Yellow Notebook

I would honestly read Helen Garner's shopping lists if she made them into a book, so naturally I gobbled up Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. The most exciting part of that title is Volume 1!! How many more juicy volumes can we expect, I wonder?

I kept a faithful diary all through my uni years but it gradually dropped away as I a) grew happier and b) had kids. Part of the thrill of reading Garner's diaries for this period was that during the mid-80s we were living in overlapping worlds: walking the same inner Melbourne streets, shopping at the same bookshops, even going to the same nightclubs (occasionally). It's hard to tell but perhaps we even lived near each other, or passed each other in the street.

It's weird reading someone else's diary, even when it's been carefully edited like this. Her closest associates are disguised but little snippets of celebrity-spotting peep through (she meets a young Noah Taylor in a nightclub). There are flashes of subjects that will later become central to her writing -- violent crime, spirituality, and of course the abiding interest in personal relationships. Garner's second marriage broke down during this period, and she had other relationships.

As usual, her writing sparkles, and it's hard to read her self-berating laments, when she sees herself as untalented, plain, unlovable. It's the stuff of most diaries, mine anyway, and in a way it's reassuring that even the most brilliant of people can be so besieged with self-doubt. Reading this book was like grazing on delicious appetisers -- not a solid meal, but nourishing all the same.


A Single Stone

I've been meaning to read Meg McKinley's A Single Stone for a long time. It won heaps of prizes -- the PM's Literary Award, an Aurealis Award, Queensland Literary award, and was shortlisted for even more.

This is the kind of fantasy novel I really like, and it's pitched at the same level that my books always seem to end up at: somewhere between YA and middle grade, upper primary/lower secondary sort of level. It won the PM's award for Young Adult Fiction, but I don't think it's quite full-blooded YA. Not that I'm complaining (I seem to be off YA lately).

The world-building in this book is very accomplished. Generations ago, a remnant population was trapped by a landslide inside a valley, and believing that the rest of their society was destroyed, they've lived in the valley ever since. They depend for heat and energy on burning a stone called mica, which can only be obtained by creeping deep into the fissures of the mountain. This responsibility falls on young girls, but as the supply of readily available mica is used up, the Mothers need girls who are smaller and thinner and more flexible every year. Jena is the leader of the line, but when she begins to question the assumptions of her small world, she might bring everything tumbling down.

A Single Stone reminded me a little of Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, with its subterranean young girls and buried secrets, and the isolated valley ruled by women inevitably reminded me of Calwyn's home, Antaris, in my own The Singer of All Songs. I'm not a fan of caves and the idea of being trapped inside rock gives me the heebie jeebies, so I'm not sure that the world of A Single Stone is one I'd particularly want to live in myself! But it makes a cracking idea for a fantasy.


The Overstory

I borrowed Richard Power's Booker Prize short-listed doorstop, The Overstory, because someone on Facebook said it provoked more discussion in her book group than any other novel this year. It's a mighty fat book, the kind of thick adult novel that has made me quail in recent years. But I took a deep breath and dived in.

The Overstory is about trees. It follows nine characters whose stories intersect and overlap, nine people whose lives have all at some point revolved around trees. As I read I couldn't help marvelling at the incredible piece of engineering that is a tree: a elegant machine for converting carbon to oxygen, knitting together earth and air, communicating mysteriously with its fellows, providing shelter and food for countless other organisms, animals, insects and birds, infinitely adaptable, patiently extending roots and twigs, growing imperceptibly out and upward, too slowly for us to notice.

Some of the characters in The Overstory become environmental activists. Apparently this part of the book is based on real-life campaigns in the Pacific North-West of the US. They risk their lives to save the ancient trees. There are also artists, a computer game developer, a lawyer, an engineer who becomes a therapist, a scientist, who all see the trees from slightly different angles.

I've always been more of a tree person than a sea person. My family home is in the foothills of the Dandenongs, and its windows gaze out at a tree-blanketed slope. Even now as I sit in my inner-suburban living-room, I'm looking out at the dozen or so trees in our backyard and the swaying screen of leaves that soars high above the local rooftops.

Today, as I hear the clamour for more clear-felling to protect human property from bushfires, my heart sinks. Surely, if anything can save us from our doom, it will be the trees? One couple in The Overstory decide to let their garden go wild. All they have to do is... nothing. And inexorably, nature takes over. That gave me hope.


Reading Roundup 2019

I'm so far behind on my book responses, I almost forgot that it was time for the annual reading roundup. In 2019 I read 92 books -- slightly more than last year.

