22.7.17

Life Below Stairs

Perhaps as a reaction to spending time "upstairs" recently with Deborah Devonshire, I felt the need for a slight correction, and pulled out Sian Evans' handsomely illustrated Life Below Stairs, a comprehensive introduction to the world of Victorian and Edwardian servants. Published by the National Trust, this book contains loads of photos of country estates and antiquated housekeeping equipment, presumably now under the Trust's care.

Life Below Stairs was produced a year after Downton Abbey started screening in the UK, and I can't help wondering if this was a canny effort to cash in on the success of the show and the fascination with the "backstage" world inhabited by the servants. I wasn't a huge fan of Downton, but I really loved Julian Fellowes' first venture into this dual universe, the movie Gosford Park, which was ever so slightly more realistic than the highly porous class divide depicted in Downton Abbey!

Life Below Stairs would be a valuable resource for anyone writing a book set during this era, as it contains comprehensive and clear lists of the household hierarchy, and all the tasks expected of each member. Domestic service might have provided a certain security, but my God, it was a tough life -- long hours, arduous physical labour, practically no time off, and constantly at the beck and call of others... Hm, not unlike my life at the moment, come to think of it... Except I don't get paid!

18.7.17

The New Doctor

For literally my entire lifetime (longer actually), the part of the Doctor in Doctor Who has been played by a man. To be honest, I was quite happy with that arrangement, particularly when the man was Peter Davison or David Tennant. At first I was resistant to the idea of the Doctor being played by a woman. Dare I say, some aspects of the Doctor's character seemed inherently male -- the self-righteousness, the messiah complex, the evident need for emotional companionship while simultaneously denying that need, the inability to say I love you...

But hey, it's 2017, and I'm learning to move past these gender stereotypes. But I still wasn't sure about the Doctor becoming female. Gradually the show began to hint that such a thing was not just possible, but inevitable -- a line of dialogue here and there, the regeneration of the Master into Missy. I won't say I warmed to the idea, but I was prepared for it.

But as soon as the announcement was made that the luminous Jodie Whittaker was to take the role, I was in. She's wonderful, amazing, an incredible actor. She was fabulous in Broadchurch, and I can't wait to see what she'll bring to the Doctor. Yes, it's a big shake-up, but this is Doctor Who! It's always been about challenging expectations, expanding horizons, questioning assumptions. That's the whole point of the show!

She's here, and I can't believe I ever doubted her.

17.7.17

Hate is Such a Strong Word

This month's Convent book group theme is Cultural Conflict, and our YA title is a home-grown exploration of the topic. I suspect we'd be able to find a lot of Australian books falling into this category; our history of (mostly) successful immigration has produced many such stories, because we need them. Reading is a safe and easy way to walk a mile or two in someone else's shoes, to see the world from their perspective.

In Sarah Ayoub's Hate is Such a Strong Word, the perspective is that of seventeen year old Sophie, eldest daughter of a strict Lebanese-Australian family, who attends a Lebanese Catholic school and chafes against the expectations of her community while still feeling strongly bound to it. I liked that Sophie wasn't a total rebel. She didn't want to break free completely or reject her culture, she just wanted a little more freedom to move, to express herself and enjoy the normal social life of a teenage girl in Sydney, and this ambivalence felt realistic to me. And I must admit I was slightly shocked that Sophie's father was so strict, certainly much stricter than I've ever been with my fifteen year old daughter!

Naturally, there is a crossed-wires romance, between outsider Sophie and outsider "half-Aussie" dreamboat Shehadie (who seemed to feel annoyingly entitled to lecture Sophie on her behaviour, despite being allegedly more enlightened than his peers). Maybe this is the true value of books like these: to show that, whatever their cultural background, most teenagers are essentially the same?


11.7.17

The Shark Caller

The second book in as many weeks where the main character's brother has just drowned... but Dianne Wolfer's The Shark Caller travels in a very different direction from Words in Deep Blue. Fourteen year old Izzy and her twin brother Ray were born with a foot in two cultures, thanks to their Aussie father and Papua New Guinean mother. After Ray's death, Izzy and her mother travel back to the islands to seek the comfort of family. But Izzy soon discovers that the community needs her to perform a very special, and dangerous ceremony in Ray's place.

