A Stitch in Time


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

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

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


The Chosen

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

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

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




I read all of John Wyndham's books in high school, but haven't returned to them since. My memory of 1968's Chocky, his last published novel, was that it was very creepy, but I didn't find it frightening this time round at all. Perhaps my memory was clouded by the fact that I tried to write my own version of a Chocky story, which my mother read and worried that I'd developed schizophrenia!

Chocky is the story of 12 year old Matthew (narrated by his concerned father) who seems to have an invisible friend (always a fascination of mine); however 'Chocky' seems to have access to knowledge and abilities that Matthew himself doesn't possess. The family doctor is no help, a psych consultant brushes off their anxieties, Matthew's mother is in denial, but gradually his father becomes convinced that Chocky is real. But exactly who or what are they?

You read John Wyndham for the ideas and the plot rather than for character development, but I had forgotten how thin his characters are. I'd also forgotten the strand of casual misogyny that runs through this novel. Much like Nevil Shute's On the Beach, of similar vintage, women exist in this world purely as anxious mothers, whose 'irrational' fears need to be soothed by their calm, sensible husbands. Some prescient predictions by Chocky, though; if only we'd listened...


A Natural History of Ghosts

I heard Roger Clarke speaking on a podcast and immediately ordered his book, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. It arrived just in time for Halloween -- perfect timing!

The back cover poses these questions: What explains spectral sightings? Why do we fear the supernatural? Why are some people or cultures more likely to experience hauntings than others? And what proof is there?

All fascinating and intriguing questions, which unfortunately Clarke doesn't explicitly address until the final chapter. The bulk of the book deals with historic cases of ghost sightings -- particularly stories which took on a life of their own (if you'll pardon the pun). So we learn about Hinton Ampner, a Tudor house that suffered from an eighteenth century haunting so severe that it became impossible for anyone to live there; the house was eventually demolished. There is the hysteria around the ghost of Cock Lane,  later proved to be a fraud; a cursed submarine of WWI, Victorian seances, fake clairvoyants and earnest investigations.

Clarke grew up in a haunted house and has devoted much of his life to trying to see a ghost; he examines the historical evidence with admirable objectivity, though he is clearly a believer. His attitude is that while fraud exists, it doesn't mean that ghosts don't also exist; even if a medium has indulged in fakery, that doesn't mean that they haven't also experienced genuine psychic phenomena.

In a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories  that we tell each other about them.

I must admit I find this attitude a reasonable one. I've never seen a ghost either, and I probably wouldn't like it if I did, but my mother-in-law has seen one, and my daughter, as a small child, claimed to have seen an unexplained figure in our kitchen. The final chapter of A Natural History of Ghosts was the most satisfying for me, as Clarke traces the changing history of ghost sightings, from an ancient Roman tale of a ghostly apparition, wrapped in a white burial shroud and shaking chains from wrists and ankles (the absolute original cliche of a moaning phantom!), to monks and nuns dispossessed by Henry VIII's seizure of church property, through to modern era photos and spooky sound recordings (the YouTube series Unsolved Supernatural has some delicious examples of the latter). 

I can't explain what ghost experiences might be, but I'm not game to insist that everyone who has seen or heard or felt a ghost is a liar. Maybe one day we will find out for sure.


The Giant Under the Snow

I learned about John Gordon and The Giant Under the Snow through a Facebook group about Alan Garner, and I'm amazed that I had never heard of this book or this author before, because it is very much my cup of tea. First published in 1968, The Giant Under the Snow follows three children who discover a huge mysterious figure in the woods, with an ageless guardian figure called Elizabeth Goodenough who watches over him. Soon the three friends, Bill, Arf and Jonk (short for Jonquil, which I adore!) are being pursued by a sinister warlord and a terrifying black dog, along with the creepy faceless 'leathermen.'

The Giant Under the Snow is light on plot (it's basically a chase story) but thick on atmosphere. Elizabeth gives the children small backpacks which enable them to fly, and the flying scenes are detailed and evocative, as the three learn to control their new gift and fly over the darkened snowy landscape by night. It reminded me of Penelope Farmer's The Summer Birds, published a few years earlier, and also Alan Garner's Elidor (1965), where the children also become guardians of precious relics. Giant and Elidor both feature the half-demolished streetscapes of slum clearances, a spooky setting for a world between myth and the everyday.

