Life Below Stairs

Perhaps as a reaction to spending time "upstairs" recently with Deborah Devonshire, I felt the need for a slight correction, and pulled out Sian Evans' handsomely illustrated Life Below Stairs, a comprehensive introduction to the world of Victorian and Edwardian servants. Published by the National Trust, this book contains loads of photos of country estates and antiquated housekeeping equipment, presumably now under the Trust's care.

Life Below Stairs was produced a year after Downton Abbey started screening in the UK, and I can't help wondering if this was a canny effort to cash in on the success of the show and the fascination with the "backstage" world inhabited by the servants. I wasn't a huge fan of Downton, but I really loved Julian Fellowes' first venture into this dual universe, the movie Gosford Park, which was ever so slightly more realistic than the highly porous class divide depicted in Downton Abbey!

Life Below Stairs would be a valuable resource for anyone writing a book set during this era, as it contains comprehensive and clear lists of the household hierarchy, and all the tasks expected of each member. Domestic service might have provided a certain security, but my God, it was a tough life -- long hours, arduous physical labour, practically no time off, and constantly at the beck and call of others... Hm, not unlike my life at the moment, come to think of it... Except I don't get paid!


The New Doctor

For literally my entire lifetime (longer actually), the part of the Doctor in Doctor Who has been played by a man. To be honest, I was quite happy with that arrangement, particularly when the man was Peter Davison or David Tennant. At first I was resistant to the idea of the Doctor being played by a woman. Dare I say, some aspects of the Doctor's character seemed inherently male -- the self-righteousness, the messiah complex, the evident need for emotional companionship while simultaneously denying that need, the inability to say I love you...

But hey, it's 2017, and I'm learning to move past these gender stereotypes. But I still wasn't sure about the Doctor becoming female. Gradually the show began to hint that such a thing was not just possible, but inevitable -- a line of dialogue here and there, the regeneration of the Master into Missy. I won't say I warmed to the idea, but I was prepared for it.

But as soon as the announcement was made that the luminous Jodie Whittaker was to take the role, I was in. She's wonderful, amazing, an incredible actor. She was fabulous in Broadchurch, and I can't wait to see what she'll bring to the Doctor. Yes, it's a big shake-up, but this is Doctor Who! It's always been about challenging expectations, expanding horizons, questioning assumptions. That's the whole point of the show!

She's here, and I can't believe I ever doubted her.


Hate is Such a Strong Word

This month's Convent book group theme is Cultural Conflict, and our YA title is a home-grown exploration of the topic. I suspect we'd be able to find a lot of Australian books falling into this category; our history of (mostly) successful immigration has produced many such stories, because we need them. Reading is a safe and easy way to walk a mile or two in someone else's shoes, to see the world from their perspective.

In Sarah Ayoub's Hate is Such a Strong Word, the perspective is that of seventeen year old Sophie, eldest daughter of a strict Lebanese-Australian family, who attends a Lebanese Catholic school and chafes against the expectations of her community while still feeling strongly bound to it. I liked that Sophie wasn't a total rebel. She didn't want to break free completely or reject her culture, she just wanted a little more freedom to move, to express herself and enjoy the normal social life of a teenage girl in Sydney, and this ambivalence felt realistic to me. And I must admit I was slightly shocked that Sophie's father was so strict, certainly much stricter than I've ever been with my fifteen year old daughter!

Naturally, there is a crossed-wires romance, between outsider Sophie and outsider "half-Aussie" dreamboat Shehadie (who seemed to feel annoyingly entitled to lecture Sophie on her behaviour, despite being allegedly more enlightened than his peers). Maybe this is the true value of books like these: to show that, whatever their cultural background, most teenagers are essentially the same?