I really enjoyed the setting of this book; I've long thought there should be more children's and YA books about the links between Australia and PNG (cough... New Guinea Moon... cough). The idyllic island setting, the  use of Tok Pisin words sprinkled through the text, and the exploration of ancestral beliefs, gave this novel a distinctive atmosphere.

Though Izzy is fourteen, this feels like a book for younger readers, probably Grades 5 and 6. The diving scenes didn't appeal to me, because I'm scared of caves and drowning, so exploring underwater caverns seems like a nightmare to me! But I can see the subject capturing young imaginations, and the eerie deep-sea world almost doesn't need the addition of magic to be weird and spooky. I also enjoyed the poetic interludes from the viewpoint of the shark.

8.7.17

Wait For Me!

Dear reader, I have a confession to make.

I have a terrible weakness for the Mitford sisters. My gateway drug was the 1980 television series of Love in a Cold Climate, which together with Brideshead Revisited and Chariots of Fire at around the same time, had an indelible and unfortunate effect on my adolescent aesthetic and left me with a permanent guilty affection for English poshness. (Actually, you could probably throw in All Creatures Great and Small, which was less posh, but also set in the 1930s.)

From Nancy Mitford's novels, on which the series was based, I progressed to memoirs and biographies of the family, to their voluminous letters. (I still haven't forgiven the theft of my two collections of Nancy's letters... was it you, Colin Batrouney??) My favourite sisters were Nancy, with her heart-breaking unrequited love for Gaston Palewski, and Jessica, the Communist who ran away to America and became a civil rights activist. The fascist sympathisers Unity and Diana appalled me; Pam and Deborah were fairly neutral.

This memoir by Deborah Devonshire, the last of the sisters, was published in 2010, a few years before her death. The first few chapters, dealing with her youth, are delightful; the rest of the book deals with the restoration of her husband's ancestral home, Chatsworth, and her experiences as a diplomat's wife in the 1950s and 60s.

Deborah was unashamedly conservative and doesn't hesitate to say so -- she protested in favour of fox-hunting, disapproved of reforms to the House of Lords, couldn't bear Jessica's 'communist' friends etcetera. I must admit (do admit!) that I found the book less enjoyable as it went along. The antics of aristocratic young girls in the 1930s are jolly good fun, but shoots and balls and hanging out with the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother feel slightly uneasy as we creep into the twenty-first century. Wait For Me! provides a window into a very different, very privileged world, and it's not a comfortable view.


6.7.17

The Twelve Doctors of Christmas

A bit of fun, this one -- it was a Christmas present from my younger daughter, who loves Doctor Who as much as I do, but who has never experienced Old Who (I'm not so obsessed that I have shelves of back catalogue for her to work through... well, okay, maybe a couple of discs!)

The Twelve Doctors of Christmas is a collection of twelve short stories, one for each incarnation of the Doctor, each one set at Christmas. Disappointingly, though several stories were set away from Earth, all the Earth stories featured a northern hemisphere festive season -- no Australian summer Christmases here! The stories were variable in quality, but several were excellent, especially the contributions from Jacqueline Rayner. There was also a colour illustration for each story, each by a different artist -- these were less successful, to my mind.

But this was a lovely gift, perfect light reading for the holidays. It's my own fault that I delayed reading it until the mid-year break... at least the weather has been more or less appropriate!

27.6.17

An Episode of Sparrows

Discovered at Savers, a classic Rumer Godden novel and one of the few I didn't already possess. First published in 1955, An Episode of Sparrows has been labelled as a children's book, but it isn't that; it's that rare beast, an adult novel about children (mostly).

If Rumer Godden were a pen, she would be a very fine, precise nib which makes clear, delicate portraits. Her writing is fine in every sense. In a way, An Episode of Sparrows is an updated version of The Secret Garden (another eternal favourite of my childhood): in grimy, scarred, post-war London, two children conspire to make a hidden garden behind a church; are discovered and thwarted; but ultimately saved.

