14.9.20

Are We Nearly There Yet?

 

Ben Hatch's 2011 bestseller, Are We Nearly There Yet? arrived in a mystery box of books that Elder Daughter and I treated ourselves to earlier in lockdown. When I chose it from the box, I thought it might be a mildly diverting companion to Bill Bryson's Road to Little Dribbling, another amusing travelogue of Great Britain. But it proved to be much better than that.

Hatch's account of travelling round the UK with his wife and two kids (both under four) researching a family-friendly guidebook is definitely amusing. The usual tribulations of parenting young kids (lost toys, food meltdowns, poo and vomit) are added to a punishing timetable that can require up to four or five 'attractions' per day. Add to that some darker episodes, including a serious car accident, inexplicable pain and hospitalisation (Ben has a kidney stone), and raking over the marital coals as their travels lead them down memory lane to the sites of childhood holidays, first houses and first jobs.

But the real gravitas of this book is provided by the illness and death of Ben's father which unfolds over the months of their trip. Sir David Hatch joined the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as comic luminaries like John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden, but he diverted into producing, becoming a BBC bigwig. Young Ben rebelled against his larger-than-life father, and his reflections on this rebellion and their ultimate gradual understanding (not explicit, because they are English, after all) is the most moving strand of this story.

Ben Hatch has also written several novels, one of which was published this year. With his impeccable comic timing, ear for dialogue and acute observational skills on display in this memoir, I'm interested to see what he's come up with.

7.9.20

The Road to Little Dribbling

 

I was quite startled to realise, when I went looking, how many books by Bill Bryson are lined up on my shelves. There are his many travel memoirs, like this one, and Down Under, his book about Australia; his popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything; his wonderful history of domestic life in the West, At Home, and I'm sure there are others tucked away that I didn't spot. I've certainly read more of his books than I actually own, and there are plenty I haven't read yet, like his new history of the human body, which sounds like fun.

Bill Bryson is an utterly reliable literary companion. He is the genial, charming, slightly grumpy uncle (he has grown grumpier with age, I find) who is always ready to whip out a fascinating fact or a bizarre anecdote as you stroll around together. It's easy to dip in and out of his books; they are always interesting, never demanding, invariably good fun, sometimes poignant, sometimes cross.

The Road to Little Dribbling is a kind of sequel to Notes From a Small Island in which Bryson wanders around his adopted home of Great Britain, often delighted by what he observes but occasionally annoyed -- mostly by what he sees as people taking for granted the things that delight him and thus paving the way for their destruction. He adores the English countryside and hates seeing it despoiled by litter or unsightly development. He loves the fact that national parks are places where people live, not areas of wilderness specially cordoned off (I hadn't realised this either and I've always been somewhat bemused by UK real estate listings headed 'Houses in National Parks.')

Of course, this veneer of relaxed charm belies the huge effort that goes on beneath the surface of the writing -- the extensive research, the search for the precise phrase that brings a smile, the actual hoofing it around the country and actually visiting these places. Bryson makes it all look so easy, but to produce book after book of such reliable enjoyment is very hard work. Respect, Bill.

31.8.20

Mansfield Park

 

I know I've read Mansfield Park before, and I've seen at least one film version, but this least popular of Jane Austen's novels hadn't left much of an impression. It's a long, complicated novel, and it suffered in this reading from the fact that I went off and read (the immensely long) The Other Bennet Sister after I'd started it, and I'd forgotten all the characters and their complex interrelationships in the meantime, and had to learn them all again. (This was rendered more difficult because I was reading on the Kindle, so I couldn't simply flick back and skim the pages as required.)

But, unlike some critics (including Claire Tomalin, who wrote the Jane Austen biography that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place), I found Mansfield Park a very satisfying and intriguing book. Claire Tomalin describes it as a flawed work, because the supposed villains of the piece, the Crawford siblings, are so much more attractive than the supposed heroine, meek Fanny Price.

