15.7.19

Harnessing Peacocks

I've fully committed to exploring Mary Wesley -- I've bought a box set of her books and her biography. She seems to have lived a full and interesting life before embarking on her writing career at the age of 70: her biography is called Wild Mary.

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...

10.7.19

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Clare Wright's history of the Eureka Stockade, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, was justly awarded and widely discussed when it was published a few years ago, so when I saw a copy on Brotherhood Books, I snapped it up.

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!

8.7.19

Knitting in Plain English

This is not the cover of the edition of Maggie Righetti's Knitting in Plain English which I have. My cover is not as pretty as this, in fact it's a very poor design, which is a shame, because the contents are fabulous.

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:

It's knitted in one piece on circular needles from the neck down, and I'm now going to attempt to scale it up to adult human size. There is something appealing about knitting to size without a pattern, so I'm up for the challenge. I hope Maggie and Sandra are both looking down and wishing me luck.


3.7.19

The Aitch Factor

Another speedy, fun read. Susan Butler has been editor of the Macquarie Dictionary since the 1980s, so she is well placed to comment on the various controversies and dilemmas of Australian language.

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.

26.6.19

Diary of a Baby

Daniel Stern's 1990 book Diary of a Baby also falls into the Fun read category. This slim volume, which was published together with a companion book, The Birth of a Mother (which sounds less fun, to be honest), purports to be snapshots from the diary of an infant, from six weeks up to four years old.

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.

24.6.19

The Capsule Wardrobe

My non-fiction purchases tend to fall into two categories: Worthy Educational, or Fun. Which is not to say that I might not learn something from the Fun reads, or that the Worthy Educational books can't be enjoyable to read (to wit, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, a terrific, engaging history, which I am slowly making my way through).

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.

18.6.19

A Corner of White

Was it cheating for me to add A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty to the list of Umbrella books for this month? Almost certainly. While Madeleine's tangerine umbrella is pictured on the cover, it's only mentioned once, and (spoilers) it doesn't have any part in the story.

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.

15.6.19

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

This month's theme for the Convent book group is (wait for it) Umbrellas. Okay, we might have been in a silly mood when we came up with this one, but it has netted us some quality fantasy for our To Read lists. And we didn't even include Mary Poppins! There is something undeniably magical about the umbrella.

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.

10.6.19

Light On Yoga

Okay, confession: I didn't read every word of this seminal yoga handbook. I was too gobsmacked by the positions that the human body can assume -- BKS Iyengar's body, that is, definitely not mine!


Light on Yoga was one of the first yoga texts to be published in the West and I can clearly see its influence on several of the books that followed, particularly my own personal yoga bible, Richard Hittleman's Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan, which offers a simpler and less strenuous program targeted at 1960s 'housewives.'

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!'


6.6.19

Attachment-Focused Parenting

Our family has been travelling a bumpy road over the last couple of years. I won't go into detail, but it's been (being) a pretty rough ride. So I am up for any help I can get!

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.

31.5.19

Just Breathe

This month's theme for the Convent book group is Celebrity Authors, and I will put my hand up and admit that I came prepared to sneer. As a professional non-celebrity children's author, I have always enjoyed growling when someone like Madonna or Ricky Gervais gets a publishing contract on the strength of their name. Okay, maybe Ricky Gervais can write, he has written other things, after all, but there are a LOT of film stars who seem to think, hm, children's book... not many words... how hard can it be?

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.

28.5.19

Marge in Charge

When I was a very small child, my father used to tell me bedtime stories about someone called Trixie. Sadly, I cannot remember any more details than that, but I know I clamoured for more Trixie stories whenever Dad was home at bedtime.

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.

20.5.19

Dog Boy

Eva Hornung's 2009 Dog Boy has reminded me how vividly and completely a novel can transport us into another's life, however bizarre and improbable it might seem.

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.

13.5.19

The Cricket in Times Square

My friend Pam passed this book on to me because she thought it looked like the kind of book I like, ie old. The Cricket in Times Square was a Newbery Award winner in 1961, so it's even older than I am! As I read, dim memories returned -- I think I did read this in Mt Hagen, but only once.

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.

10.5.19

The House of Arden

When I was about nine or ten, Edith Nesbit was one of my favourite authors. Luckily for me, the Mt Hagen library had a good stock of her works, and I read and re-read The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Five Children and It, The Would-Be-Goods and more. She was one of those authors, like Noel Streatfeild, with whom I knew I was in safe hands.

Alas, when I tried to share the Nesbit magic with my own children, it didn't cross the generation gap. Perhaps her humour was too subtle, perhaps the Victorian-era setting was too far from my daughters' world, or maybe I was too eager and tried when they were too young. All my favourites sit on my bookshelf, but they haven't been read for many years.

