Adventures With The Wife In Space

This was a Christmas present from my lovely husband who knows the kind of thing I like! Essentially, it's the story of a Doctor Who fan (Neil Perryman) who made his wife Sue (not a Doctor Who fan -- someone who liked the new series but had never watched 'classic Who') sit through every episode of Old Doctor Who, and made a blog out of her comments. 

Perryman is roughly my age, and Tom Baker was His Doctor, just like he was mine, and he stopped watching at about the same time I did, too. He calls himself a 7 on the fandom scale but by his standards I would be about a 3. Nonetheless I laughed a lot reading this. It's really just as much a story about his relationship with his wife as it is about fandom, and I really enjoyed it. Perfect summer, holiday reading.

Unfortunately I've now looked up the blog this book is all about (wifeinspace.com) and I've been sucked into a black hole (or perhaps a CVE) and started reading Sue's very entertaining commentary and I fear I may never escape...


The Fairy Doll and Other Tales From The Dolls' House

This ghastly cover masks a treasure: a collection of all Rumer Godden's doll stories. There are seven of them, some little more than short stories, some more substantial. This volume seems to be an attempt to bring Godden's beautiful, but old-fashioned, tales to a modern audience by wrapping them up in this non-threatening, girly package, no doubt designed to appeal to the Rainbow Fairies market (blech!) and with an admittedly sweet introduction from Jacqueline Wilson. Thrilled as I am to have seven Rumer Godden titles in one handy compendium, I'm not sure the gambit works. 

The stories are all pretty gorgeous and I'd only read a couple of them before. The Story of Holly and Ivy was satisfyingly Christmassy, and Impunity Jane, in which a tiny doll becomes a member of a gang of adventurous boys, was unexpected (if gender-normative). But my two favourite books are the longer ones: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, in which displaced Nona settles herself into a new home by making a house for two Japanese dolls; and its sequel, Little Plum, in which Nona's naughty cousin Belinda begins a war with the spoilt little girl next door who refuses to care for her own Japanese doll properly. The ingenuity with which the children make appropriate props and possessions for their dolls is truly inspiring -- pine needles for chopsticks, tiny painted scrolls, chopped thread for rice and so on. My daughter's favourite activity for a long time was making miniature homes for her collection of Sylvanian animals, or just tiny uninhabited rooms out of balsa wood, exquisitely furnished and decorated, and I think there is a particular class of child who relishes this kind of creation and would adore these stories. I know I did.


The Address Book

Jane Clifton's The Address Book caught my eye as I was browsing Brotherhood Books (okay, they had a sale on and I needed to beef up my order). I'd been looking out for this book for a couple years at the library but never tracked it down, so this was an excellent find.

Born in Gibraltar, an army brat whose family shifted between the UK, Germany and Malaysia before emigrating to Australia when Jane was 13, Clifton has lived in 32 homes. In this project, she reminisces about the period of her life spent at each address before revisiting the place as it is now, to see if memory matches reality, how much has changed, and whether any new memories are unearthed by the experience. Clifton's parents both died pretty young, so it's also a journey of discovery about her mum and dad and their sometimes turbulent relationship. The book falls roughly into two halves, with the second part covering numerous Melbourne addresses, mostly around the inner suburbs, familiar territory to me. This is a chatty, engaging memoir, though the section devoted to Clifton's early career as a muso/performer in 70s Melbourne contained a touch more detail than I really needed. But she also discusses her stint in Prisoner (Cell Block H for overseas viewers) and her life as a pop star (check out her biggest hit 'Girl on the Wall' on YouTube, she's right, someone really needs to cover this song, which is still all too relevant today and stands up surprisingly well).

As someone who has lived at twenty two addresses myself, I could relate to Clifton's pilgrimage, and I would love to do a journey like this myself. Though she's about ten years older than me, there was a certain amount of overlap in our Fitzroy/Carlton experiences and share house -- sorry, 'collective house' life. I hadn't realised that Clifton was part of Helen Garner's Monkey Grip crowd, and appears in the book under the name of Angela. Amusingly, when the movie was being cast, she decided to audition for the part of Angela but was told she couldn't sing or act well enough to play -- herself! Her part was ultimately taken by Chrissy Amphlett.

I seem to have been reading a lot about place and home this year. This book was a fun, often moving slant on the topic.

EDIT: Just as I finished writing this post, I happened to hear Greig Pickhaver on the radio talking about his life, and he was also a member of that gang, part of the Australian Performing Group that Clifton belonged to; she mentioned that he used to build loft beds for everyone! Another of those weird connections that so often seem to accompany the reading of a book...


Merry Christmas

Well, it's that time of year again -- the time of Best Ofs, recaps, summaries and reflections on the year gone by.

To be frank, 2015 has been a weird and pretty horrible year for my family. In March, my dad suffered a massive stroke that saw him almost die, and a month-long stay in hospital was followed by a refusal of rehab and a swift eviction into permanent care. Fortunately, though he still requires a high degree of care, his condition has improved hugely since then -- he can now stand and walk with a cane (very unsteadily, and not far), and his concentration is much better. He still can't speak, or move his right hand or arm, but sensation and movement are returning to his right leg. But he is still with us, and still very much the familiar personality of before.

My mother has been staying with us, and lately work has begun on a granny flat where hopefully Dad will be able to stay with her -- maybe just for occasional sleepovers, maybe permanently, depending on his progress. 

It's been a sudden and disconcerting somersault in family dynamics. When I was younger, my parents cared for me, protected and supported me, were a safe haven to run to, a safety net in times of trouble; when I had kids of my own, I still looked to my mum and dad for help and support, but now we jogged along as peers, two sets of adults independently navigating many of the same problems and pitfalls. But with Dad's stroke, overnight, the relationship of dependence has turned on its head; the change is complete and absolute. Suddenly my parents are depending totally on my partner and me. It's a situation which I've vaguely dreaded for years as Mum and Dad grew older, and started having health scares. But now it's finally here, it's not such a terrible burden as I feared; it feels like this the pattern is playing itself out the way it is supposed to.

Meanwhile, my two girls are growing up fast -- almost are grown up! One transformed (also seemingly overnight) into a leggy, confident, texting and typing teen with a hectic social life and a sense of responsibility about homework. The other has also matured and blossomed academically, feeling her way already, perhaps, into her chosen field of passion.

I finished one manuscript and started another -- the first year for ages I've been able to say that! And also I have more ideas for books I want to write, instead of blank dismay, and that's a good feeling, too.

Soon I'll do my annual reading round-up -- I suspect there'll a lot of comfort reading in there, because I've need to escape more than ever this year!

I wish you all a festive and peaceful holiday season, and I hope you've enjoyed a less turbulent year than my family has endured. And I wish us all calm waters ahead for 2016. Merry Christmas. 



I sought out Coconut by Kopano Matlwa from a list of YA books from non-Anglo countries that was published in The Guardian a while ago, and was surprised to see it pop up at Brotherhood Books. It's a South African edition, too, the third reprint in two years, so it must have done pretty well. It won the European Union Literary award, which I must admit I had never heard of, and is, strangely, a prize for first-time South African novelists.

