24.6.19

The Capsule Wardrobe

My non-fiction purchases tend to fall into two categories: Worthy Educational, or Fun. Which is not to say that I might not learn something from the Fun reads, or that the Worthy Educational books can't be enjoyable to read (to wit, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, a terrific, engaging history, which I am slowly making my way through).

The Capsule Wardrobe falls squarely into the Fun basket. I have a weakness for books that promise to transform my clothes. I have loads of Trinny and Susannah books, I am tempted by books that will tend me what clothes to buy for my body shape (not that I can ever decide what my body shape actually is), or what colours I should wear. I don't enjoy buying clothes and I want to get it right. "1000 outfits from 30 pieces" sounded too good to be true.

I think what I really wanted was for Wendy Mak to come to my house and show me how to combine the clothes I already own in new and exciting ways. But that's not what this book does. It's not rocket science: get a dark jacket, a light jacket, dark pants, light pants, make sure everything goes with everything else, and mix them up. Yeah, I can probably manage that on my own.

I'm not a sophisticated fashionista and to me, putting on a different pair of shoes with the same top and bottom does not count as a new outfit! Also, nearly half the book (and it's not a big book) consists of spreadsheets of different combinations. I seriously doubt that anyone would bother trying on every single outfit on this list.

The Capsule Wardrobe was a quick, fairly fun read but it's going straight back into the donation box.

18.6.19

A Corner of White

Was it cheating for me to add A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty to the list of Umbrella books for this month? Almost certainly. While Madeleine's tangerine umbrella is pictured on the cover, it's only mentioned once, and (spoilers) it doesn't have any part in the story.

But I love A Corner of White, as well as its sequels in the Colours of Madeleine trilogy, The Cracks in the Kingdom and A Tangle of Gold, so I invented a spurious excuse to read it again. This was the first Jaclyn Moriarty I'd ever read, and her fresh take on fantasy was delightful. Now I know what's coming, I can appreciate the subtle clues and clever plotting that will pay off later in the series.

In fact, the two words I'd use to describe this book are whimsical and clever. Whimsical can be a loaded adjective, but the whimsy here is logical, fresh and funny, with a touch of grit that keeps the story grounded. For all its shifting seasons, parallel worlds and travelling princesses, A Corner of White is really about grief, upheaval and loss.

I suspect this book won't be to everyone's taste, but I can't wait to find out what the rest of the group will make of it.

15.6.19

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

This month's theme for the Convent book group is (wait for it) Umbrellas. Okay, we might have been in a silly mood when we came up with this one, but it has netted us some quality fantasy for our To Read lists. And we didn't even include Mary Poppins! There is something undeniably magical about the umbrella.

Jessica Townsend's debut novel Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow has taken the world by storm, and deservedly so. It's energetic, original and playful and will provide a hefty hit of fantasy for those readers looking for a follow-up to Harry Potter. And she's Australian!

Morrigan is a Cursed Child, held responsible for every misfortune, and doomed to die at Eventide. Luckily for her, she is whisked away by a charismatic rescuer called Jupiter North to his magical hotel in a parallel world (the hotel is great -- it alters Morrigan's room according to her mood). At first Morrigan is relieved, but then she discovers that Jupiter has entered her in a competition for which she needs a special, astounding gift, and she doesn't have one -- or does she?

Thoroughly enjoyable, and with probably lots of sequels to follow, and a film version on the way, we will be seeing a lot more of Morrigan Crow.

10.6.19

Light On Yoga

Okay, confession: I didn't read every word of this seminal yoga handbook. I was too gobsmacked by the positions that the human body can assume -- BKS Iyengar's body, that is, definitely not mine!


Light on Yoga was one of the first yoga texts to be published in the West and I can clearly see its influence on several of the books that followed, particularly my own personal yoga bible, Richard Hittleman's Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan, which offers a simpler and less strenuous program targeted at 1960s 'housewives.'

In contrast, Iyengar demonstrates 200 postures, some of which are extremely demanding! But the structure of the book, which offers step-by-step instructions, many photographs, suggested postures for different ailments, and comprehensive practice courses, has obviously provided a template for many yoga books which followed.

I'm tempted to label this book as fantasy, because there is no way I can aspire to anything other than the most basic asanas. Perhaps I'll file it under 'inspiration!'


