree; I found it just as engaging. Jane Harper is one of those writers where you can relax into the story, knowing that you are in safe hands; that's one of my highest accolades! I've bought the third book, The Lost Man, for my mother's birthday -- I can't wait till she's done.

19.4.19

The Dry

The excitement around Jane Harper's debut crime novel, The Dry, has been bubbling away in my peripheral vision for months, and when a copy popped up on Brotherhood Books, I seized the moment (I bought it for my Mum, you understand, who's having trouble finding really engaging books lately, and who loves a good murder mystery -- and I had to act fast, because Jane Harper novels don't last long on Brotherhood Books).

Mum raced through it and then it was my turn. And yes, I'm pleased to report, it's just as good as everyone says it is. A thoroughly Australian, totally readable, meaty mystery, with just the right amount of surprises and a good depth of characterisation. It was the kind of book where I'd find excuses to pick it up and whiz through a chapter or two. Maybe that's the ultimate accolade -- this book is more enticing than Candy Crush... oh, boy, that is really sad. For me.

So yes, this is a great read and Harper deserves all the plaudits that have come her way. Apparently a film version is on the horizon. I can't wait.

15.4.19

And the Ocean Was Our Sky

And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness is the YA title for the Convent book group this month, based on classics. This is (almost) the story of Moby Dick, but told from the perspective of the whales rather than the humans.

It's an intriguing idea for a novel, and this short book is beautifully and evocatively illustrated by Australian artist Rovina Cai, who coincidentally seems to have a room at the Convent herself!

I met Patrick Ness once, at a school literature festival, and he was extremely nice, and clearly he is a clever and inventive writer with lots of interesting ideas. He also wrote the Dr Who spinoff, Class, which my younger daughter is a massive fan of.

But...not every book will work for every reader, and And the Ocean Was Our Sky just didn't do it for me. Maybe because I've never read Moby Dick, or wanted to. Maybe I struggled with the improbabilities of this world, where whales sail their own underwater ships, riding the currents, and hunt with their own harpoons. There is one passage where the narrator, a whale called Bathsheba, discusses the advantage in dexterity that humans gain from having hands. Well...yeah! How the hell do you build cities and make weapons with fins? Maybe I found the style just slightly too pretentious, impenetrable, elaborate? I don't know. There were beautifully written passages, and the message is a worthy one -- that violence makes us all into monsters -- but this short book was long enough for me.



12.4.19

Gilgamesh

Every time it seems I'll get a chance to attack the huge piles of unread books hiding in my wardrobe, another contender jumps up and claims my attention. This time it was Joan London's debut novel, Gilgamesh, which I found while browsing the second hand book shelves at Royal Talbot rehabilitation hospital (Dad was doing some conversation workshops with speech pathology students, and I had to pass the time somehow... I just can't resist a second hand book sale).

Like The Golden Age, which I loved, Gilgamesh takes us back to a sleepier, almost ignored pocket of Western Australia, a backwater of the world. But the story breaks open when Edith takes her little son Jim in search of his father, first to London and then across Europe and into Armenia.

Armenia is one of those places (and there are all too many, I'm afraid) that I know nothing about. I had never even heard of Yerevan, the capital, known as the Pink City, shadowed by the snowy slopes of Mt Ararat. This is where Edith and Jim spend most of the Second World War. One of the great benefits of being a reader in the internet age is that you can google the places you're reading about and see the streets and monuments and parks unfold on your screen, or even trace your character's journeys on a satellite map.

This is a novel peopled with pairs -- Frank and Ada, the unhappy farming couple; their daughters, Frances and Edith; their exotic visitors, cousin Leopold and his friend Aram; Edith and little Jim; Edith and Hagop, her ambiguous Armenian protector -- just like the pair of friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who travel through the world's oldest epic story.

10.4.19

Looking Glass Girl

This month in the Convent book group, we are reading books based on classics. Cathy Cassidy's Looking Glass Girl uses Alice in Wonderland as its foundation.

There are SO many books that use Alice in their titles. I once thought of starting a collection for my elder daughter (whose name is Alice) but I gave up because there were just so many of them: Go Ask Alice, A Town Like Alice, Alice in La La Land, Alice in Blunderland etc, What Alice Forgot... there are literally dozens of them. I mean, it's a great name, obviously, but I hadn't realised just what a heavy literary burden it bears!

This book also features a heroine named Alice, who is lying in a coma in hospital after an accidental fall. Or was it an accident? Each chapter cleverly weaves in dialogue drawn from the original Alice in Wonderland as visitors to the hospital come and go, trying to coax Alice from her long sleep, and we trace the events that led to the mysterious fall downstairs.

