11.10.19

Minnow on the Say

Philippa Pearce wrote one of my favourite books of all time, a book that had a huge impact on my imagination, Tom's Midnight Garden. I was aware that she'd also written Minnow on the Say, though I'd never read it; what I didn't realise was that Minnow was her first novel for children, published in 1955. When I found this copy in Brown & Bunting, I snatched it up.

Minnow on the Say is a lovely, very enjoyable, old-fashioned children's story, but it lacks the transformative brilliance of Tom's Midnight Garden. The Minnow of the title is a canoe, and the Say is a river, and the two boys on the cover, Adam and David, are searching for a lost treasure that is the only thing that will save the home of the canoe's owner, Adam. There is an enigmatic rhyme to guide them, penned by a mysterious ancestor, and Adam's grandfather's failing memory.

Adam's grandfather, old Mr Codling, is a poignant figure. Suffering from what we would now call dementia, he's trapped in a melancholy past, looking forward only to his son's return from the war. But his son is dead, and Mr Codling doesn't even recognise Adam, his grandson. The moment that stays with me, and reminds me most of Tom's Midnight Garden, is when old Mr Codling sees Adam in the moonlight and is joyfully sure that his son has at last returned home.

The treasure hunt itself is painfully slow and I doubt that a young modern reader would persist with the story. The Edward Ardizzone illustrations add greatly to the charm of the book -- when I think about it, I realise that Ardizzone illustrated so many of my childhood favourites (I'm thinking particularly of Nicholas Stuart Gray's creepy and moving Down in the Cellar). Why don't kids books have illustrations any more? (Answer: because it costs too much, I suppose. What a shame.)

9.10.19

How Bright Are All Things Here

I started reading Susan Green's lovely novel How Bright Are All Things Here about a year ago, but set it aside because there was a character with a depressed husband -- a theme that was a little too close to home at the time! Fortunately that particular situation has resolved itself and I was able to return, and I'm so glad I did. In fact I needn't have shied away so soon, as the husband's depression doesn't play a huge part in the story and (spoilers) it also resolves happily in the end.

How Bright Are All Things Here is a story about family and identity, regrets and joys, secrets and masks. It contains lots of my favourite elements: art, London in the 1950s, a Melbourne setting, relationships between siblings. Bliss is in the last days of a long, rich and crowded life, and her memories intertwine with the lives of her adult step-children, who are struggling with their own problems as well as their sometimes fraught relationship with Bliss herself.

This is a beautiful novel about a complicated woman that reminded me (serendipity!) of Mary Wesley's life story -- lots of relationships, some joyful, some sad; the struggle between creativity and family responsibilities; the wry humour and delight in sensual pleasures. Bliss and Mary might not have hit it off in real life, but they have quite a bit in common.

I'm so happy that I came back to this novel, I enjoyed it tremendously.

6.10.19

Any Ordinary Day

Leigh Sales' Any Ordinary Day is subtitled Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life. Understandably, I've put off reading it because I thought it might be too harrowing. And I did cry a few times. But though it was upsetting at times, overall the experience of reading it was comforting and hopeful.

Sales begins with her own 'worst day' -- the birth of her second child where (almost) everything went wrong (they both survived, but it was close). She's had another few pretty bad days as well -- her older child has medical issues, and her long-term marriage collapsed. This was the impetus behind her quest to discover how other people manage to pull themselves through terrible experiences.

She interviews high profile survivors like Walter Mikac and Rosie Batty, as well as professionals in the field of trauma like coroners, journalists, and police. While she reminds us that some people don't recover from trauma, all her interviewees have succeeded in remaking their lives to some degree, though they all stress that life is never the same.

I came away from this book marvelling at the strength and faith of human beings in the face of horror that most of us try not to even imagine. My family has faced some challenges in the last few years, though nothing approaching the terrible experiences recounted here, and I have to concur with Sales' closing message: to cherish the ordinary days, because they are the most magical times we will have.

30.9.19

Wild Mary

I've been hanging onto Wild Mary, the biography of Mary Wesley, for some time while I read a few of her novels to get a sense of where she might be coming from. But wow, the story of her life beats the novels hollow (and now I'm keen to read the rest and see what else made its way into her work).

