17.10.17

Iris and the Tiger

This book was a gift from my wonderfully talented friend Sandra Eterovic, who made the cover art and the internal illustrations. She is so clever!

Iris and the Tiger is the first junior fiction (I think!) from accomplished local YA author Leanne Hall. Twelve year old Iris has travelled to Spain to meet her eccentric great-aunt Ursula; she is also on a secret mission for her parents, to check out any possible rival heirs to Ursula's estate, Bosque de Nubes (Forest of Clouds). But nothing is as it seems in this magical place, and Iris soon finds a multitude of secrets to explore and riddles to solve.

This is a fantastic concept for a story, expertly combining a cast of intriguing characters, an enticing setting, and the world of surrealist art. Iris and the Tiger has a marvellous, mysterious atmosphere, where sunflowers play tennis on an overgrown court, giant steaks drape over balconies, trees have eyeballs, and tigers might escape from paintings to run wild in the woods. In fact there is so much going on that I found myself occasionally muddled about what exactly was going on; this is a novel that rewards close attention, and there is plenty of fun for adult readers picking up the artsy allusions. This is a gorgeous book, inside and out.

13.10.17

A Leg To Stand On

One of the ugliest covers I think I've ever seen! But I'm now committed to reading everything that Oliver Sacks has ever written, so I didn't pay any attention to the packaging, and dived into the contents of A Leg To Stand On.

This slim volume, first published in 1984, is Sacks' account of an accident and serious injury he sustained as a young man, falling down a mountain in Norway. The operation to mend the injury went well, but in the aftermath of recovery, Sacks experienced an unexpected and to him, inexplicable, sense of alienation from his own limb. He felt that this leg was an utterly foreign object, unconnected to his sense of self, unable to be controlled, horrifying and even disgusting. Eventually this feeling was overcome, but not by thinking and brooding -- only by unself-consciously doing and actually using the leg, was it joyfully re-integrated and truly recovered.

The most striking thing about this experience was the degree to which Sacks felt unable to communicate how he was feeling to the doctors, nurses and therapists, even with the advantage of his own medical standing. Only with fellow patients was he really able to express what he'd been through and discover that such feelings were quite common. Hopefully this book, and Sacks' research, has led to greater awareness.

Sacks also expresses beautifully the journey of every patient -- from the intense terror and dread of being struck down by injury or illness, the relief of rescue and sense of safety when treatment commences, the delicious sensation of being excused from normal life, when it's enough just to be still alive, and the ultimate chafing at restriction and desire to reconnect with the world again. I found this memoir extremely moving, in every sense.

12.10.17

The Mirror Image Ghost

Picked this up at Brown and Bunting because I admire the powerful Marianne Dreams by the same author (Catherine Storr). Annoyingly, Marianne Dreams has gone missing from my bookshelves, I must have lent it to someone and neglected to chase it up.

I wasn't aware of The Mirror Image Ghost but it's an interesting, eerie little book. It's probably too light on plot to appeal to most of today's junior readers, but I thought it wove together several story strands with deftness and subtlety, and I would have loved it if it had been around when I was about ten or eleven.

Lisa's mother has just remarried and now Lisa finds herself saddled with a French step-sister and -brother whom she intensely dislikes. The tensions of a blended family are well-drawn. Her beloved grandfather lost his family in the Second World War but no-one wants to talk about exactly what happened (the adult reader can guess easily, but a child reader is led gently toward the revelation of the Holocaust). Meanwhile Lisa is glimpsing snippets of the past in an old mirror; will she discover the secrets on her own? And is she herself a part of the story?

The Mirror Image Ghost doesn't have the punch of Marianne Dreams, and though it was first published in 1994, it has the feel of a much older book. Not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned, but it might put other people off!

11.10.17

Run, Pip, Run

Thankfully, the junior fiction selection for the Convent book group Homelessness theme was much more enjoyable than the YA book! Run, Pip, Run was a deserved winner of the 2016 Readings Children's Book Prize, by debut Australian author J.C. Jones.

Pip's tenth birthday starts horribly when her carer, gruff old Sully, collapses with a stroke and goes off to hospital. With no other family, Pip is determined not to end up in the hands of 'the welfare' and goes on the run. If this was a current YA book, it would probably descend into dark and grim territory, but Pip is brave and resourceful, and her adventures are handled with a light touch that emphasises the help she receives along the way.