Then I found The House of Arden in the local op shop. I hadn't read this one, but for fifty cents, it was worth a punt. (I must say that Edith's prolific output did produce a few duds, and I'd been disappointed by Wet Magic and The Magic City.) But The House of Arden, I'm pleased to say, was right up there with her best.

It's a time slip story, in which two children (unfortunately named Edred and Elfrida) travel through their own family history, encountering highwaymen, the Gunpowder Plot and a mysterious South American civilisation among other adventures, as well as a random fellow traveller from their own time (who is a loose end left dangling -- perhaps resolved in the sequel, Harding's Luck). They are searching for treasure, and eventually find it, though not in the form they were expecting.

I'm delighted to add The House of Arden to my collection, and it's reminded me how much fun Nesbit's books can be. She also had a very complicated personal life, (which possibly explains her fascination with absent fathers??) and I've been promised her biography to read (thanks, Kirsty!) I can't wait...

4.5.19

Ellen and the Queen

I picked up Ellen and the Queen from my local op shop, where I occasionally find unexpected treasures. Gillian Avery made a speciality of novels set in Victorian times; The Warden's Niece is a much beloved childhood favourite of mine, and it's only in latter years that I've discovered that she wrote several more books in the same vein.

Ellen and the Queen is a very slim little book -- hardly more than a short story, really. It's the tale of fiery, red-haired Ellen, whose home village is turned upside down when Queen Victoria comes to stay at the Great House. The very naughty Ellen trespasses into the grounds of the House; then into the House itself; and by a series of misadventures, eventually penetrates the bedchamber of the monarch herself...

A slight volume in every sense, but great fun.

2.5.19

Summer of My German Soldier

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene is one of those classic books that I had never quite got around to reading -- perhaps because it's American, and I tend to neglect the American canon (my bad).

First published in 1973, the novel is narrated by 12 year old Patty, daughter of small town storekeepers in middle America in the middle of World War II. A group of Nazi prisoners of war is stationed nearby, and when one of them escapes, Patty makes the momentous decision to shelter him.

I expected a lot more of the book to be devoted to Patty and Anton in hiding, but in fact she only shelters him for a very short time (though with huge consequences). Much of Patty's background is autobiographical, including the loving Black housekeeper Ruth, who stands in stark contrast to Patty's cold and frankly brutal parents.

I was actually really shocked by how cruel Patty's father is to her; he regularly beats her with a leather belt to the point where she loses consciousness. The obvious parallels are drawn between the domestic brutality of Patty's father and the political cruelty of faraway Hitler. The power of love is raised to counter the horror, but with only limited results. Patty's parents never give her the love she craves, Ruth is helpless to save Patty from the consequences of her actions, and Anton's story has a tragic end.

This is a powerful, sobering story, though old-fashioned in the telling. I'm glad I finally gave it a go.

1.5.19

In the Teeth of the Evidence

I picked up In the Teeth of the Evidence from my favourite secondhand bookshop, Brown and Bunting, because I couldn't resist a Dorothy L Sayers, even though this one is short stories and I generally steer clear of short stories (why? I used to write them!) Only two Wimsey stories here, several featuring the observant travelling salesman, Montague Egg, and a few more with random narrators, some humorous, some creepy.

This was an interesting reading experience, and historically educational, because many of the stories in this volume turn on a single plot trick, often centred on a quirk of 1930s technology -- the specifics of a pair of telephones connected in parallel, to enable someone to fake being miles away while they were actually in the next room; a 'repeating' alarm clock, which apparently chimes the last hour gone if you wake in the night and can't read the clock-face. Even my ancient mother had never heard of that one.

I do honestly believe that reading books like this are the best way to immerse yourself in the everyday detail of the period -- the way households run, the way people talk to their peers, to their doctor, to their servants. Often modern stories set in the past strike a slightly 'off' note, particularly around social mores. It's the things that are left unsaid, the unspoken assumptions, that are the most fascinating element of stories like these.

30.4.19

Kids Who Did

Oh dear, I'm very behind with my book diary! I actually flew through Kids Who Did by my friend Kirsty Murray, which is a revised and updated edition of Tough Stuff, which has been in print for twenty years. I haven't read Tough Stuff but Kids Who Did is a really terrific book.

Kids Who Did consists of very readable, funny and inspiring potted biographies of real kids who achieved all sorts of things in all sorts of circumstances. Chess champions, wild children, activists (there is a section for Climate Change Warriors), monarchs, inventors... they are all here. Kids Who Did never gets bogged down, but tells you just enough of each young person's story to send you hunting for more.