The Shark Caller

The second book in as many weeks where the main character's brother has just drowned... but Dianne Wolfer's The Shark Caller travels in a very different direction from Words in Deep Blue. Fourteen year old Izzy and her twin brother Ray were born with a foot in two cultures, thanks to their Aussie father and Papua New Guinean mother. After Ray's death, Izzy and her mother travel back to the islands to seek the comfort of family. But Izzy soon discovers that the community needs her to perform a very special, and dangerous ceremony in Ray's place.

I really enjoyed the setting of this book; I've long thought there should be more children's and YA books about the links between Australia and PNG (cough... New Guinea Moon... cough). The idyllic island setting, the  use of Tok Pisin words sprinkled through the text, and the exploration of ancestral beliefs, gave this novel a distinctive atmosphere.

Though Izzy is fourteen, this feels like a book for younger readers, probably Grades 5 and 6. The diving scenes didn't appeal to me, because I'm scared of caves and drowning, so exploring underwater caverns seems like a nightmare to me! But I can see the subject capturing young imaginations, and the eerie deep-sea world almost doesn't need the addition of magic to be weird and spooky. I also enjoyed the poetic interludes from the viewpoint of the shark.


Wait For Me!

Dear reader, I have a confession to make.

I have a terrible weakness for the Mitford sisters. My gateway drug was the 1980 television series of Love in a Cold Climate, which together with Brideshead Revisited and Chariots of Fire at around the same time, had an indelible and unfortunate effect on my adolescent aesthetic and left me with a permanent guilty affection for English poshness. (Actually, you could probably throw in All Creatures Great and Small, which was less posh, but also set in the 1930s.)

From Nancy Mitford's novels, on which the series was based, I progressed to memoirs and biographies of the family, to their voluminous letters. (I still haven't forgiven the theft of my two collections of Nancy's letters... was it you, Colin Batrouney??) My favourite sisters were Nancy, with her heart-breaking unrequited love for Gaston Palewski, and Jessica, the Communist who ran away to America and became a civil rights activist. The fascist sympathisers Unity and Diana appalled me; Pam and Deborah were fairly neutral.

This memoir by Deborah Devonshire, the last of the sisters, was published in 2010, a few years before her death. The first few chapters, dealing with her youth, are delightful; the rest of the book deals with the restoration of her husband's ancestral home, Chatsworth, and her experiences as a diplomat's wife in the 1950s and 60s.

Deborah was unashamedly conservative and doesn't hesitate to say so -- she protested in favour of fox-hunting, disapproved of reforms to the House of Lords, couldn't bear Jessica's 'communist' friends etcetera. I must admit (do admit!) that I found the book less enjoyable as it went along. The antics of aristocratic young girls in the 1930s are jolly good fun, but shoots and balls and hanging out with the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother feel slightly uneasy as we creep into the twenty-first century. Wait For Me! provides a window into a very different, very privileged world, and it's not a comfortable view.


The Twelve Doctors of Christmas

A bit of fun, this one -- it was a Christmas present from my younger daughter, who loves Doctor Who as much as I do, but who has never experienced Old Who (I'm not so obsessed that I have shelves of back catalogue for her to work through... well, okay, maybe a couple of discs!)

The Twelve Doctors of Christmas is a collection of twelve short stories, one for each incarnation of the Doctor, each one set at Christmas. Disappointingly, though several stories were set away from Earth, all the Earth stories featured a northern hemisphere festive season -- no Australian summer Christmases here! The stories were variable in quality, but several were excellent, especially the contributions from Jacqueline Rayner. There was also a colour illustration for each story, each by a different artist -- these were less successful, to my mind.

But this was a lovely gift, perfect light reading for the holidays. It's my own fault that I delayed reading it until the mid-year break... at least the weather has been more or less appropriate!


An Episode of Sparrows

Discovered at Savers, a classic Rumer Godden novel and one of the few I didn't already possess. First published in 1955, An Episode of Sparrows has been labelled as a children's book, but it isn't that; it's that rare beast, an adult novel about children (mostly).

