11.10.18

The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles

I've never been a huge fan of anthologies, I could never really see the point. Now I finally get it -- they are perfect for reading in bed! One or two extracts, super-short, lights out, done, and no compulsion to see What Happens Next...

I have been reading The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles for AGES in this nibbley-nibbley way, and very satisfying it's been, too. I didn't buy this because I'm particularly interested in twins (though I have a twin niece and nephew, and twin brothers who died at birth), but because the editor is Penelope Farmer, who wrote the haunting Charlotte Sometimes. It turns out that Farmer was herself a twin, and the memory of her deceased sister hangs over this volume. Of course Charlotte Sometimes is also a story of doubles, separated by time.

Twins as freaks, twins in myth, the writer as twin, twins as curse and as blessing... this anthology is an ordered jumble of fact and fiction, poetry and newspaper snippets. There were several extracts from a compelling book I remember reading in high school, about The Silent Twins, June and Jennifer Gibson, who communicated only with each other, became arsonists, and were locked in Broadmoor for many years. Jennifer died, for no apparent reason, at the age of 29, perhaps to 'set June free.' Many of these twin tales carried a similar eerie shiver.

5.10.18

The Happiness Quest: EDIT

As some of you may know, or have guessed, someone close to me is suffering from severe depression at the moment. Hence my flare of interest in books about therapy, mental health, depression and anxiety, and crucially, how to recover from the all-enveloping darkness.

Lana Penrose's memoir, The Happiness Quest is promisingly subtitled A depression survivor's journey from misery to joy. But it turned out to be not quite what I was looking for. Penrose seems determined to keep things on the light side -- not surprisingly, as it is a real drag reading about other people's mental agony. But sometimes the cute metaphors and breezy tone grated against the grim reality she was describing. I liked the way she organised the book in alphabetical chapters: B is for Breakdown, C is for CBT etc, and I loved her gutsy determination to beat her demons with any tools she could find, from the scientifically proven to the frankly whacky.

In the end, the recipe that saved Penrose (a combination of meditation, talk therapy and EMDR -- didn't I say a couple of posts back that EMDR was a pile of nonsense? Whoops!) might not suit everybody, but it brought her back from the brink. I'm sure I've read somewhere that it doesn't actually matter what form of therapy you use; what helps is the relationship you establish with the therapist. And the same hints keep cropping up: exercise, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude.

I guess the most important message is one of hope -- that this dark journey can have a happy ending.

Edited to say that one thing that really annoyed me about this book (not Penrose's fault) was the amount of sloppy typos and errors that kept leaping out at me. There is no excuse for any editor to let "Virginia Wolfe" slide by uncorrected.

3.10.18

Where Shall We Run To?

This was my birthday present to myself and it finally arrived after a wait of several weeks. I think Alan Garner may well be my most-admired writer of all time. Now I own all his novels, and this lovely memoir, I might sit down and read the whole lot from beginning to end, including his essays The Voice That Thunders (which I didn't find too difficult to understand, though it did challenge and excite me).

Anyway! Garner was born in a Cheshire village where his family have lived for hundreds of years. The landscape is etched with traces of his ancestors -- his grandfather and great-great grandfather built this wall; family lived in this house or that one, climbed these hills, carved in this cave. His sense of being deeply embedded in the land, growing out of its history, is central to all Garner's work, and parallels the Australian Aboriginal experience of belonging to country (a parallel he explored in Strandloper).

Though on the surface, Where Shall We Run To? is the story of a simple childhood (he's about the same age as my parents) -- playground disputes, frightening teachers, the finding of a 'bomb', encounters with evacuee children -- there are echoes and resonances here that have found their way into his fiction. The book is structured like memory, sometimes shown in vivid flashes, sometimes shaped into the anecdotes we all tell ourselves, the stories that make up our selves.

2.10.18

When I Was A Child I Read Books

How could I not jump on this book? Look at the title, for heaven's sake. When I Was a Child I Read Books -- hooray! Me, too! And it's by Marilynne Robinson, whose novels Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila have left me awestruck and seriously teetering on the edge of actually becoming a Christian. Her novels are both delicate and rigorous, spare and beautifully wrought. I love her fiction; it has uplifted, comforted and inspired me.

So I was disappointed in myself that I almost completely failed to keep pace with this collection of essays. They were simply beyond my comprehension. They are all more or less theological in their concerns, which is fine, and insofar as I understood what Robinson was saying, I mostly agreed with her. She is mostly arguing (I think) for a more nuanced, complex understanding of what it means to be human -- an understanding that takes into account spiritual yearnings, kindness and compassion, and refuses to settle for the brutal neo-liberal conception of humans as merely selfish, economic beings who dance to the tune of the market. I'm all for that.

Maybe I'm just thick, but I felt as I waded laboriously through this slender volume that I was reading a carefully thought-out response to a debate whose start I'd missed -- there were references I just didn't get, figures I'd never heard of, quotes I didn't understand. Who was Oberlin? I'm still not sure. The Boston Globe said, "A glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics...beautifully intelligent,"and I'm sure they're right. I just wish I was beautifully intelligent enough to understand it.

1.10.18

Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking

There are some books that you can't (pardon the pun) consume in one bite. Ooh, that sounds interesting, I thought, when I came across Kate Colquhuon's Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking on Brotherhood Books -- and don't get me wrong, it was interesting!

But I couldn't have sat down and devoured it in one sitting (for one thing, it's pretty thick). Chapter after chapter detailing extravagant feasts, the evolution of cooking techniques and shifting meal times, the rise and fall of ingredients as the world of trade expanded availability -- if I'd tried to swallow it in one go, it would have proved indigestible. Instead, I rationed myself to one chapter a day, and slowly consumed a dose of British history through the prism of its food and cooking.

From the evidence left in prehistoric middens (butchered bones, cheese sieves), through medieval feasts and the Elizabethan addiction to sugar (some things don't change much), to the pineapple fad of the eighteenth century, the demise of the household cook, wartime rationing and the rise of the 'foodie', Taste leads us through the centuries and shows how social history and food go hand in hand.

As a fan of the BBC's clumsily titled The Supersizers Go... which featured Sue Perkins and Giles Coren sampling the food of different eras with a comic twist, and the recent Australian show Back in Time for Dinner, which also mixed food and history, I was always going to find Taste hard to resist. It was highly educational: the Victorian underclass were literally starving on a diet of adulterated bread and not much more; at the end of the nineteenth century, there was apparently 'a small chain of Australian restaurants in London' (who knew??); and many many more intriguing titbits.

26.9.18

The Art of Psychotherapy

Wow, I have been reading r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y lately, ploughing my way through a couple of books that are either extremely dense and demanding (Marilynne Robinson) or best consumed in small bites (Taste). But more of those books later (when I actually finish them!). Who would have thought that the book with the dullest title of the three, The Art of Psychotherapy: Case Studies from the Family Therapy Networker, would turn out to be my 'fun read'?

The Family Therapy Networker is a magazine for mental health workers, and the case studies presented in this collection began life in its pages. Each case is described by the therapist concerned, together with their choice of treatment and how the therapy turned out. This is then followed by a commentary from another one or two therapists, who might agree with the approach taken, or vehemently disagree. Sometimes the original therapist then responds with justifications or extra information.