There is something here for everyone. I fully expect Kids Who Did to stay in print for at least another twenty years!

21.4.19

Force of Nature

So much did I enjoy The Dry that I plunged straight into Jane Harper's second Aaron Falk novel, Force of Nature. This time the setting is not the bone-dry, parched paddocks of rural Victoria, but the soggy, impenetrable slopes of the (imagined) Giralong ranges national park, once the haunt of a notorious serial killer -- shades of Ivan Milat in the Belanglo State Forest.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic as Harper again employs parallel narratives to trace the events of a three day corporate bonding hike which quickly unravels, and the subsequent search for a missing hiker, which is entwined with Falk's investigation into corporate wrongdoing. Harper avoids the trap of spending too much time outlining the details of the firm's corruption -- they're just bad, and that's all we need to know. Instead Harper focuses on the interpersonal relationships between the five women on the hike, and their family backgrounds.

This was another absorbing, satisfying story. I'd heard that it was supposed to be less good than The Dry but I disagree; I found it just as engaging. Jane Harper is one of those writers where you can relax into the story, knowing that you are in safe hands; that's one of my highest accolades! I've bought the third book, The Lost Man, for my mother's birthday -- I can't wait till she's done.

19.4.19

The Dry

The excitement around Jane Harper's debut crime novel, The Dry, has been bubbling away in my peripheral vision for months, and when a copy popped up on Brotherhood Books, I seized the moment (I bought it for my Mum, you understand, who's having trouble finding really engaging books lately, and who loves a good murder mystery -- and I had to act fast, because Jane Harper novels don't last long on Brotherhood Books).

Mum raced through it and then it was my turn. And yes, I'm pleased to report, it's just as good as everyone says it is. A thoroughly Australian, totally readable, meaty mystery, with just the right amount of surprises and a good depth of characterisation. It was the kind of book where I'd find excuses to pick it up and whiz through a chapter or two. Maybe that's the ultimate accolade -- this book is more enticing than Candy Crush... oh, boy, that is really sad. For me.

So yes, this is a great read and Harper deserves all the plaudits that have come her way. Apparently a film version is on the horizon. I can't wait.

15.4.19

And the Ocean Was Our Sky

And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness is the YA title for the Convent book group this month, based on classics. This is (almost) the story of Moby Dick, but told from the perspective of the whales rather than the humans.

It's an intriguing idea for a novel, and this short book is beautifully and evocatively illustrated by Australian artist Rovina Cai, who coincidentally seems to have a room at the Convent herself!

I met Patrick Ness once, at a school literature festival, and he was extremely nice, and clearly he is a clever and inventive writer with lots of interesting ideas. He also wrote the Dr Who spinoff, Class, which my younger daughter is a massive fan of.

But...not every book will work for every reader, and And the Ocean Was Our Sky just didn't do it for me. Maybe because I've never read Moby Dick, or wanted to. Maybe I struggled with the improbabilities of this world, where whales sail their own underwater ships, riding the currents, and hunt with their own harpoons. There is one passage where the narrator, a whale called Bathsheba, discusses the advantage in dexterity that humans gain from having hands. Well...yeah! How the hell do you build cities and make weapons with fins? Maybe I found the style just slightly too pretentious, impenetrable, elaborate? I don't know. There were beautifully written passages, and the message is a worthy one -- that violence makes us all into monsters -- but this short book was long enough for me.



12.4.19

Gilgamesh

Every time it seems I'll get a chance to attack the huge piles of unread books hiding in my wardrobe, another contender jumps up and claims my attention. This time it was Joan London's debut novel, Gilgamesh, which I found while browsing the second hand book shelves at Royal Talbot rehabilitation hospital (Dad was doing some conversation workshops with speech pathology students, and I had to pass the time somehow... I just can't resist a second hand book sale).

Like The Golden Age, which I loved, Gilgamesh takes us back to a sleepier, almost ignored pocket of Western Australia, a backwater of the world. But the story breaks open when Edith takes her little son Jim in search of his father, first to London and then across Europe and into Armenia.

Armenia is one of those places (and there are all too many, I'm afraid) that I know nothing about. I had never even heard of Yerevan, the capital, known as the Pink City, shadowed by the snowy slopes of Mt Ararat. This is where Edith and Jim spend most of the Second World War. One of the great benefits of being a reader in the internet age is that you can google the places you're reading about and see the streets and monuments and parks unfold on your screen, or even trace your character's journeys on a satellite map.