Run, Pip, Run is a terrific read for boys and girls alike.

10.10.17

I'll Be There

Bought on the Kindle for our next Convent book group meeting, with the theme of 'Homelessness.' We've actually already read Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting By Sevens, but I'll Be There was her first novel, after much experience writing screenplays.

This was a hugely successful debut, so Sloan doesn't need any boosting from me, and I must confess, this novel didn't really work for me. The story certainly rocketed along, with plenty of action, loads of feels, and all the loose ends tied up neatly at the end. Sweet Emily and sensitive Sam, our star-crossed lovers, seemed too perfect to be true, and came across as younger than seventeen and eighteen respectively. It's no surprise that Sloan, with her screenwriting background, is a master of pace and plot. And the themes of caring and compassion are definitely worthy ones.

But the writing style was just so flat!  
And then... and then... and then... (End para)  
It was true. (separate para for emphasis)

Plod, plod, plod! I know this sounds like a contradiction, because the plot was fast-moving, chopped into swift digestible chunks -- but within each short chapter, the prose was painfully clunky. There were a few bonus chapters of the sequel included at the end of the Kindle edition, but (gulp) I couldn't bring myself to bother.

9.10.17

Elidor

I've had Alan Garner's third novel, Elidor, on my bookshelf for I don't know how long, but I'm ashamed to say that until now, I've never actually read it. I think I feared another Weirdstone disappointment. But I needn't have worried -- Elidor is a much, much better book than either Weirdstone or The Moon of Gomrath, and in this novel, you can see Garner truly beginning to come into his powers.

Despite the high fantasy cover, Elidor is actually grounded firmly in our world. The excursion of the four children into the mysterious, blighted land of Elidor comes early in the book, and it's brief. They return to their own world as guardians of four precious items, disguised in our world as a chipped bowl, a 'sword' of wooden planks, a stone and an iron bar. The children hide the treasures, but it's not long before the enemies of Elidor come searching.

The everyday creepiness of the Treasures' power is wonderful -- their 'charge' interferes with radio signals and electricity, making kitchen tools come to life even when they're not plugged in. This part of the story reminded me of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, where high fantasy and the everyday  intersect in a similar way. I also loved the humdrum disguise of the Treasures -- and which imaginative child hasn't known that the cracked china dug up in the garden was really a magical chalice, or waved a stick for an enchanted sword? Or was that just me?

Elidor has been criticised for not elaborating more fully on the alternate world; but I think it's all the more powerful for being elusive and oblique. The predicament of Nick, the eldest, who tries to explain away their experience as a mass hallucination, foreshadows the suffering of the adult Colin in Boneland, who also has to deal with the aftermath of a magical encounter that can't be rationally accounted for. Originally written as a radio play, Elidor is a taste of wonders to come in Red Shift and The Owl Service.

6.10.17

A Thousand Acres

I couldn't find an image of the edition of Jane Smiley's 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, but this is pretty close. My copy was released as a film tie-in (the movie was directed by Aussie Jocelyn Moorhouse!) and the cover put me off for a long time. You know when you have a book sitting next to your bed for months, and then finally you force yourself to read it, and you think, wow, this book is really good, I wish I'd read it sooner? Yeah... that.

I picked up this novel because it had been recommended so many times as a great book club read in a book I read about book clubs (meta, hey). Set on a farm in rural Iowa, this prosaic story felt more remote from my life than some of the fantasy novels I've read recently.

I've described the story as prosaic, but that's unfair. It's a re-telling of Shakespeare's King Lear, a play with which I'm not familiar, so I kept a Wikipedia summary of the plot open beside me as I read. Not that I needed it -- the major plot points and characters are loosely paralleled, but it's the emotional truth of the tale, and the harrowing, complicated pain that families can hide, which is the heart of the novel. This was a clear, adult, deeply satisfying read, filled with hard wisdom.

5.10.17

Memory in a House

A quick read between the cracks -- very kindly lent by Pia at book group, where we were discussing The Chimneys of Green Knowe. I devoured this book in a single sitting! It's Lucy Boston's account of her rescue and restoration of the house that Green Knowe is based on, complete with floor plans and photographs. I am going to copy the floor plans and tuck them away for reference with my Green Knowe collection so I can picture the house more clearly.

