16.9.18

The Golden Age

How time flies! I remember that Joan London's slim novel, The Golden Age, made all the best-of-the-year lists when it was published, which I vaguely thought was about a year ago? But now, it was way back in 2014.

I really enjoyed this novel. Short chapters, clear, vivid writing, poignant characters -- an easy read, but not a dumb one. Set in Perth in the mid-1950s, it centres on two young patients at a polio facility (the eponymous Golden Age, a pub in its former life), thoughtful Elsa and aspiring poet Frank, the son of Hungarian refugees. There's not a lot of plot, but the story meanders gently and tenderly between its characters, touching them lightly then moving on. My only quibble was the rather abrupt ending -- I wanted it to go on much longer, which is not something I often say these days!

I definitely want to read London's other novels now. This was beautiful. I've even lent it to my mum, who says she can't read books any more. I'll let you know how she goes with it.

11.9.18

The Stone Book Quartet

I have ordered Alan Garner's memoir, Where Shall We Run To? as a birthday present (unfortunately it's going to arrive a little late!). The Stone Book Quartet, the last remaining novel of Garner's I had yet to read, is the perfect preparation for it; this is Garner's most personal and autobiographical work. It consists of four very slender novellas -- almost short stories, really -- each centred on a single day in the life of a child of a different generation in Garner's family, with the last boy, William, growing up during WWII, a disguised version of Alan himself.

Though the quartet is so slim, as usual, Garner packs in a dense mass of material. There are no supernatural elements here, but a deep continuity of place and memory, where family stories and history intertwine. Mary's father shows her a secret, sacred place, deep inside the hill; her son, Joseph, a 'granny reardun' (I'm guessing illegitimate?) rejects his grandfather's stonecraft to apprentice himself as a smith; Joseph's son Robert gropes to find his own place in family tradition; and finally William shares his grandfather's last day as a blacksmith and inherits a craft of a different kind. Characters from different generations and neighbouring families shift in and out of focus, and objects vanish and reappear.

This is a book to treasure, a book that apparently came relatively easily to Garner, and it sings.

8.9.18

A Circling Star

I bought Mara Kay's A Circling Star because I'd seen so many loving remembrances of Kay's Masha books by people whose tastes I share. A Circling Star is not a Masha book, and I'm guessing it's one of Kay's lesser works. Like the Masha novels, this one is set in Imperial Russia (it took me ages to work out that it was in the 1850s). It tells the story of cheeky, impulsive Aniuta, who is sent to join the Imperial Theatre School (a real place!) to train for the Bolshoi Ballet. Students had their board and education fully paid for by the Emperor, and those who didn't make the grade as dancers were shunted into the drama course, or ended up as prop makers or scenery painters.

It wasn't until I'd nearly finished the book and was doing some idle googling that I discovered that some of the characters in the novel were actually real people, too! Anuita's love interest, the intense Liev Ivanov, who writes a ballet especially for her and whose heart she breaks, ended as a renowned choreographer (not as handsome in his Wikipedia photo as he is described in the book), responsible for The Nutcracker and parts of Swan Lake. Other teachers at the school, actors and dancers, also proved to be historical figures.

Published in 1973, A Circling Star felt much more old-fashioned. It was a comforting read, even though it was shot through with the usual rivalries and treachery common to ballet books, and the (to me) unusual setting lent it added interest. I think the Masha books would be better, though!

7.9.18

Busman's Honeymoon

A detective story with romantic interruptions, or a romance with detective interludes? Busman's Honeymoon is the final volume of the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and sees the couple married at last. The usual rule is that URST should never be resolved, but I think this novel provides a satisfying conclusion to Peter and Harriet's difficult courtship, because it shows that married bliss may not necessarily be smooth sailing and happy ever after.

Lord Peter has come a long way from the original 'silly ass' dilettante of Whose Body? In fact, the heart of Busman's Honeymoon, despite its comic episodes and farcical interludes, concerns the psychological impact of Wimsey's 'meddling' and its very real consequences -- in this case, the murderer will hang. We know that Lord Peter was damaged by the War; now we learn how heavily the responsibility of life and death weighs upon him. It's almost more than he can bear... until Harriet gently reminds him that if not for his 'interference', she would have lost her own life.

The penultimate section, where Harriet tours the ancestral seat, including an encounter with the family ghost, tips into twee wish-fulfilment territory. But the real power and agony of the final vigil makes up for it.