This is a novel peopled with pairs -- Frank and Ada, the unhappy farming couple; their daughters, Frances and Edith; their exotic visitors, cousin Leopold and his friend Aram; Edith and little Jim; Edith and Hagop, her ambiguous Armenian protector -- just like the pair of friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who travel through the world's oldest epic story.

10.4.19

Looking Glass Girl

This month in the Convent book group, we are reading books based on classics. Cathy Cassidy's Looking Glass Girl uses Alice in Wonderland as its foundation.

There are SO many books that use Alice in their titles. I once thought of starting a collection for my elder daughter (whose name is Alice) but I gave up because there were just so many of them: Go Ask Alice, A Town Like Alice, Alice in La La Land, Alice in Blunderland etc, What Alice Forgot... there are literally dozens of them. I mean, it's a great name, obviously, but I hadn't realised just what a heavy literary burden it bears!

This book also features a heroine named Alice, who is lying in a coma in hospital after an accidental fall. Or was it an accident? Each chapter cleverly weaves in dialogue drawn from the original Alice in Wonderland as visitors to the hospital come and go, trying to coax Alice from her long sleep, and we trace the events that led to the mysterious fall downstairs.

This is really a story about bullying and peer pressure, with a few twists along the way. The character who is set up as the villain turns out not to be the real villain after all, though I still had reservations about her behaviour and wasn't prepared to let her off the hook so lightly. Looking Glass Girl is a very competent book, but ironically it lacked the touch of magic that makes Lewis Carroll's Alice so special.

7.4.19

Feeling Sorry for Celia

Another delightful outing from Jaclyn Moriarty -- though I shouldn't say 'another' as Feeling Sorry for Celia was actually her first novel. Written, like the others, in the form of letters, notes and postcards, we track the developing penpal friendship between Elizabeth and Christina, along with a couple of possible budding romances and the adventures of Elizabeth's flaky best friend Celia. Often funny, sometimes touching, occasionally dark, Moriarty handles the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence with her usual madcap touch.

There were a couple of aspects of Feeling Sorry for Celia that made me slightly uncomfortable. Celia's behaviour was so wild that I wondered if she needed psychological help, and I found it hard to summon up a lot of sympathy for her. The adults in this book seemed particularly dim and irresponsible. I'm just relieved that Elizabeth and Christina found each other, as you can't help feeling that they will support each other for life.

How well I remember feeling, like Elizabeth, that I should be kicked out of the Association of Real Teenagers for knowing nothing about boys or fashion. I also thoroughly enjoyed the contributions of the Society for Amateur Detectives at the end, which were pure fun. I wish I could give this book to my younger daughter, as she loves novels in letter format, but alas, she would never forgive me for a significant death about halfway through...

3.4.19

The Camomile Lawn

My friend Sian recently read The Camomile Lawn and apparently said to herself, This is such a Kate novel! So she lent it to me... and she was absolutely right.

Set in England before and during the Second World War -- tick. Upper class, eccentric characters -- tick. (Extra points for the eccentrics being an extended family of cousins.) Ruminations on love, loyalty, secrets, loss and betrayal -- tick. Bring it on!

This is definitely an adult books, despite featuring a class of young adults, and one child, Sophy. I've never read anything by Mary Wesley before, and she is one of those inspiring authors who wasn't published until she was seventy! This is quite a sexy book, but in unexpected ways. The F word is tossed around, but the seemingly sophisticated Calypso doesn't recognise an erection when it first.. er...comes to hand. Uncle Richard creepily puts his hand up little girls' skirts, but everyone shrugs, oh dear, and tries to keep potential victims out of his way. This book has the ring of authenticity, and surely must be at least partly based on Wesley's own memories of the war.

I enjoyed the structure of this novel, which has the main characters gathering for a funeral fifty years later, so we can see what has happened to them in the meantime -- often as a result of the events of the war. Relationships shift and twist, collide and explode in unexpected ways.

The Camomile Lawn was made into a mini-series in 1991, starring Jennifer Ehle in her first role. (Jennifer memorably went on to star as Lizzie Bennett in the iconic TV version of Pride and Prejudice.) The TV adaptation also starred Felicity Kendal and Paul Eddington, a couple of my favourite actors (though not at all how I pictured their characters). I wonder if it's still available anywhere?

Even if I can't find it, The Camomile Lawn was a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read. And now I have to hunt down all the Mary Wesley noels I can find.


25.3.19

The Hate U Give

My elder daughter is a Tupac Shakur fan, something I've never understood. After reading this book, I can see why. Angie Thomas is a fan of Tupac, too, and the title comes from his album THUG LIFE -- The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.