Kids' books: 39
Adult: 53
This is about the same proportion as last year, and most of my memorable reads were in the adult category. Towards the end of the year I had a Noel Streatfeild comfort binge. Actually there are a lot of books on my shelves begging for a re-read: Alan Garner, Lucy Boston, E Nesbit, more Streatfeilds. Hm, I can feel a nostalgic 2020 coming on!

Female authors: 63
Male authors: 26
Mixed authorship: 3
Practically all the fiction I read this year was by women. I discovered Mary Wesley, Jane Harper and Tana French, and caught up with some Kate Atkinson titles I hadn't read before. Should I make an effort to read more books by men?

... Nah, I don't think so.

Fiction: 63
Non-fiction: 29
I read heaps of fiction at the start of this year, but non-fiction made a bit of a comeback towards the end. Exactly the same proportion of women authors as fiction titles, weirdly. It's just a coincidence.

Secondhand books: 40 (down 5)
Borrowed from library: 24 (up 13)
Bought new (includes gifts): 14 (up 5)
Borrowed from friends: 9 (up 5)
Re-read: 4 (down 9)
Kindle: 2 (down 5)
The library had a resurgence this year, though I still bought (and read) mostly secondhand. I managed to make a dent in my immense to-be-read stash, and I'm (mostly) resisting the temptation to load up at Brotherhood Books. Particularly later in the year, I have rediscovered the amazing resource that is the local library and I've been going crazy reserving far more books than I can read!
BTW, e-books are so over.

Australian: 39
UK: 30
US: 18
New Zealand: 1
Ireland: 3
India: 1
Wow, I did not expect that -- Australian books are comfortably in the majority this year. I didn't consciously seek out local books, but I'm happy that it's turned out that way. Little bit of an Irish blip happening, too! As I was tallying up the totals, I realised that I'd read a lot of books by Australian women this year. So hooray to that.

Notable books in 2019
Johann Hari's Lost Connections made me see depression and anxiety in a new way, as a social problem as much as an individual one.
Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk reinforced my disillusionment with western society. There has to be a better way. Humans are not designed to live like this, no wonder we are all so miserable. Plus, we are destroying our home.
On a similar theme, Richard Power's The Overstory is a big fat novel, the kind I thought I couldn't be arsed reading any more. But it was an absorbing account of the relationship between people and trees. God, trees are amazing.

In other fiction, I was impressed by Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends. I can't wait to see what she does next. Eva Hornung's haunting Dog Boy stayed with me long after I'd finished reading. I was thrilled to discover the murder mysteries of Tana French and local author Jane Harper.

Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do was a harrowing exploration of domestic abuse and masculinity.

And finally, Jane Sullivan's Storytime was pure pleasure. Thank God for books.

Domestic Soldiers

Domestic Soldiers is another book created out of the raw material of the Mass-Observation project. I've read a few of these now and they are never less than interesting; however, Domestic Soldiers is one of the less successful offerings.

Mass-Observation was a British social research study which ran from the 1930s to 1961, when it was discontinued. About 500 volunteers kept diaries, replied to questionnaires, and recorded the opinions and behaviour of their fellow citizens. The archive formed by this mass of material is a treasure trove for historians.

Domestic Soldiers is loosely focused on the feelings, thoughts and experiences of six 'ordinary' women in wartime. Spread all over the country, their experience of war was hugely variable. One was a sheltered middle-class wife who grumbled at the inconvenience of rationing and incompetent servants; another suffered the full brunt of the Blitz. One sought emotional relief in flirting with service-men; another was painfully loyal to her repressed, controlling husband, but found a new lease of life and confidence in running a canteen and the local Red Cross shop.

Ultimately, I wanted more of the diaries and fewer general descriptions of what was going on in the war at the time. This is actually not a bad potted history of WWII, if that's what you're after, but the sheer amount of war reportage ended up squeezing out the women's words, which was a shame. One of this book's subjects, Nella Last, was a prolific MO correspondent and she has a couple of books of her own: Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace. I've read the latter and found it riveting. There were glimpses of Nella in Domestic Soldiers but I would have liked more.


Sand Talk (again)

The first day of a new year, the start of a new decade, and yet things feel sober, even frightening. The country is on fire; the planet is burning.

Re-reading Sand Talk confirmed for me: we are not meant to be living like this. 'Western civilisation' is built on a mirage, a concept of constant growth and expansion which is literally unsustainable. The things we have decided are important, the standards by which we measure success and survival (profit, consumption, economic growth), are killing us, and the precious, fragile world we live on. What would happen if we re-framed our ideas of what matters, to prioritise custodianship over exploitation, enough over more, connection over domination?

