Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I had never read Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 American children's classic, despite being exactly the right age for it. Partly I think this was because I had a certain preference for British books, and perhaps partly because I wasn't that keen on rats (I'm still not!). I also didn't realise that Mrs Frisby was a mouse (which might have put me off even further!)

I came across this while browsing Brotherhood Books and thought it was about time I gave it a go. It was a thoroughly charming story, though fairly slow to start, but the pace does pick up once the backstory of the super-smart rats begins. I was bothered by some niggles which probably wouldn't have troubled me as a child reader: like the fact that the rats are taught to read ie recognise letters and words, but it's assumed that they speak English and understand human concepts, and will be able to decipher instructions like 'take the left hand door.' I don't know why this irked me more than the fact that all the rodents, including ordinary Mrs Frisby, use tools and take medicine!

I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this much at the start, but by the end I was completely captured. It's an anthropomorphised animal adventure, not unlike 101 Dalmatians now I come to think of it, but less witty than Dodie Smith's book. It was sweet, and the ending is ambiguous, so you can read it as terribly tragic or pretty hopeful as you choose. If I'd read this when my girls were younger, I would definitely have tried it as a read-aloud. I think they would both have enjoyed it, and there are not many books that fall into that category.


The Rosemary Tree

What a lovely title for a book! I do find Elizabeth's Goudge's titles so beautiful, instantly appealing: The Scent of Water, City of Bells, Towers in the Mist. They just push my buttons (buttons which may have been set in the first place by reading her novels... cause or effect, who knows?)

Having said that, The Rosemary Tree is not a perfectly successful book, in fact as Goudges go, it's fairly pedestrian, but it did contain lots of beautiful moments to keep me going. This was on the shelf in my parents' house, so I think my mother may have bought it once upon a time -- this edition was from 1977, so too early for me to have acquired it myself!

Apparently this book was the centre of a controversy in the 1990s when an Indian author, Indrani Aikath-Gyalsen, plagiarised it for her second novel, changing the setting to India but copying the story in many places word for word. After the plagiarism was uncovered, the author took her own life. A sad shadow to hang over a lovely book.

Most of the Goudge ingredients were in place -- long backstory explanations for each major character, ruminations on faith and beauty and the power of forgiveness (all things I believe in, and enjoy reading about), massive coincidences and a final neat resolution in a beautiful natural setting, this time Devon in the 1950s. Though I did quail when the lovely shabby manor house was 'saved' by being sold to become a monastery -- I don't know how long that was going to last!

Elizabeth Goudge tends to set up her stories with a long introductory set up where she lovingly arranges her characters like chess pieces on her board and tells us all about their lives and what's brought them to this point; then there is a series of moves where the characters connect and collide and everything changes (generally for the better); then we're done, and the figures on the baord are left standing in slightly different orientations from before. It's not exactly plot-driven, and it's not pacy, but it's very soothing to read, and absorbing once you allow yourself to be captured by her world.

I've made what seems to me a revolutionary, liberating decision, and one that goes against the advice I regularly give to writing students when I visit schools -- from now on, I'm only going to read books I enjoy. Life is too short to do otherwise. So you can expect plenty more Elizabeth Goudge book responses on this blog.


The Hard Sell

A quickie read of a book that's been floating round our house for months -- I think Michael picked it up on sale somewhere on the strength of seeing Dee Madigan on The Gruen Transfer, where she is consistently smart and funny.

This slim book is likewise smart and funny, a brisk primer on the art and business of election advertising, quite timely given that we've just emerged from the fog of the longest election campaign in history. Written in 2014, it contains lots of stories about the 2013 election but obviously wasn't quite up to date with the very latest developments -- Tony Abbott was still PM at the time of publication. It was enlightening to hear the rationale behind a lot of decisions that have mystified me - for example, why do parties run candidates in seats they have no hope of winning? One reason is that the party's Senate candidate can piggy-back off the local candidate, and benefit from their how-to-vote cards and general visibility. There were many amusing anecdotes, like the one about PM John Howard insisting on a particular ad (about the benefits of the GST!), even though the polling showed it wouldn't work. They duly made and ran the ad -- but only in the parts of the country where the PM happened to be campaigning at the time.