When Alice was younger, there was one episode of Friends that she couldn't bear to view -- the one where Joey buys Chandler a hideous friendship watch that Chandler loathes. Alice couldn't stand to witness poor Joey's hurt.

In a similar way, I think as a child I would have found this book unbearably painful. The characters are too poignant. Poor little Lovejoy, patiently waiting for her flighty mother's return. Brave Vincent, struggling to provide nothing but the very best in his little restaurant, even if no diners come. Quiet Olivia, who watches everything and does nothing -- until the end. Kind Father Lambert, wise and lonely. Even mean, bitter Cassie has her own troubles.

This is a beautiful, tender book, but be prepared for a few lump-in-throat moments along the way.

23.6.17

Words In Deep Blue

I bought this book so long ago, my copy doesn't have the award stickers all over it. I've been hanging onto it because I knew we were going to read it for the Convent book group, which means I have arrived very late to the loving-Words-in-Deep-Blue party, but it was worth the wait.

I just love Cath Crowley's writing. When I read her books, I get writing envy. She writes the kind of YA I want to read -- gentle, funny, searing, sorrowful, filled with sweet, witty dialogue and characters you wish you were friends with (or that you wish your kids would hang out with!) Words in Deep Blue has the added bonus of being set in and around the second hand bookshop of dreams -- with a reading garden and a Letter Library where people leave heartfelt notes between the pages of the books they love best. This novel is a love letter itself, a love letter to books and reading, to the power of words to heal and transform.

What a beautiful book. I loved it.

20.6.17

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

Our upcoming theme for the Convent book group is Books, appropriately enough, and Chris Grabenstein's Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library is our junior fiction title.

This book was a lot of fun, with conscious echoes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with books instead of sweets. A team of lucky kids win an overnight stay in a brand-new, whiz-bang library built by a famous inventor; but there's a catch. They have to solve the clues Mr Lemoncello has planted in order to get out! Naturally, the clues are literary ones, but even our hero Kyle, who doesn't enjoy reading, can use his wits to piece together the solution.

If Grabenstein succeeds in pointing any readers to the many books he references in this enjoyable romp, then he has truly performed a service. Mr Lemoncello also speaks in dialogue lifted from famous children's books, which adds a layer of fun for the adult (or widely-read) reader. Apparently this book has also been made into a movie, though I haven't watched it -- no doubt someone in my very conscientious book group will have done so. I'll wait for their verdict before I give it a go.

19.6.17

C. S. Lewis -- Twice

After becoming so excited about Planet Narnia, I couldn't resist ordering these two biographies of CS Lewis from trusty Brotherhood Books -- I had no way of knowing which would be superior so I bought them both. (There has to be some disadvantage to ordering online, and the inability to leaf through and sample the text is definitely a disadvantage.)

However, it was a very interesting exercise to read the two books side by side and I don't regret my double purchase. CS Lewis: A Biography by AN Wilson was published in 1990. It's a dense, scholarly work, somewhat dismissive of the Narnia books, which Wilson claims are 'poorly written', albeit in the throes of 'white hot' emotion. Wilson places more value on Lewis's academic work and his religious apologia. He is clear-eyed and unsentimental about Lewis's complicated private life, and his personal weaknesses, and is disdainful about the body of work (which I was unaware of) by hard-core Christian fans which seeks to paint Lewis as some kind of saint.

Michael White is similarly scornful about the blinkered sanctification of Lewis. But his biography, CS Lewis: Creator of Narnia, published in 2005, is written from the viewpoint of an unashamed Narnia fan. White has had an interesting life himself, including a stint in the Thompson Twins (!), lecturing in science at Oxford, and writing on science for GQ. He gives Lewis's fantasy writings pride of place, the central chapter of his book, and while he covers much of the same ground as Wilson, his book is organised by theme rather than strict chronology, which can be a little confusing. White's book is lighter, shorter and perhaps marginally more readable than Wilson's, and the positive attitude to the Narnia series is refreshing; however, Wilson's is probably more informative.

Needless to say, neither writer has picked up on the 'planets' theory. But I certainly know more about Jack Lewis the man and writer than I ever knew before.