Born in 1912, Mary Wesley found her writing career late in life -- her first adult novel was published when she was 70, and she wrote about nine more (all bestsellers, with TV adaptations and international sales etc) before she died. After a few decades of grinding poverty, she was catapulted into sudden wealth: a dream come true!

Mary Farmar was born into a genteel military family. Her father was the British liaison with John Monash's Australian regiment, and he landed with the Australian troops at Gallipoli. But, with some justification, she felt neglected by her parents and older siblings, and rebelled with a defiant adolescence and young adulthood (this is where she picked up the nickname 'Wild Mary').

She made a conventional marriage into minor nobility, but the marriage was not a success, and the couple drifted apart during the Second World War. Mary was working for British Intelligence and had quite an adventurous time, with many lovers and entanglements before she met her second husband, Eric, with whom she remained until he died. (They were friends with Nancy Mitford.) But Eric had a truly ghastly wife, who stalked and harrassed them for years until they managed to shake her off, and the strain of this reign of terror took its toll on Eric's own mental health.

Eric aspired to be a writer, but never really had anything published. It makes you wonder what Mary might have been able to achieve if she'd had the freedom to write earlier... There was another complicated family scandal later on when a nasty solicitor tried to get Mary's second son disinherited so that he could take control of the whole estate. By the time Eric died, Mary was on the bones of her arse, ill herself, contemplating suicide, having to sell her house which she could no longer afford to live in -- and then her manuscript, Jumping the Queue, was accepted for publication and everything changed. (Jumping the Queue is about a widow contemplating suicide after the death of her husband.)

Mary's books struck a chord because they combine the recklessness and adventurous spirit of youth with the experience and cynicism of old age. They can be really dark at times -- there's incest, betrayal, violence and deception -- and yet they have an exuberant devilry about them which is kind of thrilling. With such rich and racy material to draw from, thank god 'Wild Mary' didn't succeed in 'jumping the queue' after all.

26.9.19

The Story of the Amulet

I picked up this omnibus edition of E. Nesbit's Psammead trilogy a looong time ago at a library book sale. As a child, Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet were my favourite Nesbit novels (after The Railway Children) and I read them both many times. I was quietly devastated when I tried to read them to my girls and they just didn't take -- I might have tried too early.

Anyway, for some reason, I wasn't as fond of The Story of the Amulet, though it was a time travel story and contained lots of the same elements as the other two stories: the same cast of children, the same sly humour, the same absorbing magic, and the delightfully grumpy Psammead.

But... I was surprised and dismayed to note how the story is marred by several instances of really gratuitous anti-Semitism. Did I pick up on that as a child reader? I think I actually did, and it made me so uneasy that I didn't return.

I decided to re-read this time because the elder daughter and I have just finished reading a 1940s book about archaeology* which has proved to be surprisingly engaging (it was a classic of its time, apparently, and may have kick-started the Indiana Jones trope of the archaeologist as adventurer), and took us to Babylon, ancient Egypt, Tyre and even the destruction of Atlantis. And apart from the gross and disappointing anti-Semitism, which was completely unnecessary to the plot, The Story of the Amulet is great.

Another episode I had forgotten was the chaotic visit of the Babylonian Queen to Victorian London, which surely must have 'influenced' a very similar scene in CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, though the figure of Jadis is more chilling than the flighty young Queen.


*Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram, 1949. Apparently Ceram is the pseudonym of a former Nazi propagandist -- I bet he was successful, he writes really well, even translated from German.

24.9.19

Growing Up Asian in Australia

Unfortunately, Growing Up Asian in Australia (edited by Alice Pung, who I have also met through work, and who is also lovely) will forever be associated in my mind with terrible shame. For the first time in my life I have received an overdue fine from the library! Pathetic excuse, I know, but my emails stopped working for a few weeks and I never saw my warning emails... Anyway, the very understanding librarian 'accidentally' waived my fine so I still haven't actually paid an overdue fine... so my record is technically clear...

In my defence, Growing Up Asian in Australia did take me a long time to read, because it's so crammed with stories, memories, reflections, some hilarious, some poignant, some angry, some deeply sad, from Asian-Australians of all varieties: Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese and more, some by professional writers and some from contributors who have never written a piece for publication before.

