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.