This is a mystery story, in some ways a horror story, but packaged up in highly entertaining wrapping. Eleanor Oliphant tells her own story, and her voice is fresh, funny and very distinctive, even while she's recounting a story of pain, loneliness and childhood abuse that might be impossible to digest otherwise. At times the reader almost feels guilty for finding Eleanor amusing, as she is clearly dealing with a legacy of tremendous suffering.
As always, salvation lies in connection. Through small acts of kindness, Eleanor re-enters the world she has shut out, and it's rewarding to journey with her, as bit by bit, she blossoms. She is supposed to be about thirty, but sometimes she reads like a woman twice that age. A bonus is that the book is set in Glasgow and lovely Scottishness lies over the whole book like a mist. An excellent pick-up.
Well, suffice to say that both the daughter and I felt that Stephen Fry had gone a little overboard with his praise this time. She slogged through it first, heroically sticking to her routine of one chapter per night (the chapters are quite long), then handed it to me. That was months ago, but I've finally managed to push through to the end.
This is not a terrible book, by any means. The subject matter is fascinating (how does the language we speak influence our perception of the world?) and Deutscher does his best to jolly us along with linguistic humour. But it's a thorough (some may say, too thorough) survey of a quite dry academic field, and its conclusions are fairly underwhelming, to wit, yes, language does influence some aspects of how we perceive the world, but not much, and only in certain areas (colour, gender, spatial orientation).
Probably the most interesting section dealt with one Australian Aboriginal language (Guugu Yimithirr) which requires its speakers to take note of the compass directions whenever they describe the position of something. So instead of saying, 'there is an ant to the right of my foot,' they would say, 'there is an ant to the south-west of my foot.' This means they are constantly, unconsciously orienting themselves geographically in their surroundings. That would be a handy skill to have.
Sick Bay is a story of friendship. Riley has diabetes, but dealing with her anxiously controlling mother is a bigger problem than her health. Meg takes refuge in Sick Bay when life becomes too hard -- her father has died and her mother has sunk into a deep depression. Compounding the girls' personal problems is the landscape of friendship at school with one girl, Lina, who dispenses and withholds her approval like a weapon.
Come to think of it, Sick Bay is really about control -- the things you can control and the things you can't. Riley is struggling to take control of her own diabetes management, while Meg is powerless to help her mother. These are Grade 6 pupils, with high school on the horizon, and the world is about to get bigger and even harder to navigate. Nova Weetman writes so beautifully about friendship and family and the blindsides of mental health. Perhaps it's appropriate that this was the last cover from Sandra before we lost her.
But he certainly knows what he's talking about when it comes to the subject of writing itself, and this slim volume On Writing has terrific, pithy and straightforward advice about the craft, as well as including an interesting autobiographical section and an equally interesting account of the road accident that nearly killed him while he was writing it.
He has paid his dues, beginning his writing career while holding down a hideous job in a commercial laundry and living with his young family in a trailer, tapping out his first books on his knees. So he's earned his success and I don't begrudge it to him.
But Stephen. Come on. He describes his current working day: mornings, writing with the door shut to prevent interruptions until you reach your daily target (for him, 2,000 words; lesser mortals might aim for 1,000). Afternoons: naps and letters. Evenings: hanging out with the family, walking, reading. That sounds, frankly, idyllic.
When do you do the housework, Stephen? When do you make the lunches and dinner for everyone and do the grocery shopping? When do you drive your mum to the doctor and your anxious teenager to school? When do you clean out the rabbit and vacuum the floors? When do you hang on the phone to Centrelink to sort out the finances of your disabled sibling? How do you shoehorn all that in, Stephen? Or is there someone in the background taking care of all that?
To be fair, he is generous with his acknowledgement of his wife Tabby's help and encouragement along the way, and I have no doubt that he works hard at his job. But wow, wouldn't it be nice to be able to shut that door in the morning and never be interrupted.
The Secret Garden, published by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911, was somewhat overlooked in her lifetime, and wasn't even mentioned in her obituary. The sweet Cinderella story of A Little Princess and the ghastly Little Lord Fauntleroy were praised, but no one thought much of The Secret Garden. These days it's regarded as a classic, a masterpiece.
I love so much about this book. The notion of a secret, hidden, neglected garden, closed in by high walls and a locked door, is deliciously enticing. I love sour, lonely Mary Lennox; sturdy Dickon who communes with the wild animals; and fretful, sickly Colin. The scene where Mary and Colin scream at each other in a furious fight in the middle of the night used to give me such a thrill. And all the while, spring is creeping over the moor and reaching into the children's garden, healing their bodies and their minds.
It's been a few years since I last read The Secret Garden, and this time it was the mental health angle that jumped out at me. Neglected, unloved Mary is isolated and angry with the world; poor 'spoiled' Colin is actually tormented with anxiety; and his father, Mr Craven, is sunk in a deep depression after his wife's death. It's communion with nature, fresh air and sunshine and exercise, and a meaningful project in bringing the garden back to life, as well as connecting with each other, that brings them all back to health and happiness. It's a very simple story, but it's the very simplicity of the message that carries such power.
It really is a surreal book. Famously, the novel follows the last few months in the lives of a handful of characters stranded in Melbourne, at the bottom of the world, as nuclear fallout from a catastrophic international war drifts southward. At the beginning of September or the end of August, everyone will get radiation sickness, and everyone will die. It's literally the end of the world.
What struck me most was how calm everyone was about it. Life goes on pretty much as usual. Oh, there's some drunkenness, some fast car racing, but people still plant their gardens, fret over their baby's teething, do their jobs, pay for their purchases in shops. Frankly, I would have expected a LOT more lawlessness, with no consequences to come.
