I'm feeling slightly flat at the moment.

Things on the home front have been difficult of late, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. My own writing is in a bit of a slump; I've spent too long on this particular project, second-guessed myself, and re-written so many times I've lost track of what's included in any given draft. Also (this has happened to someone else on Facebook recently!) I had the misfortune of reading a book earlier this year which was exactly the book I wish I'd written, in the setting I was planning to use. (I was heartened that the universal advice to this other person was to go ahead and write her book anyway.)

And to cap it all off, even the books I'm reading at the moment are proving, shall we say, hard work… I'm trying to enjoy The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I've started another book assigned for book group, and set it aside with a shudder after one chapter. And for the moment, I've given up on Far From the Madding Crowd completely. If I could trust myself, I'd turn to an old fave for comfort… but the way I'm feeling at the moment, I'd never go back to the other books I have to finish before next Tuesday! So I'll have to soldier grimly on.

On a brighter note, I've been reading chapters to Miss 14 from the delightfully dated The Years of Grace, edited by Noel Streatfeild and rediscovered over at Memoranda, where Michelle has beautifully surveyed the contents. Although we're spending plenty of time mocking the 1950s attitudes, it has still been an opportunity to pass on some quite wise advice which might not be welcome in a more direct format (being cheerful and helpful around the home *cough*). So at least that's been fun!


And the Winner Is...

You're not surprised, are you? Initially daunted by the sheer size and heft of this volume, I ended up deeply enjoying it and galloping to the finish. (Far From the Madding Crowd has completely fallen by the wayside, I'm afraid.) Once I'd twigged to the astrological dimension, I found it even more satisfying -- in fact I think this ended up being the element of the novel that I liked the most, though you certainly wouldn't need to know anything about the influence of the stars to enjoy the story. The mystery was complicated (even now I'm not entirely clear about the order of events), but it was absorbing and the interactions between the characters (linked with both star signs and planets) were fascinating, as was the setting -- a gold rush town in New Zealand -- literally the ends of the earth! -- in the 1860s. I must admit I found the first third or so pretty heavy going, but it was well worth the effort. So glad my daughter forced me to take it from the bottom of the pile!


The Luminaries Update: Astrology Au-go-go!

I'm powering ahead with The Luminaries, which has surprised me, because I was so intimidated before I started reading it. It's just so HUGE. You could do a burglar a serious injury if you heaved this book at him.

I've just realised (lucky the book is so long, or I would have missed it altogether) that the twelve main characters represent the twelve signs of the zodiac. I don't know how I could have overlooked this, as it was discussed in the reviews I read, and also clearly mapped out in the star charts provided at the start of each section, but ANYWAY… now that I've twigged, it's added an extra layer of enjoyment to my reading. 

I used to be a bit of an astrology nut -- it was one of those things that I liked to pretend that I believed in, like the tarots… and maybe, deep down, I'm not really sure whether I believe in it or not… I know, logically, it must be nonsense, but it's fun nonsense, and it can be surprisingly illuminating. I dabbled in it just enough to be able to appreciate details like the Libra character wearing his cravat in the latest style, and the Virgo man being so meticulous and adhering to his own peculiar code of honour. So now I'm keenly looking for little clues like this, and chuckling, and feeling superior. Which is the best thing about astrology, isn't it?


Parallel Reading: Update

So… the book race. How's it coming along?

Well, after a slow start, Eleanor Catton is well out in front, with about fifty percent read. The first chapter takes up about half the book, weaving the twelve strands of story from different viewpoints into the central mystery (which I'm hoping will be resolved in the second half…) And now I've finally got a handle on what's actually going on, I am gripped.

Thomas Hardy, at the moment, is coming a rather poor second, with only about a third read. (I'm just up to the point where Bathsheba sends the valentine to Mr Boldwood.) It's possible that Far From the Madding Crowd is suffering because, having seen the film, I already know the story, so I'm not driven by pure narrative curiosity… but it's also undeniable that the meandering nineteenth century prose (two pages of description of snow!!) is trying my patience somewhat. Bathsheba Everdene is a terrific character, though, and I think Carey Mulligan was inspired casting.