This is really a story about bullying and peer pressure, with a few twists along the way. The character who is set up as the villain turns out not to be the real villain after all, though I still had reservations about her behaviour and wasn't prepared to let her off the hook so lightly. Looking Glass Girl is a very competent book, but ironically it lacked the touch of magic that makes Lewis Carroll's Alice so special.

7.4.19

Feeling Sorry for Celia

Another delightful outing from Jaclyn Moriarty -- though I shouldn't say 'another' as Feeling Sorry for Celia was actually her first novel. Written, like the others, in the form of letters, notes and postcards, we track the developing penpal friendship between Elizabeth and Christina, along with a couple of possible budding romances and the adventures of Elizabeth's flaky best friend Celia. Often funny, sometimes touching, occasionally dark, Moriarty handles the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence with her usual madcap touch.

There were a couple of aspects of Feeling Sorry for Celia that made me slightly uncomfortable. Celia's behaviour was so wild that I wondered if she needed psychological help, and I found it hard to summon up a lot of sympathy for her. The adults in this book seemed particularly dim and irresponsible. I'm just relieved that Elizabeth and Christina found each other, as you can't help feeling that they will support each other for life.

How well I remember feeling, like Elizabeth, that I should be kicked out of the Association of Real Teenagers for knowing nothing about boys or fashion. I also thoroughly enjoyed the contributions of the Society for Amateur Detectives at the end, which were pure fun. I wish I could give this book to my younger daughter, as she loves novels in letter format, but alas, she would never forgive me for a significant death about halfway through...

3.4.19

The Camomile Lawn

My friend Sian recently read The Camomile Lawn and apparently said to herself, This is such a Kate novel! So she lent it to me... and she was absolutely right.

Set in England before and during the Second World War -- tick. Upper class, eccentric characters -- tick. (Extra points for the eccentrics being an extended family of cousins.) Ruminations on love, loyalty, secrets, loss and betrayal -- tick. Bring it on!

This is definitely an adult books, despite featuring a class of young adults, and one child, Sophy. I've never read anything by Mary Wesley before, and she is one of those inspiring authors who wasn't published until she was seventy! This is quite a sexy book, but in unexpected ways. The F word is tossed around, but the seemingly sophisticated Calypso doesn't recognise an erection when it first.. er...comes to hand. Uncle Richard creepily puts his hand up little girls' skirts, but everyone shrugs, oh dear, and tries to keep potential victims out of his way. This book has the ring of authenticity, and surely must be at least partly based on Wesley's own memories of the war.

I enjoyed the structure of this novel, which has the main characters gathering for a funeral fifty years later, so we can see what has happened to them in the meantime -- often as a result of the events of the war. Relationships shift and twist, collide and explode in unexpected ways.

The Camomile Lawn was made into a mini-series in 1991, starring Jennifer Ehle in her first role. (Jennifer memorably went on to star as Lizzie Bennett in the iconic TV version of Pride and Prejudice.) The TV adaptation also starred Felicity Kendal and Paul Eddington, a couple of my favourite actors (though not at all how I pictured their characters). I wonder if it's still available anywhere?

Even if I can't find it, The Camomile Lawn was a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read. And now I have to hunt down all the Mary Wesley noels I can find.


25.3.19

The Hate U Give

My elder daughter is a Tupac Shakur fan, something I've never understood. After reading this book, I can see why. Angie Thomas is a fan of Tupac, too, and the title comes from his album THUG LIFE -- The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.

There has been a lot of buzz around The Hate U Give (a movie version was released in the US last year), and rightly so. Angie Thomas takes us inside Starr's world, a world that most white Australians would know little about. Starr is a girl from Garden Heights, a black neighborhood where gangs and drug dealing and shooting deaths are part of everyday life. She is also a student at the predominantly white, middle class school of Williamson, where she has  found a white boyfriend, Chris, and learned to 'manage' her blackness so as not to be too confronting for her classmates.

The novel begins with the shocking murder of Starr's childhood friend Khalil by a white police officer. As the only witness to the shooting, Starr is immediately in danger, and the book shows the push and pull of her conflicting loyalties in the media circus and investigation that follows. Starr wants to speak up for her friend, but she also wants to protect her family, from the warring gangs of the neighborhood and from the attentions of the police. But nothing is simple in Starr's world: her beloved uncle is also a police officer; her father spent time in jail, but as a trade-off so he could be released from gang allegiance; her boyfriend is white and rich, but he honestly tries to understand Starr's life.

I loved the way that Starr was automatically cool at school, but too daggy for the neighborhood. And I loved the way that her passion for justice slowly builds, so that by the end of the book, Starr has learned to use her own weapon: her voice. Realistically, there is no happy ending here, but there is certainly hope.