Dragon Skin


I think I may have a new favourite author. I adored Lenny's Book of Everything, but Karen Foxlee's latest middle grade novel, Dragon Skin, is even better. It doesn't hurt that it comes in this gorgeous hardcover package, either, with soft illustrations and silvery inlay. This is a book to treasure and to share.

When Pip finds a tiny baby dragon by the creek, her whole world changes. She discovers that caring for a dragon is a job that can't be done by one person, and she finds some unlikely helpers to assist her, including, in a way, her recently-lost best friend, Mika. Pip is deep in grief, and trapped in fear of her mother's abusive boyfriend, and though Little Fella can't come charging in to rescue her, breathing fire and slashing his talons, he does end up saving her as much as she has saved him.

This is such a beautiful, poignant story, often sad but also luminous with joy. I loved Little Fella, who is like a super-charged puppy, bumbling around and butting Pip with his head when he wants attention, crawling into her arms for comfort, calling out at inconvenient moments when he's hungry. Memories of Mika are interwoven with the present, so that we feel his loss as much as Pip does.

Lenny's Book of Everything was set in the US but Dragon Skin sees Foxlee return to the Mt Isa landscape of her own childhood, a place of mines and dry heat, dirt and galahs, waterholes and Weetbix. Is it too early to declare book of the year?


How to End a Story

 I have loved receiving Helen Garner's three volumes of diaries for three successive Christmases (all Covid Christmases, I think!) This final volume covers only four years, but they were intense and painful years as Garner struggles with the end of her marriage to 'V.'

It was interesting to read How to End a Story in conjunction with According to Mark, because they both dealt with issues of the recording of a life, journals, biography, silences and secrets and the reconstruction of the past. 'V' feels revulsion at the idea of Garner's diaries and the possibility that his words and actions might be pored over by future, public readers -- exactly as has ended up happening in reality. And yet Garner cannot stop writing her diary -- it's fundamental to the way she experiences and processes her own life, and it is vital creative work in itself. It's no wonder V is so hostile to the notion of his behaviour being recorded, because he really does act like a total dick at times (though Garner fairly tries to lay the blame for the marriage breakdown on both of them, it seems pretty clear that it was mostly his fault).

Garner's diaries and Lively's novel also share the theme of how to 'manage' male writers. In Garner's case, everything has to be sacrificed to V's novel (which does end up being very successful): 

What his novel cost. No piano. No holidays. No weekends. No outings. We sold my car. No river, no sea, no garden. No dog. No outdoor clothesline. No singing, no dancing, no swimming. No children, no noise, no fresh air. No sunlight, no wide-open windows.

Slowly, agonisingly, Garner extricates herself -- she goes into therapy, she rents herself a studio with a view of the harbour (you can actually check it out on Domain if you're interested!). She keeps pressing V to tell the truth and while he never admits having an affair, he does leave intimate letters lying around where it's easy for Garner to find them, so again, she is forced to do the emotional work of confronting him. This book made me so angry at times that it took my breath away, but it's saved from being purely painful by Garner's ever-luminous, hard, spare, precise writing.

And I was so pleased to hear her on the radio a couple of days ago, saying that she'd read and loved Larissa Behrendt's Afterstory, which she described as having a such a sweetness to it -- totally agree!


According to Mark


I really love Penelope Lively's books for children but I'm less keen on her adult fiction. According to Mark seemed like a pretty minor novel to me and I was surprised to learn that it was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize (Lively won the Booker three years later with Moon Tiger). It reminded me strongly of A. S. Byatt's blockbuster Possession which appeared a few years later and tackled head-on topics that According to Mark brushes past more lightly -- the relationship between biographer and subject, the dance between biography, fiction and truth, the gaps in the record of a life, which might be deliberate or accidental.

According to Mark does deal with a literary mystery similar to the one central to Possession, but it's principally the story of the biographer Mark and his mid-life crisis infatuation with the grand-daughter of his subject. Carrie's reluctance to plunge into an affair -- she goes along with Mark out of politeness more than anything -- makes uncomfortable reading in a post-Me Too world, though it's played for comedy here. By three quarters of the way through I was becoming impatient for the revelation of the secret life of Gilbert Strong which Possession had conditioned me to expect, and its final arrival was a satisfying relief.

