The Vanishing Moment

Borrowed from another friend. I know Margaret Wild mostly as a picture book author; The Vanishing Moment is the first YA novel of hers that I've read. Published in 2013, it's the story of two young women, Arrow and Marika, both struggling to deal with tragic events in their pasts -- in Marika's case, very recently. They both end up in the same small seaside town and strike up a tentative friendship. They also encounter a mysterious man who claims to have changed his life -- to have swapped it for a better one. Could Arrow and Marika do the same? Would they want to?

This book reminded me strongly of Margaret Mahy's magical novels, The Changeover and The Tricksters -- the endangered little brother, the coastal setting, questions of fate and free will, and young women at the centre. But instead of concentrating on the magical element, The Vanishing Moment takes its time setting up the initial scenario -- Arrow's emotional paralysis and her encounter with muggers, Marika's horrifying loss. The question of the Interchange doesn't even arise until the final quarter of the novel. After this, events swirl rapidly to a punchy conclusion.

I'm not enjoying much YA at the moment, but I did sprint through this and the last quarter of the book was a great reward for the slow start.


Chasing Redbird

Borrowed from a friend, my first Sharon Creech, and a companion piece to the other books on wilderness I read (or half-read!) for the Convent book group.

Chasing Redbird has a lot more going on than the other titles, which focused primarily on the physical demands of wilderness survival and the daily fight for existence. Zinny is part of a large family, torn by grief, and her fight is to find her own place in a teeming mass of siblings. The trail she discovers and restores is the one place where she feels free to be herself, not smothered by her family. But she also has to deal with the recent loss of her aunt, the long-ago death of her almost-twin cousin, and the unwelcome attentions of hot boy Jake Boone, who has the unfortunate habit of stealing things and giving them to Zinny to attract her attention.

I did enjoy Chasing Redbird, and the wilderness sections were lovely. But I was quite troubled by the whole Jake sub-plot -- he is pretty stalkery at times, and there's one section where he grabs and kisses her against her will, which made me shudder. What made this more creepy is that he's sixteen and she's thirteen... It all works out in the end (of course), but I felt the story skated over the implications of his behaviour in a very carefree way which disturbed me (though I did enjoy Zinny's older sister insisting that Jake must really like her, and the thwarting of that expectation!) And the complications of the family situation, and the darting back and forth between timelines, initially confused me.


Planet Narnia

I have rarely felt such genuine excitement reading a book (let alone a book of literary criticism!) as I did while reading Michael Ward's Planet Narnia.

Ward, a Lewis scholar of many years, has developed a theory so persuasive and elegant, it's utterly irresistible. Simply put, he argues that C.S. Lewis wrote the seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia according to a secret scheme which adheres to the seven planets of the medieval Ptolemaic universe (namely, Jupiter, Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury and Saturn).

Thus, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe bears the influence of kingly, generous Jupiter, who 'banishes winter' and forgives all. Peter swears by Jove and the colour red recurs; there is feasting and jollity. Seen in this light, the appearance of Father Christmas, sometimes seen as incongruous, makes perfect sense.

Prince Caspian is influenced by war-like, disciplined, knightly Mars; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by golden, joyous Sol; The Silver Chair by watery, submissive Luna; The Horse and his Boy by quicksilver, eloquent Mercury, forever dividing and uniting; The Magician's Nephew is ruled by fertile, life-giving Venus; and Saturn, old, cold, ugly and deathly, rules over The Last Battle.

There is too much textual evidence to repeat here, and I must admit I skimmed some of Ward's more abstruse philosophical discussions. There is also a lot of material on Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet trilogy, which anticipates and reinforces Lewis's thoughts on the planets. I'm convinced that Ward has indeed found an important key to understanding the Narniad. The glorious jumble of imagery and atmosphere, the apparent unevenness of plot and some inconsistencies are at last explained. For example, the figure of Aslan is no longer a simple allegory for Christ, but appears in different planetary guises and roles in each volume.

This book has made me see these beloved books in an entirely new light. I can''t wait to read them again!


My Father's Books

Half a shelf's worth; approximately one twenty-fouth of the library
 My father was a hoarder. A meticulous, neat, super-organised, OCD-type hoarder, but a hoarder nonetheless. (I say was, though he is very much still with us, because since he moved into aged care after a stroke a couple of years ago, his opportunities for hoarding have been drastically curtailed. Thank God, says my mother.)

The extent of Dad's hoarding was suspected, but never confirmed, until it came time to clear out my parents' house for rental. To give you some idea: Michael has been sorting through the two rooms that made up Dad's study; I have done the whole of the rest of the house. My job was far easier, I'm all finished! Michael is still going.

A hoarder Dad may have been, but he was never really much of a reader. As well as all the other things he collected (stamps, coins, business cards, matchbooks, train tickets, computer software, cameras, model aeroplanes...), he amassed a library, which contained many books he'd used in teaching -- texts on principles of flight, meteorology, aircraft magazines, cloud atlases -- as well as various other books that reflected his other interests -- travel guides, dictionaries, photography manuals, bird guides, street directories, histories of classical music.

It was fairly easy to decide about the other books, whether to keep them ourselves or pass them on, but the aircraft collection was more difficult. They were so specialised, so niche -- yet there were so many of them! Wasn't it better to try to keep them as a collection, for someone who might appreciate them?

And we found someone. A young woman associated with the flying school where Dad had taught for several years, someone who loves books (and also, coincidentally, is fascinated by PNG) and flying. She was dumbstruck when she first saw Dad's collection -- awesome and insane was what she finally stammered. She ended up loading her car with textbooks, maps, flight manuals, course materials, NOTAMs, notebooks and other treasures -- this was the back seat. The boot was full as well. Her poor little car was groaning, and dipping at the rear.
She spent a couple of hours exclaiming and exploring: we still use these sheets! Oh wow, this is from 1975! I've never seen anything like it...  Some things she'll keep and some she'll give away, but I feel reassured that this part of Dad's collection, at least, is in good hands.

Thank you!

On Looking

I bought On Looking from Brotherhood Books (yeah, yeah, I know...) but it wasn't until I began to read it that I realised I'd read a review or an extract from it a few years ago and tucked it away in the back of my mind.

Horowitz, a neuroscientist, has come up with a fantastic idea for a book, which appealed to me instantly: instead of repeating her familiar dull walk around the block with the dog (in New York City), she takes various 'experts' and others with her, to find out what they observe and she has missed. She walks with a blind person, a painter, a geologist, a specialist in fonts and graphics, her own toddler son and her dog, and records the different ways they experience and make new this familiar territory. She is shown bugs and signs of wildlife she's never noticed, hears sounds and smells odours that had escaped her attention.

I did enjoy this book, but ultimately it promised more than it delivered. Perhaps because On Looking was necessarily so rooted in a particular place, a place unfamiliar to me, it held less resonance than the same concept set in, oh, I don't know, the suburbs of Melbourne? The plants and architecture were unknown to me, the wildlife is different, the streets and traffic don't operate in quite the same way. Some chapters were more successful than others -- the geology one was frankly dull, despite Horowitz's best attempts to spice it up. On the other hand, the walk with the blind woman was absolutely fascinating, as was the chapter with the sound effects guy.

Overall, a mixed success, but more enjoyable than not.


The Story of English in 100 Words

Evie took one look at this book and said, 'But this is longer than a hundred words... Ohhhh, right, okay.'