A quick but enjoyable, and dare I say, educational read.



Our theme for the Convent book group this month is Bullying, and Gordon Reece's Mice (2010) is our YA title. I borrowed this from the local library, whence I shall shortly return it, so that other Conventers can have their turn.

Shelley thinks of herself and her mother as 'mice', meek perpetual victims whose survival tactic is to run and hide - from the girls at school who savagely bully Shelley; from Shelley's dad, who oppressed her mum for years and finally abandoned them; from her mum's boss, who exploits her. But everything changes when a stranger breaks into their remote cottage and terrorises them. What happens that night will change the 'mice' forever...

I had really mixed feelings about this novel. It's a cracking read, pacy and engaging, and I raced through it. But I had a few serious problems with it. Firstly, I didn't buy the narrative voice, which sounded much more like a middle-aged man than a sixteen year old girl. Second, I was troubled by the implications of the story, which seems to suggest that empowerment and self-assertion can be most securely won through violence against others! Crime and Punishment this ain't, but it does a good job of tracing the psychological aftermath of a violent act. Lastly, and most trivially, I was annoyed by a sprinkling of typos which should really have been picked up in the proofing stage, something that publishers can't really afford to do thoroughly any more.

I'll be interested to see what my fellow book groupers make of this one. It's set in the UK, but the author lives partly in Australia, so I'm counting it as #LoveOzYA.


The Dean's Watch

When I was younger (high school and earlier), I was a huge Elizabeth Goudge fan, but her books are difficult to come by now. I especially adored The Little White Horse (also a favourite of JK Rowling) and Linnets and Valerians, written for children, but I also read a number of her novels for adults, of which The Dean's Watch is one. Goudge is one of the authors I regularly trawl for second-hand, so when I saw this come up on Brotherhood Books, I pounced.

Wow. Now I remember why I loved Goudge so much. This book touched me deeply. It starts very slowly, and on the surface it's not a promising premise, essentially tracing the growing friendship between two old men -- one the proud, frightening Dean of the Cathedral in this unnamed fen city, the other a humble, cowardly watchmaker who has lost faith in almost everything. But the ripples of this tentative relationship gradually spread to encompass the entire city. It's also about clock-making, creativity, compassion, fear, love and death.

Some readers accuse Goudge of sentimentality, and it's true, she does veer pretty close to the wind at times. Others will probably find her overt Christianity off-putting. But for Goudge, God is literally Love, and that's a form of Christianity I can get on board with -- in fact it might be that reading Goudge was formative in developing my own ideas about faith and spirituality. Elizabeth Goudge writes with such love and tenderness about all the things I love too -- moonlight and bells, dancing winds and candle-light, snow and stars. She makes the everyday world into something magical, and small human interactions into a facet of the divine.

I sank into this book as though stepping into calm waters. Reading it was a meditation, refreshing to the spirit. This will be a book I return to till the end of my life.


The Little Book of Hope

Mum asked me to buy this for her after hearing Ade Djajamihardja and Kate Stephens speaking on the radio a few weeks ago. Ade had a devastating stroke several years ago, which left him partially paralysed and facing multiple challenges to regain good health. He tells his own story here, with some sections written by his partner and primary caregiver, Kate.

Not surprisingly Mum and I are always on the lookout for 'stroke stories', especially those with a relatively happy outcome, and Ade and Kate's story is told with good humour and a focus on the positive, without sugar-coating the very real difficulties and pain the couple have endured. Lots of the advice here could apply to ordinary life, not just life after a stroke: change what you can to improve your environment; staying positive is good for the well-being of the people around you as well as yourself; set yourself tiny goals.

There are disappointing stories here too, like the time Ade was invited to an industry conference, planned meticulously so he could attend, and was so excited to be dipping his toe back into his former life. He and Kate arrived at the venue, only to find that at the last minute the conference room had been switched upstairs, which meant that Ade in his wheelchair could no longer be part of the event.

But overall, Ade and Kate's story is an encouraging one, with a focus on making the most of every day, which is a lesson we could all afford to learn, stroke or no stroke.