This book slots in very comfortably with other 1960s authors like Penelope Lively who were also exploring deep history and myth. Gordon also wrote The House on the Brink which also deals with an Arthurian figure, so I'm intrigued to track that one down, too.


Three Women

 An unusual book for me, in that it is very adult! Lisa Taddeo's Three Women caused quite a stir when it was published a couple of years ago, for its frank and explicit exploration of female desire through the life stories of three women -- one who has sex with other men for her husband's pleasure, one who is having an affair with a married man, and one young woman who was abused by her high school teacher. Taddeo spent eight years working with the women, so these portraits are extremely intimate, sometimes sad, sometimes shocking.

The story I found most gripping was (perhaps not surprisingly) the high school student, Maggie, who ended up suing her teacher -- you can find pictures of the court case online -- after he was awarded Teacher of the Year in North Dakota. The gradually unfolding story of his grooming her, her growing crush on him, the abuse (which she experiences at the time as a love affair), and then her sense of betrayal, is incredibly poignant and painful. 

At the beginning of this book I wasn't sure if it was going to be my cup of tea, but by the end I was totally involved, and bitterly sad for Maggie. All three women are straight, cis, able and white; it would be interesting to hear similar stories from diverse points of view.

Occasionally the writing strives little too hard to be interesting, as when 'the wild black water [of a secret waterfall] rushes... like a vibrant truffle.' Sometimes less is more!


Seventeen Against the Dealer

 Seventeen Against the Dealer, the final Tillerman book, is not an easy read. It's great to bring the focus back to Dicey, now in her early twenties and embarking on her big dream, a boat-building business. But Dicey, always so resourceful and self-sufficient, is still young and raw; it's painful to read about one thing after another going wrong, as she loses her precious tool collection (uninsured), agrees to take on work she can't yet manage, and trusts people who don't deserve it. Dicey's way has always been to barrel on, to work hard, tackle the problem in front of her, and then work harder; but she needs to learn that that isn't the only, or even the best way, to handle life. Perhaps the most painful lesson of all, which we see unfolding before she does, is that she almost loses faithful Jeff by taking his loyalty for granted. And in neglecting her family, she almost loses Gram, too.

This is a satisfying conclusion to Cynthia Voigt's masterful Tillerman series, though I still think Homecoming is my favourite of them all. This last book is about taking chances, and making the most of the chances you're given, and also about picking yourself up again if those gambles don't pay off. Seventeen Against the Dealer also prompted me to cook jumbalaya, which was delicious! I'm looking forward to revisiting the Tillermans again in another ten years.


Books That Saved My Life

 I've always enjoyed Michael McGirr's book reviews in The Age, and also Bypass: The Story of a Road, a gentle road trip. He is a humane, compassionate and thoughtful commentator, a man of faith who teaches English at a boys' private school (lucky boys).

In Books That Saved My Life, McGirr reflects on forty books, in short chapters of a few pages each, that have touched or inspired him over a lifetime of reading, some fiction, some poetry, some memoir, some non-fiction. He interweaves his observations with some biographical information about each author and some personal anecdotes about the place of each book in his life, how he discovered it, or the person who introduced him to it. It's like reading a bunch of pithy newspaper columns, perfectly weighted and structured, or taking recommendations from a trusted and well-read friend.

There are lots of books here that I'd never heard of, as well as plenty of old friends, who I enjoyed viewing in a fresh light, from Harry Potter to Jane Austen to Heart of Darkness (blerch) -- plenty of female authors, too. If you were embarking on a serious reading program, you could do worse than take Michael McGirr as your guide.


In the Beginning


A proper grown up literary novel, the first one I've read for a long time. I read quite a few of Chaim Potok's novels in high school and was fascinated by the glimpses into a different cultural world, the world of Orthodox Judaism, that they showed to me; that fascination has never left me, as my recent television adventures with Unorthodox, Shtisel and Unchained have proved. But I haven't read In the Beginning before.

In the Beginning is an adult novel, but for most of its length David Lurie is a child or an adolescent, growing up in the Bronx during the Depression and the Second World War. We see through his eyes the hostility of the goyim, the oppression of history, and he is particularly haunted by his father's past, fighting in Poland. David is a sickly, gifted child, perpetually anxious, dreading 'accidents', and aspiring to a courage he is sure that he lacks. But in the end, the courage he finds is not physical bravery but a more demanding intellectual strength which will rip him away from the security of his tight community and family.