This was an intriguing glimpse into a world that I know little about. I hardly ever read African books, let alone African YA, and this was a voice I had never heard before, and a lively, energetic and perceptive voice at that. Matlwa is obviously a young writer, and this novel has some of the faults that most young writers fall into -- there are clear autobiographical elements (not necessarily a fault, but sometimes clumsy), and there is a focus on character to the absolute exclusion (in this case) of plot. 

The book is narrated in two voices, in two distinct, but overlapping halves: Ofilwe is the daughter of a nouveau-riche black family who live in a gated, mostly white community. Ofilwe longs to reconnect with the traditional culture the family has abandoned in a desperate attempt to fit in with white society. Fikile is a waitress at their regular coffee shop, outside their world but determined to claw her way in by any means possible. Fiks is a poignant figure, at first seeming confident and strong, but secretly very vulnerable. Each girl sits on either side of a racial divide that seems to make them both equally unhappy.

This novel is a window into a country which has undergone tremendous upheaval in recent years, and where racial lines are supposed to be blurring, but where the burden is history is too heavy to be easily thrown off. Not a book I would normally have picked up, but that was kind of the point of the exercise.


Queen Bees and Wannabes

Penni Russon and I both read Rosalind Wiseman's book back in about 2008 when we were preparing to write books for the Girlfriend Fiction series and were worried we'd forgotten what it was like to be a teenage girl. At that stage we had four daughters between us, aged from about 3 to 7.

Fast forward to today, and my daughters are 11 and 14, and the world of Queen Bees and Wannabes has taken on a new and vivid reality as my girls negotiate adolescence, friendships, burgeoning sexuality, school pressures, and all the rest of it. This books is crammed with illuminating information and food for thought for parents. The ultimate accolade must be that Ms 14 picked it up, skimmed through the 'Parties' chapter and said, 'Hm, there's some really good advice in here.' So I think I might leave it lying around for a while...

Wiseman has run workshops for teenagers for many years and she's seen and heard it all. She is refreshingly non-judgmental, but she is firm and wise, stressing the need to keep respectful communication alive, even when you feel like killing each other! Some of her advice must have stuck from all those years ago because I felt tentatively that I'm not doing such a bad job (so far...) One of her rules is to pick your battles; forget about fighting over hair and clothes, you'll never win, and she'll start sneaking around you. Once you've lost her trust and respect, it's all over. But a 'Loving Hard-Ass Parent' stands a chance of maintaining a connection when it really counts.

I'm very glad I bought this, though it was annoying that this edition (from the UK, though the text seems unchanged from the US version) is peppered with typos. Not just recommended reading for the mothers (and fathers) of teenage girls (and boys!) -- this is essential.



Yesterday I did something that I haven't done for quite some time (so long that I'm afraid to check exactly): I sent off a manuscript.

When I first started out in this business, sending off a manuscript meant printing out a thick wad of paper and popping an Express Post envelope into the mailbox. Now it means clicking 'attach' to an email, and hitting 'Send'. But in both cases, it means sending up a little prayer that my story might be looked upon favourably by those who read it.

I've been working on this novel for many months. I actually finished one version, and then completely rewrote it, taking out a couple of key characters and inserting a new and different one. It's a kind of sequel to the Chanters of Tremaris series, which were the first books I ever had published. I was hoping it would be a relaxing, fun experience — revisiting a world which has been very good to me, and immersing myself again in high fantasy, which I haven't written for several years. And to a certain extent, that was true. But I also got caught up in the problems of back-story — how much to reveal, how much to assume, how much to keep hidden, in case new readers wanted to go back to the beginning? (That was why I cut out those two awkward characters.)

Events in the real world also got in the way. I was sick, my dad had a stroke. I couldn't (can't) spend as much time writing as I used to. And some days all I wanted to do was to lie on my bed and read; writing was work and I didn't have the energy to wrestle with it.

I'm prepared (I am always prepared!) for the possibility that my publishers might decline. In that case, I'm hoping there are enough Tremaris devotees out there to make self-publishing a viable option. It will be something new to learn, anyway, and these days I am all in favour of Learning New Things (have I mentioned my piano lessons?)

But the good news is, I have three ideas to work on next! So back to the keyboard I go…because even after you've 'finished' one book, this job of writing is never done.


The Angel of Mons

You know how sometimes you finish reading one book, and the book you're intending to read next is all the way over the other side of the room, so instead you pick up the book that happens to be lying around within reach, and you read that first? That's what happened here… I bought David Clarke's The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians for Michael at the library book sale, because it was about the First World War, which is His Thing, and also, after The Woman In Black, I was in the mood for more ghost stories.

I like to think (after many years of marriage) that I'm reasonably well-informed about WWI, but I must confess that I had only vaguely heard of the story of the Angel of Mons. Apparently after one of the earliest battles of the war, when the hugely outnumbered British forces managed to escape being completely wiped out by the mighty German Army, stories began to circulate that the British soldiers had been miraculously saved at Mons by the intervention of supernatural forces -- a cloud, a bright light, ghostly soldiers from Agincourt, St George, Joan of Arc, or (as the story finally settled) a troop of angels.

But the book turned out to be less about ghostly visitations and visions, and more about the power of rumour, propaganda and legend in times of severe social upheaval and fear. There was no direct evidence that the supernatural intervention took place; no reliable eyewitnesses were ever tracked down, and the story always had that familiar 'urban myth' air about it -- a friend of a nurse, who spoke to a soldier, whose brother had definitely seen something that day… It seems that the story was officially encouraged, not in the immediate aftermath of the battle itself, but in the dire months that followed, when the war looked bad for the Allies. It was comforting and socially useful for people to believe that God was literally on their side -- to the point of personally intervening to protect the British troops.

This was a very well-researched book (which was probably more heavy on the detail than I really needed it to be!), but an interesting read nonetheless. Something to think about, and watch out for, in our own scary times: what are the useful legends and apocryphal stories that our government might like us to believe?


The 10pm Question

The 10pm Question by Kate de Goldi is another book that's been on my radar for a while, and also been sitting in the pile beside the bed for an unconscionably long time. I'm making an effort to work my way through some of the books that have been there for a while, and so far the success rate has been striking! What a lovely, lovely book.

Frankie is 12, and his life is busy, filled with annoying siblings, larger than life relatives, cricket, birds, rituals, errands, private projects, lists and homework. He has a best friend, Gigs, who shares most of his interests, and a new friend, Sydney -- not his girlfriend! -- who is interesting and chaotic and asks all the questions that other people don't dare to ask… like, why hasn't Frankie's Ma left the house in nine years? Because Frankie's life is also filled with a secret undercurrent of constant worry -- about his health, about his mother, and about himself.