29.8.18

Coromandel Sea Change

I couldn't find a sharp image of my edition of Rumer Godden's 1991 novel, but perhaps that's appropriate because Coromandel Sea Change is quite soft-focus in itself.

This is an old-fashioned novel. Once again we are introduced to a young, naive but headstrong woman who is encountering India for the first time and finds her world expanding in unexpected ways. It took me a little while to realise that I have visited the beautiful seaside hotel, Patna Hall, before, in the clumsily-titled novella Cromartie v The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, published in 1997 and also featuring wise Auntie Sannie and her loyal lieutenants, Hannah and Samuel. Coromandel Sea Change is more dramatic, featuring a mismatched honeymoon couple, a charismatic young aspiring politician, a slimy journalist and a benevolent diplomatic couple. But it's the tranquil hotel on the beach, surrounded by flowers, that is the real star of this novel.

I don't believe that there is any such thing as a bad Rumer Godden novel, but this is a lesser offering. Still worth a weekend away, but maybe not a lingering stay.

24.8.18

Everything Everything

Of course it's 'now a major motion picture!' I shouldn't be surprised. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon is a typical contemporary YA novel, and as such, it was crying out to be adapted for film.

There were some aspects I liked about this novel:
  • it was short and easy to read (thanks to some very short chapters, and many illustrations)
  • it had a female protagonist of colour (half-Japanese, half-African American) (like the author, which I also liked)
  • it was pacy 
There were some things I didn't like so much:
  • another hot and heavy teen romance (rolls eyes) 
  • without being too spoilery, I found the plot totally implausible, and therefore the Big Twist did not take me by surprise
I felt quite ambivalent about this book. It's clearly been well-read at the local library, as I had to reserve it and it's been thoroughly thumbed. For what it was, it was fine, it was nicely put together and easy to fly through. But it's just not the kind of book that I really enjoy... Which is fine, because it wasn't written for me.


23.8.18

Ugly

Another Australian memoir, but a very different story. Robert Hoge was born with such devastating facial difference (as well as deformities to his legs) that his own mother didn't want to bring him home from hospital. But his four older siblings voted otherwise and soon his mother was little Robert's fiercest advocate. His early childhood was a parade of surgeries and what must have been terrible pain and struggle. However, Ugly, adapted from an adult memoir and aimed at primary school children, focuses on the everyday obstacles of Robert's life: teasing, nicknames, pratfalls when he tries to run too fast on his artificial legs on school sports day.

This is an upbeat account, emphasising the funny side of Hoge's experiences, but clearly he had a rough time at school. It's a terrific way of getting kids to think about their own responses to classmates with differences of all kinds. The book ends on a defiant note, with teenage Hoge refusing to undergo yet another massive, dangerous operation that might 'improve' his looks. He decides to take his chances with his 'ugly' face, just the way it is.

22.8.18

Leather Soul

Have I mentioned that I love Bob Murphy? A writer's footballer, he earned his stripes as a quirky commentator for The Age newspaper in a series of delightful, left-of-centre columns that sometimes concerned his sausage dog Arthur or buying coffee rather than the usual earnest ruminations or boasting of some player/analysts. Those columns were collected in Murphy's Lore.

Leather Soul: A half-back flanker's rhythm and blues is a meandering memoir, with memories of a carefree childhood interleaved with a diary of the Western Bulldogs annus mirabilis, 2016, when they joyously, unexpectedly, snatched the premiership with a month of magnificent football. But poignantly, Bob himself, captain of the team and its heart and soul, wasn't able to play in that premiership team because of injury. On Grand Final Day, when the coach called Murphy up onto the dais and put his own premiership medal around the injured captain's neck, it was a moment of the most perfect love and sportsmanship, a bittersweet and precious gesture.

Bob is honest about how much missing out on that year hurt him; he put on a brave face all year, swallowed his pain and gave whatever support he could to 'his boys.' But the pain didn't go away. He is honest about his own failings (even though the conventional wisdom in our house is that he is a perfect human being!) when it would have been easy to leave out those incidents from his story. Maybe that makes him even more perfect, who knows!

If you're not a Western Bulldogs supporter, or at least an AFL football fan, you probably won't pick up this book. That would be your loss. Get to know this lovely, wise, funny man, who happens to have played wonderful football for half his life, a little better. You won't regret making his acquaintance.

