18.3.19

The Secrets We Keep

Nova Weetman's acclaimed middle grade novel, The Secrets We Keep, was special to me before I ever read it, because the distinctive cover art was produced by my dear, much-missed friend Sandra Eterovic. It was the one of the first book covers that Sandra had worked on, and she was excited by the prospect of doing more work in publishing. It's one of my particular regrets that I will never get to have one of Sandra's artworks on one of my book covers -- or maybe I'll manage to find a way...

It was especially poignant to read this book because it is all about grief and loss. Clem's house has burned down, and she's lost everything, including her mother. At the beginning of the book, Clem is awash in a sea of sadness, rage and grief and her whole world has been brutally flipped upside down. However, as the novel progresses, Clem begins to make connections -- most importantly with her new neighbour, Maggie, and a girl at her new school, Ellie, who is facing the loss of her own mother -- and she also realises that not everything from her old life has gone forever. Weetman structures this story so cleverly that the final twist took me by surprise.

The Secrets We Keep is a special book, and not just because of the cover.

11.3.19

Green Dolphin Country

I've been reading Green Dolphin Country super-slowly -- a chapter per night in bed, over months and months. It's a very long book. I turn to Elizabeth Goudge for comfort reading -- her steady spirituality, her deep appreciation of nature's beauty and the inner goodness of imperfect people, and her gentle humour, are very soothing. So eminently suitable for bed-time.

Having said all that, Green Dolphin Country is a very weird novel. Written in 1944, it won an international prize sponsored by MGM, and was subsequently made into a movie. By the time my edition was published, in 1956, it had sold over half a million copies -- I imagine it must be into the millions by now: a true blockbuster.

Apparently loosely based on a true story, the novel centres on Marianne and Marguerite, a pair of sisters from 1830s Guernsey, who both fall in love with golden, generous William Ozanne. William joins the navy and ends up settling in New Zealand, from where he writes back to Guernsey to ask for his true love to join him. Alas, poor William muddles up the names of the sisters and it's sharp Marianne rather than gentle Marguerite who steps off the boat in Wellington. (This, the most implausible aspect of the story, is the part based on truth.) The novel follows the travails of William and Marianne as they struggle to make a success of their marriage, their conflict with Maori warriors, and protect their beloved daughter Veronique. Meanwhile, broken-hearted Marguerite becomes a nun and finds solace in the grace of God.

Goudge cheerfully admits in a foreword that she has never visited New Zealand and relied heavily on someone else's memoir to describe those sections (the majority of the novel). It's a brave choice, and it almost works, But it's clear that the chapters set on Guernsey are lovingly and vividly drawn from personal experience, while New Zealand never quite comes to life in the same way. Anyone who has actually visited New Zealand in person couldn't fail to be moved by its spectacular reality, yet the New Zealand of Green Dolphin Country feels like a pale and distant island in comparison to the fresh, bright accounts of Guernsey.

Needless to say, the portraits of the Maori characters, while generally sympathetic, are horribly colonial, dated and patronising. I pushed past them because I love the other aspects of Goudge's writing, but it was an effort. I'd like to think that this is not a novel that would be written today -- at least, not in the same way. A definite relic of the past.

9.3.19

Finding Cassie Crazy

I first discovered Jaclyn Moriarty through her Colours of Madeleine fantasy trilogy (thank you, Suzanne!), which was the freshest, most inventive fantasy trilogy I've read for many years. I wasn't sure if her earlier books, centred around students at two Sydney private schools and strictly realist, would have the same appeal, but I'm delighted to report that Finding Cassie Crazy is just as much fun as the fantasy novels.

In fact, my friend Bridget and I recently bonded over a mutual love of Jaclyn Moriarty, before realising that I had read only the fantasy books while Bridget had read only the school ones. Moriarty weaves a lively, funny tale from several strands of plot and several engaging voices, and she always tucks in a few surprise twists along the way. Told through letters, emails, school notices and diary entries, this book was an absolute pleasure to read.