Also, the tone is one of emotional restraint. Some characters are in denial, in one breath acknowledging that everything is coming to an end in a matter of weeks, and at the same time 'believing' that their family in the war zone is carrying on life as usual. Paradoxically, this is much more effective and horrifying than melodrama would have been, even if it is quite implausible.
It's weird and old-fashioned and unbelievable, but this is one dystopian novel that will stay with me. And hey, it's set in Melbourne!
The story centres on Laura Thornby, at 45 a resolutely independent woman who guards her privacy and her emotions fiercely. In search of a diversion, she picks up with 23 year old Claud, an aspiring writer, and adroitly finds him a place to live (in a loft, naturally) and gainful employment while he's writing (an antique stall at the local market, which she helpfully stocks with items from her mother's attic). As Claud matures, Laura finds herself becoming more emotionally involved than she intended.
The sting in the novel's tail comes when it's revealed that Laura is the offspring of an incestuous union between brother and sister (not really a spoiler, as this is hinted at very early in the novel). This is apparently why she keeps herself so determinedly single and childless. Her elderly parents are a rather creepy pair, not surprisingly, and this shadow over Laura's origin made the whole novel very dark for me, and not as much fun as Mary Wesley can sometimes be.
Incest is a theme in several of Wesley's books (though seldom as overtly as here) and it's possible that she had a wartime romance with two brothers; it seems to have been an idea that intrigued her, at the very least. I wouldn't class Second Fiddle among her finest work.
This is a book I've been looking for for a long time. Ever since I started my research on Crow Country, nearly ten years ago now, and began to perceive tantalising hints of the Aboriginal world view, diametrically different to the Western assumptions I'd inherited, I've been longing for a clear, comprehensive guide to what Yunkaporta calls 'Indigenous thinking.' Now at last I've found it.
It's not easy to summarise the Aboriginal viewpoint and experience of the world, and I'm not going to presume to try to do it here. But one fundamental difference is that the Indigenous worldview never considers any one factor in isolation, never separates out one element of the picture to examine it 'objectively.' In the Aboriginal world, everything is connected, including us: land, Law, story, spirit, weather, plants and animals, humans, all inextricably intertwined. This is wisdom that the Western world is only just dimly beginning to reclaim.
Time is not a straight-line arrow into the future; it's an endlessly repeating cycle as the universe breathes in and out. All trouble begins with the thought I am greater than you. Aboriginal societies devote a lot of effort to trying to wipe out that tendency, the root of inequality, greed and oppression. Yunkaporta has an easy, engaging style, sprinkled with plenty of humour and anecdote -- this is far from a dry, academic read, but it's packed with ideas and questions nonetheless.
I don't necessarily find all of Yunkaporta's ideas comfortable. The chapter on violence was very confronting, the section on male-female relations didn't chime with my Western feminist standpoint. But Sand Talk has given me plenty to ponder on. I first read this book on the Kindle, and now I'm going to read it again in hard copy.
So good I've bought it twice! For a tight-arse like me, that's recommendation indeed.
I chose Robert Newton's 2017 novel Mr Romanov's Garden in the Sky for the Convent Book Group, to fit with our November theme of Gardens. But it turns out that the book doesn't actually have much to do with gardening at all.
This is a terrific novel. But while I was reading it, I was haunted by the feeling which all writers know, which I'll call Authorial Serendipity. This happens when Author A (in this case, me) has a book coming out soon, and reads a book by Author B (in this instance, Robert Newton), which shares some of the characteristics of Author A's book... It's disconcerting, it happens all the time, and there's nothing you can do about it except grit your teeth and assure Author B that you have NOT plaigarised their work... it's just coincidence.
So. Mr Romanov's Garden in the Sky is about two kids and an old man who go on a road trip together. My forthcoming book, The January Stars, is also about two kids and an old man going on a road trip together. Mr Romanov's Garden is set in Melbourne (and also the road to Surfer's Paradise). The January Stars is also set in Melbourne (and various places around Victoria).
But. Mr Romanov's Garden is a fair bit darker than The January Stars. Lexie's dad is dead, her mum is a junkie, Mr Romanov has dementia, and the novel opens with someone throwing his dog off the top of the housing commissions. At this point, I confess, I almost abandoned the book. I'm glad I pushed on, but it was a hard hurdle to pass. I promise that there are NO dead dogs in The January Stars.
Also, The January Stars has a bit of magic in it. So I guess maybe they're not so similar after all.
Times change fast in the world of technology. In 2009, being deprived of their iPods was a major hurdle. In 2019, I'm not sure that iPods even exist any more. Now music and podcasts are streamed through our phones. Maushart's kids didn't care that much about losing their phones, because back then phones didn't do as much as they do now. I laughed at the fact that Maushart's elder daughter, at 19, was addicted to Facebook. Ten years later, no 19 year old in their right mind would go anywhere near Facebook (so I'm told). Facebook is for nanas!
The details may have changed, but the central lessons are still valid, in fact more valid than ever. Boredom is good for us. Without a screen in the way, we can see the real world more clearly. Constant distraction is robbing us of deep concentration. Hanging out with our friends is more rewarding than social media. Access to screens stops us sleeping properly.
The three teenagers (heavily bribed to take part) survived. Maushart's son picked up his neglected saxophone and embarked on a musical career. Her daughter rebooted her disordered sleeping patterns and hugely improved her mood and her health. And Maushart, with more time to reflect deeply on her life, decided to relocate the family back to her home, the US. (How the kids reacted to this decision is not recorded.)
When I talked to my own teenagers about this experiment, their reaction was swift and predictable. No way. Impossible. And sadly, I fear they might be right. I don't think the digital world we live in now is all bad, but it does come at a cost, and I'm not sure our kids even realise what that price is.