There is an amazing array of experience here, but common themes do emerge. Without wanting to stray into stereotype, the weight of parental expectations and sacrifice looms large; the sometimes uneasy balance between belonging to both cultures, or neither; the knowledge of looking 'different', which is not shared by all immigrants. This book was a fascinating and rewarding read, and worth my fine.

20.9.19

The Boy and the Spy

The Boy and the Spy is a wartime adventure story from popular kids author Felice Arena (who is responsible for the Specky Magee series).*

The Boy and the Spy moves at a cracking pace, from the first few pages when our hero, Antonio, dives from a cliff to escape Nazi soldiers, to the very end when Sicily is invaded by the Allies. We hardly have time to draw breath as Antonio and his new American friend, the spy of the title, hurtle through a narrative crammed with gangsters, daring escapes, chases, stolen radios, bombing raids and train journeys in disguise.

For such a slim novel, it packs in plenty of action. But there is emotional depth too. Antonio is a rota, a baby abandoned to the mercy of the nuns, who carries the stigma of having no birth family. But his adoptive mother Nina is ill; who will take him in when she's gone? Ultimately, this is a story about family, home and belonging as much as it is about wartime intrigue and derring-do.


*Disclaimer: I have met Felice socially and through work, and he's a lovely guy.

18.9.19

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Kate Atkinson's first novel, and it exploded on the scene with huge fanfare and multiple awards in 1995, kickstarting Atkinson's wildly successful career. I have read all the Jackson Brodie novels (apart from the very latest one) and most of the others (haven't got round to A God In Ruins yet) and found them extremely satisfying (mostly).

Behind the Scenes was not at all what I was expecting; it's quite unlike any of her other novels in subject matter, though her exuberant, playful, psychologically acute style is the same. It's a family saga, deftly interweaving strands of four generations of mostly women with the central story of Ruby Lennox (who happens to be born in the same time and place as Atkinson herself) and whose life centres on a big mysterious gap -- which the reader figures out long before Ruby herself does.

There are plenty of Atkinson's trademark coincidences and surprises, and it's tempting to assume that there are parallels in this family history with Atkinson's own life, but who knows? You can't always assume that first novels are drawn from life, but there are vivid and baroque details here that do seem like the product of memory more than imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

16.9.19

Storytime

Birthday present! And a joyous one this time.

I cannot get enough of these books about childhood reading. I gulp them down like lollies from the jar. In Storytime, Jane Sullivan (who writes a column about books for The Saturday Age) goes back to a dozen of her childhood favourites, first recalling what them special, then re-reading to see how accurate her memories were, and giving some adult context and reflection. So we have chapters on E. Nesbit, the Famous Five, Wind in the Willows, Little Women and more.

There was only two of Jane's choices that I'd never read. One was a collection of horror stories and the other was a comic strip, "The Silent Three," which appeared in School Friend magazine. Well, would you believe, I have several 1950s School Friend annuals decorating my living room (thank you, Judy Ballantyne!) so I was able to check out "The Silent Three" for myself, with their improbable hooded robes and their plucky ivy-climbing and ingenious riddle-solving. Utterly ludicrous but I could definitely see the appeal.

I knew I had to buy this book when I heard Jane mention a book she was sure no one else in the world had read: Gillian Avery's The Warden's Niece, which was a particular favourite of my own. Apparently the illustrator who produced the distinctive ink-blotted pictures for the book lived at the bottom of child-Jane's garden, and gave her a copy! I adored Maria's adventures in 19th century Oxford (which paved the way for all the other Oxford-set books I was to love in the future) and her detective work in company with the boys next door and their embarrassing bean pole of a tutor, Mr Copplestone. I completely agree with Jane that Gillian Avery is overdue for rediscovery.

The one book we disagree on is Little Women, which I loved and Jane couldn't stand. I fell in love with the March family and I was charmed by their playacting and mock-Pickwick newspaper, which grated on Jane's nerves. But hey, it's so dull when we all agree.

I tried to make Storytime last longer, but I couldn't help myself -- finished it in two days.

11.9.19

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain

Let me get this out of the way: I have never read a John Boyne book that I've liked. I loathed The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is not as bad, but I still didn't like it.