According to Mark is a pleasant, diverting novel but for my money, it doesn't compare to The Ghost of Thomas Kempe!


The Edge of Thirteen

I've always felt a particular fondness for Nova Weetman's middle grade novels about Clem Timmins because my lovely, horribly missed friend Sandra Eterovic provided the cover illustrations for the first two books.

The Edge of Thirteen takes Clem to the very brink of young adulthood. Her friends are suddenly interested in boys, wearing bras, getting their periods. Clem wants everything to stay the same but it's all changing. The Edge of Thirteen beautifully captures that subtle peer pressure and desire to fit in, even if it means doing things you're not sure you want to do (like taking selfies, kissing, or even talking about kissing) and how devastating it feels when it all goes wrong. 

I could totally relate to this novel, even though I didn't really experience the same pressure until I was a good five years older than Clem! This is a great story for anyone who is twelve or thirteen, knows someone who is twelve or thirteen, or has been twelve or thirteen themselves once upon a time.



The Signature of All Things

Unfortunately this was another much-lauded novel that, for me, failed to live up to high expectations (see Where the Crawdads Sing, below). I've seen many glowing recommendations for Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things and it has over 100,000 reviews on Goodreads (crikey) so I'm clearly in a minority here, but I wasn't as enthralled as I wanted to be.

There were plenty of reasons to expect good things. I've read most of Elizabeth Gilbert's non-fiction and find her an engaging writer. I love history and historical fiction; I like plants, and I was primed to discover more about eighteenth century botany after being bewitched by The Paper Garden. A plain, scholarly heroine always appeals, as does the fact that most of the story takes place either in Alma's childhood or after her middle age -- entirely skipping over the youthful, fertile years which are usually the focus of fiction about women. 

I must say that the final third of the novel (contrary to normal practice!) fairly sang -- once the story shifted to Tahiti I found myself gripped much more tightly by the story. But the first third was a bit of a drag. The backstory of Alma's father went on too long for me, and it wasn't till Alma met the ethereal Ambrose, about halfway through, that the gears of the plot began to move. I can see why other readers have been captivated by this novel, but I just couldn't quite shift myself onto its wavelength.


The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst

 Jaclyn Moriarty is one of the authors I admire most, so it was an enormous thrill to meet her in Sydney, and a gorgeous surprise to receive a copy of her short-listed book, The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst, in my goody-bag (yes, we all got goody bags AS WELL). I started reading it immediately and it is as thoroughly delightful as every other Jaclyn Moriarty book I have ever read.

Moriarty has a distinctive gift for combining sparkling, funny prose with deviously clever plotting -- I don't know how she keeps the threads straight, but she always manages to tie up multiple complex storylines and fiendish clues in a beautifully satisfying package by the last page. The Stolen Prince is a misleading title which has very little to do with the mysteries confronting Esther Mettlestone-Staranise when she returns to boarding school: Ogres, Shadow Mages, Spellbinders, the disappearance of her two best friends, the arrival of mysterious new girls who are not what they seem...

This engaging novel is enhanced with charming illustrations by Kelly Canby -- I wish more children's books these days were illustrated, the distinctive pictures in my childhood favourites have stuck with me for decades and it's a shame that modern kids are missing out. Not in this case, though!


2021 Reading Round-up


Okay, time for my annual cursory analysis of my reading habits, and my annual attempt to remember how to make pie charts. I must confess that in 2021, all my virtuous resolutions went out the window. I made no attempt to explore more diverse authors or try different genres -- my only aim was to read for pleasure and comfort. So I have a feeling my existing biases will be even more on display in this report!

As I have done for the past couple of years, most of the time I have been reading three books simultaneously: one kids/YA title, one adult fiction and one non-fiction book. I find this keeps me from getting bogged down, and also throws up interesting and unexpected resonances between quite dissimilar books. I read a total of 91 books in 2021.

With a reading regime like the one outlined above, you'd expect a ratio of about two thirds fiction to one third non-fiction, and that's roughly how it panned out. A little less non-fiction because some of my non-fiction choices were heavy going and took longer to read.

Slightly more than a third of the books I read were children's literature or young adult, probably because they tend to be shorter and quicker to read, so I could get through more of them. Huzzah!