It all sounds pretty dry, but it's absolutely fascinating! I've always been a sucker for those collections of case studies, more literary than this, by author/practitioners like Oliver Sacks or Irvin D. Yalom. This material is less polished, but comes direct from the coalface of the therapist's consulting room. Mistakes are admitted, not all cases are successfully resolved, sometimes huge issues are left completely unaddressed (eg the role of gender in reinforcing a wife and daughter's 'caring' for an alcoholic husband; the possibility that a young boy who 'acts out' being a girl may actually be trans). Published in 1999, it was clear that social norms have shifted dramatically in some areas in the last twenty years, and were in the process of shifting on these pages. Some new and apparently exciting therapy techniques (EMDR, Thought Field Therpay) have now been debunked.

But what remains constant is the complex, intriguing, troubling field of relationships and mental health -- however they are tackled, those problems will always be with us. It's sobering, but also weirdly comforting, to learn that there is no one 'solution' to any client's difficulties; but that sometimes, it doesn't really matter what the therapist does, as long as they do something.

16.9.18

The Golden Age

How time flies! I remember that Joan London's slim novel, The Golden Age, made all the best-of-the-year lists when it was published, which I vaguely thought was about a year ago? But now, it was way back in 2014.

I really enjoyed this novel. Short chapters, clear, vivid writing, poignant characters -- an easy read, but not a dumb one. Set in Perth in the mid-1950s, it centres on two young patients at a polio facility (the eponymous Golden Age, a pub in its former life), thoughtful Elsa and aspiring poet Frank, the son of Hungarian refugees. There's not a lot of plot, but the story meanders gently and tenderly between its characters, touching them lightly then moving on. My only quibble was the rather abrupt ending -- I wanted it to go on much longer, which is not something I often say these days!

I definitely want to read London's other novels now. This was beautiful. I've even lent it to my mum, who says she can't read books any more. I'll let you know how she goes with it.

11.9.18

The Stone Book Quartet

I have ordered Alan Garner's memoir, Where Shall We Run To? as a birthday present (unfortunately it's going to arrive a little late!). The Stone Book Quartet, the last remaining novel of Garner's I had yet to read, is the perfect preparation for it; this is Garner's most personal and autobiographical work. It consists of four very slender novellas -- almost short stories, really -- each centred on a single day in the life of a child of a different generation in Garner's family, with the last boy, William, growing up during WWII, a disguised version of Alan himself.

Though the quartet is so slim, as usual, Garner packs in a dense mass of material. There are no supernatural elements here, but a deep continuity of place and memory, where family stories and history intertwine. Mary's father shows her a secret, sacred place, deep inside the hill; her son, Joseph, a 'granny reardun' (I'm guessing illegitimate?) rejects his grandfather's stonecraft to apprentice himself as a smith; Joseph's son Robert gropes to find his own place in family tradition; and finally William shares his grandfather's last day as a blacksmith and inherits a craft of a different kind. Characters from different generations and neighbouring families shift in and out of focus, and objects vanish and reappear.

This is a book to treasure, a book that apparently came relatively easily to Garner, and it sings.

8.9.18

A Circling Star

I bought Mara Kay's A Circling Star because I'd seen so many loving remembrances of Kay's Masha books by people whose tastes I share. A Circling Star is not a Masha book, and I'm guessing it's one of Kay's lesser works. Like the Masha novels, this one is set in Imperial Russia (it took me ages to work out that it was in the 1850s). It tells the story of cheeky, impulsive Aniuta, who is sent to join the Imperial Theatre School (a real place!) to train for the Bolshoi Ballet. Students had their board and education fully paid for by the Emperor, and those who didn't make the grade as dancers were shunted into the drama course, or ended up as prop makers or scenery painters.

It wasn't until I'd nearly finished the book and was doing some idle googling that I discovered that some of the characters in the novel were actually real people, too! Anuita's love interest, the intense Liev Ivanov, who writes a ballet especially for her and whose heart she breaks, ended as a renowned choreographer (not as handsome in his Wikipedia photo as he is described in the book), responsible for The Nutcracker and parts of Swan Lake. Other teachers at the school, actors and dancers, also proved to be historical figures.

Published in 1973, A Circling Star felt much more old-fashioned. It was a comforting read, even though it was shot through with the usual rivalries and treachery common to ballet books, and the (to me) unusual setting lent it added interest. I think the Masha books would be better, though!

7.9.18

Busman's Honeymoon

A detective story with romantic interruptions, or a romance with detective interludes? Busman's Honeymoon is the final volume of the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and sees the couple married at last. The usual rule is that URST should never be resolved, but I think this novel provides a satisfying conclusion to Peter and Harriet's difficult courtship, because it shows that married bliss may not necessarily be smooth sailing and happy ever after.

Lord Peter has come a long way from the original 'silly ass' dilettante of Whose Body? In fact, the heart of Busman's Honeymoon, despite its comic episodes and farcical interludes, concerns the psychological impact of Wimsey's 'meddling' and its very real consequences -- in this case, the murderer will hang. We know that Lord Peter was damaged by the War; now we learn how heavily the responsibility of life and death weighs upon him. It's almost more than he can bear... until Harriet gently reminds him that if not for his 'interference', she would have lost her own life.

The penultimate section, where Harriet tours the ancestral seat, including an encounter with the family ghost, tips into twee wish-fulfilment territory. But the real power and agony of the final vigil makes up for it.

29.8.18

Coromandel Sea Change

I couldn't find a sharp image of my edition of Rumer Godden's 1991 novel, but perhaps that's appropriate because Coromandel Sea Change is quite soft-focus in itself.

This is an old-fashioned novel. Once again we are introduced to a young, naive but headstrong woman who is encountering India for the first time and finds her world expanding in unexpected ways. It took me a little while to realise that I have visited the beautiful seaside hotel, Patna Hall, before, in the clumsily-titled novella Cromartie v The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, published in 1997 and also featuring wise Auntie Sannie and her loyal lieutenants, Hannah and Samuel. Coromandel Sea Change is more dramatic, featuring a mismatched honeymoon couple, a charismatic young aspiring politician, a slimy journalist and a benevolent diplomatic couple. But it's the tranquil hotel on the beach, surrounded by flowers, that is the real star of this novel.

I don't believe that there is any such thing as a bad Rumer Godden novel, but this is a lesser offering. Still worth a weekend away, but maybe not a lingering stay.

24.8.18

Everything Everything

Of course it's 'now a major motion picture!' I shouldn't be surprised. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon is a typical contemporary YA novel, and as such, it was crying out to be adapted for film.

There were some aspects I liked about this novel:
  • it was short and easy to read (thanks to some very short chapters, and many illustrations)
  • it had a female protagonist of colour (half-Japanese, half-African American) (like the author, which I also liked)
  • it was pacy 
There were some things I didn't like so much:
  • another hot and heavy teen romance (rolls eyes) 
  • without being too spoilery, I found the plot totally implausible, and therefore the Big Twist did not take me by surprise
I felt quite ambivalent about this book. It's clearly been well-read at the local library, as I had to reserve it and it's been thoroughly thumbed. For what it was, it was fine, it was nicely put together and easy to fly through. But it's just not the kind of book that I really enjoy... Which is fine, because it wasn't written for me.


23.8.18

Ugly

Another Australian memoir, but a very different story. Robert Hoge was born with such devastating facial difference (as well as deformities to his legs) that his own mother didn't want to bring him home from hospital. But his four older siblings voted otherwise and soon his mother was little Robert's fiercest advocate. His early childhood was a parade of surgeries and what must have been terrible pain and struggle. However, Ugly, adapted from an adult memoir and aimed at primary school children, focuses on the everyday obstacles of Robert's life: teasing, nicknames, pratfalls when he tries to run too fast on his artificial legs on school sports day.