This is a book about anxiety, and it beautifully and sympathetically takes us into the mind of a chronically anxious pre-teen. I could relate to quite a lot of it -- the obsessive list-making in bed, for one thing, and also Frankie's mother's need to stay safely inside her own house FOREVER. I suppose with such potentially dark subject matter, de Goldi had to balance the mood with lots of cheerful material about Frankie's quirky family, and while they are very real and totally loveable (even grumpy, sarcastic teenage sister Gordana, who I think might be living in my house), the novel sometimes veered close to too much quirk-territory. I also found the structure slightly confusing -- each chapter jumps forward two weeks, and we then get a recap of events that have occurred in the past fortnight, so there is a lot of 'Frankie had thought… Sydney had said…' which made for a slightly clunky read in places.

But these are mere quibbles. For being a book set in New Zealand (second one in two weeks -- weird), for its warmth and humour and gentleness, I loved this book. It hits my sweet spot -- between childrens' and YA. On the very first page, there is a grumpy older sister who steals the last muesli bar, an irrational fear of ants, and a teacher called Mr A. I think my (anxious) Ms 11 will find a lot to relate to.

PS Things You Find in Books
My ex-library copy of The 10pm Question had a photo inside it. Who are these lovely young people? Which of them used this photo as a bookmark and forgot to retrieve it? Anyway, I blow you all a kiss. You have good taste in books.


The Books I Didn't Buy...

The Darebin library book sale was on this weekend. I must admit I had an ulterior motive this time as I had a box of books I wanted to off-load -- I've been buying so many from Brotherhood Books, and we need to cull a bit anyway in view of our impending reno. So I had a stack of donations with me.

But the best intentions go awry… Ms 14 and I went together, and we came away with rather a big bag of loot. Ms 14 was responsible for most of it -- she bought some CD sets to teach herself Italian and French (ambitious -- she's planning a Family French Friday when we will all learn French together, yeah well, we'll see about that…), and a First Aid book, because she can't get enough of those. I bought a book about ghost soldiers in WWI for Michael, and a couple of silly Trinny and Susannah books because I can't resist them, and they're only a dollar! (I wish they would come to my house and tell me what to wear.) And I bought a Kate Atkinson family saga/mystery primarily for my mum.

But I was most proud of myself because of the books I picked up, and then put down again. In the past I've been guilty of picking up books that I feel I ought to read (because they only cost a dollar!) and then feeling bad as they moulder unread beside my bed because I don't really want to read them. For the Term of His Natural Life? Political biographies? That huge literary best seller from a few years ago that makes me feel exhausted just looking at it? No. This time I left them all alone.


The Woman In Black

I don't like scary movies, but I do enjoy a good ghost story, and this modern classic by Susan Hill has been on my radar for a long time. I picked up the movie tie-in edition from Brotherhood Books, and was surprised at how slender it was -- I'd been expecting a fat clunker! But this relatively short tale certainly punches above its weight, and is all the more effective for its economy. In this case, less is more.

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is quite excited at first when he's sent on a solo mission to sort out a dead woman's estate. But the eerie, isolated Eel Marsh House, set on the end of a causeway that's submerged at high tide, and beset by swirling mists, holds some sinister secrets…

Chills aplenty, simple but effective, and though it was published in 1983, stylistically it reads like a high Victorian ghost story (though it's certainly not a difficult read). This actually confused me in places, as I started out picturing the story taking place in Sherlock Holmes' London (peasouper fogs, fusty lawyers' offices, train journeys), and then suddenly there were motor cars and telephones and electric lights! I'm still not entirely sure exactly when the novel was supposed to be set. There were references to the ghostly figure's clothing dating from 'sixty years ago', but then the date on her gravestone was '190--', and I can't make out how that would possibly work!

I haven't seen the film, though I might if my 14 year old is keen (she is reading the book after me). From the google images, they seem to have done their best to make Daniel Radcliffe look like David Tennant. Which is not necessarily a bad thing...


Who Calls From Afar?

I borrowed Who Calls From Afar? by Hesba Brinsmead as part of my evening ladies' book group Hesba Brinsmead mini-readathon (not the Convent book group, the other one -- do keep up!)

I think I've read four Brinsmead novels now, and although they all had wildly different settings (this one takes place in the NSW country town of Moree, at the earth station there), and explore very different topics (gemstone prospecting, urban gangs, this time space communication!), there are common themes that recur in all the books. The importance of making connections between people is probably the most significant; an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world is another.

Brinsmead certainly wasn't afraid to tackle a wide range of geographic locations or social milieux. Published in 1971, Who Calls From Afar? tells of young Lyn, who finds a job as secretary at the Moree earth station, one step in the string of bases passing on satellite signals from geo-stationary orbit to headquarters in America. Lyn has felt lonely in the big city; communication, the failure to communicate, the need to communicate, is the keynote of this book. On the eve of the moon landing, a NASA bigwig becomes stranded in the outback and a road trip ensues with a cast of various characters.

I wonder what Brinsmead would have made of this moment in time, with everybody both hyper-connected and yet more atomised and individual than ever before?

For me, this is not the most successful of Hesba Brinsmead's novels -- my favourite is still the luminous Pastures of the Blue Crane, her debut. Despite the theoretically interesting subject matter, WCFA? seemed to be missing some essential emotional element that made for an ultimately unsatisfying read.


The Wild Places

Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It is so beautiful I had to ration it, reading only a chapter or two between other books, eking it out and savouring it. It's not a book to gorge on; it's a book to read slowly and carefully, like a meditation.

I found this on Brotherhood Books after seeing it recommended in The Week (now my mum lives with us, I get to read my parents' subscription copy of The Week as soon as it arrives). I also want to get hold of his later books, Landmarks and The Old Ways.

Macfarlane starts out this journey wanting to experience and describe the wild places of Britain; as he thinks of it, the pockets of wilderness left untouched by human interference, the mountaintops and isolated moors, the remote, the pristine. And he does find those places, and he is exhilarated and frightened by them. But about halfway through his pilgrimage, he finds his internal definition of 'wildness' changing into something more dynamic and vigorous -- the tangle of plants thrusting from a ditch into the light, the inside of a hedgerow. He comes to see wildness not as something separate from humanity, but intertwined, parallel and within our reach, in small, everyday moments -- a dandelion bursting from a crack in the pavement, the tossing of treetops in a storm.

Reading this book was an almost spiritual experience for me. Macfarlane's observations are both precise and radiant, his use of language halfway between poetry and prayer. Is it better to read about sleeping out on a snowbound mountaintop, or to actually experience it? For me, the reading is better, because I get to appreciate the beautiful words as well as imagining the crispness of the moonlight, the sheen of the snow… Hm, this might be betraying an old bias of mine that favours imagination over the real. That's something I'd like to write about one day.

Anyway, this book is highly recommended. If anyone knows of an Australian equivalent, please let me know. I would love Robert Macfarlane to turn his keen eye on our wilderness. Has anyone invited him?


The Forrests

I'm ashamed to say how long ago it's been since my friend Penni lent me Emily Perkins' The Forrests. 'It's good,' she assured me, and it was.