Ha ha ha, I hardly read ANY books by men this year! It was 81% women authors to 19% men! (I didn't read any books by non-binary authors.) And the male side of the ledger was dominated by Michael Palin, whose diaries I became addicted to. Dearie me. Sorry, fellas.

A sad lack of diversity in the nationalities of my authors, as I suspected. Lots of local authors, but mostly old favourites from the UK -- I do find British authors more soothing than anyone else. The US wedge is made up mostly of Cynthia Voigt, whose Tillerman series I re-read with great pleasure, and otherwise mostly by books that I didn't enjoy much, frankly (sorry to my Yankee friends). One single Irish entry, which was the new Tana French mystery. 

Only 7% of my books were gifted or bought new. 41% were purchased secondhand (thank you Brotherhood Books, mostly). 20% were reread from my own shelves. 17% were borrowed from the library. 10% were bought on the Kindle, and the remaining 5% were borrowed from friends or family.

Notable books of 2021

Old favourites: I binged on the uplifting, comforting books of Elizabeth Goudge, and the delightful, haunting Green Knowe books of Lucy M. Boston, as well as Cynthia Voigt. New authors: I discovered the accomplished, beautiful work of Jill Paton Walsh (though I still need to track down Goldengrove), and the lively, wicked, wartime mysteries of Robert Gott.

In non-fiction, Kim Mahood's Position Doubtful and Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? by Keryn Walshe and Peter Sutton gave me much to think about and shook up my perceptions of Aboriginal Australia. Helen Garner's second volume of diaries, One Day I'll Remember This, was a greedy pleasure and a brilliant set-up for the third and final volume. 

In fiction, Leanne Hall's extraordinary The Gaps was the best young adult novel I read last year, and Diana Reid's Love and Virtue was cool and devastating.

Wishing everyone a happy reading year for 2022!


What I Read On My Holiday


I had to go to Sydney for a few days before Christmas (spoiler: I didn't win the award, but I had a lovely time and met some authors I hugely admire, so it felt like a win regardless). As I was in the middle of reading three books, naturally I decided to bring two new books with me for the trip. One I expected to enjoy, and didn't; the other I was uncertain about, and I loved it.

Where the Crawdads Sing had been highly recommended on social media: book of the year, top read, loved it etc etc. While I certainly enjoyed aspects of this novel -- it's highly atmospheric, with an unusual swampland setting, a central murder mystery, and an appealingly independent heroine -- ultimately the implausibility of the story, the stilted dialogue and mostly flat characters gradually began to annoy me and by the end I was actively hating it (this novel has been massively successful so I don't feel bad for adding my two cents of dislike to the shedloads of praise it's received). I just couldn't buy that an abandoned child with no schooling whatsoever could end up writing botanical textbooks and speaking more like a 'southern lady' than her hick neighbours thanks to occasionally hanging out with a nice boy...

On the other hand, Australian YA author Krystal Sutherland's House of Hollow was recommended by a single reviewer (albeit someone whose opinion I trust completely: hello, Sue), and while it's a genre that I am wary of, ie horror, I was utterly captivated. This was a thoroughly creepy, beautiful and elegant story that I devoured avidly. The three mysterious sisters with their shared childhood trauma, their damaged parents, the glamorous London setting and the weird otherworld to which they seem to be connected, all bewitched me. 

I bought one of these books and borrowed the second from the library -- how I wish I'd done it the other way around!


Lenny's Book of Everything


See all the medal stickers on the cover of Lenny's Book of Everything? This is one of the most awarded and shortlisted books I've ever seen! It also comes highly recommended by many readers whose opinion I value. 

I think I've found a new favourite author: Karen Foxlee is wonderful. She is Australian, but Lenny's Book is set in the US. Lenny is growing up in the 1970s in a small American town. Her father has disappeared and her mother is struggling to support Lenny and her little brother Davey. Except that Davey is not so little -- he has a rare form of gigantism, and he just won't stop growing. As Lenny and Davey collect each issue of their build-your-own encyclopaedia, Lenny falls in love with insects and Davey with birds of prey, and Lenny gradually begins to realise that their little family is under threat.

Poignant, gentle, thoughtful, beautifully written, and often wryly humorous, Lenny's Book of Everything belongs to a particular genre which I call Children's Book for Adults. I absolutely adored this novel but I'm not sure how many ten year olds would fall in love with it -- it's so sad! The author's note reveals that Foxlee has cared for a seriously ill relative, and the final chapters of Lenny's Book ache with that experience.