16.8.18

Rethinking Normal

Katie Rain Hill was born Luke; but she always knew that she wasn't a boy. Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition is her story. Though Katie was only twenty when she wrote this moving, honest book, she had already experienced a lifetime's worth of pain, self-loathing, confusion, cruel bullying, rage, pride and triumph.

Growing up in the Bible Belt, Katie was always aware that something about her was 'wrong.' For a long time she categorised herself as gay, but she knew that wasn't quite right either. Suicidally unhappy, she eventually discovered, thanks to the internet, that there were others who felt the way she did, and that there was a name for it: transgender. Her bewildered but supportive mother helped her on her journey through transition, as did an anonymous donor who paid for her surgery. A surprising amount of this story concerns the tangle of dating and relationships -- just like most other adolescents, falling in love is an important part of Katie's life.

I was slightly sad to read just how crucial it was to Katie that she should be pretty, not an ugly girl, and her relief when boys found her attractive. I guess I wanted to be a pretty girl, too, but on some level I accepted that it wasn't to be, and found my self-worth elsewhere. In the 80s, we used to argue that instead of trying to fit ourselves into boxes marked 'masculine' or 'feminine,' we should try to break the walls of the boxes down, and throw the labels away. Now it seems that finding the label that fits, even if that label says 'genderfluid,' is the most vital step in accepting oneself; meanwhile, the walls of those boxes seem to have become more rigid than ever. This seems to me a shame. But I respect the lived experience of Katie, Arin and those trans and gender-fluid kids that have entered my life. Power to you all!

11.8.18

Six of Crows

Not going to lie -- when I retrieved this from the library for the Convent Book Group, my heart sank. Six of Crows is a brick of a book, and I only had three days to read it... But wow, Leigh Bardugo has produced a terrific fantasy page-turner, and the chapters flew by.

Dense, dark, satisfying, with interestingly flawed characters (literally, the Dregs of their mercantile society) and a plot that keeps twisting and ambushing the reader till almost the very last page, Six of Crows divided our group. Those who loved it, LOVED it (I was in that camp). There were some who didn't get on with it -- put off by its length, or the initial profusion of characters, or who just don't like fantasy that much. And that's fine. Big meaty fantasy stories aren't for everyone. But Bardugo hits a YA sweet spot that doesn't mollycoddle its readers. My 14 year old tells me that the series set in the Grishaverse (there are at least five more books, and a movie on the way) is huge in her demographic, and I can see why.

Six of Crows reminded me very slightly of the Chanters of Tremaris books: the types of magic are similar, though there's no singing involved, and the world also has echoes of Tremaris, insofar as both universes have echoes of our own planet. Ketterdam is a cousin of Gellan; icy Fjerdan is a little like Antaris. But where Tremaris is a fairly gentle world, comfortable for upper primary/lower secondary readers, the Grishaverse is squarely YA, with a hefty body count and some pretty adult darkness. It's Tremaris on steroids and sleeping rough. A book, and a world, to sink your teeth into.

5.8.18

How Bright Are All Things Here -- paused

Look at this gorgeous cover -- it reminds me of the Leonard French stained glass ceiling in the National Gallery of Victoria, which as children we used to lie on our back and gaze dreamily up at. I've been looking forward to reading this adult novel by Susan "Verity Sparks" Green for a long time, and when I started it, I delighted in the lovely prose, the compassion for the characters, and the familiar Melbourne setting.

But... it's about a family, a family with troubles. There's the stepmother, dying in a nursing home. There's the daughter who has just lost her job, and her husband with depression. And while something tells me that everything is going to work out okay in the end, this is not the book for me right now. So reluctantly I have set it aside -- not forever, just for now. I'm looking forward to getting back to it, when things in my own life are slightly brighter.

2.8.18

Wildwood

Found in Greensborough Savers, I have been rationing out the beautiful, thoughtful Wildwood at the rate of a chapter a day -- it has been serving me as a meditation and solace. About a quarter of the way through, I realised that I'd read about Roger Deakin before, in Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks -- Macfarlane was Deakin's friend and acted as his literary executor. Reading this book was tinged with sadness, for Deakin died not long after the manuscript was complete. I came to Macfarlane first, but I can definitely see Deakin's influence on the younger writer.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees is an extended meditation on all forms of interaction with trees and wood. Deakin visits sculptors and woodworkers, naturalists and farmers, thatchers and forest rangers. His travels take him to Kyrgzstan and Australia (where he goes camping with our very own Romana Koval!), deep into the English countryside and back to his own boyhood. He discusses oak and ash, sycamore and walnut, and though they are not all familiar to me, I feel I know them better after this splendid introduction.