Minnow on the Say is a lovely, very enjoyable, old-fashioned children's story, but it lacks the transformative brilliance of Tom's Midnight Garden. The Minnow of the title is a canoe, and the Say is a river, and the two boys on the cover, Adam and David, are searching for a lost treasure that is the only thing that will save the home of the canoe's owner, Adam. There is an enigmatic rhyme to guide them, penned by a mysterious ancestor, and Adam's grandfather's failing memory.
Adam's grandfather, old Mr Codling, is a poignant figure. Suffering from what we would now call dementia, he's trapped in a melancholy past, looking forward only to his son's return from the war. But his son is dead, and Mr Codling doesn't even recognise Adam, his grandson. The moment that stays with me, and reminds me most of Tom's Midnight Garden, is when old Mr Codling sees Adam in the moonlight and is joyfully sure that his son has at last returned home.
The treasure hunt itself is painfully slow and I doubt that a young modern reader would persist with the story. The Edward Ardizzone illustrations add greatly to the charm of the book -- when I think about it, I realise that Ardizzone illustrated so many of my childhood favourites (I'm thinking particularly of Nicholas Stuart Gray's creepy and moving Down in the Cellar). Why don't kids books have illustrations any more? (Answer: because it costs too much, I suppose. What a shame.)
How Bright Are All Things Here is a story about family and identity, regrets and joys, secrets and masks. It contains lots of my favourite elements: art, London in the 1950s, a Melbourne setting, relationships between siblings. Bliss is in the last days of a long, rich and crowded life, and her memories intertwine with the lives of her adult step-children, who are struggling with their own problems as well as their sometimes fraught relationship with Bliss herself.
This is a beautiful novel about a complicated woman that reminded me (serendipity!) of Mary Wesley's life story -- lots of relationships, some joyful, some sad; the struggle between creativity and family responsibilities; the wry humour and delight in sensual pleasures. Bliss and Mary might not have hit it off in real life, but they have quite a bit in common.
I'm so happy that I came back to this novel, I enjoyed it tremendously.
Sales begins with her own 'worst day' -- the birth of her second child where (almost) everything went wrong (they both survived, but it was close). She's had another few pretty bad days as well -- her older child has medical issues, and her long-term marriage collapsed. This was the impetus behind her quest to discover how other people manage to pull themselves through terrible experiences.
She interviews high profile survivors like Walter Mikac and Rosie Batty, as well as professionals in the field of trauma like coroners, journalists, and police. While she reminds us that some people don't recover from trauma, all her interviewees have succeeded in remaking their lives to some degree, though they all stress that life is never the same.
I came away from this book marvelling at the strength and faith of human beings in the face of horror that most of us try not to even imagine. My family has faced some challenges in the last few years, though nothing approaching the terrible experiences recounted here, and I have to concur with Sales' closing message: to cherish the ordinary days, because they are the most magical times we will have.
Born in 1912, Mary Wesley found her writing career late in life -- her first adult novel was published when she was 70, and she wrote about nine more (all bestsellers, with TV adaptations and international sales etc) before she died. After a few decades of grinding poverty, she was catapulted into sudden wealth: a dream come true!
Mary Farmar was born into a genteel military family. Her father was the British liaison with John Monash's Australian regiment, and he landed with the Australian troops at Gallipoli. But, with some justification, she felt neglected by her parents and older siblings, and rebelled with a defiant adolescence and young adulthood (this is where she picked up the nickname 'Wild Mary').
She made a conventional marriage into minor nobility, but the marriage was not a success, and the couple drifted apart during the Second World War. Mary was working for British Intelligence and had quite an adventurous time, with many lovers and entanglements before she met her second husband, Eric, with whom she remained until he died. (They were friends with Nancy Mitford.) But Eric had a truly ghastly wife, who stalked and harrassed them for years until they managed to shake her off, and the strain of this reign of terror took its toll on Eric's own mental health.
Eric aspired to be a writer, but never really had anything published. It makes you wonder what Mary might have been able to achieve if she'd had the freedom to write earlier... There was another complicated family scandal later on when a nasty solicitor tried to get Mary's second son disinherited so that he could take control of the whole estate. By the time Eric died, Mary was on the bones of her arse, ill herself, contemplating suicide, having to sell her house which she could no longer afford to live in -- and then her manuscript, Jumping the Queue, was accepted for publication and everything changed. (Jumping the Queue is about a widow contemplating suicide after the death of her husband.)
Mary's books struck a chord because they combine the recklessness and adventurous spirit of youth with the experience and cynicism of old age. They can be really dark at times -- there's incest, betrayal, violence and deception -- and yet they have an exuberant devilry about them which is kind of thrilling. With such rich and racy material to draw from, thank god 'Wild Mary' didn't succeed in 'jumping the queue' after all.
Anyway, for some reason, I wasn't as fond of The Story of the Amulet, though it was a time travel story and contained lots of the same elements as the other two stories: the same cast of children, the same sly humour, the same absorbing magic, and the delightfully grumpy Psammead.
But... I was surprised and dismayed to note how the story is marred by several instances of really gratuitous anti-Semitism. Did I pick up on that as a child reader? I think I actually did, and it made me so uneasy that I didn't return.
I decided to re-read this time because the elder daughter and I have just finished reading a 1940s book about archaeology* which has proved to be surprisingly engaging (it was a classic of its time, apparently, and may have kick-started the Indiana Jones trope of the archaeologist as adventurer), and took us to Babylon, ancient Egypt, Tyre and even the destruction of Atlantis. And apart from the gross and disappointing anti-Semitism, which was completely unnecessary to the plot, The Story of the Amulet is great.
Another episode I had forgotten was the chaotic visit of the Babylonian Queen to Victorian London, which surely must have 'influenced' a very similar scene in CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, though the figure of Jadis is more chilling than the flighty young Queen.
*Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram, 1949. Apparently Ceram is the pseudonym of a former Nazi propagandist -- I bet he was successful, he writes really well, even translated from German.
In my defence, Growing Up Asian in Australia did take me a long time to read, because it's so crammed with stories, memories, reflections, some hilarious, some poignant, some angry, some deeply sad, from Asian-Australians of all varieties: Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese and more, some by professional writers and some from contributors who have never written a piece for publication before.
There is an amazing array of experience here, but common themes do emerge. Without wanting to stray into stereotype, the weight of parental expectations and sacrifice looms large; the sometimes uneasy balance between belonging to both cultures, or neither; the knowledge of looking 'different', which is not shared by all immigrants. This book was a fascinating and rewarding read, and worth my fine.
The Boy and the Spy moves at a cracking pace, from the first few pages when our hero, Antonio, dives from a cliff to escape Nazi soldiers, to the very end when Sicily is invaded by the Allies. We hardly have time to draw breath as Antonio and his new American friend, the spy of the title, hurtle through a narrative crammed with gangsters, daring escapes, chases, stolen radios, bombing raids and train journeys in disguise.
For such a slim novel, it packs in plenty of action. But there is emotional depth too. Antonio is a rota, a baby abandoned to the mercy of the nuns, who carries the stigma of having no birth family. But his adoptive mother Nina is ill; who will take him in when she's gone? Ultimately, this is a story about family, home and belonging as much as it is about wartime intrigue and derring-do.
*Disclaimer: I have met Felice socially and through work, and he's a lovely guy.
Behind the Scenes was not at all what I was expecting; it's quite unlike any of her other novels in subject matter, though her exuberant, playful, psychologically acute style is the same. It's a family saga, deftly interweaving strands of four generations of mostly women with the central story of Ruby Lennox (who happens to be born in the same time and place as Atkinson herself) and whose life centres on a big mysterious gap -- which the reader figures out long before Ruby herself does.
There are plenty of Atkinson's trademark coincidences and surprises, and it's tempting to assume that there are parallels in this family history with Atkinson's own life, but who knows? You can't always assume that first novels are drawn from life, but there are vivid and baroque details here that do seem like the product of memory more than imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
I cannot get enough of these books about childhood reading. I gulp them down like lollies from the jar. In Storytime, Jane Sullivan (who writes a column about books for The Saturday Age) goes back to a dozen of her childhood favourites, first recalling what them special, then re-reading to see how accurate her memories were, and giving some adult context and reflection. So we have chapters on E. Nesbit, the Famous Five, Wind in the Willows, Little Women and more.
There was only two of Jane's choices that I'd never read. One was a collection of horror stories and the other was a comic strip, "The Silent Three," which appeared in School Friend magazine. Well, would you believe, I have several 1950s School Friend annuals decorating my living room (thank you, Judy Ballantyne!) so I was able to check out "The Silent Three" for myself, with their improbable hooded robes and their plucky ivy-climbing and ingenious riddle-solving. Utterly ludicrous but I could definitely see the appeal.
I knew I had to buy this book when I heard Jane mention a book she was sure no one else in the world had read: Gillian Avery's The Warden's Niece, which was a particular favourite of my own. Apparently the illustrator who produced the distinctive ink-blotted pictures for the book lived at the bottom of child-Jane's garden, and gave her a copy! I adored Maria's adventures in 19th century Oxford (which paved the way for all the other Oxford-set books I was to love in the future) and her detective work in company with the boys next door and their embarrassing bean pole of a tutor, Mr Copplestone. I completely agree with Jane that Gillian Avery is overdue for rediscovery.
The one book we disagree on is Little Women, which I loved and Jane couldn't stand. I fell in love with the March family and I was charmed by their playacting and mock-Pickwick newspaper, which grated on Jane's nerves. But hey, it's so dull when we all agree.
I tried to make Storytime last longer, but I couldn't help myself -- finished it in two days.
John Boyne has been hugely successful (also hugely reviled, most recently for the trans-themed My Brother's Name is Jessica) so he doesn't need my praise or support in any way. I'm only reading this book because it was suggested for our list by a new member of the Convent Book Group, who has now left! (The topic is War.)
The Boy in question is young Pierrot, son of a French mother and German father, who is taken in by his German aunt Beatrix when his parents die. Beatrix just happens to be housekeeper at the Berghof, Hitler's country retreat, and Pierrot, now known as the more Germanic Pieter, quickly falls under the Fuhrer's spell.
The point of the book is to show how easily an individual can be seduced into a corrupt and obnoxious philosophy, and I guess that is a worthy aim. But there is something about the nudging style of Boyne's writing, where the adult reader is always in on the joke (not that it's a joke), that I find really off-putting. We know the mysterious master of the house is Hitler, we know why Pierrot is forbidden to mention his Jewish friend, we know why the showers in the planned concentration camp will have no water. The young readers might not guess these things, but in their ignorance, will they feel the full horror of the big reveal? It feels as if Boyne is having a bet each way, laying clues that only make sense if you already know the secret; if you don't already know, you won't actually learn anything.
This gets to the heart of my objection to Boyne's books. I'm sure it's well-intentioned, but it just feels too cutesy to be playing games like this with such serious subject matter. It makes my blood boil!
I have very dim memories of reading this book as a child, from the Mt Hagen library, but it wasn't my favourite Elizabeth Goudge (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians) and re-reading it, I can understand why I didn't return to it. In many ways, it's a gorgeous book, all about the joy and wonder of making, and a glorious mixture of myth, religion and fantasy (not unlike the Narnia books).