John Boyne has been hugely successful (also hugely reviled, most recently for the trans-themed My Brother's Name is Jessica) so he doesn't need my praise or support in any way. I'm only reading this book because it was suggested for our list by a new member of the Convent Book Group, who has now left! (The topic is War.)

The Boy in question is young Pierrot, son of a French mother and German father, who is taken in by his German aunt Beatrix when his parents die. Beatrix just happens to be housekeeper at the Berghof, Hitler's country retreat, and Pierrot, now known as the more Germanic Pieter, quickly falls under the Fuhrer's spell.

The point of the book is to show how easily an individual can be seduced into a corrupt and obnoxious philosophy, and I guess that is a worthy aim. But there is something about the nudging style of Boyne's writing, where the adult reader is always in on the joke (not that it's a joke), that I find really off-putting. We know the mysterious master of the house is Hitler, we know why Pierrot is forbidden to mention his Jewish friend, we know why the showers in the planned concentration camp will have no water. The young readers might not guess these things, but in their ignorance, will they feel the full horror of the big reveal? It feels as if Boyne is having a bet each way, laying clues that only make sense if you already know the secret; if you don't already know, you won't actually learn anything.

This gets to the heart of my objection to Boyne's books. I'm sure it's well-intentioned, but it just feels too cutesy to be playing games like this with such serious subject matter. It makes my blood boil!

9.9.19

The Valley of Song

It has taken me sooooo long to finish this book! I ordered The Valley of Song from Girls Gone By months ago and I have been crawling my way through it since it arrived.

I have very dim memories of reading this book as a child, from the Mt Hagen library, but it wasn't my favourite Elizabeth Goudge (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians) and re-reading it, I can understand why I didn't return to it. In many ways, it's a gorgeous book, all about the joy and wonder of making, and a glorious mixture of myth, religion and fantasy (not unlike the Narnia books).

But... an it's a big but... there is NO STORY. The book essentially consists of a series of visits by Tabitha Silver to the Workshop, a kind of studio of Heaven where animals and flowers and trees are made -- it sounds terribly twee, but it's really not that bad... well mostly -- while she and her companions (adults reclaiming their child-selves -- oh, God, it sounds more twee than ever, doesn't it!) assemble the materials they need to build a beautiful ship.

This is the favourite childhood book of lots of people, and I can see that, at the right age, it might strike an impressionable child like nothing else. There are passages of extraordinary, lyrical beauty; wonderful tableaux; and as so often in Goudge's work, an atmosphere of ineffable joy and wonder and gratitude. But with no plot to propel it along, The Valley of Song remains a rather static hymn of praise.

5.9.19

See What You Make Me Do

Two years ago, a friend of mine was murdered by her intimate partner, so issues of domestic violence and abuse have taken on an immediate and personal horror.

I asked for Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do as a birthday present, but I actually received it a little early, which I'm grateful for. This is not an easy read; it's one of the most harrowing, disturbing books I have ever read. But it's clear, confronting, and essential.

There is so much information here, so many terrible stories, that I don't know where to start. But two chapters stood out. 'Through the Looking Glass' shows how the Family Court has been so thoroughly captured and corrupted by the aggrieved fathers' movement that if a mother alleges abuse, the presumption now seems to be that she is inventing accusations to 'alienate' the children, and she is more likely to lose all custodial contact, while her children are returned to their abuser. I couldn't believe what I was reading, but the day after I finished this chapter I saw a story in the newspaper where a murdered child had pleaded not to be handed over to his abusive father, because he was terrified of him. This corruption of the Family Court system is a desperately urgent problem, which goes largely unrecognised because reporting on Family Law matters is so restricted (ironically, to protect the privacy of the children).

The other really powerful chapter is about the experience of Aboriginal women. It contains a brilliantly succinct account of the inter-generational damage caused by colonisation, and also some really encouraging stories of the way Aboriginal women have fought back against abuse and social harms in some communities.

See What You Made Me Do ends on a hopeful note, examining some proven pathways in the US and in Australia which have managed to dismantle the structures that enable perpetrators to escalate their abuse. There ARE solutions, there IS hope. All it takes, as Hill points out, is political will and determined people to work together. We have changed social norms before -- smoking, drink driving. And in the long term, it will cost less economically than the alternative, not even considering the cost in human lives and psychological injury.

