The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I have no memory of reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child; I think the first Alan Garner book I read was Red Shift. I do remember picking up a copy a few years ago at a library book sale, opening it at random and hastily putting it down again -- not for me. Should I admit, as an author of several High Fantasy books, that it's a genre I find more fun to write than to read?

But since I've been on something of an Alan Garner bender lately, and I've read both Boneland and The Moon of Gomrath, when I stumbled across another copy of Weirdstone in a secondhand bookshop, it seemed like a sign to go back to the very beginning of the trilogy -- or the ennealogy, as Garner has said that his nine novels all form one story.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a beloved part of many people's childhoods, as witnessed by the disappointed outcry in some quarters when Boneland appeared and didn't fit the same pattern of elves and svarts and high-flown language. I must admit, the satisfaction for me lay mostly in seeing the links with Boneland. Of its type, The Weirdstone is not bad -- the story is full of tension and atmosphere. But the two children are barely distinguished as characters, and in the latter part of the book they have no agency at all, just tagging along with the adult farmer Gowther and their two valiant dwarf companions for the final pursuit and confrontation.

Alan Garner has described this as 'a fairly bad book'. I wouldn't go that far, though it is certainly the book of a young writer, still developing his subject matter and working out a style to go with it. I'm very thankful that he didn't get stuck in this groove. Perhaps today, having had one massive success with this book, he might have met with greater pressure to produce more of the same. I have the feeling that The Weirdstone was very influential on later writers. Garner didn't need to write more books like this; other authors did it for him.


Family Romance

I scored this book in a book club lucky dip (thanks, Sian!), and what a great score it was.

It wasn't until after his parents' deaths that John Lanchester realised how little he knew about their lives. In the case of his mother, her name, her birthdate and her past were all lies. In this terrifically readable memoir-cum-family history, Lanchester examines the lives of his mother (born in Ireland, former nun and school principal in India, shaved a decade off her age in a breathtaking act of identity theft before marrying John's father, and lived with this secret all her life) and father (born in Hong Kong, grew up in Australia while his parents were interned in HK during the war, worked all around the world but still thought of the UK as 'home' despite never having lived there). I found many resonances with my own family history, especially the post-colonial upbringing and the yearning for a mythical 'home,' as well as some shrewd observations about the generational effects of alcoholism.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book (and the reason I've decided not to give it to my mother to read after all) is the final, shortest part, where Lanchester examines his own childhood and his ongoing battle with anxiety. Given his family history, parts of this story come as no surprise, but they are still difficult to read.

Family Romance is a fascinating personal history, a love story, a meditation on the nature of narrative, a history of the late colonial period and the Second World War, and much more. Highly recommended!


Dark Emu

This remarkable book has won multiple awards, and deservedly so. It's been on my to-read list for a long time but I finally got around to reserving it at the library (thanks for the nudge, Judy!) and got my hands on it last week.

Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu will be, I hope, just the first step in a thorough re-examination of pre-settlement Australian history. It's profoundly shocking to realise the extent to which we have been lied to, and remain in ignorance of, the sophistication of the Aboriginal nations before the European invasion. The evidence is there in the words of the white explorers themselves, but their testimony has been systematically ignored, to preserve the shameful myth that the Aborigines were primitive savages, wandering the country aimlessly, hunting and gathering when they got the chance.

The truth is very different. The First Australians maintained a highly developed land management system, involving periodic controlled use of fire. They built complex fish traps and netting, and far from squatting in simple 'humpies', many lived in villages with large stone and thatch dwellings. They stored large quantities of food and seed (plundered by whites). The idyllic grasslands observed by the first Europeans (ideal, so they thought, for grazing sheep and cattle) were no accident, but had been carefully created. And within a few years they were destroyed.

I became so angry reading this book. So much precious knowledge thrown away, an ancient heritage trashed. But Pascoe ends his book on an optimistic note. Perhaps the native species that sustained a continent for tens of thousands of years can be revived -- the yam daisy, native rice and others -- far better suited to Australian conditions than the imported rice and potatoes we insist on growing here. Perhaps we can learn from the sustainable practices of this country's first inhabitants just how to live in sync with the land, rather than fighting it.

But I have to say I'm not holding my breath.