First time around, I read Laurinda in a single day. This time, it's taken me more than ten days. And I still haven't managed to sort out my feelings about this novel. The queens of the Cabinet are so awful, yet so powerful -- I don't understand how the principal gives her tacit approval to their actions, yet still seems to believe in Lucy. There's a lot going on in this book and I can't shake the impression that Pung herself hasn't fully worked through her own attitudes about privilege, origins and power. But then, who has? So much of this novel is powerfully written, simultaneously punchy, yet delicate and authentic -- but I can't quite seem to shake it down into a coherent whole.

I'm looking forward to discussing Laurinda with the Convent book group. Those smart ladies will help me work out what I think!


Friday Barnes: Girl Detective

I bought Friday Barnes: Girl Detective on the Kindle because there was only one copy in my library chain, and three of us from the Convent book group who needed to read it. (This month's theme is School Stories). The first of a series of five (to date) these junior fiction novels seem to be doing brilliantly.

The central premise is 'what if Sherlock Holmes was an eleven year old girl?,' but in truth Sherlock and Friday don't have much in common apart from a lack of social skills and a gift for solving mysteries (on the other hand, what more do you need?) Here I must confess that a few years ago, I was toying with the idea of a pair of eleven year old girls as Sherlock and Watson -- it must have been when I first came across BBC Sherlock. My sleuths were called Charlotte and Joss... and that's about as far as I got before I realised that while Sherlock and his imitators have a gift for solving mysteries, I sadly lack the gift for creating them. But RA Spratt has succeeded splendidly where I failed to even cross the starting-line.

At first I found Friday's world oddly hard to place -- was she living in America, the UK? The cultural markers were weirdly elusive, deliberately so, I suspect, as the series has sold into the US. It was a relief to discover that RA Spratt actually lives in Bowral. But it was slightly weird to read a world (mostly boarding school) which is sort of Australian, but not really -- a kind of fairly white bread, Australian-ish alternative universe. (To take a trivial example, TimTams are clearly described, but not named as such -- because poor USians don't have them over there.)

But overall, Friday Barnes is a lot of fun to read, and, I suspect, lots of fun to write, too.



Longbourn by Jo Baker is an unmitigated delight. Sharply detailed, beautifully written, it tells the story of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from a different angle -- this is the story of the servants of the Bennets' house, Longbourn.

I'm normally leery of Jane Austen sequels and re-tellings, but this 2012 novel is actually neither. It butts gently against the events of P&P and occasionally overlaps them, but it's really dealing with all the things that Jane Austen left out. Things like the hard, unforgiving labour of the underclasses; like war, and slavery, and grime, and sex, all the untold stories. But Baker still clearly admires and loves Austen's work, and is respectful to the origin novel, even while giving us a very different, clear-eyed view of our favourite heroine and difficult hero, a view which is not always favourable.

But the centre of this story is emphatically not Lizzy and Darcy; it is the relationship between Sarah, the housemaid, and the footman, James. Their love does not run smoothly, any more than Elizabeth's and Darcy's did, and they have their own share of misunderstandings and reversals. But their pains and trials have much more serious potential consequences than Lizzy's genteel poverty or social humiliation. James and Sarah might face flogging, starvation, the poorhouse, death in a ditch. Baker has done her research, but the novel wears it lightly, and the writing is subtle and completely engaging. The comparison is obvious, but this is so much better than Downton Abbey!

Apparently it's going to be a movie. For once, I can't wait.


Abandoned! The Man Who Loved Children

I read this classic novel (it even says Modern Classic on the cover!) years ago, and when I spied it on the shelves at my parents' house, I thought, I should really read that again. I remember being spooked by the cover art and thinking it might be a horror story, which in a way it is.

Published in 1940, this tale of a deeply dysfunctional family has the ring of autobiography about it. Henny and Sam are the warring parents, locked in a miserable marriage, whose relationship is played out through the allegiances of their brood of children, including gifted, clumsy, ugly duckling Louisa.

I skipped the introduction this time around, slightly daunted by the smallness of the print and the number of pages I was signing up for. And as I read the first hundred or so pages, I was struck by the brilliance and clarity of the writing, the portrait of the intimate cruelty inside an 'ordinary' family. It's great, powerful, difficult stuff.