I'll try to catch up a bit with FFTMC in the next couple of days… and the meaty melodramatic bits are still to come. I'll let you know how I get on.


Parallel Reading

Generally speaking, I am a one-at-a-time kind of reader (hence why I can have a neat list of What I'm Currently Reading on this blog, and tick the books off one by one). But at the moment, I am making an exception, and reading two books at the same time!

This began as a coping strategy, because I was frankly intimidated. The Luminaries is a very fat book --  over 700 pages. Far From the Madding Crowd is an old-fashioned book, with elaborate phrasing, philosophical digressions and some unnecessary (to my modern eye) detail. Neither of them presented as easy reads. Interestingly, though they were written over a hundred years apart, both novels are set in the nineteenth century, and Eleanor Catton has reproduced the rich, expansive, leisurely writing of that era in her 2013 Man Booker prize-winner. I'm exercising some reading muscles that I don't often use, to be honest. But I needed to ease into it -- so I decided to break these two chunky books into more manageable bite-sized pieces. Ten pages of one, a chapter of the other, back and forth.

The Luminaries has been sitting next to my bed (at the bottom of the pile, natch!) for over a year. I acquired Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd on the Kindle after enjoying the new movie recently -- it was free (I felt slightly guilty, but not much). So far, my side-by-side experiment is going pretty well. I have worked up good momentum on The Luminaries, and I'm nearly halfway through, though I've fallen behind a little on FFTMC (because my Kindle was in the cold half of the house and I couldn't be bothered going to fetch it…) 

Which one will I finish first? I'll keep you posted.

*Thanks for Evie for help with formatting this post.



Daughter the younger says it's been too long since I mentioned the dog on this blog, so here she is. She's two years old now, but still quite puppyish at times. In this photo you can see her cuddling her furry bone-toy (nb must wash that again soon…), and sitting in her favourite spot on the window-seat, from where she can keep an eye on events in the garden. She likes to rest her chin on the sill. If her nemesis, the grey and white cat from over the road, appears, stalking along the fence, Willow is perfectly placed to explode in a frenzy of barking and scrabbling at the glass. Likewise, when the possums creep out at dusk and make their way along the tree outside the window, Willow has a box seat to admire their progress (i.e. more frenzied barking and scrabbling, sometimes accompanied by frantic whining and crying). It's hard to tell with the possums whether she wants to eat them or befriend them; she often wags her tail while all the noise is going on. The other event that sets her off is when she can glimpse movement over the top of the fence, in the schoolyard beyond, which we are pretty sure she confuses with the arrival of the cat (dogs' eyesight is not that sharp). This means that recess and lunchtime can be noisy times of day… Thank goodness it's the holidays now, and we can all enjoy a bit of peace.

From Kinglake To Kabul

I bought this on the Kindle as my local library didn't seem to have it (or maybe only had one copy) and I needed it for book group, but I wish I'd had a hard copy. I think this was one book that would have benefitted from being able to see the proper, full production -- photos and layout -- as I could glean from the Kindle copy that a lot of work has gone into the production, which the Kindle can't reproduce. I'm looking forward to examining other people's copies at book group next week.

From Kinglake to Kabul grew out of a writing project where teens from the international school in Kabul, Afghanistan, exchanged pieces of writing with young people from Kinglake in Victoria, after the devastating bush fires of Black Saturday in 2009. On different sides of the world, these kids have been through a lot, and their parallel accounts of catastrophe and war are both shattering and hopeful. I found it very moving to read their fiction and reportage, and especially their responses to each other's work. Those tentative fingers of empathy reminded me of the tender green shoots that regrew after the fires, and are a wonderful reminder of the power of words to heal and to connect.

This book was edited by Neil Grant, a local writer, who travelled to Afghanistan initially to research his excellent, confronting novel, The Ink Bridge, and by David Williams, a Kinglake teacher who lost his house in the fires and whose account of that dreadful day is also included here. All the stories are very personal, some clumsy, some very accomplished, but all unmistakably rising out of the trauma of direct experience. Well worth reading.