A Candle For St Jude

Rumer Godden wrote many, many books in her long life (thank heavens!) and it's almost reassuring to find one which is not quite a masterpiece. Which is not to say that A Candle For St Jude isn't a good book, or beautifully written -- it is both -- but just not quite at the level of Godden's very best work.

My edition of A Candle for St Jude says it came out in 1973, but apparently it was first published in 1948! Truthfully, it doesn't really matter, because the novel takes place in an enclosed world, over a mere 24 hours, in a London ballet school during the night and day before Madame Holbein's important anniversary concert, a celebration of her life's work. The first half of the book is rather melancholy and despairing, as it seems the concert is going to fail -- there is jealousy and regret, fear and anger. But in the second half, Madame has a last minute inspiration, and her crackling energy and determination come to life, infecting everyone around her. Now we get to see the love and passion and whirlwind fire that have made her so successful, and the book ends on a note of triumph after all. As always with Rumer Godden, her characters are drawn with delicate precision and depth.

READING NOTE: I have so many books hiding in my wardrobe that I've devised a random system to get through them all -- first I pulled out half a dozen with blue-ish covers, then a handful with reddish ones (scroll down and check if you don't believe me!) Now I've embarked on my yellow phase... I know colour-coding books is so last year, but I'm finding it surprisingly satisfying.


Take Three Girls

We are blessed in Australia with some of the most gifted YA authors in the world -- and here is a chance to enjoy three of the best in a single volume! Individually, Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood have written some of my absolute favourite Australian YA books, so the opportunity to grab this collaboration between them was way too good to pass up.

Take Three Girls, as the title suggests, entwines the stories of three girls (each strand written by a separate author -- and yes, I guessed correctly who wrote which, but I'm not telling...) at a private boarding school in Melbourne. Clem used to be a star swimmer but now she's not sure what she is, apart from being crazy in love. Kate is facing the biggest choice of her life: follow her life plan or throw it away for music? And Ady seems to have everything, but in the background, her family is falling apart.

This is a novel about reinventing yourself -- or discovering who you really are. It's a novel about friendships: how they spark, how they build, and sometimes, how they die. Clem, Ady and Kate are in Year 10, and though they make dumb decisions and take stupid risks, in many ways they are more mature and self-aware than some twenty-somethings I used to know.

Collaborations can be hugely fun, paradoxically liberating, and with a built-in feedback loop of reward as you build a story together. But it can be difficult to establish distinctive individual voices, especially when your characters share a single background setting and many of the same experiences. I confess I struggled at the beginning of the book to keep the three girls clear in my mind -- but that passed quickly, and once I was absorbed, I stayed that way right up to the final page.


Dr Huxley's Bequest

Michelle Cooper, the award-winning, best-selling author of The Montmaray Journals has blogged about her experience of writing and publishing Dr Huxley's Bequest at her blog, Memoranda. I've been looking forward to reading this book ever since Michelle first mentioned it was on its way, and I was not disappointed!

Dr Huxley's Bequest is fiction, but it contains a lot of facts -- it's a short history of medicine wrapped in a palatable mystery/quest/friendship narrative, just like a sugar shell disguising a pill... but that's a poor analogy, because in this instance, the pill is just as tasty as the wrapping. Via thirteen mysterious objects, short, chatty chapters lead us from ancient Egyptian medicine, through the classical era to medieval plagues, vaccines, scurvy and much more, right up to the ethics of genetic testing, the fight against malaria, and sexism in science.

Our guides, Rosy and Jaz, are a pair of smart (and very well-informed!) thirteen year olds who naturally emphasise the quirky, the peculiar and the fascinating in their historical-scientific treasure hunt. I learned something new on every page, but this was such a fun read, I never felt preached or lectured at -- this is a massive achievement for such an informative, educational book -- it never feels too educational! It's just like a very clever, funny person telling you loads of really interesting stories about medicine. (Favourite thing I learned: treatment with foxglove can make you see the world in shades of yellow. Guess who was treated with foxglove? Vincent van Gogh!)

This book would make a wonderful read-aloud (I accidentally read some to my sixteen year old and she begged for more) or an equally great read-alone for younger readers (it's already been noted eagerly by a librarian friend looking for recommendations for a student who can't get enough to read about medicine and science). Highly recommended.