But when I got to the part (spoiler) where Louie drowns the cat in the bath, I thought, how badly do I really want to spend time with these unhappy people? I get it, I thought, I remember this; they're all horrible, Louie has to escape to survive, Sam is a genial monster, Henny is a troubled shrew.

There are so many other books I'm dying to read. Do I really need to slog through this one again? And I thought, no.


The Buried Giant

I just wasted about fifteen minutes fruitlessly searching for an image of the cover of the edition of The Buried Giant that I borrowed from the library, but for some reason there doesn't seem to be a copy of it anywhere -- not even on the library catalogue! It happens to be a large print edition, which caught my eye as I walked through the library on another mission, and as there wasn't a normal edition on the shelves, I took this one. (And I have to admit, the large print was easy on my eyes -- not that I need it, no no no...)

So. In the past I have found Kazuo Ishiguro to be quite a frustrating author. I adored The Remains of the Day, absolutely loathed When We Were Orphans, and I'm intrigued by Never Let Me Go (which I've ordered but not read yet). I didn't quite know what to make of The Buried Giant.

I knew it was going to be a strange book, an allegory set in ancient Britain, where a fog has descended over the landscape, robbing the inhabitants of their memories. An elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, set out to join their son in what they vaguely believe to be a nearby village, though disquiet lurks around the circumstances in which he left them. There are encounters with a Saxon warrior, a wounded boy, a dragon, an elderly knight, who is a relic of Arthur's Round Table, and a mysterious boatman who conveys people on their final journey. But it transpires that personal memories are not the only ones that have been stolen by the fog; a general amnesia about the terrible war between Britons and Saxons has also settled on the land -- a blessing or a curse?

As I was reading, I kept feeling that I was missing the point somehow, as if the story itself was obscured by the mists, and perhaps this was the point of the novel? But it made for a vaguely annoying read. The theme of memory and forgetting is of course a pertinent one -- just two nights ago on the radio I heard Dr Bill Lott discussing genetic memory, and whether it's useful to cling to the memory of historic wrongs -- will we still be memorialising Gallipoli in a thousand years time? On the other hand, some things are forgotten which need to be remembered more clearly (Aboriginal dispossession is the obvious example). This is an important topic. (And an interesting example of the serendipity that often accompanies one's reading -- relevant things do just pop up.)

But The Buried Giant only made this clear right at the end of the novel, too late for proper exploration of the implications. I know that Ishiguro often explores these themes, and perhaps I should have been better prepared.

I'm not sorry that I read it, and it did pique my interest enough to spur me to hunt down Never Let Me Go, but I can't shake off a faint disappointment with The Buried Giant.



I re-read Wonder by RJ Palacio for the Convent book group (we are doing multiple POVs as our theme for this month). I'd read it three years ago but I remembered a lot about it; this book had stayed with me. But I was more than happy to read it again, and barely put it down.

I believe this book is one of those instant classics. It's cleverly structured, immediately engaging, funny and confronting, and the multiple viewpoints give every reader someone to identify with. Ten year old Auggie Pullman is a 'medical wonder'; a million-to-one combination of genetic factors has caused extreme facial deformities and a history of other medical problems (which we hear a bit about, but don't seem to interfere with the events of the story much). After years of home-schooling, Auggie is about to attend a normal school for the first time; but how will the other kids react to the way he looks?

This is a book with a message, and an unashamedly uplifting ending, and I DON'T CARE. I love it. I think it's so well done. I find myself feeling particularly for Via, Auggie's older sister (hm, sister of a sibling with a disability, wonder why that resonated...) The cheese is laid on fairly thickly at the end, but I really don't care. This is a Wonder-ful book (I wonder how many people have made that pun?)


The Book That Made Me

I'm so excited to be a part of this gorgeous book! The Book That Made Me, superbly edited by Judith Ridge and illustrated by Shaun Tan, will be published in September 2016, with all proceeds going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It's a collection of 32 short pieces by various authors, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, talking about the book or books that were most significant to them when they were young.