A novel in short scenes, each chapter tells an incident from a life, the life of Dorothy Forrest, from her chaotic, slip-shod childhood, through marriage and children and love and lust and tragedy, all the way to her deathbed. The stories of her siblings, parents, children, friends, weave in and out of the central story. We jump several years at a time; suddenly there are extra children, retrospectively we learn of catastrophe narrowly escaped, or brutally, unexpectedly falling, a blade from the sky.

The writing is extraordinary, dense with observation and sensory detail that reads almost like poetry. It's a reminder that even the most ordinary of days contains droplets of wonder, humour, memory and pathos. The thread that pulls the story together is Dorothy's lifelong connection to Daniel, the sort-of brother who became her secret lover and then ran away. Even when he spends decades absent from her life, his memory haunts her.

Perkins is very good on siblings, and children, and marriage -- I don't know how old she is, she doesn't seem to be that old, but her observations of how it feels to be inside every stage of life feel true, as if she's lived a long life and remembered everything. The book is set in New Zealand, but the details feel true of an Australian life, too -- suburban shops, a night in a hospital, a boozy reunion, a commune in the bush.

So, Penni, you can have it back now. Sorry it took me so long.


More Thoughts on Laurinda...

Thoughts prompted by Laurinda, perhaps I should say, rather than reflections on the book itself.

I felt quite ambivalent reading this novel, and I'm not sure if that ambivalence came from Alice Pung herself or if it's my own attitude to my education which I'm projecting onto Lucy's story. As I said before, I also went to a posh private girls' school (Presbyterian Ladies' College), and I was a scholarship girl. There is no way that my family could have afforded to send me there and pay the fees, though quite a few of my contemporaries were not particularly wealthy. Their attendance at the school was pretty much the only luxury their families allowed themselves (I should add that the fees weren't at the astronomical levels they seem to sit at today, either).
Coming straight from living a pretty simple life in PNG, and years of vague money worries, I used to fret that we couldn't afford for me to go on excursions, buy a new blazer, pay for textbooks etc. I never actually had to go without, but I never assumed that I wouldn't. This bred a faint anxiety that dogged me through all my years at school.

Because the school had moved to a new campus in Burwood in the 1950s which was quite ugly and daggy, there was none of that atmosphere of romantic, ancient privilege in the buildings themselves that I found later at Janet Clarke Hall and Melbourne University generally, so our elite, privileged status was not so obvious in our physical environment. But it was constantly drummed into us that we were a) very lucky and b) obliged to pay for that luck by 'giving back' -- through leadership, social work, good causes etc. The emphasis was less on encouraging ambition for ourselves, and more on what we could do For Others. It was just assumed that we would achieve for ourselves, I think.

I adored school and I was (mostly) very happy there. I had some wonderful, inspiring teachers, read some amazing books from the fantastic library, and made some good friends. My interests in literature, history, politics, philosophy and social justice were encouraged, and I came out at the end with an excellent HSC score that got me into the university course I wanted. I took it for granted that women could do anything; it wasn't even a question. Our headmistress was an amazing, strong, gracious woman who was a wonderful role model (Joan Montgomery), and oat of our teachers were women. I was very disappointed when, after I left, the church appointed a male principal.


I did well academically in the supportive environment of school, but I struggled in the self-directed free-for-all of university. I didn't really get how university worked, and I was dazzled and paralysed by the presence of boys. Socially, I was completely out of my depth. I don't blame my school for that, but it didn't help. It took me so long to adjust to life outside school that I wasted a lot of my years at uni. (It also didn't help that I was doing the wrong course.) I see the easy, teasing friendships with boys and girls that my daughter is establishing at her state high school, and the way they encourage the students to navigate life outside the school, and I'm envious.

I'm grateful for the opportunities that PLC gave me, but I'm deeply uncomfortable with the begging letters they send me, as an Old Girl, to contribute to the new swimming pool or the performing arts centre or whatever. It's embarrassing, and I feel like it's a betrayal of the ethos they tried to teach me back in the 80s. I was sheltered there, but maybe it would have been better for my development to be a little less sheltered, toughened up a bit.

This has been a long, rambling post. I hoped it might help me disentangle the good from the bad, but it's all still mixed up in my mind. I go to lots of private girls' schools for work, and I instantly feel at home there, comfortable and at ease. The teachers are usually fantastic, and the girls are always lovely, polite and friendly and often very clever -- just like I was.

But I'm not going to send my daughters to any of those schools. Not even if they win scholarships. And I still can't quite articulate why.

Gatty's Tale

Gatty's Tale by Kevin Crossley-Holland has been sitting next to my bed for so long I've forgotten how and where I acquired it. It's second hand, but not from Brown and Bunting; nor is it an ex-library book, and I'm sure I didn't buy it from Brotherhood Books either. Mystery! Perhaps it was one of those books that turns up in the library book sale, donated by other people?

I read and loved Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy a few years ago, and Gatty's Tale is a stand-alone follow-up to Arthur's story. In this novel, set in the Middle Ages, fifteen year old Gatty is sent to serve as a chamber maid to Lady Gwyneth, who decides to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. With eight companions, including Gatty, they set out on the perilous journey to the Holy Land -- but not all the pilgrims will reach the end of their quest.

Kevin Crossley-Holland's writing is among the best I've ever encountered -- shining, spare, and lit with a bright flame of faith, it's utterly suited to the recreation of the medieval world. But there are striking modern parallels here, too -- principally, the distrust and fear of the 'Saracens' (Muslims) who possess the Holy Land. Gatty comes to realise that Christians, Jews and Saracens are all 'good and bad, mixed up together' and that demonising one race or religion is pointless.

I loved this book, and I really hope that it found the audience that it deserves.



I grabbed Alice Pung's Laurinda the second I saw it on the library shelf (even though I was at the library to return books, not borrow). I've wanted to read this since it came out. I greatly admire Alice Pung as a writer, and I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at a literary festival in Perth a couple of years ago, and she was absolutely lovely. Laurinda is her first work of fiction, and it's a YA novel, so of course I've been hanging out to read it.

I raced through this novel in a day (thanks partly to the fact that I was immobilised in bed). It's the story of Lucy Lam, who wins a scholarship to a prestigious girls' school in Year 10 and finds that she turns into a different person -- quieter, less opinionated -- in her new surroundings. And she soon falls foul of the powerful trio, 'the Cabinet', who are the self-appointed guardians of school excellence, taking it upon themselves to weed out those they perceive as weakening the institution -- feeble teachers, conceited students.

I think I almost felt too invested in this book. I went to a school very like Laurinda (albeit in the 1980s, not the mid-90s, when Pung's book is set), and I was also a scholarship girl (albeit from Upper Ferntree Gully, not Stanley/Footscray) -- and I hasten to add, a very white scholarship girl. But I still found a lot to relate to in Lucy's story. My school was a privileged place, and we were constantly reminded how privileged we were -- but paradoxically, the true sources of our privilege were often invisible to us, and thoroughly internalised.