There has been a lot of buzz around The Hate U Give (a movie version was released in the US last year), and rightly so. Angie Thomas takes us inside Starr's world, a world that most white Australians would know little about. Starr is a girl from Garden Heights, a black neighborhood where gangs and drug dealing and shooting deaths are part of everyday life. She is also a student at the predominantly white, middle class school of Williamson, where she has  found a white boyfriend, Chris, and learned to 'manage' her blackness so as not to be too confronting for her classmates.

The novel begins with the shocking murder of Starr's childhood friend Khalil by a white police officer. As the only witness to the shooting, Starr is immediately in danger, and the book shows the push and pull of her conflicting loyalties in the media circus and investigation that follows. Starr wants to speak up for her friend, but she also wants to protect her family, from the warring gangs of the neighborhood and from the attentions of the police. But nothing is simple in Starr's world: her beloved uncle is also a police officer; her father spent time in jail, but as a trade-off so he could be released from gang allegiance; her boyfriend is white and rich, but he honestly tries to understand Starr's life.

I loved the way that Starr was automatically cool at school, but too daggy for the neighborhood. And I loved the way that her passion for justice slowly builds, so that by the end of the book, Starr has learned to use her own weapon: her voice. Realistically, there is no happy ending here, but there is certainly hope.

21.3.19

Best Friends, Worst Enemies

This book carries an unwieldy title Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, and an equally weighty line up of authors: Michael Thompson and Catherine O'Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen. Phew! However, it's an accessible and interesting examination of children's friendships and what Thompson calls 'social cruelty,' possibly a better term for what we normally refer to as bullying.

Thompson traces the evolution of children's social relationships, from infancy through primary school 'best friends', to mixed friendship groups to romantic pairings. It occurred to me that I might have missed some stages in this progression! I attended lots of different primary schools so most of my friendships were fairly fleeting (though I did have an intense 'best friendship' with Eva Kumpulainen in primary school in Mt Hagen -- she moved to the US and I became an atheist, which sadly proved the death knell for our faltering penpal relationship). Then I went to an all-girls high school, which meant that I missed out on meeting any boys my own age until I hit university. So I went straight from 'best friends with girls' to 'romantic pairings' without practising friendship with boys in between... This was a serious handicap to my social and romantic life for many years. I've watched with envy as my daughters have formed  a range of relationships with both boys and girls -- some easy, some intense, some difficult, some antagonistic -- all helpful.

Thompson and his co-authors emphasise the deep need that children (and adults) feel for connection and recognition from their peers, and offer sensible advice for schools and parents about when and how to intervene when things go wrong, and when to hang back and let kids work it out for themselves. A useful and engaging book.



18.3.19

The Secrets We Keep

Nova Weetman's acclaimed middle grade novel, The Secrets We Keep, was special to me before I ever read it, because the distinctive cover art was produced by my dear, much-missed friend Sandra Eterovic. It was the one of the first book covers that Sandra had worked on, and she was excited by the prospect of doing more work in publishing. It's one of my particular regrets that I will never get to have one of Sandra's artworks on one of my book covers -- or maybe I'll manage to find a way...

It was especially poignant to read this book because it is all about grief and loss. Clem's house has burned down, and she's lost everything, including her mother. At the beginning of the book, Clem is awash in a sea of sadness, rage and grief and her whole world has been brutally flipped upside down. However, as the novel progresses, Clem begins to make connections -- most importantly with her new neighbour, Maggie, and a girl at her new school, Ellie, who is facing the loss of her own mother -- and she also realises that not everything from her old life has gone forever. Weetman structures this story so cleverly that the final twist took me by surprise.

The Secrets We Keep is a special book, and not just because of the cover.

11.3.19

Green Dolphin Country

I've been reading Green Dolphin Country super-slowly -- a chapter per night in bed, over months and months. It's a very long book. I turn to Elizabeth Goudge for comfort reading -- her steady spirituality, her deep appreciation of nature's beauty and the inner goodness of imperfect people, and her gentle humour, are very soothing. So eminently suitable for bed-time.

Having said all that, Green Dolphin Country is a very weird novel. Written in 1944, it won an international prize sponsored by MGM, and was subsequently made into a movie. By the time my edition was published, in 1956, it had sold over half a million copies -- I imagine it must be into the millions by now: a true blockbuster.

