18.6.16

Friday Barnes: Girl Detective


I bought Friday Barnes: Girl Detective on the Kindle because there was only one copy in my library chain, and three of us from the Convent book group who needed to read it. (This month's theme is School Stories). The first of a series of five (to date) these junior fiction novels seem to be doing brilliantly.

The central premise is 'what if Sherlock Holmes was an eleven year old girl?,' but in truth Sherlock and Friday don't have much in common apart from a lack of social skills and a gift for solving mysteries (on the other hand, what more do you need?) Here I must confess that a few years ago, I was toying with the idea of a pair of eleven year old girls as Sherlock and Watson -- it must have been when I first came across BBC Sherlock. My sleuths were called Charlotte and Joss... and that's about as far as I got before I realised that while Sherlock and his imitators have a gift for solving mysteries, I sadly lack the gift for creating them. But RA Spratt has succeeded splendidly where I failed to even cross the starting-line.

At first I found Friday's world oddly hard to place -- was she living in America, the UK? The cultural markers were weirdly elusive, deliberately so, I suspect, as the series has sold into the US. It was a relief to discover that RA Spratt actually lives in Bowral. But it was slightly weird to read a world (mostly boarding school) which is sort of Australian, but not really -- a kind of fairly white bread, Australian-ish alternative universe. (To take a trivial example, TimTams are clearly described, but not named as such -- because poor USians don't have them over there.)

But overall, Friday Barnes is a lot of fun to read, and, I suspect, lots of fun to write, too.


14.6.16

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker is an unmitigated delight. Sharply detailed, beautifully written, it tells the story of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from a different angle -- this is the story of the servants of the Bennets' house, Longbourn.

I'm normally leery of Jane Austen sequels and re-tellings, but this 2012 novel is actually neither. It butts gently against the events of P&P and occasionally overlaps them, but it's really dealing with all the things that Jane Austen left out. Things like the hard, unforgiving labour of the underclasses; like war, and slavery, and grime, and sex, all the untold stories. But Baker still clearly admires and loves Austen's work, and is respectful to the origin novel, even while giving us a very different, clear-eyed view of our favourite heroine and difficult hero, a view which is not always favourable.

But the centre of this story is emphatically not Lizzy and Darcy; it is the relationship between Sarah, the housemaid, and the footman, James. Their love does not run smoothly, any more than Elizabeth's and Darcy's did, and they have their own share of misunderstandings and reversals. But their pains and trials have much more serious potential consequences than Lizzy's genteel poverty or social humiliation. James and Sarah might face flogging, starvation, the poorhouse, death in a ditch. Baker has done her research, but the novel wears it lightly, and the writing is subtle and completely engaging. The comparison is obvious, but this is so much better than Downton Abbey!

Apparently it's going to be a movie. For once, I can't wait.

7.6.16

Abandoned! The Man Who Loved Children

I read this classic novel (it even says Modern Classic on the cover!) years ago, and when I spied it on the shelves at my parents' house, I thought, I should really read that again. I remember being spooked by the cover art and thinking it might be a horror story, which in a way it is.

Published in 1940, this tale of a deeply dysfunctional family has the ring of autobiography about it. Henny and Sam are the warring parents, locked in a miserable marriage, whose relationship is played out through the allegiances of their brood of children, including gifted, clumsy, ugly duckling Louisa.

I skipped the introduction this time around, slightly daunted by the smallness of the print and the number of pages I was signing up for. And as I read the first hundred or so pages, I was struck by the brilliance and clarity of the writing, the portrait of the intimate cruelty inside an 'ordinary' family. It's great, powerful, difficult stuff.

But when I got to the part (spoiler) where Louie drowns the cat in the bath, I thought, how badly do I really want to spend time with these unhappy people? I get it, I thought, I remember this; they're all horrible, Louie has to escape to survive, Sam is a genial monster, Henny is a troubled shrew.

There are so many other books I'm dying to read. Do I really need to slog through this one again? And I thought, no.

3.6.16

The Buried Giant

I just wasted about fifteen minutes fruitlessly searching for an image of the cover of the edition of The Buried Giant that I borrowed from the library, but for some reason there doesn't seem to be a copy of it anywhere -- not even on the library catalogue! It happens to be a large print edition, which caught my eye as I walked through the library on another mission, and as there wasn't a normal edition on the shelves, I took this one. (And I have to admit, the large print was easy on my eyes -- not that I need it, no no no...)