6.6.19

Attachment-Focused Parenting

Our family has been travelling a bumpy road over the last couple of years. I won't go into detail, but it's been (being) a pretty rough ride. So I am up for any help I can get!

You might think that with children of (nearly) 18 and (very nearly) 15, I would be putting my feet up and relaxing on the parenting front. No way! If anything, this game gets harder and more complicated the longer you stick at it. In many ways, Daniel A Hughes's book, Attachment-Focused Parenting, has been very reassuring -- a lot of stuff that we've done by instinct turns out to have professional approval (phew!) But it's never too late to add a few tools to the toolkit, and I've found this book very helpful in suggesting alternative strategies, or holding back when necessary.

The heart of the book is the PACE strategy of building relationships with your children (or any children, or adults, for that matter). PACE stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy -- all underpinned by L for Love: an unconditional commitment and pleasure. At its core, PACE recommends accepting and sitting with your child in their difficulties, rather than jumping in with solutions, lectures, discipline or punishment. Sometimes, as a parent, I've found holding back is the hardest skill to master.

Highly recommended for all parents, new or not-so new.

31.5.19

Just Breathe

This month's theme for the Convent book group is Celebrity Authors, and I will put my hand up and admit that I came prepared to sneer. As a professional non-celebrity children's author, I have always enjoyed growling when someone like Madonna or Ricky Gervais gets a publishing contract on the strength of their name. Okay, maybe Ricky Gervais can write, he has written other things, after all, but there are a LOT of film stars who seem to think, hm, children's book... not many words... how hard can it be?

So it is with some chagrin that I am forced to admit that Andrew Daddo's Just Breathe is really good. (This is his 26th book, so I guess he is more of a writer than an actor by now.) Hendrix is a runner, with every aspect of his training, his food, even his breathing, regulated by his controlling father. Emily has moved from Benalla to be closer to her doctor... yes, it's not good, Emily has a time-bomb in her head. I'm not giving anything away to reveal that Emily and Hendrix fall in love. The obstacles to their togetherness all come from outside -- Hendrix's ambitious dad, and Emily's illness.

I became hugely invested in the young lovers. Maybe I felt Emily's situation all the more keenly because of my friend Sandra's recent swift death from a brain tumour, I don't know. Daddo writes really well, though the occasional teen term seemed slightly off to me, maybe his kids speak a different dialect from mine! (My kids would never say 'gatho', except ironically.)

But one thing which continually pulled me out of the story and actually made me really angry was the number of typos and outright spelling mistakes in this edition. For example: eek for eke (twice!), Sherin for Sherrin, antioxidents for antioxidants, misplaced apostrophes, taught for taut... and sadly, many more. Aaargh! I am told that a high level of these mistakes tends to de-bar a book from award consideration. If that happens to Just Breathe, it would be a real shame.

28.5.19

Marge in Charge

When I was a very small child, my father used to tell me bedtime stories about someone called Trixie. Sadly, I cannot remember any more details than that, but I know I clamoured for more Trixie stories whenever Dad was home at bedtime.

Though I preferred reading aloud to my own children, when we were in the car I sometimes resorted to making up stories -- something I found surprising difficult, considering it's supposed to be my day job! The favourite tale was called the Story of the Coin, which was a tedious, endless, rambling adventure of a coin which found itself variously swallowed by a crocodile, spent by a small girl on lollies, swept down a drain and out to sea -- you get the picture.

I guess my point is that stories we make up for our children don't have to be inspired masterpieces for our kids to enjoy them. And the fact that our kids enjoy them doesn't mean we should necessarily inflict them on the rest of the world.

There is nothing wrong with Marge in Charge by Isla Fisher, about whacky baby-sitter Marge who enjoys making mess and noise and turning the rules upside down. A lot of children would delight in these amusing tales. They are the kind of stories that made me desperately anxious as a child -- Pippi Longstocking and the Cat in the Hat disturbed me for the same reason. But I can't help a nagging suspicion that if Marge's adventures hadn't been invented by Isla Fisher, they might not have made it into print.

20.5.19

Dog Boy

Eva Hornung's 2009 Dog Boy has reminded me how vividly and completely a novel can transport us into another's life, however bizarre and improbable it might seem.