If Rumer Godden were a pen, she would be a very fine, precise nib which makes clear, delicate portraits. Her writing is fine in every sense. In a way, An Episode of Sparrows is an updated version of The Secret Garden (another eternal favourite of my childhood): in grimy, scarred, post-war London, two children conspire to make a hidden garden behind a church; are discovered and thwarted; but ultimately saved.

When Alice was younger, there was one episode of Friends that she couldn't bear to view -- the one where Joey buys Chandler a hideous friendship watch that Chandler loathes. Alice couldn't stand to witness poor Joey's hurt.

In a similar way, I think as a child I would have found this book unbearably painful. The characters are too poignant. Poor little Lovejoy, patiently waiting for her flighty mother's return. Brave Vincent, struggling to provide nothing but the very best in his little restaurant, even if no diners come. Quiet Olivia, who watches everything and does nothing -- until the end. Kind Father Lambert, wise and lonely. Even mean, bitter Cassie has her own troubles.

This is a beautiful, tender book, but be prepared for a few lump-in-throat moments along the way.


Words In Deep Blue

I bought this book so long ago, my copy doesn't have the award stickers all over it. I've been hanging onto it because I knew we were going to read it for the Convent book group, which means I have arrived very late to the loving-Words-in-Deep-Blue party, but it was worth the wait.

I just love Cath Crowley's writing. When I read her books, I get writing envy. She writes the kind of YA I want to read -- gentle, funny, searing, sorrowful, filled with sweet, witty dialogue and characters you wish you were friends with (or that you wish your kids would hang out with!) Words in Deep Blue has the added bonus of being set in and around the second hand bookshop of dreams -- with a reading garden and a Letter Library where people leave heartfelt notes between the pages of the books they love best. This novel is a love letter itself, a love letter to books and reading, to the power of words to heal and transform.

What a beautiful book. I loved it.


Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

Our upcoming theme for the Convent book group is Books, appropriately enough, and Chris Grabenstein's Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library is our junior fiction title.

This book was a lot of fun, with conscious echoes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with books instead of sweets. A team of lucky kids win an overnight stay in a brand-new, whiz-bang library built by a famous inventor; but there's a catch. They have to solve the clues Mr Lemoncello has planted in order to get out! Naturally, the clues are literary ones, but even our hero Kyle, who doesn't enjoy reading, can use his wits to piece together the solution.

If Grabenstein succeeds in pointing any readers to the many books he references in this enjoyable romp, then he has truly performed a service. Mr Lemoncello also speaks in dialogue lifted from famous children's books, which adds a layer of fun for the adult (or widely-read) reader. Apparently this book has also been made into a movie, though I haven't watched it -- no doubt someone in my very conscientious book group will have done so. I'll wait for their verdict before I give it a go.


C. S. Lewis -- Twice

After becoming so excited about Planet Narnia, I couldn't resist ordering these two biographies of CS Lewis from trusty Brotherhood Books -- I had no way of knowing which would be superior so I bought them both. (There has to be some disadvantage to ordering online, and the inability to leaf through and sample the text is definitely a disadvantage.)

However, it was a very interesting exercise to read the two books side by side and I don't regret my double purchase. CS Lewis: A Biography by AN Wilson was published in 1990. It's a dense, scholarly work, somewhat dismissive of the Narnia books, which Wilson claims are 'poorly written', albeit in the throes of 'white hot' emotion. Wilson places more value on Lewis's academic work and his religious apologia. He is clear-eyed and unsentimental about Lewis's complicated private life, and his personal weaknesses, and is disdainful about the body of work (which I was unaware of) by hard-core Christian fans which seeks to paint Lewis as some kind of saint.