In a neat conceit, linguist David Crystal makes a survey of one hundred English words, starting with the rune for 'roe' scratched on a deer bone, possibly the earliest written word in English ever found, and moving through the centuries to take in 'lea' (a clearing, a word element which survives in countless place- and surnames, like Bromley or Dunkley), 'potato', 'jazz' and up to 'twittersphere' in the twenty-first century. He manages to cover much of the same ground as Mother Tongue -- borrowings from other languages, truncations and elaborations, swear words and technical terms. But with only a couple of pages available for each word, this ends up being more of a skim than a delve.

A quick, fun and informative read that will probably leave the reader wanting more.


Mother Tongue

Evie has been on a bit of a language kick lately -- which means reading Wikipedia articles about slang and the origins of English. So I dug out Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue for her, thinking it might be of interest, and of course ended up reading it myself.

Published in 1992, I dare say the scholarship has advanced since it was written, as has technology: no internet or smartphones mentioned in this text! And the cover could do with reworking, in fact I think in later editions it has been. A Bill Bryson book is never less than supremely entertaining, though the facts are sometimes a little loose (Australians don't habitually drop the u in words like 'labor' - only when we're talking about political parties; and is an ice-crean tub in Victoria really known as a 'pixie'? Not in my lifetime!)

As a rapid, amusing sweep through the history of English and its rise as a global language, it's a fun ride and packed with fascinating snippets and anecdotes. But I would hesitate to rely on it as an authoritative academic source, despite the massive bibliography in the back.


The Exiles at Home

I picked up The Exiles at Home at the last library book sale, even though I'd read it before. It's taken me a surprisingly long time to re-read; the story seemed to start very slowly, though it did come together satisfyingly enough by the end. The structure was episodic by necessity, as the story was about the four Conroy sisters needing to raise money monthly to sponsor an African child, and their various misadventures and schemes for doing so.

Hilary McKay is very good at capturing the amiable chaos of middle class family life, but I still had trouble telling the four girls apart (except for implacable Phoebe, the youngest, who is very vivid). I am curious to read the final volume in the trilogy, The Exiles in Love, but I don't know that I'm keen enough to actually pay full price for it... It might be one that I keep an eye out for second-hand.


The Greatest Gresham

Well, well, well! Barely a month after my last successful visit to Savers, where I found Gillian Avery's The Elephant War, Alice and I paid another visit, and behold! Another Gillian Avery! Do the Savers' staff have a box of them out the back? Are they doling them out when they see me slink through the door?

The Greatest Gresham was first published in 1962, but it's set in Avery's favourite period of the 1890s (though in the suburbs of London this time, rather than Oxford). One one level, it's a charming friendship story, bringing together the timid, respectable Gresham children with their rackety new next-door neighbours, supercilious Richard and imaginative Kate. A secret society is formed, dares are exchanged, and parents are horrified, but everyone learns something in the end.

But on another level, there is a much darker narrative lurking in the background. The Greshams (except for the favourite, little Amy) are timid because they are almost paralysed with fear of their over-bearing, ex-military father, who 'roars' at them and is frequently made angry by his disappointing offspring. In contrast, the Holt children are benignly neglected by their loving but distracted father and aunt. Clever Richard is cramming so hard for a scholarship exam that he makes himself almost physically ill, while dishevelled Kate, who dreams of being a duchess, longs for the order and predictability of the Gresham household. All four of the older children suffer from anxiety to some degree, whether it's caused by terror of their father, fear of what 'other people think', or fear of academic failure. In the end, it's spirited Amy and bold Aunt B, who refuse to be bound by others' judgements, who come out winners.

A delightful book, but also a very good one.


Long Ago When I Was Young

I stumbled across this short memoir, Long Ago When I Was Young, by one of my favourite childhood authors, E. Nesbit, while browsing on Brotherhood Books. I'd never heard of this book's existence, so I had to act quickly to grab it while it was still there -- didn't I?

E. Nesbit's magical (and non-magical) novels were a staple of my youthful reading. The Phoenix and the Carpet, Five Children and It, The Wouldbegoods and The Treasure Seekers, and of course The Railway Children, were borrowed and re-borrowed. I tried reading them to my children but the stories were too slow, too Victorian, and they didn't 'take', which made me so sad, as Edith Nesbit is the godmother of modern urban fantasy. Edward Eager acknowledged his debt to her in every one of his own delightful books, and I believe she invented the genre of 'magic in the real world', or at the very least popularised it.

This slim volume, beautifully illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, collects some of Nesbit's most vivid childhood memories of growing up in the 1860s. She had an unsettled youth, moved from one boarding school to another as her mother shifted around the country with young Edith's (Daisy) ill elder sister. The family also spent time travelling around France and Germany, before finding a more permanent home in the Kentish countryside. The most poignant chapters tell of the things that frightened Daisy -- ghosts, the dark space behind the bed, the gas turned low to make creepy shadows, and especially the terrifying mummies in a crypt that she was taken to see, and which gave her nightmares for many years. What a great idea, to take a sensitive child to see some half-preserved corpses in a cave!

This book has reminded me how much I loved Nesbit's books. Time for a revisit, perhaps.


My Side of the Mountain

Next month's theme for the Convent book group is Wilderness, and I re-read Jean George's 1959 American classic, My Side of the Mountain as our junior fiction selection. (Our YA choice is Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, which actually seems to me to be pitched at about the same level -- not sure why one is in one category and the other is in the other? Something to discuss at the meeting, perhaps!)

George's book, largely based on her own childhood memories of camping in the wild, tells the story of Sam, aged about 13, who runs away from the city to test his own survival skills. (His parents are remarkably relaxed about this decision!) He makes himself a home in a hollow tree, tames a falcon (much more easily than in H is for Hawk, by the way), fishes and gathers wild plants, and even makes himself clothes from deer and rabbit skin. He lives well and healthily, makes it through winter, and only toward the end of the book does he find himself craving human company.

Killing two birds with one stone as I often do, I talked about My Side of the Mountain at my other book group, and we collectively wondered why there is so little of this kind of positive wilderness writing in Australian children's literature. For authors like Ivan Southall, landscape is a hostile enemy in a life or death struggle for survival (eg Ash Road, To the Wild Sky). Only Nan Chauncy seems to celebrate and delight in wilderness (eg They Found a Cave). Is it because white authors don't feel entitled to belong in Australia's 'wild' country? Australian literature has a long tradition of 'lost child' narratives, but very few stories of harmonious living in nature. Hopefully Australia's growing body of Indigenous writing for children and adults will soon fill this gap -- it would be a healthy development, I think.


Melbourne Then and Now

I found this book on my Dad's shelves -- one of many hidden gems tucked away. The silver lining to the arduous and emotional business of clearing out the parental home is that we are constantly making wonderful discoveries, and even Dad admits that without this process, some of his treasures would have remained unlooked-at in cupboards and filed away on bookshelves. At least this way he has actually been able to enjoy leafing through some precious volumes (I'm thinking of the cloud atlas* he bought as an eighteen-year old, carefully stored in its original shipping box).

Anyway, Melbourne Then and Now is a wonderful little book, a simple concept thoughtfully executed. On each double page spread, a photograph of some old Melbourne landmark is married with a modern shot from more or less the same place. Sometimes the buildings are still there, looking exactly the same, with only the surroundings changed; sometimes the original has altered beyond recognition or disappeared altogether. For the first time I realise how Market St acquired its name, and why the Customs House sits where it does (the wharves used to lie directly in front of it).