This is an upbeat account, emphasising the funny side of Hoge's experiences, but clearly he had a rough time at school. It's a terrific way of getting kids to think about their own responses to classmates with differences of all kinds. The book ends on a defiant note, with teenage Hoge refusing to undergo yet another massive, dangerous operation that might 'improve' his looks. He decides to take his chances with his 'ugly' face, just the way it is.

22.8.18

Leather Soul

Have I mentioned that I love Bob Murphy? A writer's footballer, he earned his stripes as a quirky commentator for The Age newspaper in a series of delightful, left-of-centre columns that sometimes concerned his sausage dog Arthur or buying coffee rather than the usual earnest ruminations or boasting of some player/analysts. Those columns were collected in Murphy's Lore.

Leather Soul: A half-back flanker's rhythm and blues is a meandering memoir, with memories of a carefree childhood interleaved with a diary of the Western Bulldogs annus mirabilis, 2016, when they joyously, unexpectedly, snatched the premiership with a month of magnificent football. But poignantly, Bob himself, captain of the team and its heart and soul, wasn't able to play in that premiership team because of injury. On Grand Final Day, when the coach called Murphy up onto the dais and put his own premiership medal around the injured captain's neck, it was a moment of the most perfect love and sportsmanship, a bittersweet and precious gesture.

Bob is honest about how much missing out on that year hurt him; he put on a brave face all year, swallowed his pain and gave whatever support he could to 'his boys.' But the pain didn't go away. He is honest about his own failings (even though the conventional wisdom in our house is that he is a perfect human being!) when it would have been easy to leave out those incidents from his story. Maybe that makes him even more perfect, who knows!

If you're not a Western Bulldogs supporter, or at least an AFL football fan, you probably won't pick up this book. That would be your loss. Get to know this lovely, wise, funny man, who happens to have played wonderful football for half his life, a little better. You won't regret making his acquaintance.

16.8.18

Rethinking Normal

Katie Rain Hill was born Luke; but she always knew that she wasn't a boy. Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition is her story. Though Katie was only twenty when she wrote this moving, honest book, she had already experienced a lifetime's worth of pain, self-loathing, confusion, cruel bullying, rage, pride and triumph.

Growing up in the Bible Belt, Katie was always aware that something about her was 'wrong.' For a long time she categorised herself as gay, but she knew that wasn't quite right either. Suicidally unhappy, she eventually discovered, thanks to the internet, that there were others who felt the way she did, and that there was a name for it: transgender. Her bewildered but supportive mother helped her on her journey through transition, as did an anonymous donor who paid for her surgery. A surprising amount of this story concerns the tangle of dating and relationships -- just like most other adolescents, falling in love is an important part of Katie's life.

I was slightly sad to read just how crucial it was to Katie that she should be pretty, not an ugly girl, and her relief when boys found her attractive. I guess I wanted to be a pretty girl, too, but on some level I accepted that it wasn't to be, and found my self-worth elsewhere. In the 80s, we used to argue that instead of trying to fit ourselves into boxes marked 'masculine' or 'feminine,' we should try to break the walls of the boxes down, and throw the labels away. Now it seems that finding the label that fits, even if that label says 'genderfluid,' is the most vital step in accepting oneself; meanwhile, the walls of those boxes seem to have become more rigid than ever. This seems to me a shame. But I respect the lived experience of Katie, Arin and those trans and gender-fluid kids that have entered my life. Power to you all!

11.8.18

Six of Crows

Not going to lie -- when I retrieved this from the library for the Convent Book Group, my heart sank. Six of Crows is a brick of a book, and I only had three days to read it... But wow, Leigh Bardugo has produced a terrific fantasy page-turner, and the chapters flew by.

Dense, dark, satisfying, with interestingly flawed characters (literally, the Dregs of their mercantile society) and a plot that keeps twisting and ambushing the reader till almost the very last page, Six of Crows divided our group. Those who loved it, LOVED it (I was in that camp). There were some who didn't get on with it -- put off by its length, or the initial profusion of characters, or who just don't like fantasy that much. And that's fine. Big meaty fantasy stories aren't for everyone. But Bardugo hits a YA sweet spot that doesn't mollycoddle its readers. My 14 year old tells me that the series set in the Grishaverse (there are at least five more books, and a movie on the way) is huge in her demographic, and I can see why.

Six of Crows reminded me very slightly of the Chanters of Tremaris books: the types of magic are similar, though there's no singing involved, and the world also has echoes of Tremaris, insofar as both universes have echoes of our own planet. Ketterdam is a cousin of Gellan; icy Fjerdan is a little like Antaris. But where Tremaris is a fairly gentle world, comfortable for upper primary/lower secondary readers, the Grishaverse is squarely YA, with a hefty body count and some pretty adult darkness. It's Tremaris on steroids and sleeping rough. A book, and a world, to sink your teeth into.

5.8.18

How Bright Are All Things Here -- paused

Look at this gorgeous cover -- it reminds me of the Leonard French stained glass ceiling in the National Gallery of Victoria, which as children we used to lie on our back and gaze dreamily up at. I've been looking forward to reading this adult novel by Susan "Verity Sparks" Green for a long time, and when I started it, I delighted in the lovely prose, the compassion for the characters, and the familiar Melbourne setting.

But... it's about a family, a family with troubles. There's the stepmother, dying in a nursing home. There's the daughter who has just lost her job, and her husband with depression. And while something tells me that everything is going to work out okay in the end, this is not the book for me right now. So reluctantly I have set it aside -- not forever, just for now. I'm looking forward to getting back to it, when things in my own life are slightly brighter.

2.8.18

Wildwood

Found in Greensborough Savers, I have been rationing out the beautiful, thoughtful Wildwood at the rate of a chapter a day -- it has been serving me as a meditation and solace. About a quarter of the way through, I realised that I'd read about Roger Deakin before, in Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks -- Macfarlane was Deakin's friend and acted as his literary executor. Reading this book was tinged with sadness, for Deakin died not long after the manuscript was complete. I came to Macfarlane first, but I can definitely see Deakin's influence on the younger writer.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees is an extended meditation on all forms of interaction with trees and wood. Deakin visits sculptors and woodworkers, naturalists and farmers, thatchers and forest rangers. His travels take him to Kyrgzstan and Australia (where he goes camping with our very own Romana Koval!), deep into the English countryside and back to his own boyhood. He discusses oak and ash, sycamore and walnut, and though they are not all familiar to me, I feel I know them better after this splendid introduction.

I absolutely love books like this -- slow and reflective, lovingly precise, filled with a lifetime's experience and an eagerness to learn from others. It's almost like a prayer -- to the wild, tangled forests and the ancient hedgerows alike. A slow walk through the woods -- just what I needed.

It's bittersweet to discover an author whose company you enjoy so much, and to know that there will be no more work from them. One day I would like to read the companion volume to this, Waterlog, which describes Deakin's attempt to swim across Britain in bodies of wild water! And also Notes From Walnut Tree Farm.

(PS An intriguing side note: at one point Deakin mentions that the hare, who leaps from the corn as it's harvested, is sacred to Ceres. Instantly I thought of Maria's hare in The Little White Horse, who is named Serena...)