Michael White is similarly scornful about the blinkered sanctification of Lewis. But his biography, CS Lewis: Creator of Narnia, published in 2005, is written from the viewpoint of an unashamed Narnia fan. White has had an interesting life himself, including a stint in the Thompson Twins (!), lecturing in science at Oxford, and writing on science for GQ. He gives Lewis's fantasy writings pride of place, the central chapter of his book, and while he covers much of the same ground as Wilson, his book is organised by theme rather than strict chronology, which can be a little confusing. White's book is lighter, shorter and perhaps marginally more readable than Wilson's, and the positive attitude to the Narnia series is refreshing; however, Wilson's is probably more informative.

Needless to say, neither writer has picked up on the 'planets' theory. But I certainly know more about Jack Lewis the man and writer than I ever knew before.


Goodbye to Alyson

I first met Alyson Watt almost thirty years ago. She came to a share-house interview, a Scottish backpacker with a heavenly accent and wild red hair. A couple of minutes into the conversation, Andy and I looked at each other; without words, we knew she was the one.

Warm, funny and gorgeous, Alyson took the top room of the big terrace house. She didn't understand that in an Australian summer, you shut the windows and close the curtains to keep the heat out. As a Scot, she thought the right tactic was to open the windows wide, in case of a cooling breeze. We had to explain to her that there's no such thing in Melbourne in December.

Before long Alyson was joined by Jo, and the two of them became 'the Scottish girls', an inseparable pair. When our lease ran out, Liz and Alyson and Jo and I rented another house together, a tiny run-down workers' cottage in North Carlton, just the other side of the cemetery. Jo and Al crammed into the third bedroom; there was just enough room for two mattresses and a rack of op-shop dresses.

That was a year of chocolate puddings and beer, curries and chips, Doc Martens and cotton frocks, bikes in the hallway, silly hats and the Pixies and stupid jokes. I watched the fall of the Berlin Wall in that house. But by then the Scottish girls had moved on, backpacking their way north and eventually home.

A couple of years later, it was my turn to be the backpacker. I landed in their flat in Edinburgh and stayed there on and off for months, through the weird midnight sun of summer, then with Chris in a golden Scottish autumn and finally the bleak perpetual dusk of an Edinburgh winter. It was Alyson who cuddled me on her knee when I was homesick, and Alyson (working as a nanny) who told me I was 'good with kids.' That was Alyson -- generous and kind and always knowing the right thing to say.

Alyson hated flying so she never came out to Australia again. I saw her one more time when I went back to the UK in 1998. I never dreamed that would be the last time. Because Jo comes and goes often between north and south, we always knew what was happening in Alyson's life. Our last exchange on Facebook was only a couple of weeks ago.

Since the dreadful news of her death, so many random things have made me think of Alyson -- taking the tram down Brunswick St, listening to Kirsty McColl or Elvis Costello, hearing a Scottish accent on the radio, a picture from The Year My Voice Broke (Leone Carmen will always remind of Alyson when I knew her best!)

One day soon, Liz and Chris and I will find a pub somewhere and have some drinks for Alyson; it's the only way we've got to say goodbye.


Waterslain Angels

I was always going to love this book. Written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, whose Arthur series I both loved and deeply admired -- check. Set in the marshes of Norfolk in the 1950's, the same setting as one of my favourite childhood novels, When Marnie Was There -- check. (Okay, Marnie was set in the sixties, but pretty damn close!) Gentle, mystical children's fiction about lost angels and the power of unexpected friendship -- tick, tick, tick.

Ten year old Annie joins forces with newcomer Sandy in a hunt for the carved wooden angels which once adorned the roof of the village church, racing against time in case unscrupulous Alan Leppard finds them first. The children discover many angels along the way, in language, flowers and dreams, and face real dangers before they find what they're seeking.

Just a lovely, lovely book. Old fashioned in the best possible way, thoughtful, poetic, slow-moving despite the odd thrilling episode, atmospheric. This won't appeal to everyone -- my friend Heather will loathe it -- but it might have been written just for me. Thank you, Kevin Crossley-Holland!