I don't know if it's even possible. Perhaps we are racing unstoppably toward our doom, the way so many past civilisations have collapsed, mutated, vanished. But there are small things I can do. They might just be gestures, flailing my arms before I topple into the maw of the apocalypse, but I'm going to do them anyway. Eating less meat. Trying to walk instead of drive everywhere. Buying less crap. We've installed a massive solar array on our roof; we might buy a battery next. We'll try to take care of the wild birds and creatures that live in our garden. I'll try to stay hopeful, try to look for ways to make things better, not worse.

Happy 2020, everyone. And if anyone wants to borrow Sand Talk, I'll lend it to you.


Theatre Shoes

I remember being pleased but slightly bemused when Ballet Shoes scored a shout-out during the 1998  Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com, You've Got Mail. Ryan, a bookshop owner, recommended Ballet Shoes to a customer, but mentioned that there was a whole series of other 'Shoes' book as well. Er, what?

It wasn't till much later that I realised that a number of Streatfeild books had been re-titled to create a 'series' where none had originally been intended. Thus Curtain Up! became Theatre Shoes, White Boots became Skating Shoes, The Circus Is Coming became Circus Shoes etc. The Painted Garden became, ridiculously, Movie Shoes. (Tennis Shoes was always Tennis Shoes.) Blerch. What even are Movie Shoes, or Theatre Shoes, supposed to be, anyway? (Though I have to admit that if you google 'theatre shoes', the internet summons... shoes.)

So, I have read Theatre Shoes before, but under its old moniker of Curtain Up! I didn't remember much about it, except for the name Sorrel, which I think is gorgeous. It's war-time and the three Forbes children, unknowingly part of a famous theatrical family, are sent to Madame Fidolia's famous stage school where the Fossil sisters had gone before them. There's another tiny cameo for the Fossils, who are all overseas or flying planes, but provide scholarships for the Forbes siblings. Sorrel discovers that she wants to be an actress, Mark really wants to be a sailor but can endure acting and singing if he's allowed to 'pretend' himself into a role, and the youngest Holly turns out to be a gifted comic.

In this book, it's the details of wartime privation that are the most striking -- the shops are all empty, Grandmother's grand furniture has been sold to make ends meet, the children long for smart attache cases and lovely clothes, but have to make do with 'utility frocks.' (I had never heard of these, but came across them again in Domestic Soldiers, of which more presently.) The extended family are beautifully sketched -- Grandmother, the egotistical matriarch, kind uncles and aunts, and Uncle Francis who is a bombastic Shakespearean Ac-Tor, as well as the children's cousins, supremely self-confident Miranda and funny Miriam. Annoyingly, there is one rather racist scene where a wounded Chinese sailor speaks pidgin English to Sorrel.

The obligatory Grand-Nanny role in this book is filled by Hannah, who had been housekeeper to the children's late grandfather, but is assumed by everyone (including herself) to inherit, without question, the job of looking after the children. This means moving to London and living in a very run-down house, sharing a bedroom with Holly and (horrors) riding escalators. I couldn't help wondering if poor Hannah might have had somewhere else she would rather have been.


The Fear of Child Sexuality

The Fear of Child Sexuality: Young People, Sex and Agency is not the sort of title you are accustomed to seeing on this blog, gentle reader. It's been a long time since I read an academic work (which this is) and to be honest, I wouldn't have come across it if Steven Angelides didn't happen to be an old friend.

Reading academic books exercises different muscles in the brain. I'll admit that I found this a difficult  text to grapple with; sometimes I could barely understand it, though most of the time I think I had a foggy idea. Here goes.

The issue of child (more accurately here, adolescent) sexuality is a vexed one in anglophone societies at the moment. Angelides examines a number of case studies of 'sex panics' centred on young people's sexual knowledge and expression -- sex education; the scandal around Bill Henson's photographs of pubescent youths; laws around sexting which can see young people themselves branded as sex offenders even when the activity has been fully consensual; relationships between teachers and students. Broadly speaking, he argues that in the rush to protect young people from the consequences of 'premature' exposure to sexual knowledge or activity, we erase their own desires, awareness and ability to act. Adolescents don't magically become sexual beings overnight when they reach the age of consent -- and that age can vary depending upon the activity and the parties involved. Yes, of course it is important to shield young people from abuse. But it's not alway so easy to decide what is abusive behaviour, and what harm might result. Young people need more information about sex, not less.