Women and children are dying every day from male violence, but it doesn't have to be this way. Highly recommended.

2.9.19

Dumplin'

Julie Murphy's 2015 bestseller Dumplin' was the YA selection for the Convent book group this month, with the theme of Body Positivity. By a fortunate coincidence, the movie of Dumplin' is also currently available on Netflix, so I was able to gulp them both down together this weekend.

I can see why Dumplin' has been such a huge hit. Willowdean Dickson is an appealing heroine, both bold and insecure, as she says herself, unashamed of her big body but at the same time beset by images of skinny 'perfection', particularly from her mother, who runs the annual small-town beauty pageant. With Dolly Parton as her inspiration, Will's own doubts are her biggest enemy as she tries to sort out her first boyfriend relationship, and untangle her first serious row with her best friend. Oh, and did I mention, in a moment of madness, she has actually entered the beauty pageant?

I loved the gang of 'misfit' girls who also claim their space in the pageant, and become new friends for Will. I loved sweet Bo, who fancies Will just the way she is, and poor Mitch, who also fancies Will but whom she doesn't fancy back. Overhanging the book is the memory of Will's aunt Lucy, who allowed her weight to dictate how she lived her life (interestingly, this is not the image of Lucy we see in the film version, and poor Mitch also hits the cutting-room floor, as the film focuses much more intently on the pageant and the friendships between the girls, rather than the romance angle. A good decision, I think.)

I must admit, I spent most of my time reading with my phone in my hand, checking out cultural references that mystified me. Dumplin' is set in Texas and it might as well be Timbuktu as far as I'm concerned. Chicken-fried steak? Trunk-or-treat? The whole bewildering pageant scene? Sadie Hawkins? 'Steamer' I eventually figured out was for clothes, not food (maybe the whole dumpling vibe threw me off there). The fact that all these sixteen year old kids, none of them well off, own their own cars? Ambrosia?? Homecoming mums? Not mothers returning home, I can tell you that much, but I'm still not 100% sure exactly what they are. Something to do with chrysanthemums? I think.

27.8.19

Transcription

My friend and piano teacher Chris was giving away a pile of books recently and I couldn't believe my luck when I saw Transcription by Kate Atkinson, which I've been wanting to read for ages (Atkinson already has another new novel out since this one!)

I have absolutely loved just about everything I've read by Kate Atkinson, and Transcription gets off to a cracking start. The wartime setting is very appealing, with naive young Juliet Armstrong press-ganged into working for MI5, monitoring and ultimately entrapping 'fifth columnists' (Nazi sympathisers). We know from some flash-forward, post-war sections, where Juliet is working for the BBC, that Something Bad is going to happen during the war; however, when the Bad Thing is eventually revealed, it's a bit of an anti-climax. In the end, I felt the novel ran out of steam, and the final twist didn't feel adequately prepared for.

It's a shame, because the initial premise was fascinating and the detail of Juliet's wartime and post-war experience was absorbing. Weirdly, this was the third book in a row I've read that featured an unusual funeral!

22.8.19

Constable and Toop

Well, no prizes for guessing why this book leapt out at me from the secondhand book stall at Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre (I was there with Dad, a different Mr Constable).

Apparently Constable and Toop is a real funeral firm in London, and it was sitting in a cafe opposite their building that sparked Gareth P. Jones to write this book. This is a real Victorian ghostly treat, teeming with spirits and colourful Dickensian characters. Young Sam Toop is a Talker, who can see and talk to ghosts; Clara Tiltman aspires to become a journalist; Tanner is a Rogue ghost, an urchin with a collection of spirit hounds; Lapsewood is also a ghost, but trapped in the coils of post-worldly bureaucracy. There are many, many more characters intertwining through the pages of this novel (including the wise and kindly Mr Constable!) but the short, pacy chapters never allow the complex narrative to become bogged down.

Constable and Toop is fairly gory, with several murders and ghastly exorcisms, so I wouldn't give this to the squeamish. But on the whole, it's a fun romp and very evocative of Victorian London.