The Players and the Rebels

Yes, Antonia Forest AGAIN! I bought this modern reissue, from the excellent Girls Gone By, at considerable expense, as a Christmas present for myself. The Players and the Rebels is actually part two of a pair of books about one of the Marlow family's Elizabethan ancestors, Nick Marlow, who after a series of misadventures, ends up in London working in the theatre as Will Shakespeare's apprentice. I know my school had these books in the library, and I certainly read them, but at the time I preferred the modern family stories and I have only a hazy memory of the plot, so I came to this book almost completely fresh.

As it's part two of two, it took me the first few chapters to reacquaint myself with the cast and adjust to the setting. Antonia Forest researched these books meticulously, but I gather Elizabethan and Shakespearean scholarship has moved on since the 1970s, so some of the details may not be quite accurate, but she brings the world of the theatre, Elizabethan London, and the tangled political situation vividly to life. In this book, Nick and his best friend Humfrey, a page to the Earl of Southampton, get mixed up in a failed rebellion -- a coup that doesn't come off -- and the muddle of the treachery is brilliantly told. But as always in Forest, it's not really the plot that counts, but the network of friendship, hero worship and obligation between the various characters: the debt of patronage between Southampton and Will; the deepening friendship between Will and Nick; the rivalries and jesting, and the bond between the various players; and the subtle shifts in Nicolas's loyalties as he matures and finds himself torn between conflicting duties of love and honour.

The Players and the Rebels is excellent historical fiction, subtle, intelligent and satisfying. I think I got more out of it as an adult, even though it was written for children.

Now I really need to get hold of The Player's Boy and fill myself in with what happened first!


Ash Road

I bought Ash Road on the Kindle, too! I thought it would be pretty easy to pick up second-hand, but it never seemed to be on the shelf in any of the stores I checked, and even Brotherhood Books only had a hardback fancy copy for $35. So Kindle it was…

Our topic for the Convent book group this month is Fire, and Ivan Southall's classic Ash Road is partly based on his own experience of living through the horrendous bushfires in the Dandenongs in 1962. My childhood home is in the foothills of the Dandenongs, and the threat of bushfire hung over us almost every summer, which made this novel particularly resonant. I had recurrent dreams about fleeing from fire, what to grab and what to leave, which haunt me to this day.

Southall's (mostly) young protagonists respond to the emergency and their unexpected isolation in different ways, with varying degrees of terror, resourcefulness, ignorance and courage; but in contrast to Hill's End, another Southall classic which I very much enjoyed, they don't really get the opportunity to work as a group, or to defeat the threat which overwhelms them. I guess this is because the catastrophe is just too big -- the only realistic response available is to hide or to run. This does rob his characters of some agency, and makes a less satisfying tale than Hill's End, where the kids rise to the challenges of the flood and to some extent overcome them, working together.

I found the scene where Grandpa Tanner lowers the two small children he is caring for into the well for safety, and stoically prepares to meet his own inevitable death, almost unbearably moving. He tells Julie to call out when people come -- Here I am, safe and sound, down the well! -- and reassures her, They'll find Grandpa, then they'll find you. Of course he means, the searchers will find his body first...

Southall's evocation of the fire, its immense power and force, is masterly and terrifying. I remember when I was a kid, I avoided Ivan Southall's books because they were just too frightening, too confronting for me. And I still don't know if I could bear to read Ash Road if I had ever been closer to a real bushfire.