31.7.18

Nella Last's Peace

I've been slowly making my way through two books simultaneously: Roger Deakin's Wildwood (of which more presently) and Nella Last's Peace. The latter is an edited volume of some of the millions of words of diaries kept by Nella Last, a middle-aged, 'ordinary' housewife, as part of Britain's Mass Observation project. She kept the detailed diaries faithfully all through the war, and almost up until her death in 1968, and this book covers the first couple of years of peacetime.

Despite the longed-for peace and victory finally arriving, times were not easy, and in some ways harder to bear than the war itself, when a spirit of community and selflessness swept up many ordinary citizens in sacrifice to a larger cause. Nella finds herself wistful for those times and her own voluntary work in the Forces Canteen, and the friends she made there. The reader senses her frustration, with the continued shortages and hardships, with her withdrawn husband, with her unsettled younger son (who emigrated to Australia and became a celebrated sculptor, Clifford Last), and with her difficult in-laws.

Perhaps this is just about what's going on my own life at the moment, but to me the most moving parts of the diary deal with the struggles of Nella's young friend and neighbour, Jessie, who falls ill with what sounds like postpartum psychosis, and is hospitalised for a time. Nella's husband seems to suffer from an anxiety disorder; her mother-in-law has dementia, and Nella herself is sometimes struck by gastric attacks that seem to be anxiety related. It was quite frightening to realise how little information and treatment and even recognition was available for mental illness, and how terrifying it would have been to be faced with mental illness in the family. Happily, Jessie made a complete recovery.

17.7.18

Unnatural Death

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey (BBC)
The Dorothy L Sayers binge-fest continues with Unnatural Death, the final book in my omnibus with the horrible cover. Ridiculously, though it's the last book in the volume, it was written first, and introduces the character of Miss Climpson, who also appeared in Strong Poison. No Harriet Vane in this one, either.

Miss Climpson is nearly as good as Harriet Vane, though, being brave and resourceful and not as foolish as she appears (not unlike Wimsey himself, come to think of it). And this one features a ruthless and cunning murderess -- not a spoiler, as she is suspected from the first page, it's just that they can't prove that she has actually committed murder. Sadly, and thanks principally to Wimsey's interference by the way, the body count goes up before the proof can be acquired, which makes you wonder if he shouldn't have just minded his own bloody business.

No I only have Busman's Honeymoon in my cupboard, but I think I need to read Gaudy Night first. I just have to get my hands on it.

10.7.18

Holes

I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to reading Louis Sachar's school reading circle staple, Holes. I don't find desert books especially appealing, particularly American desert books. Also Daughter No 2 had read this at primary school (in one of those aforementioned literature circles) and found it dull.

So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. After a rather grinding start, the story picked up pace for me once the historical back story was introduced -- I would have liked more about the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow, and less about the brutality of the camp. Perhaps it's just my tender Australian sensibilities but I was quite shocked by the casual violence and the nonchalant firing of guns  -- why are the 'counsellors' even carrying guns, in a juvenile facility in the middle of nowhere? Anyway, the details of the historical story and the events of the present day dovetailed with satisfying neatness, and issues of race, courage and loyalty were handled with a degree of subtlety.

I was planning to jettison this one after reading it, but I think I'll award a place on the permanent bookshelf after all.

6.7.18

Strong Poison

Can you believe this cover? Both hideous and inappropriate. Clearly the designer had never read the novels or even cast a cursory glance over them. I have taken the liberty of stripping off the dust jacket and hurling it into the nearest wastepaper basket (actually the recycling bin). (Perhaps the war on plastic will result in a revival of the art and craft of basketry? I hope so.)

This omnibus volume (which I picked up in a local secondhand bookshop) contains Strong Poison, Have His Carcase (so I've doubled up there) and Unnatural Death. Annoyingly, they are presented out of order, so that a significant character featured in Strong Poison is actually introduced in Unnatural Death. This character is Miss Climpson, who is a smart, shrewd, observant, middle-aged woman who is nevertheless capable of appearing to be a mere harmless gossip... I suspect Miss Climpson may have provided the template for Miss Marple? In fact they first appeared in 1927, with Miss Marple making her debut in December of that year. Hmm. I guess we will never know.

Strong Poison is however, most notable for the introduction of Harriet Vane, wrongly accused of murder. I was a bit disappointed that Lord Peter seems to fall for her at first sight rather than gradually coming to appreciate her qualities, which are pretty subdued here -- no wonder, since she's sitting on Death Row for the entire book. In her brief appearances, though, she is clearly both intelligent and the owner of a sense of humour, which bodes well for their future.

Apparently Sayers based some of this book on her own experience of an unhappy love affair with a bohemian author. Must have been so satisfying to kill him off!

5.7.18

Behind the Sofa

Well, this is a funny little book for a niche audience -- I doubt it was even published in Australia. But it turned up on Brotherhood Books and, Doctor Who geek that I am, I couldn't resist. The subtitle of Behind the Sofa is Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, edited by Steve Berry as a fundraiser for Alzheimer's Research UK.

Berry has collected anecdotes and memories from writers, actors, broadcasters and comedians -- some have worked on the show, some are just fans. Most discovered the show as children, and they each have their 'own' Doctor -- it tends to be the first one you saw, and the show has been going for so long that there are loyalists from William Hartnell right through to Matt Smith (the book was published before Peter Capaldi took over, and well before Jodie Whittaker was announced as the first female Doctor).

This was a diverting addition to my collection of Doctor Who books (they live in a drawer).

If I'd been asked for a contribution, I might have talked about my gang in Year 8 who all worshipped the fourth Doctor and Romana. My friend Fiona even looked like Lalla Ward. We especially adored the Paris-set story, The City of Death, and adopted the bumbling policeman Duggan as our mascot. We even developed a clapping game (yes, we were thirteen!) which involved chanting 'K-9, Duggan, Romana, Doctor...'

I might also add the story of Peter Davison's visit to Melbourne, where as earnest environmentalists at the height of the Franklin Dam controversy, we lined up to gift him a copy of the single 'Let the Franklin Flow' by Goanna. (We were 17 by this stage.) I was wearing my Fair Isle vest as a tribute to his character in All Creatures Great and Small. Lord knows what he made of it, poor guy!

29.6.18

Sophie's World

I think I first bought and read Jostein Gaarder's bestselling book about philosophy for young people, Sophie's World, when it was first published in English (translated from the original Norwegian) back in the early 1990s. I revisited it for the Convent Book Group's Philosophy theme this month.

I did recall some elements of the book, but not the central twist (though I saw that coming). And alas, I had forgotten most of the actual philosophy information which was the whole point of the novel. I have to admit that this time around, I found those sections fairly hard-going -- talk about info-dump! But when the actual mystery/twist part of the book ramps up, I found myself more engaged, and the interplay between the philosophical debates and Sophie's personal situation is cleverly plotted.

I'd be interested to know if any young people actually read this book these days. It's a useful primer on the history of (Western) philosophy and much more fun than the textbooks I had to plough through at uni doing Philosophy 101 -- though that's not setting the bar very high!

28.6.18

Have His Carcase

Once again, unable to find a picture of my own copy of Dorothy L Sayers' Have His Carcase, I've stolen an image from the  BBC series, which surely shows Lord Peter and Harriet Vane looking for clues on the beach, the scene of the crime. I'd really love to have seen this series, this is exactly how I imagine Peter and Harriet.