Finding Cassie Crazy is one of four novels loosely centred around Ashbury and Brookfield schools. Now I have to get hold of the others!

6.3.19

The Biographer's Lover

Disclaimer: Ruby J Murray is the daughter of my good friend and amazing children's writer, Kirsty Murray, but I would have relished The Biographer's Lover no matter whose daughter it was written by.

Since I read this novel, my eye was caught by an article about Nora Heysen, an Australian artist who was the first female official War Artist, a post that Edna Cranmer, the artist at the centre of the book, aspires to but does not manage to attain. The story of women in art is an endlessly fascinating one; I mean woman as artists, not subjects. Overlooked, squeezed out, disparaged, shouted down, forgotten -- it is rare for a female artist, particularly a painter, to achieve recognition in her lifetime. Edna Cranmer, though fictional, is typical of this trajectory, and the novel traces the parallel stories of Edna's uncovering and posthumous celebration, and her (unnamed) biographer's journey to bring Edna's art to the attention of the world.

Two other books on related topics spring to mind here -- Drusilla Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch, and Rachel Power's The Divided Heart, both non-fiction, both exploring the difficult tensions that women face in balancing ambition and family, caring for others with following their own creative path.

As a writer, this is a dilemma that I am somewhat familiar with (as I interrupt writing this blog post to prepare food for my daughter, and run down to the chemist for my mum). But it's easier for a writer to carve out time and space and resources to write. Not so easy for a painter, who needs to buy paint, and canvases, and a space to keep them, a big light space to work and big stretches of time. Ruby Murray teases out these difficult debts of dependence and duty, the tangles of family loyalty and the frustration of repeated rejection.

This is such a rich field for a novelist, it can hardly help but be a winner.

28.2.19

The Abbey Girls in Town

Elsie J Oxenholm's Abbey Girls series was around when I was young (well, of course it was -- The Abbey Girls in Town, sixth in the series, was first published in 1925) and I remember there were several volumes in the Mt Hagen library. I tried them, but they didn't take. Probably we had odd volumes, out of sequence, and the plethora of characters confused me (multiple twins, daughters and cousins, loads of people called Janetta, Joan, Jen, Joy, Jandy etc made it impossible to tell them apart!)

Having said that, I didn't mind Abbey Girls in Town, maybe because it's relatively early and the characters were not as confusing as they became later. A lot of people return to these books for comfort reading and I can see why. They are very gentle books, centred on women's friendships -- men are really peripheral to the story, except to become marriage partners and provide sperm for those endless sets of twins.

The main drama in this book is the 'betrayal' of Mary by thoughtless Joy, who forgets to thank her friend for staging a dancing show and thus tumbles from the pedestal of perfection on which Mary had placed her. This is a friendship problem that any school girl can relate to, except that the protagonists are adult women.

I must say I find the fixation on the miraculous saving properties of folk dance in these books quite perplexing -- but hey, I love yoga, so same same I guess? I also liked the arts-craftsy element -- sisters Mary and Biddy are given gorgeous handmade pottery, and everyone ends up with beautiful dresses of handwoven cloth, individually designed for them -- yes please! Everyone is rich, or even if they're poor, they have enough rich friends to bail them out.

One element I disliked was that, before this book opens, Mary has been 'rescued' from 'wasting her life' in 'daydreaming' by Joy and Jen, and now turns her imagination to more healthy pursuits ie writing school stories. Hmmmmmm. No comment!

25.2.19

Conversations With Friends

I read most of my books on the couch in the living room. But when I read a book in a different location (overseas, by the beach, in bed ill, on a plane) it sometimes sticks with me more vividly. Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends will always be the book I read in the waiting room while my daughter was having surgery (nothing serious, but it meant a whole day in hospital).