But... an it's a big but... there is NO STORY. The book essentially consists of a series of visits by Tabitha Silver to the Workshop, a kind of studio of Heaven where animals and flowers and trees are made -- it sounds terribly twee, but it's really not that bad... well mostly -- while she and her companions (adults reclaiming their child-selves -- oh, God, it sounds more twee than ever, doesn't it!) assemble the materials they need to build a beautiful ship.
This is the favourite childhood book of lots of people, and I can see that, at the right age, it might strike an impressionable child like nothing else. There are passages of extraordinary, lyrical beauty; wonderful tableaux; and as so often in Goudge's work, an atmosphere of ineffable joy and wonder and gratitude. But with no plot to propel it along, The Valley of Song remains a rather static hymn of praise.
I asked for Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do as a birthday present, but I actually received it a little early, which I'm grateful for. This is not an easy read; it's one of the most harrowing, disturbing books I have ever read. But it's clear, confronting, and essential.
There is so much information here, so many terrible stories, that I don't know where to start. But two chapters stood out. 'Through the Looking Glass' shows how the Family Court has been so thoroughly captured and corrupted by the aggrieved fathers' movement that if a mother alleges abuse, the presumption now seems to be that she is inventing accusations to 'alienate' the children, and she is more likely to lose all custodial contact, while her children are returned to their abuser. I couldn't believe what I was reading, but the day after I finished this chapter I saw a story in the newspaper where a murdered child had pleaded not to be handed over to his abusive father, because he was terrified of him. This corruption of the Family Court system is a desperately urgent problem, which goes largely unrecognised because reporting on Family Law matters is so restricted (ironically, to protect the privacy of the children).
The other really powerful chapter is about the experience of Aboriginal women. It contains a brilliantly succinct account of the inter-generational damage caused by colonisation, and also some really encouraging stories of the way Aboriginal women have fought back against abuse and social harms in some communities.
See What You Made Me Do ends on a hopeful note, examining some proven pathways in the US and in Australia which have managed to dismantle the structures that enable perpetrators to escalate their abuse. There ARE solutions, there IS hope. All it takes, as Hill points out, is political will and determined people to work together. We have changed social norms before -- smoking, drink driving. And in the long term, it will cost less economically than the alternative, not even considering the cost in human lives and psychological injury.
Women and children are dying every day from male violence, but it doesn't have to be this way. Highly recommended.
I can see why Dumplin' has been such a huge hit. Willowdean Dickson is an appealing heroine, both bold and insecure, as she says herself, unashamed of her big body but at the same time beset by images of skinny 'perfection', particularly from her mother, who runs the annual small-town beauty pageant. With Dolly Parton as her inspiration, Will's own doubts are her biggest enemy as she tries to sort out her first boyfriend relationship, and untangle her first serious row with her best friend. Oh, and did I mention, in a moment of madness, she has actually entered the beauty pageant?
I loved the gang of 'misfit' girls who also claim their space in the pageant, and become new friends for Will. I loved sweet Bo, who fancies Will just the way she is, and poor Mitch, who also fancies Will but whom she doesn't fancy back. Overhanging the book is the memory of Will's aunt Lucy, who allowed her weight to dictate how she lived her life (interestingly, this is not the image of Lucy we see in the film version, and poor Mitch also hits the cutting-room floor, as the film focuses much more intently on the pageant and the friendships between the girls, rather than the romance angle. A good decision, I think.)
I must admit, I spent most of my time reading with my phone in my hand, checking out cultural references that mystified me. Dumplin' is set in Texas and it might as well be Timbuktu as far as I'm concerned. Chicken-fried steak? Trunk-or-treat? The whole bewildering pageant scene? Sadie Hawkins? 'Steamer' I eventually figured out was for clothes, not food (maybe the whole dumpling vibe threw me off there). The fact that all these sixteen year old kids, none of them well off, own their own cars? Ambrosia?? Homecoming mums? Not mothers returning home, I can tell you that much, but I'm still not 100% sure exactly what they are. Something to do with chrysanthemums? I think.
I have absolutely loved just about everything I've read by Kate Atkinson, and Transcription gets off to a cracking start. The wartime setting is very appealing, with naive young Juliet Armstrong press-ganged into working for MI5, monitoring and ultimately entrapping 'fifth columnists' (Nazi sympathisers). We know from some flash-forward, post-war sections, where Juliet is working for the BBC, that Something Bad is going to happen during the war; however, when the Bad Thing is eventually revealed, it's a bit of an anti-climax. In the end, I felt the novel ran out of steam, and the final twist didn't feel adequately prepared for.
It's a shame, because the initial premise was fascinating and the detail of Juliet's wartime and post-war experience was absorbing. Weirdly, this was the third book in a row I've read that featured an unusual funeral!
Apparently Constable and Toop is a real funeral firm in London, and it was sitting in a cafe opposite their building that sparked Gareth P. Jones to write this book. This is a real Victorian ghostly treat, teeming with spirits and colourful Dickensian characters. Young Sam Toop is a Talker, who can see and talk to ghosts; Clara Tiltman aspires to become a journalist; Tanner is a Rogue ghost, an urchin with a collection of spirit hounds; Lapsewood is also a ghost, but trapped in the coils of post-worldly bureaucracy. There are many, many more characters intertwining through the pages of this novel (including the wise and kindly Mr Constable!) but the short, pacy chapters never allow the complex narrative to become bogged down.
Constable and Toop is fairly gory, with several murders and ghastly exorcisms, so I wouldn't give this to the squeamish. But on the whole, it's a fun romp and very evocative of Victorian London.
I'm full of admiration for Mary Wesley, who only started writing novels in her 70s and went on to produce a raft of best-sellers. She was no cosy sentimentalist, and no prudish fuddy-duddy. I suspect that the character of elderly Calypso Grant, who reappears in this novel, with her gorgeous woods and garden and her much-mourned husband, might be based on Mary herself. Maybe I'll just read one more novel and then tackle her biography, to see how many of my surmises are actually true.