10.6.17

Goodbye to Alyson

I first met Alyson Watt almost thirty years ago. She came to a share-house interview, a Scottish backpacker with a heavenly accent and wild red hair. A couple of minutes into the conversation, Andy and I looked at each other; without words, we knew she was the one.

Warm, funny and gorgeous, Alyson took the top room of the big terrace house. She didn't understand that in an Australian summer, you shut the windows and close the curtains to keep the heat out. As a Scot, she thought the right tactic was to open the windows wide, in case of a cooling breeze. We had to explain to her that there's no such thing in Melbourne in December.

Before long Alyson was joined by Jo, and the two of them became 'the Scottish girls', an inseparable pair. When our lease ran out, Liz and Alyson and Jo and I rented another house together, a tiny run-down workers' cottage in North Carlton, just the other side of the cemetery. Jo and Al crammed into the third bedroom; there was just enough room for two mattresses and a rack of op-shop dresses.

That was a year of chocolate puddings and beer, curries and chips, Doc Martens and cotton frocks, bikes in the hallway, silly hats and the Pixies and stupid jokes. I watched the fall of the Berlin Wall in that house. But by then the Scottish girls had moved on, backpacking their way north and eventually home.

A couple of years later, it was my turn to be the backpacker. I landed in their flat in Edinburgh and stayed there on and off for months, through the weird midnight sun of summer, then with Chris in a golden Scottish autumn and finally the bleak perpetual dusk of an Edinburgh winter. It was Alyson who cuddled me on her knee when I was homesick, and Alyson (working as a nanny) who told me I was 'good with kids.' That was Alyson -- generous and kind and always knowing the right thing to say.

Alyson hated flying so she never came out to Australia again. I saw her one more time when I went back to the UK in 1998. I never dreamed that would be the last time. Because Jo comes and goes often between north and south, we always knew what was happening in Alyson's life. Our last exchange on Facebook was only a couple of weeks ago.

Since the dreadful news of her death, so many random things have made me think of Alyson -- taking the tram down Brunswick St, listening to Kirsty McColl or Elvis Costello, hearing a Scottish accent on the radio, a picture from The Year My Voice Broke (Leone Carmen will always remind of Alyson when I knew her best!)

One day soon, Liz and Chris and I will find a pub somewhere and have some drinks for Alyson; it's the only way we've got to say goodbye.

31.5.17

Waterslain Angels

I was always going to love this book. Written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, whose Arthur series I both loved and deeply admired -- check. Set in the marshes of Norfolk in the 1950's, the same setting as one of my favourite childhood novels, When Marnie Was There -- check. (Okay, Marnie was set in the sixties, but pretty damn close!) Gentle, mystical children's fiction about lost angels and the power of unexpected friendship -- tick, tick, tick.

Ten year old Annie joins forces with newcomer Sandy in a hunt for the carved wooden angels which once adorned the roof of the village church, racing against time in case unscrupulous Alan Leppard finds them first. The children discover many angels along the way, in language, flowers and dreams, and face real dangers before they find what they're seeking.

Just a lovely, lovely book. Old fashioned in the best possible way, thoughtful, poetic, slow-moving despite the odd thrilling episode, atmospheric. This won't appeal to everyone -- my friend Heather will loathe it -- but it might have been written just for me. Thank you, Kevin Crossley-Holland!

26.5.17

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.

25.5.17

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.

23.5.17

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!

22.5.17

My Father's Books

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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.

17.5.17

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.

9.5.17

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.

3.5.17

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.

26.4.17

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.

24.4.17

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.

20.4.17

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.

17.4.17

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?

14.4.17

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...

13.4.17

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.

3.4.17

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.

31.3.17

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.




20.3.17

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!

18.3.17

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.

17.3.17

Jennie

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.

14.3.17

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.

11.3.17

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.

9.3.17

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.

8.3.17

Wanting

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.

2.3.17

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.

28.2.17

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.

26.2.17

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.

20.2.17

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.

17.2.17

Soon

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.

16.2.17

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.

14.2.17

Cloudwish

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.

12.2.17

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!

10.2.17

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.