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!