Reynolds wrote this memoir in the heat of John Howard's condemnation of the so-called 'black armband' History Wars, a conflict in which Reynolds himself was one of the most outspoken voices. And yet just last week I heard a caller to the ABC complaining that the broadcaster placed too much emphasis on telling Aboriginal stories, whingeing that they had an 'agenda.'
I finished reading Why Weren't We Told? during a trip to a regional high school to talk about Crow Country (itself now nearly ten years old). A number of schools have found studying Crow Country to be a useful and not-too-confronting way to raise the troubled history between Europeans and Indigenous people, and I'm very happy to add some extra information into the mix. One student asked me what I thought of the Adam Goodes affair* and I said I was deeply saddened and angered by it. The students had just watched The Final Quarter, and I got the impression that most of them agreed with me. So maybe, slowly, we are getting somewhere? God, I hope so.
*An extraordinarily talented AFL footballer, Goodes started being booed during games when he bagan to speak out on race relations. Eventually he retired, basically driven from the field by the hostility of the crowds. Two recent documentaries have explored this shameful episode.
Staring At The Sun was lent to me by my friend Chris, one of whose jobs is in pastoral care. I found it both confronting and comforting. Yalom is unflinching in facing 'the dread of death' (or 'the terror of death' as it's subtitled in the US), and traces many of the seemingly minor crises of therapy back to the ultimate fear, the fear of ceasing to exist. Yalom is an atheist, and while he doesn't try to talk people out of their personal religious consolations, he doesn't believe in any kind of afterlife. He is quite certain that death is a state of non-consciousness, exactly the same as before our birth.
As usual, the greatest strength of Yalom's writing lies in his case studies, accounts of his clients and their struggles, and his own role in teasing out their fears and assumptions. He readily and refreshingly admits his own mistakes, his own biases and fears; to Yalom, we are all humans travelling the same road together.
As for myself, I think an experience I had a few years ago has done a lot to soften my own dread of death. It was when I went under general anaesthetic for abdominal surgery; I was terrified that I might gag or vomit and die under the anaesthetic, and as I went under I was earnestly explaining my panic to the anaesthetist. Just as I was losing consciousness, I was aware of a sense of liberating surrender. If the worst happens, I thought, I can't do anything about it now. If I do choke and die, I won't know anything about it. This was an immensely comforting thought. So I slipped easily into the dark, and woke up hours later, when it was all over.
Of course I don't know what my own death will be like, and if there is a 'waking up' afterwards, I'll be extremely surprised. But I hope it's something like that experience of losing consciousness under the anaesthetic -- just an inexorable falling asleep.
Therefore it feels slightly churlish to admit that I wasn't completely enamoured of Joey's adventures. Now that I'm thinking about it, it reminds me a lot of Black Beauty, which I read several times as a child -- it shares the same calm, slightly ponderous first person voice, and the same panoramic sweep of potential equine experience. One difference is that Joey doesn't converse with other horses; he makes friends with them, but it's a silent communion. He does overhear many human conversations, on both the English and German sides of the fighting, and he experiences even-handed kindness and cruelty from both sides.
The aims of War Horse are admirable, showing the humanity and futility of the conflict and the way in which innocent animals (and people) became caught up in the machine of war. But somehow I couldn't completely sink myself into the narrative. I've always had a bit of resistance to stories told from an animal's point of view; perhaps this is just my prejudice showing. I'll be interested to see what the rest of my book group make of it.
But... I have to say that this book wasn't quite as helpful as the last. There were long chunks of text explaining the science behind the psychology, which made my eyes glaze over. My favourite sections were personal examples from the lives of the authors of where they had failed as parents -- this was reassuring and relatable, and if the whole book had consisted of these stories, I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
The theory covered a lot of ground that I was already familiar with, which is my own fault for reading so many of these damn books.
I'm relieved I only borrowed this from the library and didn't actually buy it.
This month's theme for the Convent Book Group is Horses. As a child, I read pony books and ballet books with equal fervour, though I actually had ballet lessons and I had only once in my life sat on the back of a horse. I longed for a pony, though I don't know what I would have done with one if I'd managed to get one. It was all theoretical, but I never gave up loving the idea of owning and riding a horse of my own.
But the horses in The Scorpio Races are not tame, dependable companions. The capaill uische are mythical Celtic horses from the sea -- fierce, wild and lethal. They literally eat people. And on the island of Thisby, the locals catch these horses, tame them as much as they can (using magical charms), and once a year, they race them. Sean Kendrick has won the Scorpio Races four times. Puck Connolly needs to save her family home. They both have a lot at stake, but by the end of the races, they will be risking even more.
This is a thrilling adventure, where the only overt magical element is the wild, terrifying horses. It's also a great love story -- I got chills down my spine toward the end. Maggie Stiefvater is just a terrific writer, knotting plot and atmosphere, emotion and action, into a tight and satisfying pattern.
The only uneasy aspect of this book for me was that I had trouble pinning down exactly when it was supposed to be taking place. There were cars, and radios, but no computers. The characters talk like twenty-first century people; it wasn't until I was about halfway through that it occurred to me to wonder about the time-setting. Unfortunately, the fact that I couldn't place it made the rest of the novel feel a bit slippery. But overall, that's a minor flaw in a very strong YA novel.
So far, her novels bear out that theory. There is plenty of sex and high jinks, more than I would have expected from a septuagenarian novelist, but that's my prejudice showing. Harnessing Peacocks stars the gorgeous Hebe Rutter, a single mother who supports herself as a highly selective sex-worker (for middle-aged blokes) and gourmet cook (for old ladies). But who was the father of her son? Even Hebe doesn't seem to know.