It turns out that the Manor, Hemingford Grey, is much smaller than I imagined from reading Boston's exquisite novels -- it's almost just two-up, two-down, with extra bedrooms in the attic. The core of the house is very old indeed, a Norman hall from the twelfth century, with alterations, additions and demolitions in the generations since. Boston painstakingly stripped away the awkward adaptations of the intervening years and allowed the history of the house to breathe. Since her death, the Manor has been cared for by her daughter-in-law Diana, and can be viewed by the public. While Green Knowe is home to a number of beloved spirits, the Manor also hosts some ghostly presences which are less well defined.

It's obvious that Boston's love and respect for the house became the over-riding passion of her life, and the direct inspiration for her writing. It seems that every book she wrote had its roots in the house, not just the Green Knowe books, but also her adult novels and memoirs.

It was lovely, and unexpected, to discover that Boston was also a noted quilter -- her patchworks gave her the idea for The Chimneys of Green Knowe. Her designs can be found on the internet, and they are truly beautiful, works of art in their own right.

2.10.17

Not If I See You First

Another book read in a galloping hurry, as our book group meeting is tomorrow, and the library didn't supply Eric Lindstrom's Not If I See You First until last Friday. It's fat, but the print is large, fortunately, so I was able to race through it.

As I read the first chapter my heart sank slightly, as we discover in short order that our narrator, Parker, is blind; her mother died in the car accident that took her sight; and her father has also recently died. To add to her trauma, her aunt and family have moved into her home to care for her and insist on doing things for her when she's actually very independent. This seemed to set the scene for one of those YA books I loathe, where off screen family death raises the stakes artificially high, AND we have disability thrown in for good measure. Plus the teens are all Fault-in-Our-Stars-style bitter and whip-smart. I was all set to hate this novel!

Well, it improved as it went along (though it probably went along a little too long for my liking). The conceit of the blind narrator works really well, and it was cleverly used by the author a few times to test the reader's assumptions, too, about race and appearance. We are in the same position as Parker -- we can only judge characters on what they say, not how they look. This means that Parker gets a few things wrong (that's kind of the theme of the novel) but it also means that she has to judge people on their actions, rather than their appearance. (I guess this means that a film adaptation won't work for this book!)

I learned a lot about the experience of a blind teenager, and had my own assumptions tested -- for instance, music is not super-important for Parker. She can't waste precious audio-book listening time on music if she wants to keep up with classmates, and she can't multi-task listening to music with reading or jigsaw puzzles or flicking through her phone. I also liked the way she wears a blindfold as a fashion statement. For me, the book dragged a little during the angsty relationship conversations; but it really took off when Parker runs. I would have liked the balance tilted further in that direction.

1.10.17

Brave New World

Long story short: in a burst of enthusiasm after receiving an NGV membership for her birthday, Alice signed up for an NGV book group session about Brave New World. She tried to read it, and listened to an audio dramatisation, but couldn't get into it, and with time running out, gave her ticket to me instead.

I first found this ancient paperback on my grandmother's bookshelf as a child of ten or eleven (I think it belonged to my mum). At the time I found it mystifying but compelling; I must have re-read it at high school (the inscription on the front page says I was in Year 11), but I have no memory of studying it.

The book group discussion was interesting (if Alice had gone, she would have been the youngest person there by about thirty years!) We all agreed that for a novel written eighty years ago, some elements were frighteningly prescient: the relentless consumerism, the constant distraction of shallow entertainment preventing deep thought, the lack of privacy and solitude. (My best line was 'FOMO is our soma.') Of course Huxley didn't foresee the internet, or seem to take into account the likely future automation of ... well, everything, apparently... but in the last part of the book it's explained that this was restricted deliberately, to give the population a necessary level of activity -- a precaution which our capitalist system seems unlikely to follow. Huxley's biggest 'miss' was the degree of social liberalisation that has occured since the 1930's -- BNW is sexually progressive, but horribly misogynist and racist.

Overall, we agreed it was a chilling and still highly relevant warning. It's terrifying how classic dystopian novels seem more relevant than ever at the moment -- Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale. We may not be too close to a cloned, artificially stratified society, but many of Huxley's other predictions are uncomfortably near the bone.