So. In the past I have found Kazuo Ishiguro to be quite a frustrating author. I adored The Remains of the Day, absolutely loathed When We Were Orphans, and I'm intrigued by Never Let Me Go (which I've ordered but not read yet). I didn't quite know what to make of The Buried Giant.

I knew it was going to be a strange book, an allegory set in ancient Britain, where a fog has descended over the landscape, robbing the inhabitants of their memories. An elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, set out to join their son in what they vaguely believe to be a nearby village, though disquiet lurks around the circumstances in which he left them. There are encounters with a Saxon warrior, a wounded boy, a dragon, an elderly knight, who is a relic of Arthur's Round Table, and a mysterious boatman who conveys people on their final journey. But it transpires that personal memories are not the only ones that have been stolen by the fog; a general amnesia about the terrible war between Britons and Saxons has also settled on the land -- a blessing or a curse?

As I was reading, I kept feeling that I was missing the point somehow, as if the story itself was obscured by the mists, and perhaps this was the point of the novel? But it made for a vaguely annoying read. The theme of memory and forgetting is of course a pertinent one -- just two nights ago on the radio I heard Dr Bill Lott discussing genetic memory, and whether it's useful to cling to the memory of historic wrongs -- will we still be memorialising Gallipoli in a thousand years time? On the other hand, some things are forgotten which need to be remembered more clearly (Aboriginal dispossession is the obvious example). This is an important topic. (And an interesting example of the serendipity that often accompanies one's reading -- relevant things do just pop up.)

But The Buried Giant only made this clear right at the end of the novel, too late for proper exploration of the implications. I know that Ishiguro often explores these themes, and perhaps I should have been better prepared.

I'm not sorry that I read it, and it did pique my interest enough to spur me to hunt down Never Let Me Go, but I can't shake off a faint disappointment with The Buried Giant.

30.5.16

Wonder

I re-read Wonder by RJ Palacio for the Convent book group (we are doing multiple POVs as our theme for this month). I'd read it three years ago but I remembered a lot about it; this book had stayed with me. But I was more than happy to read it again, and barely put it down.

I believe this book is one of those instant classics. It's cleverly structured, immediately engaging, funny and confronting, and the multiple viewpoints give every reader someone to identify with. Ten year old Auggie Pullman is a 'medical wonder'; a million-to-one combination of genetic factors has caused extreme facial deformities and a history of other medical problems (which we hear a bit about, but don't seem to interfere with the events of the story much). After years of home-schooling, Auggie is about to attend a normal school for the first time; but how will the other kids react to the way he looks?

This is a book with a message, and an unashamedly uplifting ending, and I DON'T CARE. I love it. I think it's so well done. I find myself feeling particularly for Via, Auggie's older sister (hm, sister of a sibling with a disability, wonder why that resonated...) The cheese is laid on fairly thickly at the end, but I really don't care. This is a Wonder-ful book (I wonder how many people have made that pun?)

26.5.16

The Book That Made Me

I'm so excited to be a part of this gorgeous book! The Book That Made Me, superbly edited by Judith Ridge and illustrated by Shaun Tan, will be published in September 2016, with all proceeds going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It's a collection of 32 short pieces by various authors, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, talking about the book or books that were most significant to them when they were young.

The result is a gloriously eclectic melange of reminiscence, humour and pathos, with authors' favourites ranging from Dr Suess through Roald Dahl to Anne of Green Gables to more unexpected choices like Jolliffe's Outback, The Odyssey, and Dolly magazine. Though many of the books discussed were old acquaintances already, I have earmarked several unfamiliar titles to check out for myself, and made a mental note to re-read others. I particularly enjoyed Julia Lawrinson's memories of pretending to be blind after reading By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which reminded me both of playing Little House on the Prairie in the dugout space under our house, and also pretending to be paralysed Clara from Heidi, lying on a couch with a rug over my legs (I was always a lazy child).

The Book That Made Me is an absolute delight. And yes, I do have a chapter in it, where I talk about my love for Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, which is for my money the Best Time-Slip Ever. (There's also a photo of me, aged about ten, reading in a tree.)

The House: Its Origin and Evolution


 
This book was not at all what I was expecting! I had anticipated something like Bill Bryson's immensely entertaining and readable Home, or Stuart Brand's How Buildings Learn, which I adored. 