I'd adored Rooney's second novel, Normal People, so when her debut became available from the library I was very excited. I greedily wolfed down Conversations With Friends like a big bag of snack mix. On the surface there is not a lot of action -- people talk, the narrator Frances observes her surroundings and her own internal landscape with the devastating precision you'd hope for from an aspiring writer, relationships form, separate and rejoin -- Rooney's writing is utterly absorbing.

I know some people find Rooney's books self-indulgent, even dull. But they plunge me back to my own twenties, my university years, with all their intensity and bafflement and paradoxical certainties. I think they've justified their acclaim. I'm looking forward to many more Sally Rooney novels to come.

20.2.19

The Girls of the Rookery School

Ethel Talbot has been safely dead for seventy five years, so I'm sure I won't offend her when I say that her 1932 novel The Girls of the Rookery School is NOT a good book.

Just look at that gawp, Peggy, on the cover, with her gormless expression and the cricket ball hidden in her hand. Do you think it's possible that this sickly dweeb, expressly forbidden to play games after fainting while running across the Downs near her new school, could ever secretly develop a gift for tricky left handed bowling? Do you think that said dweeb might get the chance to save the day in the very last match of the season, against the 'literal Amazons' of Dean House, when her best chum Irene has to be subbed out with smashed glasses? Do you think that the very sporting captain of the Dean House team will agree to allow the opposition team mascot to bowl the last few balls of the match, so that Peggy can skittle their best batsman? You bet she will, despite the fact that, while batting substitutions are a long-established tradition in cricket, bowling substitutions are, to say the least, unusual.

But that's the least of the implausibilities in a plot which contains a stolen ruby, yokels who speak in laborious dialect ("Rookses is queery birdies, to be zure, liddle missie..."), a long-ago scandal and students who are so terrified of an Inspector's visit that they speak of little else for a whole term. We are told about five times in the opening chapters that the character of Polly is always called "Flinders", after which she is called Flinders ONCE and otherwise known to everyone as... Polly.

There is also this priceless passage:
 Polly was telling everything before another moment had passed. All about the last weeks' unhappiness. In the cloakroom their arms were round each other; their hot cheeks were pressed together; they were kissing each other for the first time.
Alas, it's not another contender for Jenny Pausacker's excellent list, just a rather over-heated reconciliation.

Oh, and does Peggy find the lost ruby? What do you think?

18.2.19

Take Three Girls (again)

I have reviewed Take Three Girls before. I loved it when it first came out, and it didn't suffer from re-reading. Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood are all such gifted writers, this novel flies along. It was a deserved winner of last year's CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers.

When you're a teenager, the shape of your life is like a circle inside a triangle. The inner circle is your friendships, and outside that lie the three important elements of work (usually schoolwork, and decisions about career), love (figuring out who you're attracted to) and family (still your bedrock, even as you're beginning to separate from them).

This time I noticed that Kate's problems centre around work: her choice between music and medicine. Clem's problems mostly deal with love: her relationship with the incredibly unsuitable Stu. And Ady's problems lie at home, with her breaking-apart family. Each of the girls also deals with the other two points of the triangle, but the focus seemed clearer this time.

Again, I noted that the three girls, while dealing with adolescent problems, all behaved with astounding maturity and insight, certainly much more than I had at sixteen. One of my daughters is now two years older than the protagonists of Take Three Girls, and I just can't imagine her handling herself with the same degree of responsibility!

16.2.19

How To Bee

Bren MacDibble's How To Bee took out the Younger Readers CBCA Book of the Year award last year, but even before that I had seen its gorgeous golden cover everywhere.

Peony lives on a farm with her sister and grandfather, after some near-future apocalyptic event known as the Famine. They work hard for their Foreman, and live simply, but they have enough to eat (just) and each other. Peony's mother works in the city, and returns occasionally with money; but then, expecting a baby and unable to work as hard as she's expected to, she decides that Peony should come back with her. Mother and daughter work as servants to a rich family, but rich girl Esmeralda suffers from debilitating fear of everything. Can brave, smart Peony teach her courage, and will Esmeralda repay her friendship with freedom?