In the Beginning is a slow burn of a novel. Small incident piles upon incident, there is a growing sense of dread, although the violence and horror all occurs either in the past or many miles away in Nazi Germany. And I'm still fascinated that there is a world so utterly foreign to me, the world of Torah scholarship, which is so burningly important to many people and about which I know absolutely nothing.


Exciting News!


The January Stars has been shortlisted for the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Awards!

It's such a thrill and an honour, especially as the authors on the shortlist are some of the Australian authors I most admire: Jaclyn Moriarty! Meg McKinley! Danielle Binks! The only one I don't know is Remy Lai, but her book looks absolutely delightful.

What a lovely day!


Sons From Afar


This is my edition of the sixth Tillerman book by Cynthia Voigt, Sons From Afar. It's actually my least favourite of the covers I've seen.

I like the look of this one -- all the covers on this edition of the series are beautiful, a lovely clean design --  but the illustration doesn't bear a huge amount of relevance to the story.

This version captures the dark danger of the final section of the novel, where James and Sammy trawl the mean streets of Baltimore in search of their long-vanished father.

But I also really like this cover, because the faces of the two boys exactly match the image I have of them in my mind. Sons From Afar is a book about fathers, inheritance, masculinity and choices. Sammy and James are very different characters, each slightly envious of the other's gifts. James wishes he could be physically gifted, straightforward, courageous and popular like Sammy; Sammy wonders why James isn't happier with his brains and problem-solving skills. But together they make a great team, as they belatedly come to realise that their mysterious past is less important than the choices they make for the future.

Sons From Afar moves us forward in time a few years. Dicey is largely absent from this book, away at college; Maybeth is, as usual, a quiet, enigmatic background presence. I like James getting an office job with the two lady doctors (they are described as 'distant cousins' but surely they are a couple!) and Sammy's growing friendship with timid Robin. There is a lot of conflict in this novel, emotional, intellectual and physical, and a variety of ways of solving it, though (spoiler) some readers may be disappointed that Sammy and James don't find the answers they were looking for.


Come A Stranger


There are a couple of uncomfortable elements to Come A Stranger, the fifth book in Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman cycle. Firstly, it is the story of Mina Smiths, Dicey's African-American friend whose we've met in previous books; and Voigt is a white author. In the 1990s this would probably have been seen as a progressive story, but in these days of Own Voices it's a less easy read. Secondly, Mina develops a crush (though she, and interestingly her mother, too, describe it as true love) on a much older minister -- Tamer Shipp, who we met as a high school contemporary of Bullet Tillerman in The Runner). Luckily the relationship never edges into physical territory and by the end of the book has become no more than a fond memory. Still, for a while there the story seems to be heading into dangerous territory.

Mina is unusual in the Tillerman books in not being a loner; she is deeply embedded in an extensive, loving community of friends, family, church, dancing class and school. She only briefly pulls away from this supportive circle after attending an otherwise whites-only dance camp, from which she is painfully ejected in her second year after 'growing wrong.' As always in Voigt's novels, music is a source of joy, solace and connection, and by the end of the book Mina has turned away from dance (a solo activity) but kept up her involvement in the choir (a collective pursuit).

I really enjoyed Mina's story, and the different slant it provides on the other Tillerman characters. The meeting of Tamer Shipp and Bullet's mother, Gram, at the end, was particularly moving. But somehow the friendship between Mina and Dicey didn't quite take flight for me in this telling, it was hard to understand exactly why Mina would be drawn to Dicey. Though Dicey's courage and self-possession are shown to us, she still presents as being pretty hard work!

I'm not sure if Come A Stranger would be published today, and though I'm glad it exists, I'm also glad that there are more and more stories being told from within, rather than from outside non-white communities.


The Meeting of the Waters


This is the third time I've read Margaret Simons' account of the Hindmarsh Island affair, The Meeting of the Waters. It's a long and complicated story, and it all happened over twenty years ago -- I'm not sure if many people retain a clear memory of what went on. Essentially, developers were seeking to build a bridge between the South Australian town of Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island at the mouth of the Murray River, where they wanted to set up a marina. The local Aboriginal community (principally the older women) were dismayed at the idea of a bridge, because this trampled on the sacred nature of this particular site; however, the precise knowledge about the stories that made the site sacred were deeply secret. Eventually another group of women emerged who denied any knowledge of the sacred secrets. The original group were accused of fabricating 'secret women's business' (that's where the phrase came from!) and after much legal and political wrangling, the bridge was built.