The result is a gloriously eclectic melange of reminiscence, humour and pathos, with authors' favourites ranging from Dr Suess through Roald Dahl to Anne of Green Gables to more unexpected choices like Jolliffe's Outback, The Odyssey, and Dolly magazine. Though many of the books discussed were old acquaintances already, I have earmarked several unfamiliar titles to check out for myself, and made a mental note to re-read others. I particularly enjoyed Julia Lawrinson's memories of pretending to be blind after reading By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which reminded me both of playing Little House on the Prairie in the dugout space under our house, and also pretending to be paralysed Clara from Heidi, lying on a couch with a rug over my legs (I was always a lazy child).

The Book That Made Me is an absolute delight. And yes, I do have a chapter in it, where I talk about my love for Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, which is for my money the Best Time-Slip Ever. (There's also a photo of me, aged about ten, reading in a tree.)

The House: Its Origin and Evolution

This book was not at all what I was expecting! I had anticipated something like Bill Bryson's immensely entertaining and readable Home, or Stuart Brand's How Buildings Learn, which I adored. 

What I got instead was a very academic and scholarly architectural text from Stephen Gardiner, himself a noted architect. It was interesting (when I could understand what the hell he was talking about), but very hard work, and it assumed a level of familiarity with architectural theory and history that I just don't possess. Here's a random sample:
The first trace of the megaron appears in Crete as an incidental reference at the palace of Knossos. But at Tiryans it has assumed a more dominant role in life, commanding the main courtyard facing the entrance. Learning and civilization bring confidence, and the megaron form takes over the palace itself, as one sees in Homeric times. But the final outcome of learning is wisdom, and so, at Nippur, the megaron returns to a position of less dominance, seeming to understand the extent of its limitations within the larger context of existence...
See what I mean? (I never really managed to discern exactly what a megaron was, either!) I did manage to follow Gardiner's main argument, which was that architecture should adhere to a human scale, that buildings work better in harmony with nature, and that a lot of modern architecture is pretty ugly. 

I'm embarrassed to say that the only way I managed to finish this book was to read it in tandem with The Book That Made Me. But I'm still in the market for popular, readable, engaging works about architecture -- recommendations will be appreciated!



I must admit, I usually have to force myself to read literary novels these days. They're so fat, and I know it's such a big commitment, I'll have to devote a couple of weeks of reading time to a single volume -- will it be worth it? Actually, it usually is, and Middlesex certainly was.

I borrowed this from my friend Sandra, because it was one of Those Books I Know I Should Have Read. But it then sat beside the bed for months while I tried to work up enthusiasm to actually open the damn thing. I had to push myself through the first 50 pages or so, getting into the rhythm of the writing. But after that I was totally hooked, and I raced through the second half at top speed.

Middlesex feels like several shorter, almost (but not quite) self-contained books stitched together, and this is reflected in the structure, which is broken into four separate 'books'. The first two sections deal with the protagonist, Cal/Callie's, grandparents, who emigrate from Turkey to America in 1922, their life in Detroit, and then the story of Callie's own parents, Milt and Tessie. So far, so sprawling family saga (with surreal touches). But for me, the novel really took fire in the third quarter, when Cal/Callie him/herself arrived on the scene and began to tell his/her own story, which occupies the remainder of the book. It's great, meaty, vivid, and absorbing.

I got the feeling that the 'family' part of the story contains a fair amount of autobiographical material (Eugenides himself is Greek-American, from Detroit). I've previously read The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, the novels that come before and after this one, but Middlesex is the one -- it feels like the great book Eugenides was born to write. I'm actually glad I saved it till last: it's terrific.

(A word on the consumption of this novel. Lately I've been snatching reading time here and there -- a few minutes' guilty break from work, a quarter of an hour in bed before lights out, a tram journey, twenty minutes before the girls come home from school. But this weekend I found myself up early, in a quiet house, and I sat and read for two hours undisturbed. And then I was... blessed?... with a migraine, and in the convalescent phase in the late afternoon, was able to lie in bed and read for another hour or so, until I'd finished the book. It made me realise that it's been a long time since I read like that, in long luxurious wallows. Maybe if I could carve out more chunks of time like that, I'd read more Big Novels?

Food for thought...)