The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters' latest novel, set in 1922, has been sitting on the pile beside the bed since Christmas -- I've been saving it up as a nice fat treat for myself. And it did not disappoint. What I most enjoy in Waters' books is the thick, immersive quality of her writing, the heft of domestic historical detail, so that I really feel as if I'm living alongside her protagonists -- I know exactly what they wear, what they eat, the objects in their houses, the way their kitchens smell. This vivid, painstaking detail might seem slow to some readers, but I find it deeply nourishing. And the social detail is equally vividly drawn -- in this case, the awkward relationship between the genteel poor Frances Wray and her widowed mother, and their 'brash' new lodgers, a married couple 'of the clerk class.' The polite clashes and awkward moments as the quartet adjust to their new circumstances are exquisite. And then awkwardness mutates into something more loaded, and the fun really begins.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Paying Guests, blurbed as 'a love story which is also a crime story.' Though it was fairly easy to predict the events of the plot, living them out through Frances' eyes, moment by moment, was a completely satisfying experience. I'm looking forward to whatever Sarah Waters does next.


Every Move

Please don't think that the fact that it's taken me a few days to write a book response to Ellie Marney's final volume in the Every series, Every Move, means that I didn't like it: reader, I loved it. (I've just had a busy few days.)

Writing the final book of a trilogy is hard. You have to wrap up the loose ends, and the eager reader knows that you're going to wrap up the loose ends. Your two protagonists have been building their relationship all this time -- they've earned each other, and your reader knows it. But you can't tie them up together too soon, because that's boring. You need to introduce a bit of tension -- enough to make it interesting for them to overcome, not so much that you frustrate your loyal reader who is longing for the fulfilment of their love almost as much as your characters are…

Ellie Marney handles this dilemma superbly. When Every Move opens, Rachel is suffering PTSD after the traumatic events of the last volume (this is all too plausible). Then Mycroft shoots off overseas and is absent for the first portion of the book, leaving a space open for a new character, Harris, to steal onto the scene. And it's all too clear to us (though not to Rachel) what Harris's feelings are. Meanwhile, their arch-enemy from the previous volume is closing in, and everyone is heading for a showdown, this time back in Rachel's home turf, the country home she left at the start of the series.

I just couldn't wait to get my hands on this. The minute I finished this blog post about Every Word, I picked up the Kindle and zap! There it was, waiting for me, instant gratification. If only I hadn't had to finish a book group title first, I would have devoured it on the spot. Ellie Marney mentions in the acknowledgements that she found this book hard to write, because she didn't want to say goodbye to her characters. And why would you? They're smart, great company, complicated, sexy. If they were mine, I wouldn't want to let them go either.


Boy Overboard

This was my second reading of Morris Gleitzman's Boy Overboard, and I must admit, I probably wouldn't have gone back to it if we hadn't been reading it for my book group. The story is told through the eyes of Jamal, who comes across as an average, very naive, soccer-mad Aussie boy, except that he's living in Afghanistan. Jamal's parents are in trouble with the government, and soon the family are on the run, at the mercy of people smugglers, pirates and the goodwill of the Australian government, seeking asylum in Australia.

Morris Gleitzman deserves nothing but praise for his willingness to tackle controversial issues (this book was published in 2002, when the refugee problem was just beginning to raise its head in this country) and to present them in ways that are very accessible for his target audience. I think this book would work extremely well as a read-aloud to a classroom of middle or upper primary kids, who would probably relate to Jamal as an ordinary kid no different from themselves (if slightly dumber). The story certainly encourages a compassionate view of asylum seekers, which is something we need more of at the moment.

But… for an adult, it's a frustrating read. Jamal's ignorance, and the antics of his little sister Bibi, who seems determined to get herself shot by picking inappropriate fights with authority at any given moment, become grating pretty quickly. And Gleitzman's choppy style -- short, punchy sentences, misunderstandings on every page -- also became a bit wearing. But this book is not intended for me, and it seems to have been a hit with its target audience. Gleitzman definitely knows how to write for primary kids, and he writes about subjects that they need to know about. So there is room on my bookshelf for Boy Overboard.


Speechless: My Recovery From Stroke

I stumbled on Jennifer Gordon's memoir Speechless: My Recovery From Stroke while I was browsing on Brotherhood Books. It's a slim volume but hugely informative, and though it was written in 1990, I found it incredibly useful and insightful about the effects of stroke.