It also powerfully reminded me of growing up in the 1970s with my Hutchinson's New Twentieth Century Encyclopaedia as the fount (font? fount?) of all knowledge -- I must have read that single volume from cover to cover a dozen times. Until the dawn of the internet, so well into the 1990s, I also used it as my main reference for my weekly general knowledge crossword in The Age. Those were the days, when everything you would ever need to know could be contained within a single set of covers.

Lenny's Book of Everything was one of my favourite reads of 2021.


After Story

 Larissa Behrendt's After Story was one of the most purely enjoyable novels I read this year. It combines several of my favourite areas of interest: Indigenous narratives; landscape and architecture; troubled families; literature; feminism; Australian and English history... A rich soup of delightful stuff!

The premise of After Story is simple: mother and daughter Della and Jasmine take a tour of British literary sights -- the home of the Brontes, Oxford, Virginia Woolf's house etc, and they narrate their travels in alternate chapters, so we get to see the same events through different eyes (multiple viewpoints, another of my favourite things!) Della and Jasmine have a difficult relationship, forever shadowed by the death of Jasmine's sister as a child. Della doesn't know much about literature or history, but she knows about people, and grief, and love, and her reflections are a poignant and often humorous counterpoint to Jasmine's more academic thoughts about feminism, racism and the power of story. You don't need to have read the classic novels discussed here to appreciate this book, though it does add an extra layer of enjoyment if you have.

After Story was such a pleasurable reading experience, but it also incorporates some dark themes. Della is an alcoholic, battling the demons of her daughter's disappearance as well as her own childhood trauma. Jasmine has tried to distance herself from her home town, without realising that this has also distanced her from her family and her heritage. Watching mother and daughter achieve a tentative reconciliation and acceptance of each other's flaws is very moving. I'm giving this one to my mother-in-law for Christmas.


Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate


When I found about the existence of this book, I was filled with righteous indignation. Who were these people trying to tear down Bruce Pascoe's work? How dare they provide an excuse for gleeful racists to cry, see, I told you it was all rubbish?

But after reading Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, I've changed my mind. Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe are experts, academic anthropologists who know their subject inside out and have spent years researching and learning from First Nations people. It does seem that perhaps Bruce Pascoe has exaggerated, over-generalised and perhaps valorised a Western ideal of agricultural 'progress' at the expense of valuing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as a rich, balanced and sustainable achievement in its own right.

Sutton and Walshe are at pains to point out that some of the facts Pascoe highlights as 'new discoveries' have been known in the field of anthropology for decades; however, I think they do underestimate how long it takes for this 'common knowledge' to filter through to the general public. I think they overestimate how much most of us learned about Indigenous culture at school. I don't think they realise the depth of ignorance of the ordinary, non-academic person, and they don't fully appreciate what I believe is the most important secret to Dark Emu's outstanding success: the hunger for more knowledge about, and appreciation for, the ancient traditions of Aboriginal Australia, not via academic textbooks or scholarly articles, but in a gripping, simple to understand narrative, which is what Dark Emu achieved.

It would be a wonderful outcome if Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? helps to continue the conversation about Australia's history and present that has been sparked by Dark Emu, and leads to a greater depth of knowledge and curiosity. It would be a shame if this careful, nuanced book becomes co-opted into the mindless shouting of the culture wars.


First Light

 First Light was Rebecca Stead's first novel. It's not as perfect as When You Reach Me but it's still pretty good. The book is told from two perspectives: Peter, who has travelled to Greenland with his scientist parents, and Thea, who lives in a mysterious community beneath the surface. Inevitably Peter and Thea's lives collide and intertwine.

I enjoyed many aspects of this novel -- the frozen world of the Greenland ice, the mystery of Peter's mother's depression, the beautiful clever dogs, the strong women of Thea's family, the gifts of ear-adept and eye-adept. But I did have a major problem, which was that I had a lot of trouble, particularly early on, in visualising Thea's 'cold world.' It wasn't clear to me for far too long (I'm sure this was my fault, not Stead's) that she and her community lived in a world carved under the ice. For a while I thought they lived on another planet, or in a parallel reality, and it wasn't until much more of the society's backstory emerged that I understood how they had come to live under Greenland's surface.