Have His Carcase comes before The Nine Tailors, but I forgot it was tucked away on my shelves. Now this one I remember well -- I must have re-read it a few times, and I remembered the twist at the end perfectly. The series does catch a new lease of life once Harriet Vane appears, and I really enjoy the interactions between her and Peter. The key is that they WORK together so well; they respect each other's intellect as well as fancying each other, and they obviously just enjoy each other's company -- not a bad romantic model. (This from someone who married her boss -- ahem!) I love the way Peter clearly adores Harriet ('By the way, will you marry me?'), and she briskly fobs him off ('No, thank you'), though there is a lot of angst under the surface which we are only allowed to briefly glimpse -- no wallowing here! (Peter has previously rescued Harriet from a false charge of murder, thereby saving her life.) Of course Harriet is a stand-in for Sayers herself (a novelist of detective fiction, no less) but who cares.

Lots of confusing stuff about ciphers and alibis, which is slightly better than train timetables, but it's the relationship between the sleuths that holds this one together.

25.6.18

The Anxiety Book

One of my most memorable panic attacks struck on my first day alone in Paris. I was staying in the back two rooms of an apartment kindly lent by a family friend, in an otherwise deserted house, and a seemingly deserted suburb (everyone in Paris had departed for summer holidays). It was hot, I couldn't speak French, I was tired and under-nourished and scared. I ended up sitting on the bathroom floor (I couldn't open the shutters in the only other room), eating tinned peas with my fingers and drinking orange juice.

Sometimes I tell this story on school visits, and I do my best to make it amusing. I threw up peas through my nose! And the moral of the story is, no matter what a crappy experience you're enduring, you can always use it in your writing. But at the time, it wasn't funny at all. I was terrified.

I didn't tough it out. The next day, I fled back on the ferry to England and the safety of my aunt's house. Instead of tramping the youth hostel circuit, I went camping in Wales with my cousins, and waited to do the backpacking thing until a friend arrived from Australia to keep me company, and hold the anxiety at bay.

Looking back, I see that I've suffered from anxiety all my life. All the signs were there, I just didn't put them together until recently. I vomited before every exam and elocution performance. I felt sick before every major decision. Under stress, I always threw up or sometimes fainted: twice in hospital rooms where my loved ones were under threat. When I realised that the sick feeling, the formless dread, was there in the pit of my stomach every single day, I started medication. I took up yoga, and knitting, and piano. Things are better now.

Anxiety and depression run through both sides of our family. Four out of five members of my household are currently taking some kind of medication to suppress it (and it's probably just a matter of time for the fifth). So reading Elisa Black's memoir of her own struggles with "phobias, flashbacks and freak-outs" covered some very familiar ground. Black's book switches between her own personal journey and a chatty, accessible account of the latest treatment options and stories of others' experiences. In the end, the message is one of hope and encouragement. Black's demons haven't entirely disappeared, but she has them pretty well under control these days. With help, therapy, medication, meditation, exercise -- whatever works for you -- you and I can get better, too.

18.6.18

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince is one of those classic children's books that is probably more popular with adults. Its romantic allure is enhanced by the fact that the author, a fighter pilot, was killed in action during WWII, not long after writing it. Saint-Exupery was primarily an essayist and writer for adults, but The Little Prince has proved to be his enduring legacy, with an animated series and countless translations. We are reading it for the Convent Book Group, under the theme of Philosophy.

Can I make a confession? Not really a fan. I won a copy, picked up cheap at a library book sale, because it is a classic and I felt I ought to have it. But it just doesn't do it for me. Twee. Sentimental. Vaguely misogynist. I find the illustrations just badly drawn rather than naively charming. Him and his devotion to his bloody rose and his volcanoes and his boababs. It's all a bit try-hard for me. It comes across as a book written to order, by a publisher who said, hey, Antoine, why don't you write something for kids, mate? Something whimsical yet profound? Which is exactly how it happened.

Not for me, thanks.

12.6.18

Love in a Cold Climate

One of my favourite books of all time, I've read Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (and its predecessor, The Pursuit of Love) so many times that the pages have acquired a soft, worn texture, almost like cloth.

I haven't read them for a long time, though. I decided that A might enjoy a dose of Mitford, as I was about her age when I fell in love with her books, so I started reading her The Pursuit of Love. But she found Davey Warbeck irritating, and when she realised that the children grew up and married, and didn't spend the whole book being hunted across country by their father, she lost interest. However, she has required my company while she studies from time to time lately (it's the SAC time of year), so I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the story of beautiful Polly, terrifying Lady Montdore, creepy Boy (aka the Lecherous Lecturer) and flamboyant Cedric.

Reader, I remembered almost every word. It was like sinking into a deliciously scented, decadent warm bath with a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates on the side: pure, slightly guilty delight. I know from reading her letters that Nancy Mitford worked hard on her novels, but they read as if they were effortless, like an amusing, politically incorrect friend telling you an endlessly entertaining story. Mitford might be an acquired taste, but she has sunk into my reading DNA and I doubt I will ever be able to dig her out.

11.6.18

The Nine Tailors

Photo from kidbucketlist
Now this is a good Lord Peter Wimsey novel -- I read this several times in high school (though I still couldn't remember whodunnit!) As Lawrie Marlow says when she finds her twin reading this novel, 'Sewing?' To which Nicola replies, 'No -- bell-ringing,' which leaves Lawrie more perplexed than before.*

When I last read Dorothy L Sayers' The Nine Tailors, I had no idea what the art of change-ringing was, and happily allowed all the novel's complicated references and descriptions sail over my head. These days, thanks to Google, I was better able to inform myself. Change-ringing involves ringing a set of bells in an ever-changing sequence -- it's more to do with mathematics than music, running through every possible permutation of the order in which they can be rung. To me, the ringing of church bells is one of the most glorious sounds in the world: I cherish the memory of hearing bells ring out on a cloudless autumn's day in Avignon. But apparently change-ringing is a particularly English obsession!

This is perhaps the ultimate 'cosy' English mystery, centred on a country church in the fens of East Anglia. (As an aside, I note that Kevin Crossley-Holland's Waterslain Angels, which also featured cherubim on -- along? under? -- a church roof, was likewise set in the Fens. Is this a peculiarity of East Anglian churches? Google has thus far been unable to answer this question.) Several volumes in to the series, Lord Peter has thankfully shed most of his annoying mannerisms and become good company, though he has acquired yet another improbable skill to his repertoire -- he is an accomplished (though rusty) bell-ringer, as well as an amazing cricketer, expert on old books etc etc. But I forgive him.

No Harriet Vane in this book, though she first appeared several novels ago in Strong Poison. I don't think we had Strong Poison in our school library, though I certainly remember Gaudy Night (from which book, along with Brideshead Revisited, I formed all my ideas about life in Oxford. Oh dear.)

I think I must get my hands on Strong Poison. Perhaps Harriet Vane has already mellowed him? Also I want to read Murder Must Advertise, which has a cricket match in it. Lots of catching up to do!


*The nine tailors, or nine single strokes of the bell, are tolled to mark the death of a man. For a woman, it's six.