Well, let me declare it now: I like Fanny Price. And I've found support for my position online from other introverted, quiet, anxious, but inwardly strong readers who identify strongly with shy but staunch Fanny. Mary Crawford is much closer to the conventional Austen heroine, like Lizzy Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. She is lively, witty, sparkling -- okay, I admit it, she does sound superficially more attractive than Fanny. But in this novel, she is not the heroine; she is the rival who comes dancing onto the stage crying, look at me! while Fanny fades into the shadows. (This is why Mansfield Park doesn't work for the cinema -- they have to turn Fanny into a more 'typical' sparkly Austen heroine, and the whole point of the novel is lost.)

But in the end, it's Fanny who sticks to her principles, despite the mockery and outright anger of her rich relatives, and it's quiet Fanny who wins the day (and the best husband). Hooray! Joan Klingel Ray makes a persuasive argument that Fanny is actually a victim of child abuse, so her survival and her thriving is even more satisfying.

Mansfield Park is Austen's most socially nuanced novel. It explicitly examines class and privilege. The fact is that poor relation Fanny can't afford to act with the cavalier flirtatiousness of her rich cousins; without money, she lacks protection from society's harsh judgement, and faces the very real threat of crushing poverty and extinguishment. Her physical weakness reflects her social vulnerability. She has to be a 'prig' -- her principles are her armour.

I think this might be another reason why Mansfield Park is difficult for a modern reader. The sins of the Crawfords and Bertrams seem so inconsequential to us -- putting on a play? Totally harmless. Flirting? Who cares! Leaving your husband? You go, girl, be your best you. But all these actions in Austen's time had very real and serious moral consequences, consequences which only Fanny, because of her disadvantage, can see clearly.

Fanny is a quiet heroine, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, and like Anne, it's her loyalty and faith which ultimately prove her strength. Funnily enough, Persuasion is my favourite Austen -- maybe time for a re-read?

26.8.20

The Time of Green Magic


When I grow up, I would like to be Hilary McKay. In my mind she ranks with the classic writers for children that I loved most when I was young -- Noel Streatfeild, Penelope Lively, E. Nesbit -- a safe pair of hands, an ever-reliable story-teller, someone with whom you can relax and enjoy the ride.

The Time of Green Magic is the kind of novel I wish I'd written myself. It's a gentle tale of a blended family, a spooky house and mysterious magic, linked with books and art. It touches on feelings of displacement and belonging, friendship and connection, but it's not an 'issue' book, it's a warm, often funny, touching story which wraps around the reader like a comforting quilt.

Thoroughly enjoyable.

23.8.20

Ghost Empire

 

I picked up Ghost Empire from Brotherhood Books and I feel as if I've been reading it for a long time -- but a very engrossing, entertaining time it's been. The Byzantine Empire is a huge hole in my historical knowledge, a vague impression of golden icons, labyrinthine politics, and purple shadows. Richard Fidler's masterly and very readable history of this thousand-year empire has finally shone some light on this dark corner.

For instance, I had no idea that when Emperor Constantine moved his base to Constantinople after the sack of Rome in 330 (well, let's face it, I had only the haziest idea that that was how Constantinople started in the first place) that he and his successors still regarded themselves as Romans, albeit Christianised Romans -- right up until the city and empire was lost to the Persians in 1453, they were still calling themselves Romans! 'Byzantine' was a label slapped on them by later chroniclers.

As anyone knows who has listened to Fidler's Conversations series on the ABC, he is the perfect companion for a journey like this -- intelligent, lively, and well-informed. He leads us through a complex and confusing history with a solid rope of fascinating anecdote and piquant trivia (apparently the Emperors all wore special thigh-high purple boots -- so very disco!) and threads through an account of a trip to Istanbul with his teenage son which brings a personal angle to the uncovering of history. (Joe sounds delightful, too.)

At nearly 500 pages, Ghost Empire was a big commitment, but it's well-illustrated and broken up into bite-sized chunks. Well worth the effort, and I think I might look out for Richard Fidler's books about Prague and the Icelandic sagas, too.

14.8.20

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

I've been wanting to sample Ambelin Kwaymullina's The Tribe series for a long time so I snapped up The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf when it popped up on Brotherhood Books. This is the first volume of the series and it does a terrific job of setting up the post-apocalyptic world of Ashala and her friends, young Illegals living with forbidden abilities -- Firestarters, Rumblers who can cause earthquakes, people who can fly or alter memories. 