And if I could resurrect one lost Melbourne building, I would choose the magnificent Federal Coffee Palace. Situated on the corner of Collins and King Streets, its dining rooms could seat 600 patrons, and when it was first built, its dome could be seen by ships at sea. Demolished in 1973, it was replaced by yet another anonymous, boring skyscraper. What a shame!

* Turns out a cloud atlas is an actual thing, not just a novel! Who knew?


The Exiles

I went to the latest library book sale to donate, not purchase (as per the No New Books rule -- which is in shambles, by the way, if you hadn't guessed). But when I saw The Exiles and The Exiles at Home on the table, I couldn't resist grabbing them. I've become a huge fan of Hilary McKay's Casson family series, and I wanted more of the same.

The Exiles (there are three books altogether), like the Casson books, features a family of mostly girls -- the four Conroy sisters. In this first book, they are dispatched to Big Grandma's house for the holidays while their home is being renovated. Various misadventures ensue, culminating in... [spoilers which may or may not involve a fire where books are destroyed -- this part was hard to read!]

This was a sweet book. I had a bit of trouble telling the four girls apart; their personalities are not as clearly delineated as in the Casson books, in fact this feels like a rehearsal for McKay's later, more accomplished work. It also lacks the emotional heft of the Casson series. But it's a light, funny read.

One thing that dated the book was the fuss made about the sisters' allegedly 'weird' names: Ruth, Naomi, Rachel and especially Phoebe. Well, Phoebe might have been slightly unusual in 1991 (not to me, as I have an English cousin called Phoebe), but it certainly isn't peculiar these days -- perhaps helped by the arrival of Phoebe from Friends. Naming trends come and go, and by all means use your favourite unusual names on your characters, but best not to comment on it at much length. Who knows, the popularity of your character may propel that 'bizarre' name into the Top 10! (Unlikely but it has happened -- babies are actually being named Renesmee now, believe it or not.) I still live in hope of a wave of little Calwyns one day...


The Marlows and the Traitor (again)

Over on Memoranda, Michelle Cooper has been conducting a fabulous read-through of The Marlows and the Traitor, which has given me the opportunity to read it again, too. And I think I've enjoyed it even more this time; it really is a cracking story, despite the holes in the plot, the poor behaviour of most of the adults involved and the stiff upper lips all round. Forest uses multiple viewpoints and clever pacing to masterfully control the tension of the narrative. In many ways this is a very adult book. We are told, 'The children are expendable' -- you wouldn't get that in Enid Blyton!

In other news, I had to do something absurdly upsetting this week -- get rid of my childhood books. I'm in the process of clearing out my childhood home -- I'm very fortunate that my parents have lived in the same house for nearly fifty years, and the books I read as a four and five year old have all been tucked away in a spare bedroom, to be read by my younger sister and then by my own children. I've saved my special favourites, but I couldn't keep them all, and most of them were so tatty (and had my name scribbled in them!) that they couldn't be passed on. So into the recycling bin they had to go. How ridiculous that this, more than anything other aspect of the business, reduced me to tears! I had to go home, too upset to do any more clearing out that day.

When I got up next morning, I discovered that my lovely husband had fished the books out of the bin and brought them home. 'They don't take up much room,' he said. 'We can keep them.' Bless him.


The Mighty West

A massive exception to the No New Books rule: I pre-ordered The Mighty West long before it came out. I feel as if I know Kerrie Soraghan (aka The Bulldog Tragician) from her blog and her posts on the Whitten Oval Online Forum; a lifelong Western Bulldogs supporter, she has chronicled the fans' journey in poignant and funny prose.

This book draws on her blog posts from the last couple of years, so I was already quite familiar with a lot of the material. It was a quick and effortless and very pleasurable read, re-living the Bulldogs' journey to a flag which reached its glorious fairytale conclusion in October last year. Soraghan writes so beautifully of the fan experience -- of the emotional investment that supporters place in these young men, who we kid ourselves we know (from 'a few stilted interviews' and their exploits on the field) and love (often fiercely, often beyond all reason). Fans feel like insiders, and the actions of the team and the club matter to us so much -- and yet ultimately we are not insiders. We know hardly anything of what really goes on inside the club, and we are powerless to affect what happens, whether that's a club captain walking out, or a team winning an impossible game. All we can do is tell ourselves that our silly superstitions (sitting in the same place on the couch, wearing a lucky badge) and our barracking, our cheers and encouragement -- our love -- really do make a difference.

And once in a lifetime, that those dreams and hopes come true.

For Western Bulldog fans, this is a must-read; you will relate to every word. As soon as I finish this post, I'm buying it for my mother-in-law.


Mountains of the Mind

After finishing Michelle Paver's mountaineering book, Thin Air, last week, I found myself caught between two competing rules I'd set for myself this year: Read What I Feel Like Reading, and No New Books. I knew I had Mountains of the Mind hidden in the cupboard for when the No New Books rule expires, but the timing seemed too perfect to miss. So Read What I Feel Like won.

Mountains of the Mind was Robert Macfarlane's first book, a prize winner which kick-started his subsequent career as a wonderful writer on nature and wildness. (Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I am a huge Macfarlane fan.)

Mountains of the Mind is a little more earnest and academic than its successors, packed with quotes and scholarship, tracing the evolving history of attitudes toward mountains and mountain-climbing, from fear and horror through fascination and awe, to the hunger for conquest and domination, and sheer wonder at the otherworld of high altitude. But for me, the strongest sections of the book are drawn from Macfarlane's personal experiences and observations as a life-long climber, and this is the track he has followed in later books. He writes with exquisite precision:
Specks of ice drifted in and out of the beams [of our head-torches] like phytoplankton... When I turned my light off and turned around, there was total darkness and then, like a developing photograph - the image swimming into sharpness in the chemical bath - the forms of the peaks around us came into focus...
The penultimate chapter of the book, Everest, was utterly gripping. It describes the story of George Mallory, a man who became obsessed with Mt Everest. He tried three times to climb the world's highest peak, in 1921, 1922 and 1924, and vanished without trace on the last attempt. For years mountaineers have speculated on whether or not he had reached the summit before his death. Mallory's body was discovered, almost perfectly preserved, in 1999, seventy five years after he vanished into the mountain's mists: a tragedy, a myth, a mystery. Now I'm on fire to learn more about this charismatic, driven young man, who adored his wife and young children and yet couldn't resist the hunger to climb.

It looks as if the No New Books rule may be broken again.


Thin Air

Borrowed from a friend at book group, Michelle Paver's Thin Air is a ghost story set on a 1935 expedition to climb Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. For many years thought to be the world's highest mountain, it was relegated to third place only in the 1850s. I was familiar with Kangchenjunga from references in the Swallows and Amazons books, where the hills of the Lake District that the children climb and camp among are promoted to Himalayan status.

This was a wonderfully creepy and atmospheric tale, blending the isolation and terror of the natural geography with the all too human horrors of jealousy, betrayal, rivalry, suspicion and paranoia. The expedition is following in the footsteps of a former, ill-fated trek, and it gradually becomes apparent that something sinister has been left behind on the mountain...

Apparently Paver has written a couple of other ghostly stories, Dark Matter and Without Charity, so I might just hunt those out too. This was enjoyably scary, but not so terrifying that I couldn't bear it!

And just as I was writing this post, a fellow who gives ghost tours of Melbourne happened to come on the radio... Spooky!