4.6.18

The Five Red Herrings

Photo from UK Rivers Guidebook
Another Dorothy L Sayers title from my Peter Wimsey omnibus, The Five Red Herrings is set in Scotland, and we are never allowed to forget it for a moment! This is a picture of the river where the body is discovered, the Minnoch, where the unfortunate victim seems to have tumbled down a bank while painting the scenery. But it soon transpires that foul play is afoot, and the presence of a half-finished painting on the easel suggests that the murder could only have been performed by a fellow artist. The five red herrings of the title refer to the six other artists in this little community, all with motive, opportunity and wonky alibis (of course, one of them is no red herring, but the real deal).

I must admit I struggled with this novel at first -- I've only read it once before, as a teenager, and I remember feeling inordinately proud of myself for spotting the first vital clue, thus proving myself to be the 'intelligent reader' referred to by Miss Sayers, who would guess what was missing from the crime scene.

I do adore Scotland, but the constant rendering of dialogue in dialect became a little distracting. "She's troubled in her mind aboot Mr Farren. And nae wonder, wi' him mekkin' a' that disturbance and gaeing aff that gate an' never comin' back for twa nichts." Eventually I relaxed into it, but it took quite an effort at first! And in the first third of the novel, there was a LOT of guff about bicycles and train tickets and timetables that I frankly couldn't be bothered to keep track of, though it was significant in the end. I also (dear me!) had trouble telling our six suspects apart.

So, not my favourite Wimsey, despite the alluring Scottish setting. But it did come home with a rush, and a most entertaining re-enactment sequence, which made up for its other shortcomings.

31.5.18

Marianne Dreams; Marianne and Mark


How thick am I? I was about a quarter of the way through Marianne and Mark before I twigged that Marianne was the same character as the central figure in Catherine Storr's creepy classic, Marianne Dreams. So I went back to the first book and re-read that before finishing Marianne and Mark.

In some ways I don't blame myself for not connecting the two, because they are very different books. Marianne Dreams haunted me and I only read it once as a child because I found it so unsettling. Re-reading as an adult, I think it's utterly brilliant. Marianne, ill in bed for months, finds that the drawings she makes in the daytime come to life in her dreams. This is all very well when she draws a crooked house and a boy inside to let her in (Mark, a real boy, also ill with polio and sharing her tutor), but not when she loses her temper, scribbles over the windows and draws rocks with eyes to keep watch over him. THEY are truly frightening, and the psychological depth of the story is finely drawn (pardon the pun).

Marianne and Mark is set several years later and is a more realist story, though it does have subtle fantasy elements, and discussions of fate, magic and destiny. Mark himself doesn't appear until quite late in the piece, and when he does he is almost too alpha male: intelligent and respectful, but definitely taking charge and at times condescending. However, for most of the novel, Marianne is on her own, wandering through Brighton on an enforced holiday, striking up casual friendships with unsuitable people (there is an unspoken class divide at play here). 

Storr, herself a psychiatrist, has some fun with the character of Marianne's psychiatrist uncle, who relentlessly analyses his niece and allows her more freedom than she is really comfortable with. If I'd discovered this book as an adolescent, I would have found it incredibly comforting. Marianne is worried, at fifteen, that she's not normal because she doesn't have a boyfriend; she feels naive, self-conscious, unattractive, doesn't understand the rules, and when a boy does come along (not Mark), she finds herself miserably out of her depth. That was me -- only for me, those feelings lasted till I was about twenty-five!

Looking for a cover image to post here, I was startled to find a second hand copy of Marianne and Mark listed for over a thousand pounds! If anyone really wants it, I'd be happy to sell for considerably less than that. Or maybe I'll just keep it!

24.5.18

Brave

In prehistoric times, a feisty girl and a clever boy join forces to survive together, away from the protection of their tribe, and undertake a perilous journey... Hang on, have I read this somewhere before? I guess there are only so many plot lines possible in a children's book set in prehistoric times!

Wendy Constance's Brave was written a few years before Tarin of the Mammoths, and I think any similarities are pure coincidence -- but at times they did tread the same territory. Dangerous encounters with wild creatures, being swept away by a raging river, escape from hostile warriors, appeals to the nameless Spirits, all appear in both books.

Brave is aimed at a slightly older audience and contains a hint of romance. There's also a pretty high body count, which is realistic. I appreciated that the frequent hunting scenes glossed over the most gory aspects! But I think coming hot on the heels of Tarin, it was an overload of prehistoric adventure for this reader.

23.5.18

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading

Books about childhood reading habits are my catnip (Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built; The Book That Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge (note the very similar cover...) No sooner had I read a brief review of Lucy Mangan's Bookworm in The Week than I was on the Kindle, downloading it. Bang! No sooner had I downloaded it than I was gobbling it down. Bang! Day and a half, tops. Loved it. (Suzanne, I think you will love it too.)

If Lucy Mangan and I ever meet, we will become friends. I know this because we read and adored exactly the same books as children (albeit about a decade apart). Like me, she identified with clever Kate from The Family From One End Street; like me, she struggled to come to grips with Tolkein; like me, she worships at the altar of Antonia Forest, wished herself into Narnia, and inhaled Noel Streatfeild. The Railway Children -- check. What Katy Did at School -- check. Tom's Midnight bloody Garden -- double check! There was a bad moment when I thought she was going to hate Anne of Green Gables, but luckily, she saw the light on re-reading. Phew.

Our paths diverge when it came to teenage reading (she had more choices). And she doesn't seem to have read Susan Cooper or discovered When Marnie Was There. But otherwise we are totally simpatico. Which means that I really need to check out The Summer of My German Soldier and Fireweed, because if Lucy loved them, I'm pretty sure I will love them too.

One very minor quibble -- I think she has misremembered Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming as Dicey's Song, which is a different book in the same series. Otherwise, top marks. If you're ever in Melbourne, Lucy, come round for a cuppa. We've got lots to talk about.

21.5.18

You're Wearing That?

As a mother of daughters and sharing a house with my own mother, and as a long time guilty fan of pop psych hand books, how could I resist You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen when it appeared on Brotherhood Books?

All my life, if things were going right or if they were going wrong, it's been my mother I'd long to talk to about stuff. As this book points out, who else is going to be equally interested in your new pair of socks or your broken heart? Now we live together and our paths cross daily, it's even more important to carve out time for conversation (I like to sit down for a morning coffee with Mum before our days begin). Luckily for me, the three contentious issues that often arise between mothers and daughters, according to Tannen, namely hair, clothes and weight, have never posed a problem for us. My mother is smart enough to know when to keep her mouth shut -- mostly.

The only time I didn't really tell my mother in excruciating detail what was happening in my life was as a young adult, partly to safeguard my new-found independence, partly because I didn't want to worry her. I can already see my own daughters' impulse to protect me from concern. And honestly, perhaps there are things I would rather not know.

The chief source of conversational conflict between mothers and daughters is a contradictory pull between control and connection. This makes a lot of sense to me. Mothers tend to underestimate their own power over their daughters -- maybe not to actually influence their behaviour, but certainly to affect how they feel. At the end of the day, most daughters are seeking their mother's praise, acceptance and approval -- not their advice, no matter how sensible, and not their unvarnished opinions! I think I would be wise to remember that.

18.5.18

Reading Richard

Since I've been on a slight Shakespeare run lately, it seemed appropriate to comment on a work that, strictly speaking, falls on A's reading list, not mine. Her reading has improved immensely in recent years -- in fact, she's taking English Lit instead of straight English for VCE -- but it's still hard work, so sometimes I read her texts aloud for her (I wonder how many hours parents of dyslexic students spend on this? I can't tell you how many parents have contacted me after reading Crow Country aloud to their dyslexic kids).