There is so much meat in this story, which deals with the clash of two incompatible cultures, different kinds of power, respect and knowledge and pain.

... it is like an opera. There are so many voices, all singing their own songs with such conviction. the emotions are huge, the narrative grand, almost everyone is infected with a sense of wounded righteousness, and sometimes it seems like a thousand small tragedies harnessed together.

The case dragged on for years, through court cases, inquiries and a Royal Commission. It ripped a community apart, destroyed relationships and ruined careers. The phrase 'secret women's business' was used to discredit Indigenous heritage, despite the last inquiry finding that the stories were not invented. There was a fundamental conflict between a Western European culture that ostensibly values transparency, openness, an adversarial legal system where the strongest argument and the loudest voice often wins, and an Indigenous culture that prizes sacred knowledge by restricting who can know what, and keeping the most precious information secret. As Simons points out:

Information follows the lines of power. Aboriginal cultures make this explicit. Western European culture... likes to pretend that it isn't necessarily so.

It was difficult for politicians and judges to understand that the women were prepared to withdraw evidence and keep their knowledge secret, even at the cost of losing their case and the bridge going ahead. Protecting the sacred secrets was ultimately more important than protecting the country they were linked to. The women insisted that the part of the story they were prepared to share should be kept in a sealed envelope, to be read only by a few women if absolutely necessary. But a judge held that Australian law required that the relevant government minister himself must be able to read the material. (He could have appointed a woman to act for him for this purpose, but he refused to do so.) In desperation, the women gradually revealed more and more; but it was never enough.

There was no recognition of the fact that all Aboriginal women in the same community might not have access to the same level of knowledge. Indeed, most of the 'dissident' women didn't actually deny that such sacred knowledge existed, only that they didn't know about it, but such subtleties were lost in the media outcry about 'lies' and hysteria over land rights. Part of the sacredness of the area centred around the resemblance of the area of the river mouth to a woman's body. Some politicians scoffed at this notion: how could traditional Aboriginal people have seen this resemblance without access to an aerial view? This argument is plainly nonsense to anyone who has seen the map-like conception of country displayed in Aboriginal artworks.

You'd hope that our understanding has improved in the years that have passed since. When I was first researching for Crow Country, this book taught me a lot about how Indigenous cultures work, how they intersect and can fail to connect with white expectations, and the searing pain that this disconnect and misunderstanding can cause. It was the beginning of what has been a long and rewarding journey toward a deeper understanding.


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox


I acquired this book from my good friend Chris, and I almost laughed when I started reading it, because if you were writing a book calculated to appeal to Chris, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be that book. For a start, it's set in Scotland, Chris's ancestral home and a country where she lived for several years; and it's also concerned with madness, and the way notions of madness and hysteria have been used to oppress women, which is a topic which has fascinated her for decades.

Our contemporary protagonist, Iris, discovers to her dismay that she has a elderly relative whose existence she has never known about: Esme Lennox, her grandmother's sister, who has been held in a mental hospital for over sixty years, since she was just sixteen years old. Through Esme's memories and the dementia-affected musings of Iris's grandmother Kitty, we gradually learn the story of how Esme ended up in Cauldstone, uncovering some dark secrets along the way.

I haven't read any of Maggie O'Farrell's fiction before but The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is well-crafted story-telling. I wasn't a massive fan of the subplot concerning Iris's step-brother Alex, which I felt didn't add much to the central story, but otherwise I really enjoyed this novel.


The Holiday Murders

Robert Gott's The Holiday Murders (together with The Autumn Murders, The Orchard Murders, The Port Fairy Murders) are a kind of parallel series to the comic Will Powers Fiascos. Also murder stories set in wartime Australia, the Murders series is much more serious and darker in tone.

We have a different set of protagonists: Inspector Titus Lambert, overlooked Constable Helen Lord and insecure detective Joe Sable. I appreciated the appalling parallels with the present day -- the rise of ugly fascism, the toxic masculinity of the disenfranchised, the simmering anti-Semitism, the atmosphere of crisis that serves to veil or to excuse actions that might be unforgivable in ordinary times.

Robert Gott is a terrific writer and he does a wonderful job of weaving in his period detail with the twists and turns of the mystery. However, in this book I found the sheer grisly cruelty of the murders themselves so horrific that I couldn't enjoy reading about them. I think I prefer my murders more on the cosy side! So I'm not sure, despite their strengths, that I'll be retuning to the rest of the series.