The Warden's Niece

What a joy it was to read this book again! I adored The Warden's Niece when I was about ten, and read it many times -- you can tell it was a favourite because the corners were all torn off and chewed (terrible habit). Reading it again, I can see why it appealed -- Maria is 'thin and brown and silent, but rather better than most girls,' and despite living most of her life in a haze of embarrassment and social indecision, is still capable of bold action where necessary. As the intimidating Thomas tells her, 'For someone so mouse-like, I must say you do some startling things -- storming Bodley, for instance.'

The setting is Victorian-era Oxford, where 'lady students' are just beginning to attend lectures. Orphan Maria runs away from her truly frightful school to live with her uncle, the Warden of (fictitious) Canterbury College, and shares lessons with the three Smith boys who live next door. Their tutor is temporarily replaced by the alarmingly eccentric Mr Copplestone, immensely tall and completely devoid of social embarrassment, and with his encouragement, Maria tries to impress her uncle with a piece of original research, which leads to 'house-breaking, playing truant, gatecrashing into the Bodleian, and being a receiver of stolen property.'

First published in 1957, The Warden's Niece is a very gentle book, but the mortifying Francis Copplestone is a wonderful character, and the three Smith boys, lofty Thomas, nervous Joshua and the insufferable James, are so vividly drawn that I have never forgotten them. (I may have had a slight crush on Thomas.) I was so pleased to discover that there are more books about the Smith family -- Maria's story ends just as you would hope it might, with her mystery solved and an affectionate relationship beginning to develop with her uncle. I think this might be where my adolescent love of Oxford, later nourished by Brideshead Revisited, truly began.



Paul Gallico's Jennie falls into the CATegory (see what I did there?) of books that I probably wouldn't have picked up if I didn't have to read it for book group. As a rule, I'm not a massive fan of animal books, as I may have mentioned a couple of hundred times before, so a book with a cat on the cover, however cute and wistful, wouldn't push my buttons.

Jennie was first published in 1950, and it shows. It's quite long, there are wince-inducing moments of racism and sexism, and the style is old-fashioned. It's the story of eight year old Peter, who loves cats and longs to own one, and who is magically transformed into a cat himself after being knocked down by a coal lorry (I told you it was old-fashioned!) He is befriended by a delightful, brave and loving little cat called Jennie, who guides and instructs him in all the skills he'll need to survive as a cat, and  the two share many adventures before their partnership comes to its inevitable end (spoilers: it's really sad!)

Gallico excels at describing the habits and disposition of cats -- apparently he owned 28 cats! -- and Jennie and Peter's adventures are mostly plausible and absorbing, but I couldn't help feeling some misgivings about their relationship. Jennie begins as a maternal figure, protecting and teaching the naive Peter. In the enjoyable middle section, they become true partners in adventure: taking a ship to Scotland, confronting fierce dogs and rats, getting trapped high on the girder of a bridge.

But towards the end of the book, their friendship takes a peculiar turn. Peter is enticed away by a 'charming' cat called Lulu (who I found merely slappable) and loses Jennie for a time; when they are reunited, their roles reverse and Peter becomes Jennie's protector and champion. We're told he's grown and matured into a strong, handsome tomcat, capable of fighting off Jennie's undesirable suitors, and the implication is that Peter is almost acting as Jennie's mate would do. But inside, he is still an eight year old boy, and the overall effect is slightly creepy.

Jennie has been reissued as a Collins Modern Classic. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.


The Elephant War

Is there any thrill to compare with the excitement of discovering a hitherto unknown book by one of your favourite authors? Especially when you find it at Savers and it only costs $3!

Gillian Avery only died last year. She was the author of one of my absolute favourite childhood books, one I returned to over and over, The Warden's Niece, her debut novel which was commended for the Carnegie Medal in 1957. Set in Victorian Oxford, The Warden's Niece centres on Maria, who runs away from her horrible school and tries to impress her academic uncle into letting her live with him permanently by conducting a piece of independent historical research. Maria's ultimate ambition is to be a Professor of Greek at Oxford -- a lofty aim, considering they were barely allowing women to study at Oxford in 1875. On the face of it, this sounds like a dull premise for a novel, but Maria becomes entangled with the lively trio of boys next door and their fantastically unconventional tutor, Mr Copplestone (otherwise known as 'the spider-monkey'), and their embarrassing adventures make for an energetic narrative.

Oh dear, this is supposed to be about The Elephant War, which was written after The Warden's Niece but is actually set shortly before the events of that book. This time our heroine is Harriet, who also becomes entangled with the three Smith boys, but not in a friendly way -- this time it's a war, nominally over whether to save Jumbo the elephant from being exported to America. But soon events spiral out of control, with parcels and insults hurled in the street, pursuit around the greenhouses of the Botanical Gardens, and tadpoles poured through letterboxes.

Newly arrived in Oxford, Harriet has a temper and longs for a cause to believe in; in the end, she finds the promise of new friends and discovers the delights of Oxford for herself. I wish, though, her indulgent father hadn't ended the book by consoling her, 'Never mind about school, you'll make a good wife one day'!!!! Makes a contrast to Maria, I suppose -- whom Harriet is due to take tea with when the story ends, thus tying the books together nicely (though I don't think we hear anything about Harriet in The Warden's Niece -- must check!)

I didn't love this as much as the first book, because it lacks Maria's love of history and earnest academic dreams, but it was still fun. And I learned that there are three other books featuring the irrespressible Smiths -- something to hunt for in my perpetual secondhand quest, though I'm not hopeful of finding them.


Into The Wild

Evie has been obsessed with the Warriors series for years now, but this is the first time I've actually sat down and read one from beginning to end, despite having about ninety of the bloody things clogging up the Kindle. And I have to say I was pretty impressed!

The premise is that there are groups of wild cats, each hunting in their own territory and largely hidden from the Twolegs. Thunder Clan lives in the forest, River Clan by the river, Wind Clan on the moor, and so on. In this introductory novel, Into the Wild, Rusty the pet kitten (a despised "kittypet") runs away to join Thunder Clan, becoming Firepaw the apprentice, and having proved his worth through various trials and battles, graduates to become Fireheart the warrior.

The world building in this series is tremendous -- I can well understand why kids become absorbed in this universe. The clans are organised into warriors who hunt and defend territory, queens who rear the kittens, youthful apprentices, kits and elders. Each clan also has a medicine cat who learns the secrets of herbs and healing. The cats have a well developed history and mythology, even a form of spirituality: dead cats pass into Star Clan, and can communicate with the living leaders. (Evie tells me she doesn't believe in heaven, but she does believe in Star Clan.) And the stories span whole generations and cross from clan to clan.

There is a whole parallel world of fan fiction, art and animation revolving around Warriors, and I can see why. These cats inhabit a world between children and adults, living secretly in the woods but facing real perils and difficult adventures. Birth and death, injury and betrayal, friendship and fear are all part of their lives. I've never been a huge fan of animal stories, but this series has a depth and solidity that makes it work.


Southern Sky, Western Oval

Southern Sky, Western Oval by Martin Flanagan, is the story of one season in the life of the Footscray Football Club, as it was still known in 1993. (The Western Oval has changed its name, too, to the Whitten Oval.)

I took this cover image from Fishpond, so I suspect it's the actual copy I bought! Bornadog, from WOOF, tracked it down for me after I said I'd been hunting for it for a while. The Whitten Oval Online Forum is a wonderful community. When the Bulldogs made it into the Grand Final last year, 60 years after their last appearance, WOOF's motto was 'no Bulldog left behind.' Somehow, everyone looking for a ticket was helped to find one, thanks also to the generosity of other football fans who had tickets but gave them up so that the maximum number of Bulldog fans could experience the day.