Apparently loosely based on a true story, the novel centres on Marianne and Marguerite, a pair of sisters from 1830s Guernsey, who both fall in love with golden, generous William Ozanne. William joins the navy and ends up settling in New Zealand, from where he writes back to Guernsey to ask for his true love to join him. Alas, poor William muddles up the names of the sisters and it's sharp Marianne rather than gentle Marguerite who steps off the boat in Wellington. (This, the most implausible aspect of the story, is the part based on truth.) The novel follows the travails of William and Marianne as they struggle to make a success of their marriage, their conflict with Maori warriors, and protect their beloved daughter Veronique. Meanwhile, broken-hearted Marguerite becomes a nun and finds solace in the grace of God.

Goudge cheerfully admits in a foreword that she has never visited New Zealand and relied heavily on someone else's memoir to describe those sections (the majority of the novel). It's a brave choice, and it almost works, But it's clear that the chapters set on Guernsey are lovingly and vividly drawn from personal experience, while New Zealand never quite comes to life in the same way. Anyone who has actually visited New Zealand in person couldn't fail to be moved by its spectacular reality, yet the New Zealand of Green Dolphin Country feels like a pale and distant island in comparison to the fresh, bright accounts of Guernsey.

Needless to say, the portraits of the Maori characters, while generally sympathetic, are horribly colonial, dated and patronising. I pushed past them because I love the other aspects of Goudge's writing, but it was an effort. I'd like to think that this is not a novel that would be written today -- at least, not in the same way. A definite relic of the past.

9.3.19

Finding Cassie Crazy

I first discovered Jaclyn Moriarty through her Colours of Madeleine fantasy trilogy (thank you, Suzanne!), which was the freshest, most inventive fantasy trilogy I've read for many years. I wasn't sure if her earlier books, centred around students at two Sydney private schools and strictly realist, would have the same appeal, but I'm delighted to report that Finding Cassie Crazy is just as much fun as the fantasy novels.

In fact, my friend Bridget and I recently bonded over a mutual love of Jaclyn Moriarty, before realising that I had read only the fantasy books while Bridget had read only the school ones. Moriarty weaves a lively, funny tale from several strands of plot and several engaging voices, and she always tucks in a few surprise twists along the way. Told through letters, emails, school notices and diary entries, this book was an absolute pleasure to read.

Finding Cassie Crazy is one of four novels loosely centred around Ashbury and Brookfield schools. Now I have to get hold of the others!

6.3.19

The Biographer's Lover

Disclaimer: Ruby J Murray is the daughter of my good friend and amazing children's writer, Kirsty Murray, but I would have relished The Biographer's Lover no matter whose daughter it was written by.

Since I read this novel, my eye was caught by an article about Nora Heysen, an Australian artist who was the first female official War Artist, a post that Edna Cranmer, the artist at the centre of the book, aspires to but does not manage to attain. The story of women in art is an endlessly fascinating one; I mean woman as artists, not subjects. Overlooked, squeezed out, disparaged, shouted down, forgotten -- it is rare for a female artist, particularly a painter, to achieve recognition in her lifetime. Edna Cranmer, though fictional, is typical of this trajectory, and the novel traces the parallel stories of Edna's uncovering and posthumous celebration, and her (unnamed) biographer's journey to bring Edna's art to the attention of the world.

Two other books on related topics spring to mind here -- Drusilla Modjeska's Stravinsky's Lunch, and Rachel Power's The Divided Heart, both non-fiction, both exploring the difficult tensions that women face in balancing ambition and family, caring for others with following their own creative path.

As a writer, this is a dilemma that I am somewhat familiar with (as I interrupt writing this blog post to prepare food for my daughter, and run down to the chemist for my mum). But it's easier for a writer to carve out time and space and resources to write. Not so easy for a painter, who needs to buy paint, and canvases, and a space to keep them, a big light space to work and big stretches of time. Ruby Murray teases out these difficult debts of dependence and duty, the tangles of family loyalty and the frustration of repeated rejection.

This is such a rich field for a novelist, it can hardly help but be a winner.

28.2.19

The Abbey Girls in Town

Elsie J Oxenholm's Abbey Girls series was around when I was young (well, of course it was -- The Abbey Girls in Town, sixth in the series, was first published in 1925) and I remember there were several volumes in the Mt Hagen library. I tried them, but they didn't take. Probably we had odd volumes, out of sequence, and the plethora of characters confused me (multiple twins, daughters and cousins, loads of people called Janetta, Joan, Jen, Joy, Jandy etc made it impossible to tell them apart!)

Having said that, I didn't mind Abbey Girls in Town, maybe because it's relatively early and the characters were not as confusing as they became later. A lot of people return to these books for comfort reading and I can see why. They are very gentle books, centred on women's friendships -- men are really peripheral to the story, except to become marriage partners and provide sperm for those endless sets of twins.