So far this year, I've read her Kafka's Metamorphosis, we've started Cold Blood (that's going to be a slog), and now Richard III. And frankly, I have to say that I'm not impressed! I've only seen the play performed once, years ago in the UK, and I was lucky enough to catch the original WWII-inspired production by the Royal National Theatre, which was adapted into a film in 1995. That was gripping, so it just goes to show how much depends on imaginative staging and strong performances.

On the page, the words are less exciting (maybe it's the way I read them...). 'It's just exposition, punctuated by slaughter,' was A's analysis. There are a lot of characters, many of whom appear on stage only to be executed in the next scene. The relationships are confusing. People sprint on and off the stage, shout something, die. It feels like a student play, an early play. It's clunky. Not one of your best, Will. Though now that Richard's body has been discovered, at least we know that Shakespeare wasn't lying about the hunchback -- he really did have one.

16.5.18

Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

I couldn't find an online image of the particular Dorothy L Sayers omnibus I bought from Brotherhood Books, so I've chosen a picture that most closely corresponds to my private mental picture of Lord Peter Wimsey, the titled detective -- this is from a 1987 BBC adaptation which somehow passed me by completely! (I was at uni in 1987 and not paying attention, clearly.) This photo shows Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter as Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. It looks well cast -- I think I'll have to do some digging.

Back to the books. When I was at high school, in the thick of my Brideshead/ Nancy Mitford/ All Creatures phase, I absolutely adored Lord Peter Wimsey and read all his adventures I could lay my hands on (there are eleven novels in total). This omnibus contains the first four,* and I raced through Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club while I was in Ballarat recently, doing a two-day school visit. There could be nothing better to relax with after an exhausting day, though Lord Peter himself in his earliest iteration is quite irritating at times -- Sayers toned him down as the series went on.

Of course the books are terribly dated in some ways. Again with the gratuitous anti-Semitism! What's the story? And Lord Peter is the very peak of white male privilege (but at least he knows it). But the puzzles are clever, and I always enjoyed all the literary and historical allusions. No dumbing down for Sayers; these mysteries are an intellectual pleasure, not a gritty or violent peek into the criminal underworld.

The best novels are the ones after Wimsey meets and falls in love with Harriet Vane, whom he saves from a murder conviction. They are a fantastic pair. As a writer of detective fiction, she is as smart as he is, and he loves her character as much as her looks. As a smart but horribly plain adolescent, I found this wonderfully comforting. They are the kind of couple who do the crossword together in bed!

Despite their shortcomings, I'm thrilled to have rediscovered the Wimsey novels, and I will be devouring them all over again (in order this time, hopefully).

*EDIT: So it turns out this omnibus doesn't contain the first four novels -- it's four random ones. Between these two books fall Clouds of Witness and Unnatural Death. So now I'll have to try to fill in the gaps myself. Grr!

15.5.18

Tarin of the Mammoths

Our theme for the Convent book group this month is Prehistoric! We kicked off with Australian author Jo Sandhu's Tarin of the Mammoths (Book 1: The Exile), which follows the adventures of young Tarin, whose twisted leg means he can't take part in the mammoth hunts on which his tribe depends. When Tarin spoils a hunt, he is sent to take an offering to the Earth Mother on a distant mountain in atonement -- but will he make it before winter descends?

I thought the pace of the story picked up when Tarin ran into another pair of travellers, brother and sister Kaija and Luuka, who have escaped a deadly illness that has struck down their own tribe. Book 2 is already out and it looks as if this may the start of a long series. There are certainly plenty of Ice Age hazards to keep our heroes busy. And while this is not The Inheritors, there is a passing encounter with a Neanderthal boy which promises further interaction in the future.

14.5.18

We Are At War

Subtitled The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, We Are At War arose out of a (still-ongoing) UK project called Mass Observation, where citizens from all walks of life were encouraged to keep detailed diaries of their daily lives. From this wealth of raw material, editor Simon Garfield has crafted a chronicle of the beginning of the Second World War as it appeared to five British observers. Tilly is a middle-class mother of young children; Maggie a bohemian writer; Pamela a sceptical Glasgow office worker; Christopher a highly strung Catholic notepaper salesman; and Eileen works as a London evacuation officer, overseeing the removal of children to safety in the country.

Today, with the narrative of WWII so firmly decided (Churchill's a hero, Hitler the epitome of evil, Dunkirk a miracle), it's almost unsettling to read these diary extracts written in the muddle and confusion of unfolding events. Particularly early on, some of our diarists maintain that Hitler has his good points and that Britain could do with a dictator of their own. There is open anti-Semitism, even toward refugees from the Nazis, and Italians living in the UK have their shops smashed. Dunkirk, now familiar to us by its shorthand name, is referred to as 'the evacuation' (remember 2001, before we decided to call the bombing of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon simply '9/11'?)

This volume only covers the first year or so of the war, ending just after the Blitz sets in. And for our diarists, despite the fear and uncertainty, it's often domestic concerns that preoccupy them -- how many tins to buy, how to protect their windows from the possibility of bombing, whether it's worth getting out of bed when the air raid siren sounds, how to repay money owing. Life goes on.

I'm convinced that Anthony Horowitz  must have studied the Mass Observation diaries when he was researching Foyle's War. They provide a unique and vivid snapshot of the immediate experience of a nation at war -- not remembered afterwards, distilled into anecdote or agreed attitudes, but as they felt at the time. Fascinating and sometimes disconcerting stuff.

7.5.18

Station Eleven

I'm not a huge fan of dystopian novels (though I did enjoy The Girl With All The Gifts), but Station Eleven, by Canadian author Emily St John Mandel, was recommended (and lent to me) by Kirsty Murray, whose judgement I trust. As usual, she knew what she was talking about!

I may not be fond of dystopias, but I do love interlocking stories, and novels where characters brush past each other and wander in and out of each other's lives. It was a strange echo of King of Shadows that Station Eleven opened with a performance of King Lear, in which the lead actor, Arthur Leander, dies on stage. This event occurs a few days before a real catastrophe hits -- an outbreak of a deadly flu which spreads so swiftly that it soon extinguishes almost every human on Earth. The novel follows several characters who are all connected to Arthur in some way -- his first ex-wife, a child actress in the same play, the man who tries to save his life, his old friend. Their experiences weave in and out of the narrative, crossing and re-crossing, tied together strangely by a comic book created by Arthur's first wife.

As apocalypses go, the "Georgia Flu" is a relatively gentle one. Death is swift and not too painful, and while it's hinted that the first year after the epidemic was brutal and horrific, we don't see much of that. Violence intrudes only at the end of the novel. Mind you, this is set mostly in Canada; I can imagine that south of the border, things might have been a lot worse: all those guns and doomsday preppers! It was good to read a story set in an unfamiliar (to me) landscape -- Toronto and the Great Lakes -- which was an excuse to run to Google Maps and orient myself.

An excellent read, but if you're looking for horrors, look elsewhere.

30.4.18

Stranger In The House

Stranger In The House makes an interesting companion read to Julie Summers' book on the Women's Institute, Jambusters. This earlier book is shorter and less densely packed with research, but makes up for it with its moving first-hand stories from women who had to cope with either the loss of their men during World War II, or their return, irreparably changed: mothers, widows, wives, children and grand-children. Some men were physically wounded, most were psychologically affected. Some couples found the disruption of the war years impossible to adjust to. Hardest hit were the prisoners of war, particularly the prisoners of the Japanese.