Anyway, the 1993 season, though it began with high hopes, did not have the happy ending of 2016. Nonetheless, it's a wonderful read, even though I was unfamiliar with many of the characters and the world of AFL has changed enormously in the last twenty five years. One of the players in the 1993 side was a young Luke Beveridge, who coached last year's team to the ultimate victory.

It struck me that Beveridge's coaching style might have been influenced by his coach at the Bulldogs at this time, Terry Wheeler. Wheeler was a coach ahead of his time. In an era when most coaches were stern, shouty disciplinarians, Wheeler aimed to create an environment where each player could produce his best. He would quote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, took his team sky-diving, played bag-pipes before a match. The club president has said that if he'd had his time over, he wouldn't have sacked Terry Wheeler. But Wheeler is still a close friend of the club, and rejoiced in last year's victory with the rest of us.

Martin Flanagan writes about football like no one else. He understands the romance, the anguish, the bonds that knit a club together. And he has a poetic eye. He describes one player on the field as looking like "a bread van surrounded by sports cars." Another player's shoulder muscles "bulged like plates in a suit of armour." In my opinion, he is as fine a writer as his brother Richard, whose novel Wanting I read at the same time as Southern Sky, Western Oval. But because he writes about sport, he is under-rated by literary critics.

Martin Flanagan has been asked to write a book about the 2016 Western Bulldogs premiership. I can't wait.



A proper, grown-up literary novel -- the first one I've tackled for ages. I just haven't been in the right mood to face the challenge of having to think, or read more slowly, or piece things together for myself -- hard work, in other words! I have a few literary novels on my shelf which I'm waiting for the right moment to open. But as time goes on, I'm beginning to wonder if that moment will ever arrive. (The Goldfinch, The Lacuna, I'm looking at you -- and you are so long.)

But as literary novels go, Richard Flanagan's Wanting was a good place to start -- it's pretty short, and its premise sounded promising. It loosely interweaves three true-life stories: that of Charles Dickens, who is facing a crossroads in his life and marriage when he meets the young actress Ellen Ternan; Lady Jane Franklin, who we see in two stages of her life, the wife of the Governor of Van Dieman's land (now Tasmania), and as the grieving widow of the same husband, lost on a polar expedition; and lastly (and to me, most interestingly) the story of the young Aboriginal girl Mathinna, who was adopted by the Franklins during their time in Tasmania, and then abandoned by them.

Flanagan said that this novel is about love and yearning, not really about history, and I gather he has made his own use of the facts to suit his narrative. The writing is beautiful and the links between the three main characters are certainly intriguing. But in the end I found that the tragedy of Mathinna held my attention much more firmly than Lady Jane's lamentations or Dickens' mid-life crisis.

Richard Flanagan's subsequent novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North has won multiple awards and accolades, but I've decided that it will be too harrowing for me to handle at the moment. Is it wrong that I am consciously looking for diversion and enjoyment in my reading? I hope this is only a temporary state of affairs. I will come back to 'serious' reading, I promise!

But not yet.


Started Early, Took My Dog

Alas, I fear with this fourth volume in the series, Jackson Brodie might have run out of puff. Perhaps Kate Atkinson agreed, because Started Early, Took My Dog (the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem; there is a surprising amount of poetry in what is ostensibly a crime novel) is the final Brodie book and she has moved on to different projects.

There is still a lot to enjoy here, particularly in the story of Tracy, ex-copper turned security guard, who impulsively buys a stray child at the start of the novel and spends the rest of the story on the run with her. This is a tale of lost children -- stolen, adopted, bereft and betrayed in various ways. Sadly, though we spend a lot of time with Jackson Brodie, who is a character I like a lot, he doesn't actually DO anything much in this book -- he's supposed to be investigating the biological origins of his client, Hope, but most of the time he just wanders around ruminating while the reader has already put two and two together before he does. And the vile, blokey police culture of the 70s is on full view here -- not as much fun as Life on Mars, which she references.

Reading a Kate Atkinson novel will never be a waste of time, but I must admit I was slightly disappointed in this one. Farewell, Jackson! It was fun while it lasted.


Love's Executioner

In my twenties, I shared a small, dark house with a friend who was in therapy (he went on to qualify as a psychotherapist himself). Some of our happiest moments in that house were spent with our feet up on the gas wall heater, me on the cane couch, him in the armchair, endlessly analysing ourselves, each other and all our friends and family.

Inspired by Robert's example, I even tried therapy myself, but I didn't last long. Reading Irvin Yalom's accounts of his own patients, I found myself drawn back to my own experience, wondering what my therapist made of it and exactly why I'd abandoned the project so abruptly. I don't think I was really committed to therapy, to tell the truth; I felt I could manage on my own (maybe that's the story...)

I'm pretty sure I've read Love's Executioner before -- maybe even when I was living in Budd St. Dr Yalom is an appealing writer -- honest about his own mistakes and failings, determined to dig beneath the surface to find what's interesting about his clients, even when they seem dull or irritating (I remember I was very concerned that my therapist might find me boring... I'm sure I was!) Again and again, he returns to his central mission -- to explore the meaning of being human. Interestingly, in this earlier work, Yalom is much more preoccupied with sex; in Creatures of a Day, published many years later, his thoughts revolved more around death.

There is wisdom in this book, hard won and sometimes denied (Yalom includes some failures in these case studies). No wonder it's become a classic.


Modern Love

While my aunts were visiting from the UK, Michael and I took them out to visit Heide. I've been there several times before, but strangely never gone inside the original house -- Heide 1 -- or even known that it existed. It just so happened that there was a craft market on the grounds that day, too, so we had plenty to occupy us, as well as the exhibition that I really wanted to see: three female modernist painters, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington-Smith and Georgia O'Keefe. Wandering the gardens and exploring the house and galleries, we spent an absorbing afternoon. But though I had some vague notions about Heide's famous inhabitants, John and Sunday Reed and their artistic circle, I realised that I knew very few actual facts to satisfy my aunties' curiosity.

Too late for my aunties, but Mum's new friend (via Westgarth) heard that we'd visited Heide and kindly lent me her copy of Modern Love: The Lives of John and Sunday Reed, which I've spent the best part of a week reading (thanks, Myroula!)

Wow, it really is a tangled story, mingling love and bitterness, generosity and venom, friendship and art and tragedy. John and Sunday Reed are usually described as patrons or benefactors of the artists they supported, but they preferred to see themselves as partners and collaborators in the artistic project, especially as their financial support always extended into friendship and often into passion. While these intimate relationships were nourishing for a time, they usually turned sour at some point, and ended up damaging everyone involved.

I was more interested in the first part of the book, which traces most of these early, intense entanglements; the latter part, which described the Melbourne post-war art scene in more detail than I really needed, was less engaging. But I really did learn a lot about Australia's place in the modern art movement, and the lives of many extraordinary people. It's so sad that things worked out tragically for some of the players in the drama (thinking particularly of Sweeney, the Reeds' adopted son, who took his own life in his thirties).

I'm very glad I took the time to read this, and next time I visit Heide, I will see the place with a new, and better informed, eye.


The Real History Behind Foyle's War

I stumbled across The Real History of Foyle's War by Rod Green while browsing on Brotherhood Books. (I really should shut up about Brotherhood Books and keep it as my own secret, or else all the good stuff will be snapped up before I have a chance to find it!)