Shadows of the Workhouse

Jennifer Worth's second book, Shadows of the Workhouse, was her follow-up to the immensely popular Call the Midwife, and this particular cover is obviously trying to trade on the success of the BBC series. However, for this volume, it's actually quite misleading! There is not ONE baby or birth scene in Shadows of the Workhouse, despite the smiling midwives and bonny babes pictured on the front.

There was more to Worth's work in London's Poplar in the 1950s than delivering babies, and in her second book she tells the stories of people she visited as a home nurse (intercut with a poignant episode involving Sister Monica Joan, a ninety year old nun accused of jewellery theft). Worth departs from her personal memories (which is why I hesitate to call this book a memoir) to narrate the experiences of a brother and sister who grew up in the grim environment of the workhouse before rediscovering one another in their teens, and an old soldier with whom she forms a touching bond.

If the popularity of Call the Midwife shines a light on this forgotten and horrific element of social history, that can only be a good thing. In some ways the shadows of the workhouse still fall on social policy -- the notion that poverty is a sign of moral failing or laziness, the disregard for human dignity, the ignorance and disdain of those more fortunate, have all crept back into public discourse. Shadows of the Workhouse is a good reminder of where that path ultimately leads.


Shakespeare: The World As Stage

There are few more engaging companions on a non-fiction journey than Bill Bryson. I have gone with him happily on trips around Australia, explorations of the history of the English language and the domestic home, and many others. So it was a canny move by the publishers of this Eminent Lives series to hire Bryson to deal with what must surely be their most problematic subject: William Shakespeare.

The problem is that although Shakespeare left behind the richest body of work in the English language, he left us almost zero information about his personal life. Not even his birth date is certain. This hasn't prevented a tidal wave of speculation about his loves, career, even his identity; as Bryson points out, it's not that the world needs another book about Shakespeare -- it's that this series does.

If anyone is skilled at spinning an interesting tale out of a bare handful of recorded (and contested) facts, it's Bill Bryson. And Shakespeare: The World as Stage tells us a lot of very engaging stuff about the Elizabethan theatre, publishing, London, class and religion in Shakespeare's time. But -- and this is not Bryson's fault -- it tells us next to nothing about the man himself. It is truly amazing that so much mystery still surrounds this most luminous of literary figures. Was he gay? Why did he leave his wife their 'second-best bed'? ( I suspect a coded message...) What was he up to in the 'lost years'? We don't even know for sure what plays were written when, or even in what order.

I'm still glad I read it, though, because it succinctly filled in some useful background to the events of  Antonia Forest's The Players and the Rebels. Which reminds me, I still need to get The Player's Boy! I feel a Christmas present coming on...


Life After Life

Every novel I've read by Kate Atkinson has been a treat*, and Life After Life is no exception. A perfect middle-brow read, it teems with ideas and juicy story-lines, as well as a killer conceit. I had a lot of trouble putting this novel down and raced through its 600 pages in a couple of days.

What if you had the chance to live your life over and over, until you finally got it right? Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and dies, the cord wrapped round her neck. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and lives, because the doctor arrives just in time to save her. We see Ursula's childhood and later life play out, with each forking path of chance explored. Sometimes these paths reconnect, sometimes they lead to wildly divergent outcomes. One of Ursula's lives takes place in wartime Germany; in another, she marries an abusive conman. Her adulthood takes place in the London Blitz -- plenty of opportunities for untimely death there. It's a measure of Atkinson's skill that the necessary repetitions and backtracks inherent in her scheme don't become tedious; half the fun is picking out the variations from the life before.

It hadn't occurred to me until I read a review this morning that Atkinson might be playing with the whole idea of the author's power to play God -- to bestow good fortune or many kinds of suffering. The character of Ursula herself seems to possess a growing awareness of her cyclical journey -- in one life in particular, she is actually calculating her own destiny. But then there is a coda that doesn't make sense in that narrative, planting doubts about whether this is really Ursula's "true purpose"; is there any such thing?

Characters talk of reincarnation, but Ursula's experience is not quite that; she lives the same life over and over, not one life after another in different bodies. But this book certainly fleshes out all those delicious or terrifying 'what if' ruminations that all of us indulge in from time to time.