It's almost exactly two months since my father had a massive stroke which has robbed him of his speech, and movement on the right side of his body. Jennifer Gordon's stroke was much less severe physically than my dad's, but her loss of speech and concentration was profound (during the course of the book she achieves a good, though not complete, recovery). My mother and I have both read it, and found her descriptions of the lived experience of stroke really helpful in trying to understand what life is like for Dad now -- the intense fatigue, the loss of concentration, loss of meaning in concepts even when superficial understanding still exists ('months' no longer had meaning for her, and she couldn't string together her memories in a meaningful sequence), the emotional lability and easy tears.

Of course, every individual is different -- one thing that troubled Jennifer Gordon greatly was the loss of her sense of humour, something which Dad certainly hasn't suffered. He is easily moved to tears, but he is equally quick to roar with laughter. In a strange way, he is more emotionally accessible to us now than he was before the stroke. I wonder if on some level, being freed from all the daily responsibilities and petty worries of his previous life has freed him up to enjoy small pleasures (cake, company, completing a jigsaw) in an uncomplicated, wholehearted way -- it would be nice to think there is some silver lining to this dreadful transformation. But he is still making progress, and having read about Gordon's experience of 'brain clicks' where she would make a sudden leap of progress, many months after the stroke, has helped to bolster our optimism.

We are aiming to get Dad to come home for Christmas; and if Jennifer Gordon could travel to England alone six months after her stroke, why not??


Every Word

We read the first book in Ellie Marney's excellent series, Every Breath, last year for the Convent book group, and when I saw volume two, Every Word, sitting in the library, I grabbed it.

This is what GOOD YA looks like. It's pacy, sexy, smart, exciting. And it's Australian! Mycroft and Rachel live just across the creek from me, in North Coburg. The Holmes & Watson references are less obvious this time around (though there is a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum!) In this book, James Mycroft and Rachel Watts have travelled to London to help investigate a death that seems to be connected to the long-ago murder of Mycroft's parents (well, seven years ago seems like a long time when you're seventeen…) and all too soon, Rachel and Mycroft find themselves in big trouble.

I love these books so much. They are everything that YA writing should aspire to be: intelligently written, but still gripping; filled with emotion and yearning, but not overwrought; packed with action, but not dumb. and it doesn't hurt that Mycroft seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to a youthful Benedict Cumberbatch… come on, surely that's not just in my head??

I can't wait to get my hands on volume three, Every Move. In fact, I might have to go and buy it right now.


The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Looking for a cover image of this 1963 novel, I discovered that it had been made into a film only a couple of years later. Now I'm desperate to see it! I found this in a second hand shop and snapped it up, because I can't resist a Rumer Godden and I must have them all.

I love everything that Rumer Godden has ever written: her evocative descriptions, her delicately drawn relationships between children and adults, her subtle and technically brilliant structures, never cease to thrill me. And I found most of The Battle of Villa Fiorita deeply enjoyable. But it's a very old-fashioned novel in its treatment of divorce and its effect on the children involved.

Fanny (there's an old-fashioned note, right there) is staying with her new partner, Rob, at an Italian villa, waiting for her divorce to Darrell to be finalised. Her two children, fourteen and twelve, run away from England and track her down, intending to drag her back 'home.' Their quest seems doomed from the outset, but the struggle proves to be surprisingly even.

There is no happy ending here, which is the most old-fashioned aspect of the story; an outcome which will satisfy everyone is never going to be possible, it seems, and frustratingly, it is Fanny, the mother, who has to sacrifice her own personal joy in the end. It was fascinating to read Rob's bracing views on child-rearing (his own 10 year old daughter, Pia, also ends up joining the party) -- the man and woman should come first, not the children, he insists to Fanny, and he urges her to give her offspring less attention and let them learn to cope with the situation -- not necessarily advice that modern relationship counsellors would endorse! And Rob loses all his authority when he spanks Pia, so he's clearly no expert... It was interesting to see Rob and Fanny's bond unravel over their attitudes to the children, but Rob's conviction that they can exist in a bubble, ignoring their respective baggage, is obviously never going to be sustainable.

I would have loved this book even more if it had had a different ending.