Foyle's War is one of our all-time favourite TV series (Michael says it probably is his absolute number one). A beautifully produced murder mystery series set in Hastings during World War II, it has explored all sorts of knotty issues -- espionage, internment, horrific injuries, women's employment, evacuees, the arrival of American troops and subsequent racial tensions -- as well as your everyday black market crimes, conscription dodgers, home grown fascist sympathisers, bombings etcetera. The show features some gorgeously understated acting from Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle (he can say more with a single raised eyebrow than with pages of dialogue), his reserved sidekick Milner (whose amputated leg seemed to grow back as the series wore on), wonderfully plummy Sam Stewart (surprisingly, the only character based on a real person!), and Foyle's dashing pilot son Andrew.

I enjoyed this book hugely, even though it finished at the end of season 6 and didn't include the very last of Foyle's post-war adventures, or the end of the war itself. It was a thorough coverage of the general background of crime and police work during the war, as well as detailed episode-by-episode plot descriptions and the origins of those stories in the real world. Lavishly illustrated, this was a hugely enjoyable read.



Morris Gleitzman's Soon is the fifth book in what he describes as the 'Felix family' of books: Once, Then, After, Now and now this volume, which is set in the period immediately after the end of the war. But the world is still far from safe for Felix and his friends. Food is scarce, brutal soldiers and partisans are still roaming the streets, and death is around every corner.

Although Soon is firmly written for younger readers, some very dark themes are touched on here -- rape, hate crime, Nazi medical experimentation, murder and genocide. The body count is high, and so is the rate of injury. But Gleitzman keeps the action moving at such a pace, and with enough humour and optimism, that the reader isn't weighed down by the dark content.

Soon won the CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers last year, and I suspect that it was a kind of lifetime achievement award for the entire series. I asked Evie if she'd read any of them; she said no, but several of her friends read the first book, Once, last year, in Grade 6. Reviews were mixed -- some loved it, some found it 'boring.' I'm not sure about that verdict -- perhaps what they really meant was confronting, too confronting to fully engage with. And that's fine. But for young readers who are ready to face some of our world's darkest history, this series is a fine introduction.


One Good Turn

Kate Atkinson's second Jackson Brodie novel, One Good Turn, is sub-titled 'A Jolly Murder Mystery', which is not a totally accurate description of its contents. It is, however, a lot jollier than the other two titles, since (spoilers!) only unpleasant characters (with one exception) meet a gory end and everyone else survives relatively unscathed, except for Jackson, who is unmercifully beaten up as usual. Given that Atkinson has said that she wanted to create 'a good man' for her main protagonist, you have to wonder if there is a touch of sadism in her treatment of the poor bloke, who seems to be  biffed with baseball bats, run over, almost drowned and punched up every few pages.

I'm starting to see why some readers complain about Atkinson's tricksy love of coincidence, though it isn't spoiling my enjoyment (yet). In the opening chapters we are presented with a mysterious man with a false name who is obviously up to no good; a beserk, murderous thug; a gentle writer of the aforementioned 'jolly' mystery novels, who lives in an imagined 'retro-utopia' of nostalgic England (I live there too); a Russian call-girl; and middle-aged, matter-of-fact Gloria who suspects that her husband is a crook.

Of course, events will slowly draw this disparate cast together, with the aid of Jackson, his actress girlfriend Julia (from Case Histories) and Detective Inspector Louise Monroe (who will return in When Will There Be Good News?), the threads pulling tighter and tighter until you're scared the plot will snap under the strain. But it doesn't -- not quite.

One more in this series to go. I'll definitely read it, but I might leave a longer gap this time.



Most of the images of the cover of Fiona Wood's award-winning Cloudwish belong to the decapitated-female school of YA artwork. But my cover, with all the medals on it, has lost the female, who has been replaced by a string of pegs. It's cute, but not really that attention-grabbing. I don't know why the publishers made the change, it would be interesting to find out.

(**EDIT I've just discovered that I have the US cover! The plot thickens...)

I just love Fiona Wood's novels. She writes slowly, but it's a vindication of quality over quantity. Cloudwish is the third in a loosely connected series that began with Six Impossible Things and continued with Wildlife. This is really excellent YA literature: funny and smart, heartfelt but not over the top, intelligent and satisfying. Van Uoc Phan is a worthy successor to her heroine, Jane Eyre, while Billy Gardiner nicely fills the niche between bad boy and vulnerable adolescent male. Lou, Sibylla and Michael from the previous novels also make their appearance.

Cloudwish makes an interesting companion read to Alice Pung's Laurinda. They both feature bright girls from Vietnamese backgrounds, scholarship girls at Melbourne private schools who are fish out of water and trying to reconcile two cultures. But they are quite different stories and take differing paths to their resolution. Laurinda is perhaps more earnest,  while Cloudwish has a lighter touch.

Fantastic Australian fiction.


The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who

One of my daughters, who shares my love for the show, gave me The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who for my birthday last year. There are a few of these kinds of books around, latching onto the popularity of various sci-fi franchises to encourage young readers to explore the real science that lies behind the stories. (Did I once own a shelf of books with titles like The Philosophy of Star Trek and The Metaphysics of The X-Files? Er, maybe...)

This was a fresh twist on the genre, though, with a short story featuring one of the Doctors preceding each chapter. And as well as the predictable speculations about the possibility of time travel and life on other planets, there were thoughtful discussions of ageing and death, regeneration, war and artificial intelligence, as well as many other subjects. The short stories were pretty good, too, so that was a bonus.

This was an intelligent introduction to a wide range of scientific topics, gently connected to the stories and mythos of Doctor Who -- though you'd need to be a Who tragic like myself to understand all the references. Younger converts might struggle -- or it might encourage them to check out Old Who, which is not a bad thing! I really enjoyed this book, and it was one of the better examples of the genre I've come across. Perfect for the young geek in your life. Or a slightly older one!


What the Raven Saw

Samantha-Ellen Bound's debut novel, What the Raven Saw, has several things going for it: an Australian author, a raven as hero (anti-hero?) which is pretty rare, a fairytale atmosphere. Most of my fellow book groupers loved it.

Perhaps I wasn't in the right mood. It was a hot week, I was under pressure because I only got hold of the book a day before our meeting, I had family in town and lots of errands to run. I must confess, my mind wasn't really on the raven and his problems. I found it hard to engage with this book, partly because I couldn't settle into a sense of place -- it felt as if the raven's church, and its community (which we never really got to see), had been transplanted from England into a grove of gum trees, neither one country nor the other. And I was bothered by the woolly spiritual stance -- the raven doesn't believe in God, but the priest does; there are ghosts, but no heaven -- it was all a bit vague and unsatisfying, and for a book so centred on questions of life and death, grief and loss and love, a bit more thinking through of these points might have been useful.

This is Bound's first novel, and I'll be interested to see where she goes next.


When Will There Be Good News?

I'm falling behind with my book responses!

When Will There Be Good News? is the third Jackson Brodie novel by Kate Atkinson and the one that happened to be on the shelf in the local library. (One Good Turn is at another branch but I've reserved it; the fourth book, Started Early, Took My Dog is on loan, and I've reserved that too!)

When Will There Be Good News? didn't have quite the same strong mystery hook as Case Histories but it made up for that with the inclusion of the wonderful Reggie Chase. Aged sixteen, looks twelve, alone in the world apart from her no-good brother, working as a nanny for Dr Joanna Hunter, whom she worships. When Dr Hunter goes missing, Reggie refuses to be fobbed off and proves to be a more able detective than some of the professionals. Tenacious as a Highland terrier, smart as a whip, Reggie is a delight.