* though I did feel that the Jackson Brodie series ran out of steam slightly towards the end.



After the publication of Boneland, Alan Garner said that he regarded all his nine novels as really one novel: after reading Thursbitch, I think I understand what he means.

Thursbitch (named for a valley in the Pennines) is an adult novel. It grew from a (real) memorial stone by the side of a track, which reads Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snow storm in the night in or about 1755; the print of a woman's shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.

From this mysterious seed, Garner weaves a double tale, of two couples separated by time: Jack and Nan Sarah in the eighteenth century, and Ian and Sal in the twenty-first. Jack is the guardian of an ancient rite, and a jagger -- a travelling trader; Nan Sarah is his wife. Ian is a scientist and a priest, Sal a geologist; they were once a couple, but now Ian is Sal's carer as she grows slowly weaker from a degenerative illness. Their twinned stories, of faith and ritual, different kinds of knowledge, illness and grief, cross and divide through time but not through space, echoing and united in this place of grim power with its standing stones and ancient springs.

I found many resonances with the later Boneland, which also centres on a grief-struck and suffering man, as well as Red Shift, which also uses the technique of parallel narratives. Though Thursbitch is a slim novel, there is much meat to chew on. One day I will read all Garner's novels back to back. What a rewarding experience that will be.


The Pattern in the Carpet

Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet is one of those strange unclassifiable books that give marketing departments a headache. Part memoir, part history, part reflection, it's been subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws, which is as good a summary as any.

Margaret Drabble was possibly my first adult author crush; I read The Millstone at about fourteen and recognised myself in the character of Rosamund, solitary and almost pathologically independent, scholarly and paranoid about causing any kind of inconvenience to others (Rosamund, as I did too eventually, breaks out of this diffidence when she has to defend her baby). I've read most, but not all of Drabble's novels over the past few decades. I was vaguely irritated by The Pure Gold Baby, which I found meandering and unsatisfying.

The Pattern in the Carpet was also meandering, but perhaps because it wasn't a novel, this time I found its detours charming rather than annoying. Drabble reminisces about her childhood, about the satisfactions of jigsaws and puzzles and their history (beginning with 'dissected maps' as an educational tool and gradually becoming purely pleasurable time-wasters). Many authors are apparently addicted to jigsaws, finding their purely visual meditation an effective antidote to wrestling with words. I have found this myself (though lately I've taken up piano and knitting as similar non-verbal occupations).

This memoir is itself built up from interlocking pieces, jumping from the origins of children's books to the appeal of twee rural nostalgia to the sad biography of Alison Uttley to conversations with London taxi drivers to Roman mosaics to the incredible flower collages of Mary Delany, in short, entertaining chapters.

I was very sad to learn that Drabble's daughter Becky , who is mentioned several times in the text, died of cancer earlier this year. This added an extra layer of poignancy to the text. The Pattern in the Carpet is not quite the slim stocking-filler that Drabble initially envisaged, but it was a diverting and intriguing journey.


Openly Straight

Confession: I didn't really expect to enjoy this book much. I really bought it for Evie, because I thought it seemed like the kind of book she'd like (and indeed she is just about to read it). I thought it would be one of those overly earnest, American YA novels where all the characters are impossibly witty and everything is heavy with feels. (John Green has a lot to answer for!)

And early on, Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight did seem to be that kind of book. But gradually I started to realise, this is actually really good. Emotional, yes, but subtly so. Witty dialogue, yes, but also moments of excruciating awkwardness. Funny, and complex, and interesting.

I happened to notice the back flap and saw the imprint 'Arthur Levine.' Aha! My very own US publisher, an imprint with excellent taste in manuscripts. Hastily I consulted the acknowledgments and saw a thank you to Cheryl Klein, pearl among editors. With such a pedigree, how could Openly Straight fail to be good?

The novel has a great premise. Rafe is sick and tired of being 'the gay kid' at his school. He's sure the label is getting in the way of his getting to know people properly, and he's not even getting a boyfriend out of it! So when he crosses the country to change schools, he decides that at Natick, he won't be 'the gay kid.' Not going back in the closet, just not telling people unless they ask him directly (standing in the doorway, as he puts it). He just wants to be 'normal' for a while.