I absolutely love books like this -- slow and reflective, lovingly precise, filled with a lifetime's experience and an eagerness to learn from others. It's almost like a prayer -- to the wild, tangled forests and the ancient hedgerows alike. A slow walk through the woods -- just what I needed.

It's bittersweet to discover an author whose company you enjoy so much, and to know that there will be no more work from them. One day I would like to read the companion volume to this, Waterlog, which describes Deakin's attempt to swim across Britain in bodies of wild water! And also Notes From Walnut Tree Farm.

(PS An intriguing side note: at one point Deakin mentions that the hare, who leaps from the corn as it's harvested, is sacred to Ceres. Instantly I thought of Maria's hare in The Little White Horse, who is named Serena...)

31.7.18

Nella Last's Peace

I've been slowly making my way through two books simultaneously: Roger Deakin's Wildwood (of which more presently) and Nella Last's Peace. The latter is an edited volume of some of the millions of words of diaries kept by Nella Last, a middle-aged, 'ordinary' housewife, as part of Britain's Mass Observation project. She kept the detailed diaries faithfully all through the war, and almost up until her death in 1968, and this book covers the first couple of years of peacetime.

Despite the longed-for peace and victory finally arriving, times were not easy, and in some ways harder to bear than the war itself, when a spirit of community and selflessness swept up many ordinary citizens in sacrifice to a larger cause. Nella finds herself wistful for those times and her own voluntary work in the Forces Canteen, and the friends she made there. The reader senses her frustration, with the continued shortages and hardships, with her withdrawn husband, with her unsettled younger son (who emigrated to Australia and became a celebrated sculptor, Clifford Last), and with her difficult in-laws.

Perhaps this is just about what's going on my own life at the moment, but to me the most moving parts of the diary deal with the struggles of Nella's young friend and neighbour, Jessie, who falls ill with what sounds like postpartum psychosis, and is hospitalised for a time. Nella's husband seems to suffer from an anxiety disorder; her mother-in-law has dementia, and Nella herself is sometimes struck by gastric attacks that seem to be anxiety related. It was quite frightening to realise how little information and treatment and even recognition was available for mental illness, and how terrifying it would have been to be faced with mental illness in the family. Happily, Jessie made a complete recovery.

17.7.18

Unnatural Death

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey (BBC)
The Dorothy L Sayers binge-fest continues with Unnatural Death, the final book in my omnibus with the horrible cover. Ridiculously, though it's the last book in the volume, it was written first, and introduces the character of Miss Climpson, who also appeared in Strong Poison. No Harriet Vane in this one, either.

Miss Climpson is nearly as good as Harriet Vane, though, being brave and resourceful and not as foolish as she appears (not unlike Wimsey himself, come to think of it). And this one features a ruthless and cunning murderess -- not a spoiler, as she is suspected from the first page, it's just that they can't prove that she has actually committed murder. Sadly, and thanks principally to Wimsey's interference by the way, the body count goes up before the proof can be acquired, which makes you wonder if he shouldn't have just minded his own bloody business.

No I only have Busman's Honeymoon in my cupboard, but I think I need to read Gaudy Night first. I just have to get my hands on it.

10.7.18

Holes

I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to reading Louis Sachar's school reading circle staple, Holes. I don't find desert books especially appealing, particularly American desert books. Also Daughter No 2 had read this at primary school (in one of those aforementioned literature circles) and found it dull.

So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. After a rather grinding start, the story picked up pace for me once the historical back story was introduced -- I would have liked more about the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow, and less about the brutality of the camp. Perhaps it's just my tender Australian sensibilities but I was quite shocked by the casual violence and the nonchalant firing of guns  -- why are the 'counsellors' even carrying guns, in a juvenile facility in the middle of nowhere? Anyway, the details of the historical story and the events of the present day dovetailed with satisfying neatness, and issues of race, courage and loyalty were handled with a degree of subtlety.

I was planning to jettison this one after reading it, but I think I'll award a place on the permanent bookshelf after all.