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.

21.3.19

Best Friends, Worst Enemies

This book carries an unwieldy title Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, and an equally weighty line up of authors: Michael Thompson and Catherine O'Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen. Phew! However, it's an accessible and interesting examination of children's friendships and what Thompson calls 'social cruelty,' possibly a better term for what we normally refer to as bullying.

Thompson traces the evolution of children's social relationships, from infancy through primary school 'best friends', to mixed friendship groups to romantic pairings. It occurred to me that I might have missed some stages in this progression! I attended lots of different primary schools so most of my friendships were fairly fleeting (though I did have an intense 'best friendship' with Eva Kumpulainen in primary school in Mt Hagen -- she moved to the US and I became an atheist, which sadly proved the death knell for our faltering penpal relationship). Then I went to an all-girls high school, which meant that I missed out on meeting any boys my own age until I hit university. So I went straight from 'best friends with girls' to 'romantic pairings' without practising friendship with boys in between... This was a serious handicap to my social and romantic life for many years. I've watched with envy as my daughters have formed  a range of relationships with both boys and girls -- some easy, some intense, some difficult, some antagonistic -- all helpful.

Thompson and his co-authors emphasise the deep need that children (and adults) feel for connection and recognition from their peers, and offer sensible advice for schools and parents about when and how to intervene when things go wrong, and when to hang back and let kids work it out for themselves. A useful and engaging book.



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?