I did spent rather a lot of the novel silently yelling at Lucy to find some better friends -- or just to give the nice girl from the first chapter another chance (which she eventually does). Lucy's desire to both fit in and also to rebel against the injustices she observes, and her love and loyalty to her family and neighbourhood, mingled with shame and embarrassment toward them, were realistic and moving. I'm still processing how I feel about this book; I think I need to discuss it someone! Any takers out there?


The Second Mrs Gioconda

Picked up E. L. Konigsberg's The Second Mrs Gioconda at the library book sale several moons ago after reading and very much enjoying From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, and I finally got around to reading it -- threw it into my handbag when I needed a slim volume to take on a tram trip.

What a delightful little book this was. In just over a hundred pages, we explore the relationship between the great Renaissance artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, his (real) apprentice Salai, and the (real) Duchess of Milan, Beatrice d'Este, who is used to being the plain second choice to her beautiful older sister. Beatrice and Salai form a bond of shared mischief and delight, despite the difference in their social stations. When Beatrice dies at only 22, Salai grieves; but he finds some solace in encouraging Leonardo to paint the portrait of the humble merchant's wife, the second Mrs Gioconda, who possesses the same inner beauty and outward plainness as their lost Beatrice. Of course, this portrait will become perhaps the most famous painting of all time, known to us as the Mona Lisa.

It's an interesting and plausible thesis, and Konigsberg makes clever use of Leonardo's artwork, included at the back of the book, to support her story. A wonderful introduction to Leonardo, Renaissance Italy, and some magnificent pieces of art. I would have loved reading this when I studied European History for HSC, a long long time ago; it had been published nine years before.


Egg and Spoon

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire is our YA selection for the Convent book group's Witches month, and it's quite long -- more than 450 pages. I borrowed it from the library, let it languish by the bed for a while, then had to finish it in a gallop because the due date came up and I couldn't renew it because someone else (perhaps another member of my book group) had reserved it!

Possibly this haste means that I didn't get to savour the book as much as it deserved. I haven't read any other Gregory Maguire titles, though he is probably best known for writing the book on which the famous musical Wicked was based -- he is clearly drawn to witches. And there were certainly echoes of Wizard-of-Ozzery in the presentation of the witch featured here, even though she is the figure of Russian folklore, Baba Yaga.

I found Egg & Spoon in the adult Fantasy section of the library; the cover has a bet each way by claiming it's a book 'for readers of all ages' and I think this time I might have to agree. While it features two youthful protagonists in the 13 year old peasant girl Elena and young noblewoman Ekaterina, it's emphatically not a stereotypical 'YA' story -- it's crammed with magical allusions, historical asides and imaginative leaps. It might belong in that select category of Books for Adults Who Like YA. In the early stages it reminded me a lot of The Book Thief (also a member of that group) but the slightly laboured pyrotechnics of the writing settled down after a while and I relaxed into the story. I could imagine it being enjoyed by able primary school readers, young adults and adults.

I ended up liking this book much more than I thought I would at first -- maybe the lesson is to push on past the first fifty pages, because it really picked up steam after that.


The Witches

I borrowed Roald Dahl's The Witches from the library for the Convent Book Group next meeting, which has the theme of, you guessed it, Witches. We have done Witches before, but there are so many options out there, we had no trouble coming up with fresh titles!

I approached this book from the odd position of being extremely familiar with the first half of the story, and knowing nothing at all about the second half. This is because we had the first disc of the audiobook version in the car for a long time, so I heard the first part many times, read by the brilliant Simon Callow, rolling his Rs beautifully and relishing the Norwegian and other accents (especially the grandmother). (I've just realised, I don't think the little boy narrator is ever given a name! I hadn't noticed…)

Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the first section much more than the second part -- the spooky stories of the disappearing children, who are turned to stone, or vanish into paintings, are really creepy. But the rest of the book, where the boy encounters a mass meeting of witches and falls foul of their evil ways, before giving them a taste of their own medicine, didn't engage me as much.

Can I make a confession, possibly at the risk of being thrown out of the ranks of children's authors? I don't really like Roald Dahl's books. There, I've said it. Dahl's much celebrated 'streak of darkness' I find just plain cruel. The gruesome and repulsive hi-jinks leave me cold. I do quite like Matilda, but her parents were so repellent I found it hard to believe that they could have produced such a sweet and gifted daughter…

Anyway, The Witches. It's unusual for a kids book in that the child hero ends up as a victim of the evil-doers -- he is turned into a mouse, and not turned back. And the book ends with his being quite pleased that mice don't live very long, because he will die at the same time as his beloved grandmother -- which is a refreshing attitude! So I give points for that.

Or is it just disturbing??



Again, I must confess that my copy of Noel Streatfeild's adult novel, Judith, is not the one pictured here -- mine has a very boring plain black hardcover, which wasn't worth reproducing here. I bought it from Brotherhood Books, though I hadn't heard of it before, and it was relatively expensive for a secondhand book.

I knew I would enjoy Judith, and I did. I galloped through it in two days. Noel Streatfeild's authorial voice is the voice of my childhood reading; I read Ballet Shoes so many times that I still know it almost by heart, and I read every book of hers that I could lay my hands on. And even though this is an adult book, the voice is the same -- calm, astute and wise -- clear-eyed but compassionate about human psychology and the infinite ways that people can torment and test each other. Noel Streatfield is the story-telling voice I think of when I talk about being 'in safe hands'; I trust that she will carry me through a story without jarring, without hysteria, but always with something interesting to say. I can settle down into her writing like I'd settle into a warm bath.

BUT having said all that, I was amused by many aspects of this book, not in the way the author intended. Published in the mid-1950s, it bears the assumptions of its time. Judith, at the centre of the story, is a needy and vulnerable adolescent who clings to whoever will show her love, and the novel charts her interactions with her various family members, who mostly let her down. I did balk at the very end when Judith, who has been exhorted to find her independence throughout, is married off at nineteen; and also that her final moment of standing up for herself, which fills her husband with a warm glow of happiness, follows a car crash where someone is killed… Hm!

Noel Streatfeild often breaks the rule of 'show, don't tell.' She does a lot of telling; often, the dramatic and decisive moments of the plot occur off-screen, and are recounted by one character to another (and the reader) long afterwards. In fact, plot is not really Streatfeild's strong point; her strength is character. She's not a radiant writer like Rumer Godden, but for my personal comfort reading, she's my first choice.


If You Could Be Mine

Sara Farizan's debut novel, If You Could Be Mine, ticks a number of my should-read-more-of boxes, and I have to confess, I sought it out for that reason. Borrowed from the library.

Set in Iran, If You Could Be Mine tells the story of Sahar, a seventeen year old girl who has been in love with her best friend Nasrin since childhood. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, which is bad enough, but now Nasrin is getting married. Sahar has to face losing her love forever, unless her wild idea to save their romance works. Bizarrely, it seems that transsexuality is not frowned upon by the Iranian religious regime, and surgery is even state-funded. In desperation, Sahar considers changing her sex to convince Nasrin that they can stay together.