There is waspish class commentary, comic misunderstandings, improbable coincidences and social awkwardness galore before the hard-won happy ending. It might not all be quite so funny and jolly if Hebe wasn't from such a posh background and I didn't have to read the novel with Google Translate beside me to translate all the rude bits written in French.
I've just discovered that Harnessing Peacocks was made into a TV movie in 1993, starring someone wearing my glasses (because sex workers never wear glasses) and the love of my life, Peter Davison. It's on YouTube. I might just have to watch it...
It's taken me a while to work my way through it, because it is a very thick book, and quite densely packed with information. I found it best to digest it in small chunks, something that was easy to do because of the clever, readable way that Wright has arranged her story. This was a fascinating account of an episode of which I had only the dimmest knowledge, capturing the full background of the unrest on the Victorian goldfields, the back stories of many of the individual protagonists in the drama, and the tragic lead-up to the disastrous attack on the 'stockade' itself (in reality, a hastily erected and ramshackle defense that never stood a chance against the soldiers).
This is a colourful, intelligent and engaging history which managed to be both educational and entertaining. A deserving winner of all those awards!
This was one of several books about knitting which I gathered from Sandra's shelves along with her wool stash. Sandra was my knitting mentor and adviser, and she was always very generous with her encouragement. The other day I pulled out the jumper I knitted for Alice without a pattern, nearly two years ago, and was horrified by its rough edges and general dodginess -- but Sandra, God bless her, had praised it and offered advice without criticism, though she must have been appalled at the sight of it. She was such a good friend.
Anyway, I can see why Maggie Righetti appealed to Sandra. In this book, she offers practical, hands-on, no-nonsense tips on the basics of knitting and explains many things which still mystified me, self-taught novice that I am, such as 'picking up' stitches. Righetti is a big fan of knitting on circular needles and I must admit that at least they don't poke holes in my clothes!
At the end of the book, Righetti offers three practice patterns to demonstrate many knitting techniques: the Dumb Baby Sweater, the Stupid Baby Bonnet and Suzanne's Baby Booties. I managed to successfully produce the Dumb Baby Sweater, here modelled by Octavia the teddy bear:
The Aitch Factor is essentially a collection of short pieces, like newspaper columns, on a bewildering variety of topics -- aitch or haitch? Maroon or marone? (I was surprised to learn that marone is exclusively Australian, probably a pseudo-posh pronunciation.)
There are also insights into how the dictionary is produced and the criteria used to decide whether a new word or usage makes the cut. Some of Butler's predictions (the book was published in 2014) have come true, some have proved misplaced, which goes to show that even an editor with her finger right on the pulse can get it wrong. For example, she dismisses doing a Steven Bradbury as already extinct, and credits having a barry of a day as still persistent. But I'm sure I've heard references to doing a Steven Bradbury more than once just in the past week, whereas I can't remember ever hearing anyone saying they're having a barry today.
But then, language is one area where we can all claim to be experts, even if we're not. This is a great book for dipping, and all the more interesting because, unlike most books about the English language, it's Australian-focused.
The earliest entries imagine the interaction of a very young infant with a patch of sunlight on his wall, the pure sensory and emotional experience of hunger and feeding. Then a slightly older baby delights in simple mirroring interaction with his mother, then is overwhelmed when she takes the game too far. The book traces similar everyday experiences until we end with a four year old who is able to tell his own story.
The somewhat poetic 'diary' extracts are interposed with science and observations from Stern, an experienced parent and expert on infant development. I wouldn't be surprised if the science has progressed in the thirty years since this book was written, but I admire the imaginative effort that has gone into recreating the baby's own consciousness. I would recommend this to a new parent faced with one of those mysterious little creatures who obviously feel so intensely but can tell us so little.
The Capsule Wardrobe falls squarely into the Fun basket. I have a weakness for books that promise to transform my clothes. I have loads of Trinny and Susannah books, I am tempted by books that will tend me what clothes to buy for my body shape (not that I can ever decide what my body shape actually is), or what colours I should wear. I don't enjoy buying clothes and I want to get it right. "1000 outfits from 30 pieces" sounded too good to be true.
I think what I really wanted was for Wendy Mak to come to my house and show me how to combine the clothes I already own in new and exciting ways. But that's not what this book does. It's not rocket science: get a dark jacket, a light jacket, dark pants, light pants, make sure everything goes with everything else, and mix them up. Yeah, I can probably manage that on my own.
I'm not a sophisticated fashionista and to me, putting on a different pair of shoes with the same top and bottom does not count as a new outfit! Also, nearly half the book (and it's not a big book) consists of spreadsheets of different combinations. I seriously doubt that anyone would bother trying on every single outfit on this list.
The Capsule Wardrobe was a quick, fairly fun read but it's going straight back into the donation box.
But I love A Corner of White, as well as its sequels in the Colours of Madeleine trilogy, The Cracks in the Kingdom and A Tangle of Gold, so I invented a spurious excuse to read it again. This was the first Jaclyn Moriarty I'd ever read, and her fresh take on fantasy was delightful. Now I know what's coming, I can appreciate the subtle clues and clever plotting that will pay off later in the series.
In fact, the two words I'd use to describe this book are whimsical and clever. Whimsical can be a loaded adjective, but the whimsy here is logical, fresh and funny, with a touch of grit that keeps the story grounded. For all its shifting seasons, parallel worlds and travelling princesses, A Corner of White is really about grief, upheaval and loss.
I suspect this book won't be to everyone's taste, but I can't wait to find out what the rest of the group will make of it.
Jessica Townsend's debut novel Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow has taken the world by storm, and deservedly so. It's energetic, original and playful and will provide a hefty hit of fantasy for those readers looking for a follow-up to Harry Potter. And she's Australian!