Ashala herself is a Sleepwalker, someone who can do the impossible while she sleeps. (Unfortunately I didn't realise till almost the end of the book that I was pronouncing Ashala's name wrongly. It's supposed to be Ash-shay-la, but in my head I was saying Ash-shar-la. Whoops!)

This is a fast-paced, action-packed young adult fantasy with a wonderful grounding in Indigenous lore that sets it apart from your standard dystopian novel. The Tribe features strong, sympathetic characters and the plot is satisfyingly twisty. There are two further volumes in the Tribe trilogy, and I'm also keen to read Kwaymullina's latest, the award-winning Catching Teller Crow, which sounds amazing. 

31.7.20

Too Much and Never Enough


I couldn't resist buying Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough on the Kindle after seeing her interviewed on A Late Show, and I wolfed it down quickly (partly while waiting in the queue while my daughter had a COVID test -- negative, thankfully).  This short but punchy book is sub-titled How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, and it's a sobering account of life in the Trump family which certainly helps to explain the sometimes baffling behaviour of the current US President.

Donald Trump's father, Fred, was a German immigrant who made his fortune developing and managing real estate in Brooklyn. The eldest son, Freddy, was being groomed to take over the family business, but Freddy wasn't suited to real estate and briefly became a pilot. Fred Sr despised this career and referred to him as 'a bus driver in the sky' and Fred Jr ended up crawling back to the family firm. His father constantly belittled and criticised him, and greatly preferred young Donald, whose arrogance and meanness displayed the 'killer' instincts that Fred Sr admired. Thus Donald was rewarded for the traits we see today -- ruthless lack of empathy and compassion, deriding the perceived weakness of others, talking himself up, an inability to see anything he says or does as anything other than 'the greatest' or the most 'tremendous.' 

According to Mary Trump (young Fred's daughter and Donald's niece), the Trump family was brought up to value nothing but money (and in Donald's case, TV ratings). Any sign of vulnerability was denied or mocked. Young Donald Trump received both 'too much' (financial support and approval from his father) and 'never enough' (the unconditional love and security that a small child needs to thrive). So President Trump has ended up as a blustering, apparently confident figure who knows deep down that he is hollow inside, terrified of the failure and weakness that lurks within.

An enlightening but scary read.

28.7.20

The Other Bennet Sister


I had reserved The Other Bennet Sister from the library before COVID-19 hit; I managed to collect it during the brief (oh so brief!) window between Lockdown I and Lockdown II, and I feel as if I've been reading it for weeks (in fact I have been reading it for weeks). I finished it just as the return chutes were closed again, so I will be hosting it on my bedside table for a few weeks more. But it has been a welcome guest.

Janice Hadlow's very new (2020) novel takes on a subject who has always been close to my heart, namely Mary Bennet, Lizzy Bennet's plain and pompous sister from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, whose piano playing is famously dismissed by her father announcing, 'You have delighted us long enough.' I've always felt sorry for Mary, eclipsed by her prettier, more flirtatious sisters, always overlooked, trying to be intellectual but only succeeding in making herself ridiculous.

Hadlow is also sympathetic toward poor Mary, and gives her a narrative where she is the centre of the story. She plausibly traces Mary's childhood as the middle sister, shut out from the closeness of both the elder daughters and also the younger two, scorned by her mother because she is plain and wears spectacles, overlooked by her father because she lacks Lizzy's sparkling charm. Mary earnestly tries to improve herself but without guidance, makes heavy weather of her studies (as well as the piano).

Over the course of this extremely long novel, Mary finds refuge with her kind aunt and uncle Gardiner (who also help out Lizzy in the original story) and after her own trials, finds an ending as happy as Elizabeth Bennet's own. 

There is plenty here for the Austen fan -- battles between sense and sensibility, plenty of prejudice and pride, dollops of persuasion, and cameos from many of the characters from Pride and Prejudice, some of whom are also given a more sympathetic portrayal than originally allowed by their inventor (notably Mr Collins).