This book certainly exposed a world that I don't know much about (though I probably know a little more than most of its prospective teen readers). Life in contemporary Iran is certainly no picnic for women, and for those on the margins, and the novel doesn't pretend otherwise, with an ending that is quite realistic and rather sad. But although the subject matter is meaty, the execution left me a little disappointed. Written in what seems now to be the standard YA format of first person, present tense, the style was rather flat, and I would have loved more detail about daily life in Iran. The author is the American-born daughter of Iranian migrants and maybe lacked the direct experience that would have added extra authenticity to the novel. I would still recommend it as an eye opener to a world that is mercifully different from middle class Australia, but I'd recommend Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis first.


Counting By 7s

Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is the junior fiction title for the Convent book group's Mental Health theme this month, and I found it in the library (phew!).

Twelve year old Willow has always been different; she is super-smart, she's the dark-skinned adoptive child of very white parents, and she doesn't quite fit in at school. But when her parents are killed in a car accident and leave her alone in the world, she has to find a new place to belong, and pull together some random strangers into a family.

Counting By 7s seems to have swept the awards table in the year it was published, and it is undeniably a feel-good, uplifting tale, which features a nicely diverse cast of characters (Vietnamese family, Mexican cab driver etc). I read it quickly and easily. But for a number of reasons, it didn't quite work for me.

Firstly, a minor stylistic quibble: the paragraphs are really short, often only a sentence long, which made  the book quite choppy to read. After a while I got used to it, but in the beginning it really grated on me.

Secondly, character quibbles: Willow's 'quirks' (counting by sevens, for example) didn't ever quite ring true to me. I think she was supposed to be Asperger-y, but she didn't consistently display Asperger-y behaviour. A review on Goodreads pointed out that she actually drops these behaviours when under stress, when they are actually coping strategies, which is a good point! I also had a problem with the frequent jumps from the inside of Willow's head into third person omniscient POV, and particularly the character of Dell, the incompetent counsellor, who just made me feel uncomfortable.

Thirdly, plot quibble: there is a really implausible happy ending -- so implausible that it destroys the credibility of the entire novel. Not that (spoiler) Willow ends up formally adopted by her de facto new family, but that it's suddenly revealed that her new mother is incredibly rich, and has been all along… Hmmm.

But a lot of people seem to have really loved this book, and I can see lots of reasons why. It just didn't quite do it for me.


The River

My copy of Rumer Godden's slim novel, The River, is not as pretty as this. It's a 1963 edition, once a school text (belonging to Robert Fletcher, VB) and covered in pencil marks.

Published in 1946, The River was one of Rumer Godden's earliest books, and most elements will be familiar to anyone who has read other examples of her work: the Indian setting; the children living in their own world, only occasionally intersecting with the adults; the gradual unfolding of maturity, punctuated with sudden transformative experience; the vivid, evocative descriptions of river and garden, village and house. Godden would return to these themes again and again through her long career, but this short novel is just about a perfect encapsulation of her writing.

I don't think anyone, alive or dead, writes as beautifully, gracefully and acutely as Rumer Godden.


It's Kind Of A Funny Story

I read Ned Vizzini's novel, It's Kind of a Funny Story, for the Convent book group, as part of our Mental Health theme. (It turns out that the first week of October, when we hold our meeting, is Mental Health Week -- I did not know this when I scheduled our timetable.)

Fifteen year old Craig has succeeded in entering the selective, demanding high school of his dreams, but now he's having trouble keeping up with his peers. Depression has him by the throat. He can't sleep, he can't eat, he throws up all the time (I know how he feels). One night, gripped by suicidal thoughts, he checks himself into the nearest hospital and ends up spending five days in the psych ward. He meets and befriends some fellow travellers and starts to see a way out of the darkness. At the end of the book, he's not 'cured' but he knows that he's decided to live.

It's Kind Of A Funny Story is not really funny, but it's highly readable and engaging. Ned Vizzini also spent five days in a psych ward near his parents' home the year before he wrote the book, so I think it's fair to surmise that it's based on his own experiences. In the book, Craig is forced to mingle with adults patients because of 'renovations' which smacked of plot device to me, a way that Vizzini could call directly on his own time in the ward and the people he encountered there. But I can forgive that.

What I find harder to deal with is that I put down this life-affirming, encouraging book with its inspiring ending and discover that the author took his own life at the age of 32, seven years after this book was published. Does that fact detract from the positive, uplifting message of the novel? I guess that's something we'll talk about in book group.


Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There

This book was an impulse buy that I gave myself for Christmas last year. It's been sitting beside my bed ever since, so I decided it was time I pulled it out and actually read it.

Paranormality is a fun, informative ride, although it does bear disappointing news for those of us who Want To Believe that ghosts, telepathy and prophetic dreams might actually exist. Professor Richard Wiseman is always entertaining, but strictly scientific in his dismissal of such phenomena. It seems that most seemingly paranormal events are the result of either suggestibility or tricks of the brain. Ultimately, our gift for finding patterns in our surroundings -- such a boon for our survival in the wild, enabling humans to predict and thus avoid various threats and dangers -- means that we literally see things that aren't there. Phantom faces, apparitions, spooky coincidences, messages from the spirit world, are much more likely to be our own senses jumping to conclusions that aren't really justified.

Professor Wiseman includes a whole collection of do-it-yourself exercises to help replicate out of body experiences (drugs not recommended!), successful fortune telling, the appearance of telekinesis and other supposedly 'inexplicable' phenomena, which are highly entertaining in their own right. As a reformed tarot reader, I had to chuckle at the fortune telling techniques he outlined, which were a bit too close to the bone!

I'm recommending this book to my daughter, who took the subject Conspiracy Theories at school last term. I think she'll enjoy it.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Wow, this is such a terrific book! A brilliant idea, solidly and movingly executed by Karen Joy Fowler, a wonderful read and lots to think about.

I won't reveal the Big Twist, in case there's anyone out there who doesn't know what it is yet. I knew about it before I read the book, and it intrigued me so much that I had to get hold of it at the first opportunity; knowing the twist didn't spoil the story for me at all, and anyway, it's revealed on page 77, so you don't have to read for long before you find it out.

But really, this is a story about families, and memory -- the strange shapes that families can take, and the strange convolutions that memories form, twisting themselves around the truth. Also, I learned lots of fascinating (and disturbing) Twist-related stuff, which alone would have been worth the price of admission (which was low, as Brotherhood Books found this one for me. I can't believe someone discarded it! But hey, lucky me…)

I'm on a roll with my reading at the moment, after a couple of not-so-good experiences. It's great to feel that eagerness to pick up a book again, after dragging myself to some recent reads. Maybe life's too short to persist with a book that isn't working for me; I might have to start breaking the habit of a lifetime. There are so many fantastic books out there, it's a shame to waste valuable reading time forcing  yourself to struggle through something you don't like. But the absolutist in me hates the idea of abandoning a book halfway through… Hm, food for thought…

EDIT: I had completely forgotten that I seem to have abandoned Far From the Madding Crowd! So there you go, I'm already doing it!