The Vanishing Moment

Borrowed from another friend. I know Margaret Wild mostly as a picture book author; The Vanishing Moment is the first YA novel of hers that I've read. Published in 2013, it's the story of two young women, Arrow and Marika, both struggling to deal with tragic events in their pasts -- in Marika's case, very recently. They both end up in the same small seaside town and strike up a tentative friendship. They also encounter a mysterious man who claims to have changed his life -- to have swapped it for a better one. Could Arrow and Marika do the same? Would they want to?

This book reminded me strongly of Margaret Mahy's magical novels, The Changeover and The Tricksters -- the endangered little brother, the coastal setting, questions of fate and free will, and young women at the centre. But instead of concentrating on the magical element, The Vanishing Moment takes its time setting up the initial scenario -- Arrow's emotional paralysis and her encounter with muggers, Marika's horrifying loss. The question of the Interchange doesn't even arise until the final quarter of the novel. After this, events swirl rapidly to a punchy conclusion.

I'm not enjoying much YA at the moment, but I did sprint through this and the last quarter of the book was a great reward for the slow start.


Chasing Redbird

Borrowed from a friend, my first Sharon Creech, and a companion piece to the other books on wilderness I read (or half-read!) for the Convent book group.

Chasing Redbird has a lot more going on than the other titles, which focused primarily on the physical demands of wilderness survival and the daily fight for existence. Zinny is part of a large family, torn by grief, and her fight is to find her own place in a teeming mass of siblings. The trail she discovers and restores is the one place where she feels free to be herself, not smothered by her family. But she also has to deal with the recent loss of her aunt, the long-ago death of her almost-twin cousin, and the unwelcome attentions of hot boy Jake Boone, who has the unfortunate habit of stealing things and giving them to Zinny to attract her attention.

I did enjoy Chasing Redbird, and the wilderness sections were lovely. But I was quite troubled by the whole Jake sub-plot -- he is pretty stalkery at times, and there's one section where he grabs and kisses her against her will, which made me shudder. What made this more creepy is that he's sixteen and she's thirteen... It all works out in the end (of course), but I felt the story skated over the implications of his behaviour in a very carefree way which disturbed me (though I did enjoy Zinny's older sister insisting that Jake must really like her, and the thwarting of that expectation!) And the complications of the family situation, and the darting back and forth between timelines, initially confused me.


Planet Narnia

I have rarely felt such genuine excitement reading a book (let alone a book of literary criticism!) as I did while reading Michael Ward's Planet Narnia.

Ward, a Lewis scholar of many years, has developed a theory so persuasive and elegant, it's utterly irresistible. Simply put, he argues that C.S. Lewis wrote the seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia according to a secret scheme which adheres to the seven planets of the medieval Ptolemaic universe (namely, Jupiter, Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury and Saturn).

Thus, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe bears the influence of kingly, generous Jupiter, who 'banishes winter' and forgives all. Peter swears by Jove and the colour red recurs; there is feasting and jollity. Seen in this light, the appearance of Father Christmas, sometimes seen as incongruous, makes perfect sense.

Prince Caspian is influenced by war-like, disciplined, knightly Mars; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by golden, joyous Sol; The Silver Chair by watery, submissive Luna; The Horse and his Boy by quicksilver, eloquent Mercury, forever dividing and uniting; The Magician's Nephew is ruled by fertile, life-giving Venus; and Saturn, old, cold, ugly and deathly, rules over The Last Battle.

There is too much textual evidence to repeat here, and I must admit I skimmed some of Ward's more abstruse philosophical discussions. There is also a lot of material on Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet trilogy, which anticipates and reinforces Lewis's thoughts on the planets. I'm convinced that Ward has indeed found an important key to understanding the Narniad. The glorious jumble of imagery and atmosphere, the apparent unevenness of plot and some inconsistencies are at last explained. For example, the figure of Aslan is no longer a simple allegory for Christ, but appears in different planetary guises and roles in each volume.

This book has made me see these beloved books in an entirely new light. I can''t wait to read them again!