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.

21.5.20

Gods and Angels

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

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

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

12.5.20

Al Capone Does My Shirts

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

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

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

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

7.5.20

The Winter Book UPDATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5.20

Depends What You Mean By Extremist

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5.20

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

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

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

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

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

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

29.4.20

Broken Harbour

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

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

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

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

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