Another satisfying read, though there were soooo many coincidences that credulity was strained. There was a train crash, convenient amnesia, explosions and car chases, grief and loneliness in various forms, and drugs hidden inside Latin books -- slightly more plausible than Antonia Forest's drug-running pigeons! But Atkinson's writing is what Helen Garner calls 'muscular and sinewy', strong enough to pull off just about anything.


Because Some People Cared Enough to Ask...

Map from Noel in Argentina; original artwork by Beth Norling
It is an unfortunate truth of this writing life that sometimes even your best ideas just don't work out.

Some time ago -- a long time ago now -- I let on that I was working on a new Tremaris book. It was true, and I was really excited about it, looking forward to returning to the world that had given me so much pleasure. This story was going to focus on Calwyn's daughter, and it would tie up some of the loose ends left dangling at the end of The Taste of Lightning, bringing back some of the characters from that book, as well as revisiting the cast of the original Tremaris trilogy and filling in their stories in the intervening years.

Hm. I think I can see where the problems started. That is an ambitious plan for one little book!

But that wasn't the only problem. It was hard to work out how much time to spend with the Taste of Lightning characters, and how many of them to bring back, and which ones. I knew some people really wanted to know what had happened to Calwyn and Darrow, but I wanted the focus to  be on the younger characters, not the adults, as they would now be. My stage was becoming very crowded, jostling with characters who all demanded a voice and attention. I had a loose plot which I kept adjusting as I changed my mind about the balance of the story, adding and subtracting characters. I knew I wanted to set the bulk of my story in a part of Tremaris that I hadn't visited yet, the marshlands of the north. Then Julie Hunt's Song for a Scarlet Runner was published, and I despaired of writing a marsh story as good as hers!

I wrote, and started again, and replanned, and rewrote, and changed my mind, and started again. I had a beginning that I liked, but the story kept bogging down (ha!) at one particular point in the narrative, and I couldn't seem to heft the story over that roadblock and get it moving again. I quite liked some of the marsh scenes, but others fell flat. The mix of characters I'd ended up with didn't feel quite right. But the more I chopped and changed, the more my grasp of the story, my original conception, seemed to be slipping through my fingers.

But most importantly, while I was working on this book, my family suffered a major upheaval. My father had a debilitating stroke, my elderly mother came to live with us, and my family responsibilities had doubled overnight. It was a stressful and upsetting time, and I had limited energy and attention to spare for writing novels. It's hard to finish a book when you spend a long time away from it; it slips away from you. You forget what you were trying to do in the first place, and the work becomes a chore and a burden rather than a source of delight.

Finally, about three years after I'd first decided to write a Tremaris book ( a nice, easy, enjoyable book, I'd told myself!) I slogged my way to a finish line. Deep down I knew the manuscript was broken, perhaps beyond repair, and it was no surprise that my publisher agreed. At the back of my mind I'd wondered whether, if my publishers said no, I might self-publish it; but now I know that I don't want to do that either. I'm not happy with it. It doesn't work. And if you are a fan of Tremaris, you deserve better than that.

I'm not saying that there will never be another Tremaris story. But not this one. Not for now, anyway.

All I can say is, I'm so sorry.


The Owl Service

One of the unintended side effects of my year-of-not-buying-books might be that I will re-read some of my old treasured favourites, including this one: Alan Garner's classic, The Owl Service. I remember when I first saw this book on the shelf as a child, I had a muddled idea that 'service' meant something like 'postal service' -- I imagined owls flitting back and forth with messages... Ooh! I wonder if that's how JK Rowling came up with her owl post!

But in this book, it means 'dinner service' ie plates.

I picked this copy up for $4 somewhere, just to own it, but I haven't re-read it for years. It's fantastic, a creepy, intense tale of Welsh myth and adolescent yearning. The three-way pattern of doomed love keeps repeating through the generations, which is an idea I might have unconsciously picked up for Crow Country, come to think of it.

The magic is released when Alison traces the pattern on a set of plates and makes paper owls out of it, which was something I always had trouble visualising, but thanks to the magic of the internet, I looked up Alan Garner's website and found a picture of the original owl plate, a gift to Garner from a friend.

So that's how it works! Simple, really.


Case Histories

Thinking it was an upmarket family drama, I gave my mother Kate Atkinson's Case Histories to read to distract her while my father was in hospital after a massive stroke. Nearly two years later, I finally got around to reading it myself and I was horrified. The first three chapters describe three disturbing crimes -- two murders and a child abduction. It's not a family saga, it's a mystery/crime novel! Not at all suitable reading for someone whose life had just been turned upside down by a sudden and shocking blow of fate...

Fortunately, when I asked Mum, she said she couldn't remember a single thing about it. And it must be said that her principle reading for months after Dad got sick was one Agatha Christie after another, so perhaps a crime novel was a good idea after all.

I'm a bit sad for Mum that her memory of this book has been wiped, because it's really good. Kate Atkinson slots comfortably into that category of absorbing, engaging, intelligent fiction -- not pretentiously literary, not annoyingly dumb -- just a really solid, well-crafted, thoughtful, adult story. Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, maybe even Rumer Godden are other authors of this ilk who spring to mind.

Case Histories deftly weaves together three seemingly unrelated crimes, with the emphasis on character, though the plot lines are strong too. And hooray, it's the first of a series of mysteries featuring ex-policeman, now private investigator Jackson Brodie, so I'm off to the library to dig out some more.

PS Oddly enough, at one point in Case Histories Jackson and his daughter visit Bamburgh beach in Northumberland, which also featured in A Song for Ella Grey, as the camping site for Ella and Claire and their friends, and the place where they first encounter the mysterious Orpheus. Checking out some images on Google, it does look like a magical place. One of those odd reading coincidences!


A Song for Ella Grey

Controversial winner of the Guardian Prize for children's literature in 2015, David Almond's A Song for Ella Grey may not be suitable for twelve year olds (some twelve year olds, anyway), but it is a beautiful, deep and lyrical book, a re-telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, transplanted to the north of England. Told through the voice of Ella's loving best friend Claire, a group of seventeen year old friends explore love and music and art and friendship, tasting the fullness of adult life, pushing the boundaries of being young and carefree. Except that the joys of adult life are shadowed by darkness...

This is such a beautiful book, told in short, poetic chapters. I so wish my book group had chosen this title as our Music-themed YA novel for this month instead of The Sky is Everywhere; it is an infinitely better book in every way. Alas, I fear that while The Sky is Everywhere is in danger of being read to death, few teens will pick up Ella Grey, which is a terrible shame. In its pages I saw reflected the intense yet loose adolescent friendship group of my 15 year old daughter: their hunger for life, their delight in each other, their adventurousness, their sharp edges, and their tenderness with each other.

A children's book? Maybe not. But a book for kids who are ready/not-ready to grow up.


The Couple Who Became Each Other

Wow, a book so old that I couldn't find an image for the cover on the internet. That is quite an achievement these days! The Couple Who Became Each Other (and other tales of healing from a hypnotherapist's casebook) was published in 1996, clearly piggy-backing off the success of Oliver Sacks and Irvin Yalom's bestselling case studies. The difference here is that David Calof is not a neurologist or a psychotherapist, but a hypnotherapist. He helps his clients with hypnosis.