At 658 pages and 95 chapters, one can hardly claim that The Other Bennet Sister is 'perfect in being much too short' but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

25.7.20

Just My Type


Judging from the huge number of different editions I found on the internet when looking for a cover image, I would guess that Simon Garfield's Just My Type has been wildly successful. It examines a ubiquitous but often overlooked aspect of modern life: the font.

Just My Type is an entertaining look at the history of printing and publishing, the development of different typefaces, and the careers of various font inventors. I must confess to being pretty font-blind myself, barely able to distinguish a serif from a sans serif and totally incapable of justifying a preference for one font over another (I generally write my rough drafts in a different font for each book, picking typefaces more or less randomly -- currently I'm working in Garamond, an earlier draft of the same manuscript is in Avenir, my last novel was submitted in Century Schoolbook).

That most reviled font, Comic Sans (which I'm ashamed to admit I frequently used for newsletters twenty years ago when I worked at Warner Music) was invented to accompany a 'friendly' software assistance package when the designer noticed that Times New Roman was too stiff and formal, and hardly deserves the hatred heaped upon it, though I groan like anyone else when I see it on the side of a van. I must say that reading this book has made me want to watch the documentary Helvetica, about a font which has apparently taken over the world (without me noticing).

I don't know if Just My Type will make me any more observant about fonts, but I'm going to try to pay more attention from now on.

20.7.20

Verity Sparks, Lost and Found


I was so pleased to see the second Verity Sparks book, Lost and Found, pop up on Brotherhood Books recently, because despite very much enjoying The Truth about Verity Sparks some years ago, I had never got around to reading it. And I very much enjoyed this sequel, too.

Verity has been reunited with her father and they have relocated (along with several friends from book one) to Australia, more specifically Melbourne. It's always fun to read books set in your historic home town! Lost and Found divides into two parts and two mysteries, one episode set at Verity's school, the next in the Macedon Ranges. 

Verity might have lost her gift for finding things (not sure how to pronounce teleagtivism) but she still has her wits, her kindness and her sense of adventure, all of which stand her in good stead when trouble arrives. As it's seven years since this book was published, I doubt that there will be any more Verity Sparks stories, which is rather sad. But it's lovely to have two!

13.7.20

The Reef


My friend Chris (my yoga teacher, not my piano teacher) had been talking about this book and then it popped up on Brotherhood Books. The subtitle of the book is A Passionate History, and Iain McCalman obviously does feel a passionate enthusiasm for the extraordinary natural wonder that is Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and its history.

McCalman has structured the book in twelve stories, each focused on an individual or a group who interacted with the reef in some way -- mostly white naturalists, colonists or ecologists, though McCalman is careful to acknowledge and pay tribute to the long interdependence of Australia's Indigenous peoples with the reef. 

McCalman brings a sense of wonder and awe to the history of the reef which made me long to see it with my own eyes -- I have never visited the reef and I fear now I never will. The reef has been, and is being, irreparably damaged by climate change, a sorry development discussed in the final chapter (and possibly the impetus for the whole book). This book is seven years old, and things have only got worse.

Younger readers will enjoy Kirsty Murray and David Hartley's Strangers on Country, which tells some of the same stories of shipwreck and rescue canvassed here. They really are incredible tales!

9.7.20

In The Woods


Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have developed a huge writer-crush on Tana French and I have now read all of her books. Weirdly I seem to have saved her first book, In the Woods, until last, and I have already watched the TV adaptation, which combined this novel with the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Likeness.

Even though In the Woods was published to huge acclaim and kickstarted French's highly successful career, for me it was the least satisfying and least accomplished of her novels. She has only got better as she's gone along. There are some themes here which French has returned to in later books -- the almost mystical bond of friendship, the power of memory and self-deception in the stories we tell ourselves, a touch of the supernatural.

Since it has been on TV and the book has been out for a long time, I don't think I'm spoiling too much to say that there is an element of the mystery in this story which is left frustratingly unresolved. The big twist of the novel also relies on the reader trusting a certain character, which I never did from the beginning. It's not that In the Woods is a bad book by any means -- it's still several cuts above your average murder mystery -- but I'm glad it wasn't my introduction to Tana French.

In the Woods came from the local library, which was briefly running a click and collect service for reservations. I'm guessing now that we are back under lockdown, that service will cease. It was good while it lasted!

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.