Morrigan is a Cursed Child, held responsible for every misfortune, and doomed to die at Eventide. Luckily for her, she is whisked away by a charismatic rescuer called Jupiter North to his magical hotel in a parallel world (the hotel is great -- it alters Morrigan's room according to her mood). At first Morrigan is relieved, but then she discovers that Jupiter has entered her in a competition for which she needs a special, astounding gift, and she doesn't have one -- or does she?
Thoroughly enjoyable, and with probably lots of sequels to follow, and a film version on the way, we will be seeing a lot more of Morrigan Crow.
In contrast, Iyengar demonstrates 200 postures, some of which are extremely demanding! But the structure of the book, which offers step-by-step instructions, many photographs, suggested postures for different ailments, and comprehensive practice courses, has obviously provided a template for many yoga books which followed.
I'm tempted to label this book as fantasy, because there is no way I can aspire to anything other than the most basic asanas. Perhaps I'll file it under 'inspiration!'
You might think that with children of (nearly) 18 and (very nearly) 15, I would be putting my feet up and relaxing on the parenting front. No way! If anything, this game gets harder and more complicated the longer you stick at it. In many ways, Daniel A Hughes's book, Attachment-Focused Parenting, has been very reassuring -- a lot of stuff that we've done by instinct turns out to have professional approval (phew!) But it's never too late to add a few tools to the toolkit, and I've found this book very helpful in suggesting alternative strategies, or holding back when necessary.
The heart of the book is the PACE strategy of building relationships with your children (or any children, or adults, for that matter). PACE stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy -- all underpinned by L for Love: an unconditional commitment and pleasure. At its core, PACE recommends accepting and sitting with your child in their difficulties, rather than jumping in with solutions, lectures, discipline or punishment. Sometimes, as a parent, I've found holding back is the hardest skill to master.
Highly recommended for all parents, new or not-so new.
So it is with some chagrin that I am forced to admit that Andrew Daddo's Just Breathe is really good. (This is his 26th book, so I guess he is more of a writer than an actor by now.) Hendrix is a runner, with every aspect of his training, his food, even his breathing, regulated by his controlling father. Emily has moved from Benalla to be closer to her doctor... yes, it's not good, Emily has a time-bomb in her head. I'm not giving anything away to reveal that Emily and Hendrix fall in love. The obstacles to their togetherness all come from outside -- Hendrix's ambitious dad, and Emily's illness.
I became hugely invested in the young lovers. Maybe I felt Emily's situation all the more keenly because of my friend Sandra's recent swift death from a brain tumour, I don't know. Daddo writes really well, though the occasional teen term seemed slightly off to me, maybe his kids speak a different dialect from mine! (My kids would never say 'gatho', except ironically.)
But one thing which continually pulled me out of the story and actually made me really angry was the number of typos and outright spelling mistakes in this edition. For example: eek for eke (twice!), Sherin for Sherrin, antioxidents for antioxidants, misplaced apostrophes, taught for taut... and sadly, many more. Aaargh! I am told that a high level of these mistakes tends to de-bar a book from award consideration. If that happens to Just Breathe, it would be a real shame.
Though I preferred reading aloud to my own children, when we were in the car I sometimes resorted to making up stories -- something I found surprising difficult, considering it's supposed to be my day job! The favourite tale was called the Story of the Coin, which was a tedious, endless, rambling adventure of a coin which found itself variously swallowed by a crocodile, spent by a small girl on lollies, swept down a drain and out to sea -- you get the picture.
I guess my point is that stories we make up for our children don't have to be inspired masterpieces for our kids to enjoy them. And the fact that our kids enjoy them doesn't mean we should necessarily inflict them on the rest of the world.
There is nothing wrong with Marge in Charge by Isla Fisher, about whacky baby-sitter Marge who enjoys making mess and noise and turning the rules upside down. A lot of children would delight in these amusing tales. They are the kind of stories that made me desperately anxious as a child -- Pippi Longstocking and the Cat in the Hat disturbed me for the same reason. But I can't help a nagging suspicion that if Marge's adventures hadn't been invented by Isla Fisher, they might not have made it into print.
Four year old Romoschka, abandoned by his family, is adopted into a clan of wild dogs scraping an existence on the edges of Moscow. Initially we see everything from Romoschka's point of view -- the loving comfort of the mother dog, the wary sibling relationships he establishes with Black Dog and Golden Bitch, the loving bonds he establishes with the other puppies. As he grows older, he feels keenly his inadequacies as a dog; he can't match his canine brothers and sisters in smell or tracking. But gradually his strength and cleverness establishes him as the leader of the pack.
It comes as a shock when our point of view suddenly shifts to a pair of researchers who have discovered the existence of the 'dog boy.' Now we see Romoschka's life with new eyes -- the squalid den, the abominable stench, the feral, hairy child. There is a creeping sense of doom; Romoschka's life is impossible, and one way or another, it has to come to an end.
Dog Boy is not a happy book, but it is an extraordinary, moving experience.
This is a sweet story, whose charm is enhanced by the Garth Williams illustrations (Little House on the Prairie for me will always look the way Williams drew it, just as Narnia will be forever filtered through the vision of Pauline Baynes). However, the charm is marred by a couple of chapters where Mario meets a pair of venerable Chinese gentlemen who sell him a pavilion for his cricket. The characters themselves are treated with respect by the text, but sadly there are pages and pages of dialogue where they speak in supposed Chinese accents ('Velly solly' etc) which these days reads as horribly racist. Perhaps newer editions of the book have had this dialogue altered; it would be easy enough to do, and it would make me feel much more comfortable about sharing this otherwise lovely story.
My favourite scene comes towards the end of the book, where Chester the cricket plays music which drifts up out of the subway and onto the street, and a section of the city falls still to listen. Just gorgeous.