I've had this book for years and re-discovered it when I dug out those other Irvin Yalom books. I felt quite conflicted reading it. In some ways, these stories mirrored Yalom's psychological case studies; Calof's clients present with similar problems -- troubled adolescents, people repressing childhood abuse, or struggling with a difficult marriage.

But it seems to me there is a crucial difference in approach. While Yalom and his fellow psychotherapists build their therapy around helping their patients to become conscious of their inner conflicts and suppressed memories, so they can knowingly accept and overcome them, Calof relies on the unconscious of his patients to do the work without them necessarily knowing anything about it. In trance, he will summon some inner aspect of the patient, speak with them, and charge them with working on the problem, then wake the patient up and send them on their way, sometimes completely oblivious of what is going on inside. And it seems he gets results -- sometimes spectacular ones. But I can't help feeling uneasy about this knowledge remaining within, still unconscious, still hidden.

It's almost the opposite of the aims of psychotherapy. And a lot of Calof's technique relies on inducing a sense of mystery, a sense that something unusual is about to happen, and the patient distancing themselves from the process, rather than bringing together and integrating warring aspects of the patient's psyche.

Still, anyone who can help a patient endure a five hour facial operation without anaesthetic has earned my admiration.


Creatures of a Day

I found Creatures of a Day in the library when I was looking for Oliver Sacks books. I bought a couple of Yalom's books when I was younger, and coincidentally I dug them out recently because I thought they might interest Alice. Irvin Yalom is a psychotherapist and novelist, and he's published several volumes of these lightly fictionalised case studies from his therapeutic practice. They're easy reading, but insightful, and a pretty good introduction to how psychotherapy works.

Dr Yalom is in his eighties now (when I last checked Google, he was still with us) and it's not surprising that the subject of death recurs frequently in this chapters. Some of his patients are themselves approaching death, or dealing with losses long ago, or just trying to figure out the best way to live. The most inspiring account here quotes one of Yalom's clients, dying of cancer, who resolves to be 'a pioneer of death' for her friends and family; since she is the first to go, she will be a model for them of how to die with grace and dignity, her final gift.

Irvin Yalom shares with Oliver Sacks a deep concern for the whole person of the patient, not just their diagnosis, and reminds us that every person has their own unique history and story and way of interacting with their world. He is wise but full of humour and self-deprecation, admits his mistakes and is open about his methods. I hope he sticks around a good while longer.


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

And so to the book that started it all -- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, from 1985. It was strange to return to this first book of case studies; I noticed was a marked difference between this and the later volumes. This one is more earnest, less self-revealing, more academic, less conversational. There is less of a sense of Oliver Sacks himself in these pages, and some of his reflections have a stilted, almost try-hard quality that he lost later on. I was uncomfortable reading the last section, "The World of the Simple," in which Sacks discusses "simpletons", "retardates", "morons.' As the sister of someone with an intellectual disability, these terms, though probably clinically accurate, made me feel very uneasy, even though Sacks argues throughout for a recognition of these patients as whole people, with skills and passions as well as disabilities.

There was something fascinating from The Mind's Eye that I forgot to mention in my last post. Apparently the ability of humans to adapt to reading was something that much puzzled the early evolutionists -- without divine intervention (and perhaps forward planning on the part of the Almighty), how to explain the human brain's mastery of this complicated process? One theory is that the part of the brain adapted to interpreting landscape and geological features has been co-opted to assist in recognising the shapes of letters. Apparently there have been studies which show that all the world's different alphabets share the same basic forms and shapes, analogous to the shapes found in landscape: hills and rivers, mountains and trees. I just love that theory and I hope it's true!


The Mind's Eye

I'm really enjoying my Oliver Sacks binge. These collections of case studies are perfect holiday reading (for me anyway!): the chapters are short, the cases are fascinating (and sometimes poignant), and the subject matter is often relevant to my interests.

To wit*: The Mind's Eye, from 2010, contains a chapter on a woman with aphasia. Like my father, Pat found herself almost completely without spoken language after a stroke; unlike my father (so far), she was eventually able to adapt with the use of a 'Bible' of words which she used to initiate and direct conversations, and also lively use of gesture and mime. My dad is less outgoing than Pat, and while his speech therapists are working on getting him to use an iPad the way Pat used her 'Bible', it's had limited success so far. (Though there was an outstanding victory when we used a message on the iPad to ask the nursing home staff to turn off lights and close a door which had been bothering Dad terribly at bed-time.) Still, we perservere.

There were also chapters on face-blindness, which I have a mild case of, and stereo vision, which I must admit is something I have never given a moment's thought to before. This was a really interesting study of a woman who acquired stereo vision late in life, and was overwhelmed with delight at the experience of perceiving depth for the first time, and seeing objects 'pop out' at her. I had to conclude that my own vision is relatively flat, in that I don't really see much difference between looking through one eye or two -- maybe this is why I've always been so crap at sport, and why I'm such a tentative parker of the car? Also I have a lot of trouble telling whether a goal has gone through at the footy -- all due to my lack of depth perception! It all makes sense now!

All in all, an engrossing read.

* You never see that any more, do you, to wit, I must use it more often.


The Sky Is Everywhere

The Sky Is Everywhere, which I borrowed from the library for book group, has obviously been well-read and well-loved. The spine is supple, the pages are soft with the texture of paper that has been thumbed over and over. People -- teenage girls, let's face it -- clearly adore this book.

In one sense, there is a lot going on in this YA novel: Lennie's beloved older sister Bailey has died suddenly, leaving her family and her fiance in shock. The sisters' mother is missing in action, having abandoned them years before. And there is a hot new boy in town, leaving Lennie confused -- how can she be interested in a boy when she's so immersed in grief? In another sense, not much happens at all: girl meets boy, boy likes girl, they play music together, girl has more feelings than she can handle, misunderstandings ensue... oh my god, the feelings.

This is probably why this book is so popular -- it is dripping with emotion. No flicker of feeling is left undescribed. There is no restraint here. Even the adolescent poetry is included! I can remember being thirteen-fourteen-fifteen, swimming in an ocean of hormones and frustration and big emotions, and having nowhere to put them, and The Sky is Everywhere took me back there. But I don't think it's a country I want to live in any more -- in fact, I didn't much enjoy living there at the time, and I'm quite content to leave it behind.


The Summer Book

Long considered a classic in Scandinavia, Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is not a children's novel, though she is best known and loved for her Moomin books.

First published in Finland in 1972, it is a small, exquisite treasure of a book, like a pebble picked up on a beach. The tiny island in the gulf of Finland where the family spend their summers may be small, but it forms a whole world for six-year old Sophia, her Papa (largely in the background) and her grandmother. Sophia's mother is dead (we learn this almost as an aside, and it is never spoken of again), but Sophia's unspoken fears and longings are woven into the tapestry of the book along with Grandmother's quiet, dry reflections and memories of her own long life. Grandmother and Sophia don't always get along; there are quarrels and storms, misunderstandings and awkwardness. But there are small shared joys, too, when they construct a model Venice together or find hiding places in the bushes.

Based on Jansson's own mother and niece, and her own island experiences, the book proceeds through twenty-odd short chapters, each self-contained, like seashells arranged on a windowsill; but together, they tell the story of a summer, or several summers -- it doesn't really matter. The rhythms of life and death, growing older, work and leisure, sigh in and out through the pages like the tides. This is a beautiful, wise, tender book, never sentimental, and frequently funny.