Every year when Anzac Day rolls around, I'm prompted to reflect on what those big wars mean to me. I don't have a relative who fought or was any way involved in combat. It's startling to realise that when I was born, the end of WWII was far closer than my university years are to me now -- and they seem like only yesterday.

Sometimes it feels as if Australia's participation in the First and Second World Wars (especially the First) is our nation's only history -- or at least the only portion of our history which we are prepared to face and explore head-on. Pre-settlement history is largely a blank to most Australians; the post-invasion century is largely too painful to be honestly examined. But we can be proud of our diggers, and more proud, weirdly, when they lost (eg Gallipoli) -- because they were valiant without actually defeating anyone? I don't know.

Anyway, these British women were certainly valiant too, and so were the Australian women who shared the same experience, shockingly without any official support or assistance. Most suffered and coped in silence. Speaking of university days, it was nice to see the work of a friend from long ago, Dr Joy Damousi from Melbourne Uni, cited by Summers.

Lest we forget.

22.4.18

King of Shadows

For some reason, it hadn't really occurred to me that Susan Cooper might have written other books after she finished the superb Dark Is Rising series. Luckily for me, she did, and the first one I've laid my hands on is King of Shadows. Time slip! Shakespeare! Two of my favourite things! So I knew I was onto a winner.

And it is. Nat Field, a young American actor brought over to London to play in the 'new' Globe theatre, wakes up one morning to find himself not just in Shakespeare's London, but part of Shakespeare's company. Cooper manages with a light touch to evoke the atmosphere of Elizabethan times and the bustling but much smaller city, and also weaves in Nat's emotional journey with a gently political plot.

It was a little disorienting to read yet another version of William Shakespeare, having recently re-read Antonia Forest's The Players and the Rebels, which covers much of the same ground and characters (the clown Will Kempe, distinguished actor Richard Burbage etc), and even watching the Doctor Who episode, The Shakespeare Code, filmed in the Globe itself. All these different versions of Will's world, overlapping, contradicting, reinforcing, much as the different iterations of Shakespeare's play echo down the centuries. But I can't help feeling that Will himself would approve.

21.4.18

Musicophilia

I've been learning piano for a couple of years now, and I borrowed Musicophilia from my teacher (composer Chris McCombe, who has been my dear friend since we met at college thirty-three years ago). I'm the first to admit that I am not, and never have been, a musical person, despite my debut novel being The Singer of All Songs. I've never learned an instrument, and while I love to belt out a Christmas carol or an eighties pop song in the car, I can barely hold a tune. Working in the industry for a decade and a half has put me off going to see bands, or even listening to music on the radio.

And yet I've loved learning, in my stumbling way, to pick out tunes on the keyboard, discovering how chords fit together, the mysterious interaction between mathematical precision and soaring emotion that music can engender. When I'm sight-reading a new piece, I can feel the gears of my brain grinding as I try to relate the marks of the notes on the page, to the movements of my fingers on the keys, and the sounds I can hear. A whole rich and complex world has opened up before me, even if I'm only capable of appreciating a tiny slice of it.

Oliver Sacks led an intensely musical life; these relationships which are still mysterious to me are a world through which he moved with confidence and ease. This dense but lively book explores the interaction between music and the brain from many fascinating angles: from the ability of some aphasiacs to sing the songs of their past, though they can't utter a spoken word (sadly, this hasn't worked with my father), to musical savants, and those who suddenly gain or lose musical ability or obsession after a neurological event. At one point Sacks makes a comment about 'the music that runs through our heads all day', and I thought indignantly, not through mine! But I've since realised that I do indeed have music running through my head most of the day, without even knowing it.

My musical journey has a long way to go, but I enjoyed this glimpse into a strange, rational, yet mysterious world.

18.4.18

The Shape of Three

Excuse the ropy photo: couldn't find one on the internet and the dog jiggled me as I was taking this one. I've never read any Lilith Norman books, but I was alerted to her by a reference to a novel of hers called The Fire Takers which is about some supernatural force sucking the creativity out of an artistic family -- that sounds interesting! I see now that she once worked under Patricia Wrightson at The School Magazine, and that she died last year, aged 90.

Anyway, The Shape of Three is not all supernatural. Written in 1971, it concerns two Australian families whose lives painfully collide, entangle and then fall apart when it's discovered that two of their children were accidentally swapped at birth (not a spoiler -- the reader guesses this on the very first page, then has to wait about four chapters for everyone else to catch up).

This book, despite its rich premise, has dated very badly. There is legal action, off screen, but the decision to swap the two boys back is apparently taken without any support or assistance from any agency -- I can't imagine this happening today without an army of psychologists, social workers, school counsellors and other support services being involved. The boys' respective schools aren't even told what's going on, and the only counselling one of the boys receives is a brief chat with a local priest (in itself probably not likely to happen these days without an observer present!)

File this one under Interesting Curio.

17.4.18

The Girl With All The Gifts

Our theme for the Convent Book Group this month is... Zombies! I'm not sure exactly how we arrived at this particular subject; it wasn't my idea. I must confess that I didn't finish the selected junior fiction title. Life is too short. And I wasn't really looking forward to reading M.R. Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts, especially when I saw how looooong it was.

But before long I was well and truly sucked in. MR (he's a he, that's all I know) is an experienced writer of comics and graphic novels, and he knows what he's doing. The Girl With All The Gifts is a taut, highly competent thriller set in a dystopian world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a fungal infection that turns people into mindless, flesh-eating 'hungries.' But Melanie is not like the other hungries; she is highly intelligent. Perhaps the future of the world lies in her hands...

The ending was not at all what I expected, in a good way. Apparently MR wrote the screenplay for a film at the same time as the novel. I might have to check out if it's on Netflix!

11.4.18

Deep Time Dreaming

As soon as I read the recent review of Billy Griffiths Deep Time Dreaming in The Age, I knew I had to have it. Cue Kindle impulse buy -- but this book is so wonderful that I might have to buy the hard copy as well.

Deep Time Dreaming is a breathtaking history of archaeology in Australia, from the early days of last century when it seemed urgent to record all traces of Aboriginal habitation before they, and the Indigenous peoples themselves, vanished forever, to the most recent discoveries of 2017. Each chapter follows the life of an individual archaeologist, embedding their work in a specific region as the incredible history of the first peoples of this land is pushed further and further back in time, beyond the very limits of carbon dating technology to the latest estimates of at least 65,000 years, or even longer. Griffiths discusses the chance (or was it?) finding of Mungo Man and Lady, the battle to save the Franklin River and the fight for land rights in the context of archaeological work, providing a history of Australian politics to parallel the emerging pre-invasion history.

The most fascinating tension, for me, lies between the need to balance respect for traditional culture with the impetus to add to the sum of human knowledge. Increasingly, ethnographic and archaeological work in Australia takes place in the context of collaboration and respect, but as Griffiths explains, this was not always the case, and great damage was done to mutual trust when secret and sacred knowledge was revealed to the world. Is it more important to repatriate human remains to country, or examine them for what they might tell us about the deep past? Of course, there is a shameful history of institutions hanging onto remains without bothering to examine them, which undercuts the argument for academic work somewhat. This is a real and passionate debate, with strong beliefs on both sides, and has given me much to think about.