I can see why How To Bee won all its awards. The voice of Peony leaps off the page, lively and distinctive. I bet this book was unlike any other the judges read last year. At its heart, this is a story about friendship and family, and it comes full circle in a very satisfying way. I loved its recognisable Australian-ness too, and with its city streets filled with desperate beggars, this imagined future didn't feel too far away.

11.2.19

The Pen and Pencil Girls

I was introduced to Clare Mallory's The Pen and Pencil Girls by my friend Penni, whose childhood favourite it was. She lent me her battered, coverless copy years ago and I loved it almost as much as she did (not quite as much, because you just can't love books with the same passionate intensity after you grow up -- sad but true).

BUT I loved it so much that I was very excited to discover my very own copy (with a cover!) in a pile of elderly books gifted to me by another friend and otherwise destined for the knacker's yard (or the pulping station). What a shame that would have been, because The Pen and Pencil Girls is gorgeous.

First published in New Zealand in 1948, the plot reminds me very much of Noel Streatfeild (that is high praise, believe me) in that it deals with a group of children collaborating on a joint project. In Streatfeild, it's usually some kind of performance -- a play or a pageant or a dance -- but in Mallory's story, the Pen and Pencil Club combine to produce a BOOK for a competition. They all write stories or poetry, some more accomplished than others; one girl is a talented artist, who produces the illustrations; one girl ingeniously figures out how to bind the book together; and one types out the whole manuscript on her typewriter, no mean feat without a delete button. ('She'll make a wonderful secretary some day,' says her proud father.)

As you can see from the quote above, the book has dated -- a lot -- and the characters lack the sharp distinction that Streatfeild would have given them, but it's still a lot of fun. The main sub-plot involves the bringing together of a newly blended family ('Give them time to get to know each other,' advises the wise Mum; though no one seems to have thought of introducing any of the members of the new family to each other before the wedding day!)

The Pen and Pencil Girls also taught me about the pride of the Southlanders -- it makes a nice change to have a kids book set in New Zealand, even one that's over seventy years old.

6.2.19

Risingtidefallingstar

I borrowed Philip Hoare's Risingtidefallingstar from the library purely on the recommendation of The Reluctant Dragon, because Susan and I seem to share similar tastes!

This is one of those books that is difficult to classify. It's part memoir, part nature study, part philosophical musing, part biography, all twining around the subject of the ocean. Hoare recounts the personal histories of various figures (Herman Melville, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stephen Tennant, Wilfrid Owen and others) whose lives were shaped by the sea in different ways, finding unexpected echoes and resonances between them, across time and space.

But this is also a very personal story about Hoare himself and his own obsession with the ocean (he has written two previous books about the sea). It's also a love letter to David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (though neither the film nor the performer is named).

Risingtidefallingstar is a meditative book which kept surprising me, like a wave rising up underneath you. The best way to approach it is just to spread your arms, lie back and surrender, and let it drift you where it will.

4.2.19

Histories of the Unexpected

My elder daughter asked for this book for Christmas after listening to the associated podcast, and it proved surprisingly difficult to get hold of. I think Readings had to order it in for us specially! So my reward for all that effort was to kidnap it and read it myself first... What? She has all this VCE reading to do, she doesn't have time to waste on this kind of frivolity!

I haven't heard it myself, but I can see that Histories of the Unexpected has the perfect format for a podcast. Sam Willis and James Daybell take an everyday object (the moustache, scars, clouds, chimneys) and track its evolution, appearance across different cultures, or strange moments in time, to create a quirky but informative chapter, which always links to the next subject.