What I got instead was a very academic and scholarly architectural text from Stephen Gardiner, himself a noted architect. It was interesting (when I could understand what the hell he was talking about), but very hard work, and it assumed a level of familiarity with architectural theory and history that I just don't possess. Here's a random sample:
The first trace of the megaron appears in Crete as an incidental reference at the palace of Knossos. But at Tiryans it has assumed a more dominant role in life, commanding the main courtyard facing the entrance. Learning and civilization bring confidence, and the megaron form takes over the palace itself, as one sees in Homeric times. But the final outcome of learning is wisdom, and so, at Nippur, the megaron returns to a position of less dominance, seeming to understand the extent of its limitations within the larger context of existence...
See what I mean? (I never really managed to discern exactly what a megaron was, either!) I did manage to follow Gardiner's main argument, which was that architecture should adhere to a human scale, that buildings work better in harmony with nature, and that a lot of modern architecture is pretty ugly. 

I'm embarrassed to say that the only way I managed to finish this book was to read it in tandem with The Book That Made Me. But I'm still in the market for popular, readable, engaging works about architecture -- recommendations will be appreciated!

18.5.16

Middlesex


I must admit, I usually have to force myself to read literary novels these days. They're so fat, and I know it's such a big commitment, I'll have to devote a couple of weeks of reading time to a single volume -- will it be worth it? Actually, it usually is, and Middlesex certainly was.

I borrowed this from my friend Sandra, because it was one of Those Books I Know I Should Have Read. But it then sat beside the bed for months while I tried to work up enthusiasm to actually open the damn thing. I had to push myself through the first 50 pages or so, getting into the rhythm of the writing. But after that I was totally hooked, and I raced through the second half at top speed.

Middlesex feels like several shorter, almost (but not quite) self-contained books stitched together, and this is reflected in the structure, which is broken into four separate 'books'. The first two sections deal with the protagonist, Cal/Callie's, grandparents, who emigrate from Turkey to America in 1922, their life in Detroit, and then the story of Callie's own parents, Milt and Tessie. So far, so sprawling family saga (with surreal touches). But for me, the novel really took fire in the third quarter, when Cal/Callie him/herself arrived on the scene and began to tell his/her own story, which occupies the remainder of the book. It's great, meaty, vivid, and absorbing.

I got the feeling that the 'family' part of the story contains a fair amount of autobiographical material (Eugenides himself is Greek-American, from Detroit). I've previously read The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, the novels that come before and after this one, but Middlesex is the one -- it feels like the great book Eugenides was born to write. I'm actually glad I saved it till last: it's terrific.

(A word on the consumption of this novel. Lately I've been snatching reading time here and there -- a few minutes' guilty break from work, a quarter of an hour in bed before lights out, a tram journey, twenty minutes before the girls come home from school. But this weekend I found myself up early, in a quiet house, and I sat and read for two hours undisturbed. And then I was... blessed?... with a migraine, and in the convalescent phase in the late afternoon, was able to lie in bed and read for another hour or so, until I'd finished the book. It made me realise that it's been a long time since I read like that, in long luxurious wallows. Maybe if I could carve out more chunks of time like that, I'd read more Big Novels?

Food for thought...)

5.5.16

The Truth About Alice

Purchased on the Kindle, for the Convent book group, because my library didn't have it. It should.

The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu was published in 2014. It's an American high school story, which is a genre that usually bores me to tears, to be honest, but I whipped through this compact little novel in no time at all.

Everyone in the small town of Healy knows two facts about Alice Franklin: she slept with two boys in one night, and she killed Brandon Fitzsimmons by distracting him with sexy texts while he was driving. Except that neither of these facts is true. Mathieu cleverly tells us the story of how Alice is bullied, slut-shamed and ostracised, through the eyes of four characters: queen bee Elaine; Alice's former best friend, insecure Kelsie; Brandon's best friend Josh, who is hiding a secret of his own, even from himself; and school geek and social outcast Kurt. Only at the very end of the book do we hear from Alice's point of view.

It's a fairly predictable story, sadly, and it's not without stereotypes, but here, it's extremely well done. The chapters race along, building layers of deception, self-deception and betrayal in an all-too-believable cascade of rumour and bullying. See here for a succinct summary of real life cases of this kind.

Highly recommended for teenagers, and anyone who has a teenager in their life.