The Road From Coorain

I had never heard of this autobiography by Jill Ker Conway until I found repeated references to it in The Book Group Book I read earlier this year, cropping up again and again as a recommended text. My mother read it first and pronounced it 'wonderful.' (One of the advantages of having your mother move in is having someone to swap and discuss books with.)

I took The Road from Coorain to Sydney with me last week, appropriately enough, as Jill Ker Conway spent her adolescence there, after her early rural childhood. Her family life was marked by tragedy, and her teenage years were not exactly happy ones, but Ker Conway's fierce intellect proved to be her eventual escape route. She is almost terrifyingly intelligent, observing and analysing every aspect of her  surroundings, 1950s Australian society, her troubled family and her own psychology with a cool, pitiless gaze. The book ends with her planned escape to academia in the US in her twenties, where she lived for the rest of her life, ruthlessly leaving her dependent mother behind.

I found a lot to relate to here (though not, mercifully, her anguished relationship with her mother). Highly recommended.


More Monica Dickens

I seem to have had a Monica Dickens mini-readathon. From One Pair of Feet, I progressed to her autobiography, An Open Book, written when she was in her sixties. She describes the background, inspiration and research she undertook for many of her novels. It was intriguing to read that One Pair of Feet made her a pariah in the nursing profession! She was unable to get another nursing job for a long time, and when she did, the other junior nurses were warned not to mix with her, because she had brought their noble calling into disrepute. Once she learned that after she'd taken a particular practical exam, the examiners were discussing her book, and all agreed that she must have been a rotten nurse. Monica's superior said she felt like telling them, you've just passed her for her Grade III (or whatever it was) and praised her poultices… (or whatever it was!) It was also interesting to discover how much insecurity and self-doubt lay beneath her breezy accounts of working in service, and in nursing. She was nothing like as confident as she makes herself sound -- a reminder that even memoirs are often partly fiction.

After An Open Book, I went back to the compendium and read Kate and Emma, which she wrote after accompanying some social workers on their rounds and seeing the poverty and deprivation and abuse they had to deal with, and the way that cruelty to children can repeat down the generations. Sadly, though this book was set in the sixties, I'm sure that not much has changed (more paperwork for the social workers, probably). Kate and Emma charts the friendship between a magistrate's daughter and a teenager fostered away from her neglectful and abusive parents, and, realistically, it doesn't end well.

Monica Dickens founded the first branch of the Samaritans in the United States, where she moved after her marriage. This was a helpline for the desperate and lonely, which provided just a listening ear, someone to talk to, for people in crisis. I'm not sure if they are active in Australia. There seems to be a branch in WA, but perhaps elsewhere Lifeline fills this niche. I once applied to volunteer for Lifeline, but had to pull out because I was planning to travel overseas and couldn't give the required commitment. Maybe I should look into it again. Listening seems like something I could do.


One Pair of Feet

My old mate Brotherhood Books has come up trumps again with this compendium of five novel/memoirs from Monica Dickens, for the very reasonable price of $12.50, delivered to my door less than 24 hours after ordering (how do they do it??)

I started at the back first, with Dickens' nursing memoir, One Pair of Feet, first published in 1946. In the last twelve months I have had more experience with the health system than ever in my life before, last year as a patient and this year as a relative. So I was very interested to read an account from the other side of the screen, so to speak, and Monica Dickens is always amusing. She has a gift for sketching vivid characters very economically (and ruthlessly), and the background of this book, wartime Britain, is filled with telling details. The nurses scramble in and out of the bathroom window when they want to pop out for an illicit night off with the local airmen, and there are brief flurries of excitement when her hospital plays host to some evacuated casualties… Expecting victims of bombing raids, they are surely disappointed when the real evacuees arrive -- dull old men from a nursing home, bumped out to make way for the 'real' casualties. And two shot-down German airmen make a brief appearance on the ward and inspire excesses of patriotic disgust, apart from the one nurse who actually falls in love with one of them.

I do love Monica Dicken's breezy and unforgiving take on her fellow creatures, but oh, dear, this book has some horribly causal racism tossed onto the page. The nurses work 'like negro slaves', a burns victim looks like 'a minstrel', one of the airmen is nicknamed 'Nigger' for his curly hair. It's very off-putting, and it's a real shame, because the rest of the book is good value. I suppose it sheds instructive light on the habits of the times...


How Buildings Learn

Wow, I really enjoyed Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What happens after they're built!

When I spotted it on my gifted and lovely friend Sandra's shelves (she always has interesting books), she said, 'Oh! That's one of my favourite books!' I flicked through it and thought it looked a bit dry, but Sandra has such good taste that I swallowed my reservations and borrowed it forthwith (isn't one of the great joys of printed books the fax that you can lend them around?)

Stewart Brand is not an architect, but he has plenty of ideas about what architects should study and how  they should behave. He points out how little attention is paid (or was paid in 1994 when this book was written) to the way that buildings actually function, how their inhabitants interact with them, and adapt them to their changing needs. He provides loads of interesting facts about buildings, like this diagram:
… which illustrates how the different elements of a building age and change at wildly different rates, forcing adaptation and alteration or replacement. For example, Stuff (things like furniture placement) can change at a daily rate, or even several times a day; in contrast, the building's Site will never change (unless you build on the edge of a cliff, I guess!)

He realises that we need to think deeply about our buildings before we build -- not to predict every eventuality and try to produce the perfect solution for eternity, but to leave room for flexibility and ease of adaptability -- because our relationship with the buildings we live and work in will inevitably change.

I have a personal stake in this discussion. Our house was first built in 1927 and its core has endured, with various paint jobs, ever since. In the 1990s, Stephen and Colin, who owned the house before we did, updated the kitchen and bathroom, built a back porch and a separate artist's studio in the backyard, filled the garden with native trees, and added their own leadlight and mosaics touches. Five years ago, we added a big living/dining room at the back of the house, bringing the outdoor laundry inside the house, and converted the previous living room into a library, which also gained a window. Later, we lined the roof space to create a light and useful attic storage room. Now we're planning another extension, to add a second bathroom in the space between the house and the studio, incorporate the studio into a granny flat and add a small extra bedroom.

I think because we lived in the house for years before we renovated, we resisted eating up big chunks of the garden, like so many of our neighbours have done. It feels as if the house has grown organically, creeping out of its original footprint but preserving its essential soul intact. In fact, by including a huge window and a window-seat nook in the back room, the garden feels more like part of the house than ever. This still doesn't feel like a big house; we don't have the cavernous single space, (dining/kitchen/family room) that most of our neighbours have added, but we have plenty of room to move and spread, and lots of connected nooks where people can work and read and type and listen to their own devices, but still be within speaking distance of each other.

All the time I was reading How Buildings Learn, I was thinking, this would make a fantastic TV series. Well, it seems the BBC had the same idea. I think you can find it on YouTube.


Not My Cup of Tea

Over the years, my various book groups and the members thereof have introduced me to many wonderful titles that I might not have come across otherwise. Unfortunately, the flip side of this phenomenon is the unpleasant duty of occasionally being forced to read books that you don't enjoy at all.