Steven has been the target of some unfounded attacks as the result of writing this book. It's a controversial topic but his approach is thoughtful and nuanced. I found it extremely interesting, and it gave me lots to think about.


Helicopter Man

Elizabeth Fensham's debut novel Helicopter Man won the CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 2006. Like The Wych Elm, it revolves around perceptions of reality and memory.

Pete and his dad are on the run. Pete's diary offers us an entertaining account of their difficulties hiding out in an old shed, but very quickly the reader is aware that something is deeply wrong. It's not until quite late in the book that Pete grasps that his father is actually mentally ill, and that the danger  he fears from helicopters and pursuers exists only in his mind.

This is a poignant little book. Luckily Pete connects with old friends and makes new ones, and his father finds the help he needs. It's not an unalloyed happy ending, but there is definitely hope on the horizon. Though this novel is only fifteen years old, I have a nasty suspicion that there might be less support out there for the Pete's dads of this world than there used to be. Helicopter Man would be a great resource for kids with mental illness in the family, and it's a good story in its own right. Set in Melbourne, which is a bonus.

Disclaimer: I purchased this book after having lunch with Elizabeth, who is a lovely person. Totally didn't influence my opinion, though!


The Wych Elm

The Wych Elm (which Blogger auto-correct insisted several times on changing to The Which Elm, and which seems to have been published in the US as The Witch Elm) is the first book I've read by Irish crime novelist Tana French. And it's very, very good.

Apparently this is French's first departure from a series about the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, and it centres on golden boy Toby whose life is upended after a brutal home invasion which leaves him mentally and physically wounded, and then by the discovery of a skeleton inside a tree at the house of his uncle Hugo, where he's staying to recover. With his newly unreliable memory, Toby has to wonder if he himself might have been the murderer... and if not him, then who?

Another character dying of a brain tumour! It's so weird that I seem to have been attracting these books all year; it's definitely not intentional. Hugo's cancer is ruthless but relatively slow moving; he hangs around long enough to take care of Toby even though Toby is supposed to be keeping an eye on him. This is a study of privilege, taken for granted and then lost; about being blithely oblivious to things that are obvious to others; about how it feels to be wrecked, and how fragile is our knowledge of ourselves.

This is a thick, densely layered but very readable novel, an intelligent, literary murder mystery. Is there a more satisfying kind of holiday book? And lucky me, now I know about Tana French, there are at least six more terrific books for me to explore!


Marlow Brown: Scientist in the Making

Disclaimer: I do know Kesta Fleming, author of Marlow Brown: Scientist in the Making, from the Convent Book Group, but she did not ask me to endorse this book (and I paid for it myself).

However, I have no qualms about endorsing this junior chapter book! It's a simple story about budding scientist Marlow, whose experiments with ants, dogs and Mum's white roses cause such chaos at home that she seems likely to be banned from experimenting altogether.

With a push to encourage girls into STEM subjects, this is an appealing and timely book, and I loved that it includes ideas for the reader's own experiments at the back. Loads of fun and educational too. Hopefully this will be the first of a long series.


Tennis Shoes

There is supposed to be a bit of a curse on books with green covers. Certainly I would say that Human Croquet, which I read recently, was not one of Kate Atkinson's best. And the same can be said for Tennis Shoes, which was that rare beast, a Noel Streatfeild title I hadn't read before.

I don't think I ever came across this book as a child. Even if I had, I wouldn't have picked it up as I had zero interest in tennis. Unfortunately this seems to have also been the case for Streatfeild herself, who was apparently looking for a follow-up to the hugely successful Ballet Shoes and decided (or perhaps the publisher decided) that tennis would fit the bill. After spending months dutifully researching for this book of a family of tennis stars, Streatfeild reportedly said, 'I know one thing for sure, I simply hate tennis.' (According to the note at the back of this edition, she later changed her mind and Tennis Shoes 'became one of her favourite books.' Yeah, right.)

Again we have the weird Nanny-figure/governess in Pinny (and the children's mother, a doctor's wife, seems to do nothing all day). Again we have conscientious older children, twins Jim and Susan, who work hard at their tennis but lack what we would now call X factor. Youngest brother David loves his dog, Agag, and long words. And we have 'difficult' middle child Nicky (did you know that Noel Streatfeild was a middle child??) who unexpectedly becomes the real star of the family.