21.9.17

The Moon of Gomrath

It was a fascinating exercise, after reading Alan Garner's Boneland, to return to the previous book in the series, written more than fifty years before. The Moon of Gomrath was first published in 1963; my edition is from 2002. (I say 'return' but in fact I don't think I have ever read this book before, though I'm sure I've read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the first volume of the trilogy.)

The Moon of Gomrath and Boneland, separated by decades, are very different in style. Boneland is an adult's book, spare, powerful, layered with meaning, but so stripped back it's almost like deciphering poetry. In contrast, Gomrath is high fantasy, with elves and dwarves, a wizard and a witch, who speak in heightened language. 'Are we to talk until all that has ever slept has woken?' That kind of thing. The two children, Colin and Susan, remain largely blank ciphers. They are brave, curious, rescourceful, as required by the story, but as people they remain utterly opaque.

I'm glad I read Gomrath as it illuminated several elements of Boneland -- Colin's memories of being held prisoner by the Morrigan, the witch-figure of the early books (who may be revealed as a more complex figure in the last volume), his hatred of rhodedendrons, and of course the familiar landscape, which is simultaneously concrete and numinous.

In Boneland, Colin has been left behind to cope with the tumultuous events of the first two books. There is a theory that story that unfolds in these books is actually the attempt of a juvenile Colin to make sense of a more prosaic disappearance of his sister. It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not sure I buy it!

I don't think I'll seek out The Weirdstone. Garner himself has described it as 'a fairly bad book' and when I picked it up a few years ago I was dismayed at the first few pages. If it falls my way, I'll take another look, for the sake of Boneland, but otherwise I'll let it lie.

18.9.17

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

A hugely entertaining concept, executed in perfect, chatty style. Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England provides a tourist's handbook to the fourteenth century, focusing on the details of everyday life -- food, clothing, what you can expect to see in a town, the sights of London (mostly gone now), the perils of medical attention, how the legal system works and much more.

This book gives a terrific overview of medieval English society and beliefs, but it's also packed with fascinating titbits. None of those sturdy peasant folk would have worn any knitted garments, because knitting hadn't been invented yet. Rabbits were only introduced to England in the twelfth century! No potatoes, tomatoes or (surprisingly to me) carrots. English wine was made until the end of the century when the weather changed. The Black Death, mid-century, turned the feudal structure on its head as villages were deserted, lords competed for scarce labour, and a whole country mourned the loss of a quarter of the population. Men's clothes underwent a complete transformation over a hundred years, from long formless sacks to tight, short, sexy doublets and hose; meanwhile, women's fashions stayed almost static! That must be the last time in Western history that's happened.

Finally, one of those strange coincidences that often occur in my reading journey: the last chapter, on literature, contained a discussion of the anonymous Gawain poet. As it happens, this poet and two of his poems, Gawain and The Green Knight and Pearl, were discussed on the Guardian reading group thread in the context of Alan Garner's Boneland, which contains many allusions to both poems for those who were alert to them. Funny how these links pop up so unexpectedly!

I raced through this book at top speed, learned heaps and had a wonderfully enjoyable trip to the Middle Ages.

16.9.17

The Chimneys of Green Knowe

Have you ever seen such a spoiler-y cover? Guess what, in the last chapter, the house burns down! In the US, the title is The Treasure of Green Knowe, which is just as revealing.

This book is a very old childhood favourite, first discovered in the Mt Hagen library. It was my favourite of all the Green Knowe books and I re-read it many times. For some reason, the first volume of the series, The Children of Green Knowe, wasn't in the library, and nor was A Stranger at Green Knowe, the one with the escaped gorilla -- many years later, when reading that one to a young Alice, she made me stop reading before the end, because she couldn't bear to hear what was to become of poor Hanno.

But I digress. The Convent book group is reading The Chimneys of Green Knowe because our theme next month is blindness. Young Tolly, staying with his great-grandmother at the ancient house of Green Knowe, is told the story of 18th century Susan, whose sea captain father brings her back Jacob as a companion. After many misadventures, and the final conflagration, the two triumph over their enemies, and Tolly uses what he's learned from their story to save the day.