It's not often that two out of the three books assigned for my convent book group prove uncongenial, but such was the case this month. I've already mentioned that I found The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hard going, despite the odd amusing scene or pithy social comment. At least I did better than many of my fellow book groupers, who didn't manage to finish the whole book. On balance, I'm glad I read it, because it was such a ground-breaking text and so influential on American literature, and it was an interesting picture of a period of America history that I only know through books. But I won't be rushing back for a re-read, that's for sure. If the whole middle section with the con-men had been edited out, I would have enjoyed it much more. Hucksters are just boring to me, I'm afraid.

The other book we'd chosen for our Slavery theme was Alexa Moses' Slave Girl, which is apparently the first of a series in which the deeply shallow 13 year old Jenna will be whisked back in time to Ancient Egypt. I'm afraid I had no patience for this one. I made my 11 year old read the first chapter and she didn't like it either, though she admitted that it might appeal to some of her friends. I just couldn't overcome my dislike of the central character, who was so selfish and unimaginative that I couldn't summon up any sympathy for her plight at all. Perhaps she's an accurate portrait of modern youth… The publishers must hope so!

But now I've slogged through them both, I'm free to read whatever I feel like! More positive reports coming your way soon, I hope.



I'm feeling slightly flat at the moment.

Things on the home front have been difficult of late, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. My own writing is in a bit of a slump; I've spent too long on this particular project, second-guessed myself, and re-written so many times I've lost track of what's included in any given draft. Also (this has happened to someone else on Facebook recently!) I had the misfortune of reading a book earlier this year which was exactly the book I wish I'd written, in the setting I was planning to use. (I was heartened that the universal advice to this other person was to go ahead and write her book anyway.)

And to cap it all off, even the books I'm reading at the moment are proving, shall we say, hard work… I'm trying to enjoy The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I've started another book assigned for book group, and set it aside with a shudder after one chapter. And for the moment, I've given up on Far From the Madding Crowd completely. If I could trust myself, I'd turn to an old fave for comfort… but the way I'm feeling at the moment, I'd never go back to the other books I have to finish before next Tuesday! So I'll have to soldier grimly on.

On a brighter note, I've been reading chapters to Miss 14 from the delightfully dated The Years of Grace, edited by Noel Streatfeild and rediscovered over at Memoranda, where Michelle has beautifully surveyed the contents. Although we're spending plenty of time mocking the 1950s attitudes, it has still been an opportunity to pass on some quite wise advice which might not be welcome in a more direct format (being cheerful and helpful around the home *cough*). So at least that's been fun!


And the Winner Is...

You're not surprised, are you? Initially daunted by the sheer size and heft of this volume, I ended up deeply enjoying it and galloping to the finish. (Far From the Madding Crowd has completely fallen by the wayside, I'm afraid.) Once I'd twigged to the astrological dimension, I found it even more satisfying -- in fact I think this ended up being the element of the novel that I liked the most, though you certainly wouldn't need to know anything about the influence of the stars to enjoy the story. The mystery was complicated (even now I'm not entirely clear about the order of events), but it was absorbing and the interactions between the characters (linked with both star signs and planets) were fascinating, as was the setting -- a gold rush town in New Zealand -- literally the ends of the earth! -- in the 1860s. I must admit I found the first third or so pretty heavy going, but it was well worth the effort. So glad my daughter forced me to take it from the bottom of the pile!


The Luminaries Update: Astrology Au-go-go!

I'm powering ahead with The Luminaries, which has surprised me, because I was so intimidated before I started reading it. It's just so HUGE. You could do a burglar a serious injury if you heaved this book at him.

I've just realised (lucky the book is so long, or I would have missed it altogether) that the twelve main characters represent the twelve signs of the zodiac. I don't know how I could have overlooked this, as it was discussed in the reviews I read, and also clearly mapped out in the star charts provided at the start of each section, but ANYWAY… now that I've twigged, it's added an extra layer of enjoyment to my reading. 

I used to be a bit of an astrology nut -- it was one of those things that I liked to pretend that I believed in, like the tarots… and maybe, deep down, I'm not really sure whether I believe in it or not… I know, logically, it must be nonsense, but it's fun nonsense, and it can be surprisingly illuminating. I dabbled in it just enough to be able to appreciate details like the Libra character wearing his cravat in the latest style, and the Virgo man being so meticulous and adhering to his own peculiar code of honour. So now I'm keenly looking for little clues like this, and chuckling, and feeling superior. Which is the best thing about astrology, isn't it?


Parallel Reading: Update

So… the book race. How's it coming along?

Well, after a slow start, Eleanor Catton is well out in front, with about fifty percent read. The first chapter takes up about half the book, weaving the twelve strands of story from different viewpoints into the central mystery (which I'm hoping will be resolved in the second half…) And now I've finally got a handle on what's actually going on, I am gripped.

Thomas Hardy, at the moment, is coming a rather poor second, with only about a third read. (I'm just up to the point where Bathsheba sends the valentine to Mr Boldwood.) It's possible that Far From the Madding Crowd is suffering because, having seen the film, I already know the story, so I'm not driven by pure narrative curiosity… but it's also undeniable that the meandering nineteenth century prose (two pages of description of snow!!) is trying my patience somewhat. Bathsheba Everdene is a terrific character, though, and I think Carey Mulligan was inspired casting.

I'll try to catch up a bit with FFTMC in the next couple of days… and the meaty melodramatic bits are still to come. I'll let you know how I get on.


Parallel Reading

Generally speaking, I am a one-at-a-time kind of reader (hence why I can have a neat list of What I'm Currently Reading on this blog, and tick the books off one by one). But at the moment, I am making an exception, and reading two books at the same time!

This began as a coping strategy, because I was frankly intimidated. The Luminaries is a very fat book --  over 700 pages. Far From the Madding Crowd is an old-fashioned book, with elaborate phrasing, philosophical digressions and some unnecessary (to my modern eye) detail. Neither of them presented as easy reads. Interestingly, though they were written over a hundred years apart, both novels are set in the nineteenth century, and Eleanor Catton has reproduced the rich, expansive, leisurely writing of that era in her 2013 Man Booker prize-winner. I'm exercising some reading muscles that I don't often use, to be honest. But I needed to ease into it -- so I decided to break these two chunky books into more manageable bite-sized pieces. Ten pages of one, a chapter of the other, back and forth.

The Luminaries has been sitting next to my bed (at the bottom of the pile, natch!) for over a year. I acquired Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd on the Kindle after enjoying the new movie recently -- it was free (I felt slightly guilty, but not much). So far, my side-by-side experiment is going pretty well. I have worked up good momentum on The Luminaries, and I'm nearly halfway through, though I've fallen behind a little on FFTMC (because my Kindle was in the cold half of the house and I couldn't be bothered going to fetch it…) 

Which one will I finish first? I'll keep you posted.

*Thanks for Evie for help with formatting this post.



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.