For instance, the chapter on Holes starts with a racy story of sixteenth century fornication observed through a hole in the wall; explores the history of priest holes built to shelter Elizabethan priests in recusant Catholic households; discusses other hiding places in walls now being discovered by modern laser scanners; mentions treasure hoards hidden in holes in the ground; talks about how objects can be lost from holes in pockets and later found by archaeologists; laments the damage caused by bookworms chewing holes in paper; and finishes up with holes in linen being mended by the unfortunate inmates of Magdalene Laundries... which links to the next chapter, the history of beds.

Broken up into easily digestible tidbits, this is a great book for browsing. I ended up reading a chapter a day. Overall, it's too thick a book to consume in one go, but it's clearly not designed for that. Like a podcast, best swallowed one tasty bite at a time.

1.2.19

Geordie

Geordie was published in 1950 (though it was written during the war) and turned into a film shortly thereafter. I assume that after the horrors of war, people were in the mood for a gentle tale about an innocent Highlander who finds himself putting the shot for Britain in the Olympics in faraway America (though actually the 1956 Olympics were held in Melbourne, rather than Boston, as the novel surmises).

Though it's pitched as a sweet, amusing story about a gentle giant and his love, wee Jeanie, and the rapacious Helga who sets her lusty sights on our naive hero, I found David Walker's novel pretty irritating. I have Scottish ancestry and Scottish friends, and I found myself bristling at the patronising, condescending tone of the book, the thick dialect and the thick heads of the Scottish characters. Also, this copy was missing twenty pages in the middle (to be honest, I don't think that affected my enjoyment).

But I can't deny, Geordie is way buff. Check out that cover! How can anyone resist a man in a kilt? No wonder Helga got carried away.

29.1.19

How Nell Scored

How's that for a title? Settle down, it's not what you think. How Nell Scored is in fact an old-fashioned adventure story, set in New Zealand, involving a shipwreck, stolen pearls, and a cross-country trek by the eponymous young heroine (who is forced to hide up a tree at one point, though probably less gracefully than depicted on the cover).

I think this book was first published in 1933, and it certainly shows its age -- the two sons of the family are both away at school, being educated, while the two daughters stay at home to help on the farm. Not fair, or even particularly logical, since the boys will presumably inherit the farm eventually. The book opens with Nell exhorting her sister not to cry in front of their parents, and shaking her vigorously to drive her point home.

Bessie Marchant was an insanely prolific English author who produced dozens of books like this, often set in exotic locations: Ceylon, Sudan, Uruguay, Canada. She married a clergyman with the gorgeous name of Jabez Ambrose Comfort -- maybe it was the name that appealed, because he was 28 years older than her. It's easy to mock Marchant's output and her far-flung settings (she doesn't seem to have ever visited any of the places she wrote about) but she did challenge the gender sterotypes of her time by putting young girls in the middle of the kinds of adventures that usually featured boys. So good on you, Bessie.

27.1.19

Illuminae

Can I confess that my heart sank a little when I saw the thickness of this novel? And that I cursed the name of the book group member who suggested we read it, then quit the group? (Sorry Heather -- I forgive you).

Because it turned out that Illuminae was a lot of fun to read, and it must have been even more fun to write. Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (disclaimer: I met them both at a dinner a few years ago, round the time this book came out, and they were both lovely) have collaborated to create an unconventional narrative, stitched together from purported transcripts of security briefings, private text messages, surveillance reports... and the inner thoughts of a rogue computer...

This immediately gives Illuminae a distinctive look and feel; but to Kaufman and Kristoff's credit, the substance of the story matches the style. Set mainly on three stranded spaceships, there is a space plague that creates violent paranoia in its victims, a secret mining base, missing family members, and a pair of smart teens who were inconveniently negotiating a break-up at the very moment their home was blown to pieces. How Ezra and Kady manage to reconnect, and then cooperate to survive and fight back is at the core of the story.

I enjoyed this book a lot. There are two more volumes in the Illuminae Files, and I'm sure they are just as satisfying as the first.