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.


Inside Out and Back Again

I bought this on the Kindle. It's a book group selection for next month, under the topic of Refugees. Given the traumatic subject matter, Thannha Lai's verse novel is a delightful, subtle approach to the refugee experience. The first section deals with ten year old Ha's childhood in wartime Saigon, overshadowed by a father missing in action, bombings and food shortages; but still preoccupied with everyday sibling battles and the promise of new papayas on her tree. The central section covers the family's last-gasp flight from the city and their ordeal at sea. The final, longest section of the book describes Ha's first few months of life in her new home, Alabama -- struggling with a new language, bullying classmates, and all the strangeness of a new culture. But by the end of the novel, Ha has begun to make friends, and the future looks brighter.

For a slim volume, Inside Out and Back Again covers a lot of ground, with grace, humour and pathos. It's not too confronting for kids, but any child would be able to relate to Ha's wrenching journey and her fierce determination to survive, even though her fellow students in America seem to loom as a larger threat than the bombs and soldiers of Saigon.


Big Little Lies

Sometimes you just want an easy, juicy, trashy read, and that was what I was in the mood for this week, so I reached for Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies (lent to me by my friend Justine). Well, I should have known better. An easy read, yes, and certainly juicy - but not trashy at all, and much more satisfying than I expected. Its account of playground politics and maternal guilt was wickedly funny, and almost too close to the bone, while the plot strand dealing with domestic violence was topical, insightful and moving. I raced through this spledidly fattish book at top speed and enjoyed every moment. (Fun fact: Liane is the sister of the equally talented Jaclyn Moriarty, whose Colours of Madeleine YA trilogy I am absolutely loving.)

One nitpick: this book was littered with annoying editing errors (I wouldn't even call them typos, because they were consistent), like the use of the adjective peninsular instead of the noun peninsula, which gave me a twinge of irritation whenever they appeared. Such a shame, because otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.


H Is For Hawk

This is a wonderful, disturbing, beautiful, very unhappy book. It recounts the year that Helen Macdonald spent taming and training a goshawk, Mabel, following the sudden death of her father. Grief and wildness, depression, nature's beauty and cold brutality, are all bound together in this compelling memoir. Threaded through it is a discussion of TH White (whose Once and Future King I loved fiercely as a teenager) and his own hawk-training memoir, The Goshawk, in which White does everything wrong that you could possibly do wrong, tormenting his hawk and himself as he exorcises his own personal demons. (The scene in The Sword and the Stone where Wart, transformed into a merlin, has to endure the ordeal of standing in the hawkhouse next to the mad goshawk, Colonel Cully, still sends shivers down my spine.) At times, Macdonald identifies so closely with her goshawk that she is in danger of losing her own sense of self.

I'd seen this discussed on the Antonia Forest forum (falconry features in the Marlow books, particularly in the third book of the series Falconer's Lure) and I bought it on the Kindle because impatience got the better of me. I'm glad I didn't wait.


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

My family was introduced to Yuval Noah Harari courtesy of a random podcast on a long drive one day -- I think it might have been from the ABC's Big Ideas series, which would be appropriate, because Sapiens is a big book packed with Big Ideas.

From Preston to Korumburra, all of us were spellbound by Harari's sparkling, provocative conversation. He speculated that if you abandoned one chimpanzee and one human on a desert island, the chimp would probably survive and the human probably wouldn't make it. But if you abandoned a hundred chimps and a hundred humans, the humans would win the survival game hands down. This is because humans can cooperate, and organise. He talked about the great con job of the agricultural revolution, which is supposedly a great leap of progress, but actually enslaved millions to back-breaking labour and a narrowing of nutritional choices. He talked about the power of imagination, unique as far as we know to us humans, which has led to our world being organised around invisible, intangible notions like religion, and money, and nationalism: things that exist only inside our own heads. He painted a picture of a possible future where the divide between the elites and the downtrodden is marked by the availability of cyber-enhancements to our bodies and brains. And when we reach that stage, would we still be human beings, or some other kind of creature entirely?

It's taken me a long time to finish this book (on the Kindle), despite its exciting breadth and sweep, and the bold, stimulating ideas Harari presents. It reminded me of Jared Diamond's ground-breaking Guns, Germs and Steel, which made me see history in a completely different light, and indeed Harari cites Diamond as an influence in his acknowledgments. I felt the book began strongly, but ran out of puff in the final third or so. Still, a worthwhile, challenging read.


Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly

Four weeks ago, my father had a massive stroke. For a few days, we thought we were going to lose him; thankfully, he is still with us, but he has lost much of his movement, most of his speech, and perhaps part of his memory. It's impossible for my mother to care for him at home, so this vigorous, independent, self-contained man has had to submit to his worst nightmare: a nursing home.

I've long admired Karen Hitchcock's columns in The Monthly; this longer piece is similarly compassionate, thoughtful, complex and confronting. Now my beloved father has joined their ranks, I share her fury at the ease with which the elderly in our society can be written off as 'not worth treating.' Dad received the best of care in hospital (and hopefully will continue to receive it in his new home), from gentle nurses and thoughtful orderlies (thank you, Theo, for taking Dad out into the courtyard to feel some fresh air on his face, and for turning on his radio so he could escape into music). But there were also the doctors who spoke over his bed as if he couldn't hear or understand, who treated him as a collection of symptoms, a failed procedure, rather than a person.

I urge everyone in the health profession to read this essay, and also everyone who has an elderly relative, or who hopes to live to be old themselves one day.