Four year old Romoschka, abandoned by his family, is adopted into a clan of wild dogs scraping an existence on the edges of Moscow. Initially we see everything from Romoschka's point of view -- the loving comfort of the mother dog, the wary sibling relationships he establishes with Black Dog and Golden Bitch, the loving bonds he establishes with the other puppies. As he grows older, he feels keenly his inadequacies as a dog; he can't match his canine brothers and sisters in smell or tracking. But gradually his strength and cleverness establishes him as the leader of the pack.

It comes as a shock when our point of view suddenly shifts to a pair of researchers who have discovered the existence of the 'dog boy.' Now we see Romoschka's life with new eyes -- the squalid den, the abominable stench, the feral, hairy child. There is a creeping sense of doom; Romoschka's life is impossible, and one way or another, it has to come to an end.

Dog Boy is not a happy book, but it is an extraordinary, moving experience.

13.5.19

The Cricket in Times Square

My friend Pam passed this book on to me because she thought it looked like the kind of book I like, ie old. The Cricket in Times Square was a Newbery Award winner in 1961, so it's even older than I am! As I read, dim memories returned -- I think I did read this in Mt Hagen, but only once.

This is a sweet story, whose charm is enhanced by the Garth Williams illustrations (Little House on the Prairie for me will always look the way Williams drew it, just as Narnia will be forever filtered through the vision of Pauline Baynes). However, the charm is marred by a couple of chapters where Mario meets a pair of venerable Chinese gentlemen who sell him a pavilion for his cricket. The characters themselves are treated with respect by the text, but sadly there are pages and pages of dialogue where they speak in supposed Chinese accents ('Velly solly' etc) which these days reads as horribly racist. Perhaps newer editions of the book have had this dialogue altered; it would be easy enough to do, and it would make me feel much more comfortable about sharing this otherwise lovely story.

My favourite scene comes towards the end of the book, where Chester the cricket plays music which drifts up out of the subway and onto the street, and a section of the city falls still to listen. Just gorgeous.

10.5.19

The House of Arden

When I was about nine or ten, Edith Nesbit was one of my favourite authors. Luckily for me, the Mt Hagen library had a good stock of her works, and I read and re-read The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Five Children and It, The Would-Be-Goods and more. She was one of those authors, like Noel Streatfeild, with whom I knew I was in safe hands.

Alas, when I tried to share the Nesbit magic with my own children, it didn't cross the generation gap. Perhaps her humour was too subtle, perhaps the Victorian-era setting was too far from my daughters' world, or maybe I was too eager and tried when they were too young. All my favourites sit on my bookshelf, but they haven't been read for many years.

Then I found The House of Arden in the local op shop. I hadn't read this one, but for fifty cents, it was worth a punt. (I must say that Edith's prolific output did produce a few duds, and I'd been disappointed by Wet Magic and The Magic City.) But The House of Arden, I'm pleased to say, was right up there with her best.

It's a time slip story, in which two children (unfortunately named Edred and Elfrida) travel through their own family history, encountering highwaymen, the Gunpowder Plot and a mysterious South American civilisation among other adventures, as well as a random fellow traveller from their own time (who is a loose end left dangling -- perhaps resolved in the sequel, Harding's Luck). They are searching for treasure, and eventually find it, though not in the form they were expecting.

I'm delighted to add The House of Arden to my collection, and it's reminded me how much fun Nesbit's books can be. She also had a very complicated personal life, (which possibly explains her fascination with absent fathers??) and I've been promised her biography to read (thanks, Kirsty!) I can't wait...

4.5.19

Ellen and the Queen

I picked up Ellen and the Queen from my local op shop, where I occasionally find unexpected treasures. Gillian Avery made a speciality of novels set in Victorian times; The Warden's Niece is a much beloved childhood favourite of mine, and it's only in latter years that I've discovered that she wrote several more books in the same vein.

Ellen and the Queen is a very slim little book -- hardly more than a short story, really. It's the tale of fiery, red-haired Ellen, whose home village is turned upside down when Queen Victoria comes to stay at the Great House. The very naughty Ellen trespasses into the grounds of the House; then into the House itself; and by a series of misadventures, eventually penetrates the bedchamber of the monarch herself...