But of course things are not that simple. Yes, he gets to experience being 'one of the boys' without the complication of his sexuality getting in the way. But when he starts to make real friends, when he finds himself falling in love, it's his lie of omission which starts to get in the way.

This is a really terrific book and I thoroughly enjoyed its bittersweet exploration of labels, identity, acceptance, friendship, love and celebration.


The Bell Family

Ah! Reading a Noel Streatfeild novel, even one I haven't read before (amazing to think that such a book exists...), is like slipping into a lovely warm bath. The ultimate comfort read!

The Bell Family began life as a radio serial on the BBC, and it contains all the familiar Streatfeild ingredients: money worries, family fun and quarrels, a child who wants to become a dancer. The Bell family live in a London vicarage and finances are tight. Alex and Cathy are the patient, loving parents; Paul, the eldest son, wants to be a doctor, but his grandfather is pressuring him to join the family business; Jane would be a dancer if only there was money to pay for her training. Ginnie ('Miss Virginia Bell') is impulsive and always getting herself into scrapes, and Angus is the youngest, musical and funny. The last member of the family is the adored dog, Esau, and then there is Mrs Gage, another familiar Streatfeild character, the comfortable, down-to-earth family helper, who appears to work as a full time cook and housekeeper for little more than love alone.

The Bells seem to live in roughly the same area of London as the setting for Call the Midwife, and at roughly the same time, though their troubles are far less severe than those described by Jennifer Worth. The genteel poor is a category Streatfeild is very comfortable with, and so am I! The delightful Shirley Hughes illustrations are the perfect complement to the gentle story.

Apparently there is another book about the Bell family. But given it took me this long to find the first volume (thank you, Brown & Bunting!), I doubt that I'll ever be able to track down the sequel.


The Adventure of English

It's taken me a long time to get through this volume -- not because it's not interesting, but I became a bit bogged down in the latter stages. Based on a TV programme Melvyn Bragg made in the early 2000s (which I would really love to see!), The Adventure of English is a journey through the history of our language, its diverse origins, the moments when it was in most danger of being overtaken, its many divergences and meldings, and its likely future as a global tongue.

I most enjoyed the first part of the book which traced the Old English, Norse and Norman roots of the language we speak and write today. I have read heaps of histories of the English language and perhaps now I've reached my limit! The place where I stuck was probably around the chapters on American English (sorry to my American readers, if I have any...) But there were some really interesting chapters on black English (which I was reading, coincidentally, when we watched Twelve Years A Slave the other night), West Indian English, accent snobbery and Indian English. But of course I turned eagerly to the chapter on Australian English and found it full of inaccuracies, so perhaps I should take the rest of Bragg's insights with more than a grain of salt!


Big Magic

I'd wanted to read Big Magic for a while, and I am one of the millions who enjoyed Eat Pray Love and (to a lesser extent) Committed, so when I saw it on my friend Chris's shelf, I grabbed it.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a chatty, disarming, insistent companion, with a refreshing respect for the role of luck and chance in the creative journey. In this book she is determined to convince the reader that you, too, can live a creative life -- write, paint, knit, research, whatever -- and be richer for the experience (not necessarily financially richer, as she's at pains to point out!)

There are lots of lovely things to share here. I love the notion that ideas float through the ether, searching for a receptive home -- Gilbert maintains that one such idea for a novel was passed via a kiss from herself to Ann Patchett. I've also had this experience where someone else produces 'my' idea before I can manage to get it out there, and it rings true to me that ideas have an independent existence and a will to live.

I also agree with Gilbert's refusal to fetishise the trope of the Suffering Artist; her focus on joy in creation rather than material success; her insistence that curiosity will serve you better than passion; and her belief that it's essential to trust enough to keep putting your work out there, even if there's no response, or not the response you hoped for.

But ironically the very fact that I agreed with so much of what Gilbert says means that this book was not really written for me. I already know that I have to be persistent, to seek enchantment, to have courage, to not expect that writing will support me. I don't feel I need permission to pursue my craft. I'm already following her advice. Which doesn't mean it's bad advice -- it's excellent advice -- but that I'm not massively in need of it. Not today, anyway!