The main drama in this book is the 'betrayal' of Mary by thoughtless Joy, who forgets to thank her friend for staging a dancing show and thus tumbles from the pedestal of perfection on which Mary had placed her. This is a friendship problem that any school girl can relate to, except that the protagonists are adult women.

I must say I find the fixation on the miraculous saving properties of folk dance in these books quite perplexing -- but hey, I love yoga, so same same I guess? I also liked the arts-craftsy element -- sisters Mary and Biddy are given gorgeous handmade pottery, and everyone ends up with beautiful dresses of handwoven cloth, individually designed for them -- yes please! Everyone is rich, or even if they're poor, they have enough rich friends to bail them out.

One element I disliked was that, before this book opens, Mary has been 'rescued' from 'wasting her life' in 'daydreaming' by Joy and Jen, and now turns her imagination to more healthy pursuits ie writing school stories. Hmmmmmm. No comment!

25.2.19

Conversations With Friends

I read most of my books on the couch in the living room. But when I read a book in a different location (overseas, by the beach, in bed ill, on a plane) it sometimes sticks with me more vividly. Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends will always be the book I read in the waiting room while my daughter was having surgery (nothing serious, but it meant a whole day in hospital).

I'd adored Rooney's second novel, Normal People, so when her debut became available from the library I was very excited. I greedily wolfed down Conversations With Friends like a big bag of snack mix. On the surface there is not a lot of action -- people talk, the narrator Frances observes her surroundings and her own internal landscape with the devastating precision you'd hope for from an aspiring writer, relationships form, separate and rejoin -- Rooney's writing is utterly absorbing.

I know some people find Rooney's books self-indulgent, even dull. But they plunge me back to my own twenties, my university years, with all their intensity and bafflement and paradoxical certainties. I think they've justified their acclaim. I'm looking forward to many more Sally Rooney novels to come.

20.2.19

The Girls of the Rookery School

Ethel Talbot has been safely dead for seventy five years, so I'm sure I won't offend her when I say that her 1932 novel The Girls of the Rookery School is NOT a good book.

Just look at that gawp, Peggy, on the cover, with her gormless expression and the cricket ball hidden in her hand. Do you think it's possible that this sickly dweeb, expressly forbidden to play games after fainting while running across the Downs near her new school, could ever secretly develop a gift for tricky left handed bowling? Do you think that said dweeb might get the chance to save the day in the very last match of the season, against the 'literal Amazons' of Dean House, when her best chum Irene has to be subbed out with smashed glasses? Do you think that the very sporting captain of the Dean House team will agree to allow the opposition team mascot to bowl the last few balls of the match, so that Peggy can skittle their best batsman? You bet she will, despite the fact that, while batting substitutions are a long-established tradition in cricket, bowling substitutions are, to say the least, unusual.

But that's the least of the implausibilities in a plot which contains a stolen ruby, yokels who speak in laborious dialect ("Rookses is queery birdies, to be zure, liddle missie..."), a long-ago scandal and students who are so terrified of an Inspector's visit that they speak of little else for a whole term. We are told about five times in the opening chapters that the character of Polly is always called "Flinders", after which she is called Flinders ONCE and otherwise known to everyone as... Polly.

There is also this priceless passage:
 Polly was telling everything before another moment had passed. All about the last weeks' unhappiness. In the cloakroom their arms were round each other; their hot cheeks were pressed together; they were kissing each other for the first time.
Alas, it's not another contender for Jenny Pausacker's excellent list, just a rather over-heated reconciliation.

Oh, and does Peggy find the lost ruby? What do you think?

18.2.19

Take Three Girls (again)

I have reviewed Take Three Girls before. I loved it when it first came out, and it didn't suffer from re-reading. Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood are all such gifted writers, this novel flies along. It was a deserved winner of last year's CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers.

When you're a teenager, the shape of your life is like a circle inside a triangle. The inner circle is your friendships, and outside that lie the three important elements of work (usually schoolwork, and decisions about career), love (figuring out who you're attracted to) and family (still your bedrock, even as you're beginning to separate from them).

This time I noticed that Kate's problems centre around work: her choice between music and medicine. Clem's problems mostly deal with love: her relationship with the incredibly unsuitable Stu. And Ady's problems lie at home, with her breaking-apart family. Each of the girls also deals with the other two points of the triangle, but the focus seemed clearer this time.

Again, I noted that the three girls, while dealing with adolescent problems, all behaved with astounding maturity and insight, certainly much more than I had at sixteen. One of my daughters is now two years older than the protagonists of Take Three Girls, and I just can't imagine her handling herself with the same degree of responsibility!