The Stream That Stood Still

The Stream That Stood Still (1945) is the second volume of a trilogy by Beverley Nichols, the other books being The Tree That Sat Down and The Mountain That Moved. I remember at least one of these being on the shelves of my Grade 5 classroom, and I know that I enjoyed it, but I can't remember anything else about it clearly, except for the feeling of incredulity when I figured out that Beverley was actually a bloke (it was the forties, so... yeah...). I found this Lions reprint in a second hand book shop in Maldon.

This is, not surprisingly, an old-fashioned fantasy. Little brother (who happens to be a prince) is turned into a fish by a wicked witch; brave older sister (a princess) rescues him, with the help of wise old granny who makes her a magic mask so she can breathe underwater. The illustrations are lovely.

But the thing that struck me most forcefully was the opening chapter:

... you may have been taught that witches spend their lives moaning in ruined castles or lonely forests; you may even have been told that there are no such things as witches at all. Which only goes to show how much you are never taught at school.

There are, of course, as many witches in the world today as there ever were... In fact, for all you know, the lady next door may be a witch. You may think that her dustbin is filled with ordinary things, like old tins and tea-leaves and egg-shells, but if you were only to peep inside, you would see that it contained her favourite toads...

Well, Miss Smith was one of these new modern witches... As for being pretty, almost everything about her was false. Her teeth were false, her nose was false, and her hair was a wig...

Does that remind you of anything? I have to say it reminded me pretty powerfully of the start of Roald Dahl's The Witches! Which goes to show that everyone does it, even the masters.


3.5.16

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

 
Another impulse buy - I was watching Grantchester on a Friday night with a couple of glasses of champy under my belt, and I had the Kindle to hand, so I looked up the first book in the series (I didn't realise Grantchester was based on a series of novels by James Runcie until I read a review in the Green Guide...) Anyway, I found it, and it was only a couple of dollars, so I clicked BUY.

This was a peculiar reading experience. Usually I read the novel first and then feel critical of the televisual or filmic adaptation. This time it was the other way around. James Runcie has a background as a screenwriter, and - how can I put this politely - it shows. Grantchester (otherwise known as Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death) works much better as a TV show than it does as a book. For a start, there's the title -- going for a Harry Potter vibe, maybe? Sidney Chambers is an appealing enough character, in the grand tradition of clerical detectives (I remember reading quite a bit of Father Brown and Don Camillo at school) and the 1950s setting is attractive, too -- Miss Marple territory, social upheaval and lovely frocks. The plots are neat enough, and there are six short stories in each volume, which makes for easy reading.

But some of the dialogue is terribly clunky and Runcie seems to have taken to heart the primary school injunction to avoid the word 'said' -- his characters are forever replying, answering, asking, beginning, enquiring, continuing... I couldn't help feeling that one more editorial sweep might have cleaned up Runcie's awkwardness and made this a smoother reading experience.

Having said this, by the time I got to the end of the book, I was enjoying it... Perhaps not quite enough to go back for volume 2. But it makes good television, and I've got hooked on Grantchester season 2. Maybe they should skip the books and just go straight to the script-writing stage? Hm. Jury is out.

25.4.16

Mrs Dalloway

And after all, even if it were deeply nerdy to read the study notes alongside the novel, she didn't care a bit; for it only enriched her feeling for the story, made her notice details she had never seen before: the way each character was compared to a bird, for instance; the flow of the words, like a river, eddying and swirling one along so deliciously, so that one simply had to surrender, to lie back and submit, dreamily, like Ophelia.

And she remembered how much she had admired Virginia Woolf, years ago, when she was an undergraduate; had worshipped her, read every book she wrote, although a little frightened of her too, this sad goddess who had put stones in her pockets and walked into a river and drowned. And yet there was such a love of life in all those words, a grasping and a letting go, from moment to moment, the sunshine and the flowers and the desperation, the lovely girls and the pompous men; and she had wished that she could write like that!

It was the merest accident of hearing that podcast by Mervyn Bragg that had made her pull down the book from the shelf again; and she was glad, so glad! (And how odd it was, that she couldn't find anywhere a picture of her own novel's cover -- as if only one copy had ever been produced, especially for herself.) But was the gladness enough to make her re-read The Hours as well? No; there were limits to devotion; imitation was all very well, but in the end, there could be only one Virginia.

And there she was.

21.4.16

The Natural Way of Things

Let me say first off, huge congratulations to Charlotte Wood for winning the Stella Prize with this much-lauded novel, The Natural Way of Things, and her inspirational award speech. This is without doubt a powerfully written, deeply interesting novel, a grim, meaty fable set in the not-too-distant future, where a group of young women (all survivors of some sexual scandal or another) find themselves imprisoned in a remote, dystopian location.