You can see in this book some of Rebecca Stead's great strengths beginning to flower -- complex, intertwining plot lines, sympathetic young characters, and a fully realised fantasy world. I've seen First Light described as science fiction but I think I would class it as fantasy -- it certainly had much more of a 'fantasy in the real world' feeling to me, though its underlying climate change message is more pertinent than ever. It was also fun to discover a blurb from my old mate Kirsty Murray on the cover!


Love and Virtue


I heard about Love & Virtue on Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales' Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast which I listen to sometimes, and even before Annabel Crabb started raving about Diana Reid being the new Sally Rooney, my attention was caught by the fact that the novel is set in an Australian residential college. I have to admit that my first reaction was annoyance, because I've been working on a novel set in a residential college myself! Ain't it always the way?? But in the end it's been a positive thing, because reading Reid's novel has pushed me to take my own WIP in a different, and stronger, direction.

Helen Garner has described Love & Virtue as 'an absolute cracker' and I can only agree. I read it greedily, with recognition (even though my own college experience was 30 years ago and Reid is only 25!) admiration and dismay (at the subject matter, not the writing). Not much has changed in colleges, it seems, except that students today are more aware that the behaviour they encounter, and participate in, is not good! This is a work of fiction, but firmly grounded in personal experience.

First year Michaela ticks off all the usual uni boxes: making new friends, meeting boys, feeling out of her depth in lectures, falling in love. But each of these events has a twist to it which leaves Michaela wiser, sadder and more vulnerable than when she arrived. Reid skewers campus culture and sexual politics with wit, elegance and real feeling. This is a terrific, timely, and extremely readable novel.


A Stitch in Time


I think I must have picked up almost all of Penelope Lively's children's books over the years, starting with my all-time favourite, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, when I was about nine. So I'm not sure how 1976 Whitbread Award winner A Stitch in Time has eluded me for so long. I thought I must have read it at some point, but I couldn't remember any of the details of the book this time round, so maybe I hadn't!

It's pitched as a time slip story, but it isn't really. Solitary Maria comes to Lyme Regis (having recently watched Ammonite, I could picture this very clearly) on holiday with her parents, and becomes intrigued by a former Victorian-era inhabitant of their house, a young girl called Harriet, who seems have mysteriously disappeared before reaching adulthood. The creak of a lost swing, the bark of an invisible dog, a shadowy face glimpsed in a window, all provide clues into the past; but in the end, it's the present that Maria is able to fully enter, making connections with the boy next door and his family tribe, and making friends with her own mother.

A Stitch in Time is a very gently paced book, more of a meditation on the links between past and present than a true time slip novel. There's not much in the way of incident, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, the hints of humour and shy Maria gradually coming out of her shell. This is a sweet, quiet, comforting book.


The Chosen

To my delight, I discovered my old copy of Chaim Potok's The Chosen on my book shelf, inscribed with my name and Year 12 class number. I don't think I'd picked it up since doing HSC many years ago. Looking for an image to include with this post, I came across a very recent article written by the director of the film version, celebrating the movie's 40th anniversary. Synchronicity! I've never seen the film, I hope I can find it somewhere.

Typically for Chaim Potok's novels, the story is slow-paced, but dense with detail and atmosphere. This was my first introduction to the world of Hasidic Judaism and on my first reading, much of Danny's world was a mystery to me -- the patriarchal community (women barely appear in the novel), the centrality of Torah, the almost mystical reverence for the rebbe, Danny's father. The book centres on the friendship between two boys: brilliant Hasidic Danny, destined to follow his father as leader of the community, but drawn to secular studies; and Reuven, observant but not extreme, who is ironically called to become a rabbi himself. The four way relationship between the two sons and the two fathers structures the novel.

The Chosen is set during and after the Second World War and it was odd to read of the death of President Roosevelt one day and the next day, see the same event portrayed on Band of Brothers (which my husband has been re-watching). It's really strange how often these threads of connection arise with my reading! I don't remember being struck by the almost complete absence of women in the book on first reading, even though I was at an all girls school, but it was glaring to me this time around. Now I want to revisit Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev, which I don't remember much about except that I found it moving, strange and intriguing.