There are several problematic elements of this book which didn't trouble me too much as a child, but which might make me think carefully before sharing it with a young person today. Jacob is purchased in a slave market in the Caribbean (though the author is careful to tell us that slavery is repugnant, and he is instantly set free -- however, he remains as a servant to the captain and to "Missy Susan" for the rest of his life.) He is described with every well-meaning but racist cliche you can think of: woolly hair, rolling eyes, sooty skin, the lot, and he is mercilessly bullied by Susan's older brother -- dressed in the livery of an organ-grinder's monkey, forced up a chimney and numerous other humiliations. But Jacob is no victim. He exacts his own revenges, both subtle and overt, and his lively spirit is never subdued.

There is a lot of racist language too, never explicitly condemned -- but as a child reader, I got the message that only the unpleasant characters used it. I wonder now if one reason I was so drawn to this book was because it dealt with friendship between black and white children, and at the time I was living in the heavily colonial atmosphere of 1970s PNG. There were black students at my international school, and I had some among my friends, but there weren't many of them. Perhaps unconsciously I was trying to make sense of it all?

One vivid image that stayed with me was the creepy embroidery that Susan's mother creates at the end of the book, made from human hair. That gave me the shivers. And she sews it at the behest of fortune-telling gypsies, who are described, by the way, in unambiguously racist terms that seriously disturbed me this time around. It's odd that Boston clearly feels sympathy for Jacob and the way he's treated, but can't seem to extend this same sympathy to the figures of the dirty, conniving, deceitful, greedy gypsies. Which is a shame.

14.9.17

The Anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader's The Anchoress has been on my radar since its release a couple of years ago. I love reading about nuns; one of my favourite books at high school was This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

The anchoress of the title is a kind of super-nun, not just committing herself to poverty, obedience and chastity, but renouncing the world entirely, vowing to live out her life of prayer and contemplation alone in a tiny, windowless stone cell attached to the side of the church. I must admit that when the demands of family and the modern world become too much, I can totally see the appeal of such a solitary, scholarly life!

But Sarah has other reasons apart from piety to wish for enclosure, and she doesn't find it so easy to separate herself from the outside world, or the demands of her body. Paradoxically, the sensory deprivation of her cell leads to enhanced sensitivity, from the subtle tastes of her bland food, the noises of village chatter and birdsong, to the touch of stone and paper. Like it or not, she is part of the village. Forbidden to speak to men (apart from priests), she is sought out by the village women for counsel or just a sympathetic ear. She is also haunted by the imagined ghosts of her predecessors -- holy Agnes and rebellious Isabella, who broke her vows. In the end, Sarah finds a middle way somewhere between the two.

You might think that reading about a woman shut up in a room would be about as interesting as watching paint dry. How wrong you would be. The tiny details of Sarah's daily existence become as significant to the reader as they are to her, and we are also privy to the wider politics of church and estate that make Sarah the centre of power struggles. I did wonder whether the 13th century villagers would be able to articulate their sense of unfairness with their lot as openly as they do here; but perhaps it's impossible to reproduce a medieval mindset that a modern reader would be able to comprehend.

A great, and unexpectedly absorbing read from an Australian author.

13.9.17

A Likely Lad

A birthday present for myself from Brown and Bunting! This poor old paperback from 1973 (first published in 1971) is foxed and mottled and probably lay in a cardboard box in somebody's garage for the last forty years. But I welcome it gladly into my collection.

I hadn't read A Likely Lad before, and it's set in the familiar late 19th century Gillian Avery milieu. Avery does a wonderful line in diffident children, which appeals to me hugely as a diffident child myself. Her protagonists are tormented by domineering adults, mortified by impudent siblings, and agonise over their own perceived failings. This time our hero is Willy Overs, a quiet, school-loving boy who is saddled with an ambitious father who dreams of Willy ascending the social ladder as a bumptious 'thruster'. Poor Willy knows that he doesn't have it in him, but while the adults around him feud and squabble, Willy's own innate kindness and sense of fairness end up winning the day in unexpected fashion.

I really enjoyed looking up the streets and suburbs of Manchester where this book is set. I discovered I could even see the imposing Manchester Town Hall, which plays an important symbolic part in the story, in impressive 3D! What did we do before Google Earth? I've consulted it for Boneland, Call the Midwife and now this novel, and it's added to my reading experience immensely -- not quite as good as visiting the setting, but still pretty satisfying.