This is a competent, amusing tale from Streatfeild, but her lack of connection to sport is clear. Part of the enduring charm of her books is the intimate detail and the acute understanding of how it feels to be part of a theatre production or to struggle with ballet steps. Tennis Shoes goes through the motions but I never felt I got inside the tennis experience. I think the only other 'sporty' book Streatfeild wrote was White Boots, about ice skating, which is much closer to dance than tennis will ever be!


Tea by the Nursery Fire

I found this short, large print biography in the local library while I was on a quest for Noel Streatfeild books. For a Streatfeild fan, Tea by the Nursery Fire: A Children's Nanny at the Turn of the Century is fascinating reading. It's the biography of Emily Huckwell, familiar to readers of A Vicarage Family as Grand-Nanny, the beloved nanny of Victoria's father (Victoria being the thinly disguised figure of Streatfeild herself).

Emily was born in Sussex in the 1870s and at twelve years old, went into domestic service. She started as nursery maid and ended up as head nanny. At one point she did contemplate marriage, but her fiancé was killed in an accident and for the rest of her life, she devoted herself to 'her' children. Certainly Streatfeild's father was devoted to her, much more so than to his actual mother. No wonder, because Emily brought him up, loved and disciplined him, and he rewarded her with his first love.

This book is a window into another time, where people 'knew their place' and didn't question it. Emily is clearly the origin of all those comfortable, loving but strict non-mother figures that litter Streatfeild's fiction -- Nana in Ballet Shoes, Peaseblossom in The Painted Garden, Pinny in Tennis Shoes. Long after nannies had disappeared from the average middle class household (let alone the genteel poor who form the majority of Streatfeild's fictional families), these figures keep cropping up, with increasingly strange relationships to justify their presence -- an old school friend, daughter of a former patient -- and these women, always single, seem content to join the household as something between a servant and a relative, always doing the worst chores, the mending, escorting the children round town, and never complaining about their lot. They are always a fount of folk wisdom, which it transpires comes straight from the lips of Emily Huckwell: Satan finds work for idle hands, don't care was made to care, it will all be Sir Garnet.

It seems that Grand-Nanny was such an integral part of Streatfeild's own family that she found it impossible to imagine any family without a similar figure as part of it, taking up the slack from Streatfeild's universally useless mother-characters.


The Final Solution

I found this very slim 2004 novella in a secondhand book shop (not Brown & Bunting, a different one at the top of High St whose name escapes me). It's barely 130 pages, including illustrations, but it's charming.

I've found Michael Chabon a little patchy in the past. Loved Kavalier and Clay; Gentlemen of the Road, meh. I was impressed to see that he was one of the creators of Netflix's terrific show Unbelievable. So I'll always give him the benefit of the doubt. The Final Solution is, of course, the last case of Sherlock Holmes, though the old gentleman is never named. We are in wartime Sussex, where Holmes has retired with his hives, when a murder and a mysterious disappearance require his involvement.

The plot itself is not amazingly satisfying, but the writing is gorgeous and the atmosphere of regret and nostalgia is tenderly conveyed. A quick read, but a sweet one.


The Painted Garden

Re-reading The Secret Garden made me want to revisit this Noel Streatfeild book from 1949, in which an English family visit California and the 'difficult' middle child, Jane, finds herself cast as Mary in a film of The Secret Garden. There actually was a film version made by MGM in 1949 and it seems that Streatfeild did some research on set, though there is a note at the start of the book disclaiming any similarities.

Jane's family contains the usual array of Streatfeild characters. Rachel is the conscientious eldest daughter, a ballet dancer. Tim is the precocious youngest son, a gifted pianist. There is the usual non-parent helper attached to the family, in this case a school friend of the children's mother known bizarrely as Peaseblossom. Stroppy Jane is not talented at anything and wants to be a dog trainer, so she is charmed by the boy who plays Dickon.

The aspect of this book that always stayed with me was the clash between sunny America and post-war Britain. The children don't stay up for dinner with the adults but eat early supper of cereal and fruit on trays then go to bed at six thirty. The girls' clothes are humiliatingly shabby (Streatfeild is always aware of clothes). Transport is a problem as the children's aunt Cora, with whom they are staying, won't drive them all over town and public transport is non-existent, which is probably still true.

The best part is the reappearance of Posy and Pauline Fossil from Ballet Shoes. Pauline is now a film star and Posy is her same irrepressible self, dancing in movies but still part of the great Manoff's company. Posy befriends Rachel and Peaseblossom gets on well with Nana -- no wonder, because they are essentially the same character in different bodies.

In some ways Noel Streatfeild does write the same story over and over, but I enjoy the template so much that there is always something to relish in each variation. Comfort reading of the highest order!