There's been a lot of buzz around this book and I was very keen to read it (thanks to Fiona, my hairdresser, who passed it on to me). And there is much to admire -- the concept is strong, the writing is lean and springy, the setting both beautiful and frightening. I'm really glad I read it, and Charlotte Wood deserves every award she gets!

But for some reason I couldn't quite lose myself in this novel. Maybe I'm just at a place in my life where I can't handle too much darkness, and I'm turning away in self-protection, in case I get swallowed up? Maybe I'm just a lazy reader at the moment, looking for cheap comfort? Sometimes I felt frustrated with the women -- they were so judgmental of each other, and they submitted so passively to their imprisonment -- if this was a YA novel, they would have been plotting escape in the hundred pages! The Natural Way of Things remains a remarkable achievement. But it's just not the book for me right now, and that's okay.

14.4.16

From The Outer: Footy Like You've Never Heard It

I got distracted again... My friend Margaret from the Convent book group was the first to alert me to this book, then I saw a review in the weekend paper, and next thing I knew it had arrived on my Kindle, seemingly by its own volition...

From the Outer is a collection of short pieces about AFL football, edited by Alicia Sometimes and Nicole Hayes, it includes chapters by Christos Tsiolkas, Angela Pippos, Alice Pung, and even football hater Cath Deveny, among many other voices -- some famous, some unknown. There are pieces by the first female umpire, a star player in the women's game, the founder of a LGBTI supporters group, disabled fans, many migrants who found that footy was a pathway to a sense of community in a strange land; fans who were born into a team, and fans who made a conscious choice; people who for many reasons speak 'from the outer', in the sense of being on the margins of society, and who (in most cases) experience the game from the outer, as spectators and supporters, rather than on the field. There are passionate fans, ambivalent spectators, those who have fallen in love with Aussie Rules and out again, some who can't stand the game (well, one). As Miriam Sved puts it: '...part of the appeal of footy, maybe of any sport, is stories,' and there are a multitude of stories here.

When I bought this book, it was just before Round 3. My beloved Western Bulldogs had started the year in a blur, blitzing their first two games to sit high atop the ladder. We were looking forward to meeting the all-conquering Hawthorn in our third game, to measure our team against the very best. I took the Kindle to the ground with me, to read it at half time.

By the time I finished reading it, round three was over. The Bulldogs lost -- by the slimmest of margins, and they dominated the Hawks for a good chunk of the game. We are the real deal. But the loss of the match was rendered almost irrelevant by a much worse blow -- an horrific injury to captain Bob Murphy, our club's beating heart, a footy romantic, a seemingly ageless veteran leading a team of young pups toward success... But Bob has done his knee. He won't play for the rest of the season. Given his age, he may decide never to play again.

There could hardly be a clearer demonstration of all the ways that footy can break your heart, or the sweet hopeful promise that lures you back in, despite the pain. Come back, Bob! It wouldn't be the same without you.

11.4.16

Hills End

Goodness, I'm getting behind! I'm going to skip over Tove Jansson's The Moomins and the Great Flood, the junior fiction title for the Convent book group this month, just because it's a such a short little book and I read it on the Kindle, which compromised my appreciation of the illustrations, I think. But it was the first Moomin book, and deserves kudos just for that.

Moving briskly on, I'll talk about Hills End, which was the first Ivan Southall book I read as an adult, a couple of years ago, and which blew me away. In it, a group of children -- the oldest are about thirteen -- find themselves isolated in a flood-wrecked town, with no adults to take charge. (Our theme this month is Flood, if you hadn't guessed!) Will they survive, or be overwhelmed by the challenge? Of course, they rise to the situation magnificently, but not before almost going under.

These kids are very resourceful, brave and determined, but they are also realistically children. They bicker amongst themselves, think it's a great idea to wash in lemonade, decide to make sausages out of rotten meat, burn the stew and almost set the building on fire, are terrified of the dark and the eerie fog. But they are capable of more than they know, and their victory is fairly won.

I think this is my favourite Southall book. The balance between the characters' internal doubts and fears, and the gripping action, is just about perfect here. In Ash Road, the bushfire threat is so overwhelming that it leaves the protagonists little to do beyond mere survival; in To the Wild Sky and Bread and Honey, the interior lives of the characters take up so much room, there's no space for much to actually happen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read, although I raced through it pretty swiftly!