A slight volume in every sense, but great fun.

2.5.19

Summer of My German Soldier

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene is one of those classic books that I had never quite got around to reading -- perhaps because it's American, and I tend to neglect the American canon (my bad).

First published in 1973, the novel is narrated by 12 year old Patty, daughter of small town storekeepers in middle America in the middle of World War II. A group of Nazi prisoners of war is stationed nearby, and when one of them escapes, Patty makes the momentous decision to shelter him.

I expected a lot more of the book to be devoted to Patty and Anton in hiding, but in fact she only shelters him for a very short time (though with huge consequences). Much of Patty's background is autobiographical, including the loving Black housekeeper Ruth, who stands in stark contrast to Patty's cold and frankly brutal parents.

I was actually really shocked by how cruel Patty's father is to her; he regularly beats her with a leather belt to the point where she loses consciousness. The obvious parallels are drawn between the domestic brutality of Patty's father and the political cruelty of faraway Hitler. The power of love is raised to counter the horror, but with only limited results. Patty's parents never give her the love she craves, Ruth is helpless to save Patty from the consequences of her actions, and Anton's story has a tragic end.

This is a powerful, sobering story, though old-fashioned in the telling. I'm glad I finally gave it a go.

1.5.19

In the Teeth of the Evidence

I picked up In the Teeth of the Evidence from my favourite secondhand bookshop, Brown and Bunting, because I couldn't resist a Dorothy L Sayers, even though this one is short stories and I generally steer clear of short stories (why? I used to write them!) Only two Wimsey stories here, several featuring the observant travelling salesman, Montague Egg, and a few more with random narrators, some humorous, some creepy.

This was an interesting reading experience, and historically educational, because many of the stories in this volume turn on a single plot trick, often centred on a quirk of 1930s technology -- the specifics of a pair of telephones connected in parallel, to enable someone to fake being miles away while they were actually in the next room; a 'repeating' alarm clock, which apparently chimes the last hour gone if you wake in the night and can't read the clock-face. Even my ancient mother had never heard of that one.

I do honestly believe that reading books like this are the best way to immerse yourself in the everyday detail of the period -- the way households run, the way people talk to their peers, to their doctor, to their servants. Often modern stories set in the past strike a slightly 'off' note, particularly around social mores. It's the things that are left unsaid, the unspoken assumptions, that are the most fascinating element of stories like these.

30.4.19

Kids Who Did

Oh dear, I'm very behind with my book diary! I actually flew through Kids Who Did by my friend Kirsty Murray, which is a revised and updated edition of Tough Stuff, which has been in print for twenty years. I haven't read Tough Stuff but Kids Who Did is a really terrific book.

Kids Who Did consists of very readable, funny and inspiring potted biographies of real kids who achieved all sorts of things in all sorts of circumstances. Chess champions, wild children, activists (there is a section for Climate Change Warriors), monarchs, inventors... they are all here. Kids Who Did never gets bogged down, but tells you just enough of each young person's story to send you hunting for more.

There is something here for everyone. I fully expect Kids Who Did to stay in print for at least another twenty years!

21.4.19

Force of Nature

So much did I enjoy The Dry that I plunged straight into Jane Harper's second Aaron Falk novel, Force of Nature. This time the setting is not the bone-dry, parched paddocks of rural Victoria, but the soggy, impenetrable slopes of the (imagined) Giralong ranges national park, once the haunt of a notorious serial killer -- shades of Ivan Milat in the Belanglo State Forest.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic as Harper again employs parallel narratives to trace the events of a three day corporate bonding hike which quickly unravels, and the subsequent search for a missing hiker, which is entwined with Falk's investigation into corporate wrongdoing. Harper avoids the trap of spending too much time outlining the details of the firm's corruption -- they're just bad, and that's all we need to know. Instead Harper focuses on the interpersonal relationships between the five women on the hike, and their family backgrounds.

This was another absorbing, satisfying story. I'd heard that it was supposed to be less good than The Dry but I disagree; I found it just as engaging. Jane Harper is one of those writers where you can relax into the story, knowing that you are in safe hands; that's one of my highest accolades! I've bought the third book, The Lost Man, for my mother's birthday -- I can't wait till she's done.