16.2.19

How To Bee

Bren MacDibble's How To Bee took out the Younger Readers CBCA Book of the Year award last year, but even before that I had seen its gorgeous golden cover everywhere.

Peony lives on a farm with her sister and grandfather, after some near-future apocalyptic event known as the Famine. They work hard for their Foreman, and live simply, but they have enough to eat (just) and each other. Peony's mother works in the city, and returns occasionally with money; but then, expecting a baby and unable to work as hard as she's expected to, she decides that Peony should come back with her. Mother and daughter work as servants to a rich family, but rich girl Esmeralda suffers from debilitating fear of everything. Can brave, smart Peony teach her courage, and will Esmeralda repay her friendship with freedom?

I can see why How To Bee won all its awards. The voice of Peony leaps off the page, lively and distinctive. I bet this book was unlike any other the judges read last year. At its heart, this is a story about friendship and family, and it comes full circle in a very satisfying way. I loved its recognisable Australian-ness too, and with its city streets filled with desperate beggars, this imagined future didn't feel too far away.

11.2.19

The Pen and Pencil Girls

I was introduced to Clare Mallory's The Pen and Pencil Girls by my friend Penni, whose childhood favourite it was. She lent me her battered, coverless copy years ago and I loved it almost as much as she did (not quite as much, because you just can't love books with the same passionate intensity after you grow up -- sad but true).

BUT I loved it so much that I was very excited to discover my very own copy (with a cover!) in a pile of elderly books gifted to me by another friend and otherwise destined for the knacker's yard (or the pulping station). What a shame that would have been, because The Pen and Pencil Girls is gorgeous.

First published in New Zealand in 1948, the plot reminds me very much of Noel Streatfeild (that is high praise, believe me) in that it deals with a group of children collaborating on a joint project. In Streatfeild, it's usually some kind of performance -- a play or a pageant or a dance -- but in Mallory's story, the Pen and Pencil Club combine to produce a BOOK for a competition. They all write stories or poetry, some more accomplished than others; one girl is a talented artist, who produces the illustrations; one girl ingeniously figures out how to bind the book together; and one types out the whole manuscript on her typewriter, no mean feat without a delete button. ('She'll make a wonderful secretary some day,' says her proud father.)

As you can see from the quote above, the book has dated -- a lot -- and the characters lack the sharp distinction that Streatfeild would have given them, but it's still a lot of fun. The main sub-plot involves the bringing together of a newly blended family ('Give them time to get to know each other,' advises the wise Mum; though no one seems to have thought of introducing any of the members of the new family to each other before the wedding day!)

The Pen and Pencil Girls also taught me about the pride of the Southlanders -- it makes a nice change to have a kids book set in New Zealand, even one that's over seventy years old.

6.2.19

Risingtidefallingstar

I borrowed Philip Hoare's Risingtidefallingstar from the library purely on the recommendation of The Reluctant Dragon, because Susan and I seem to share similar tastes!

This is one of those books that is difficult to classify. It's part memoir, part nature study, part philosophical musing, part biography, all twining around the subject of the ocean. Hoare recounts the personal histories of various figures (Herman Melville, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stephen Tennant, Wilfrid Owen and others) whose lives were shaped by the sea in different ways, finding unexpected echoes and resonances between them, across time and space.

But this is also a very personal story about Hoare himself and his own obsession with the ocean (he has written two previous books about the sea). It's also a love letter to David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (though neither the film nor the performer is named).

Risingtidefallingstar is a meditative book which kept surprising me, like a wave rising up underneath you. The best way to approach it is just to spread your arms, lie back and surrender, and let it drift you where it will.

4.2.19

Histories of the Unexpected

My elder daughter asked for this book for Christmas after listening to the associated podcast, and it proved surprisingly difficult to get hold of. I think Readings had to order it in for us specially! So my reward for all that effort was to kidnap it and read it myself first... What? She has all this VCE reading to do, she doesn't have time to waste on this kind of frivolity!

I haven't heard it myself, but I can see that Histories of the Unexpected has the perfect format for a podcast. Sam Willis and James Daybell take an everyday object (the moustache, scars, clouds, chimneys) and track its evolution, appearance across different cultures, or strange moments in time, to create a quirky but informative chapter, which always links to the next subject.

For instance, the chapter on Holes starts with a racy story of sixteenth century fornication observed through a hole in the wall; explores the history of priest holes built to shelter Elizabethan priests in recusant Catholic households; discusses other hiding places in walls now being discovered by modern laser scanners; mentions treasure hoards hidden in holes in the ground; talks about how objects can be lost from holes in pockets and later found by archaeologists; laments the damage caused by bookworms chewing holes in paper; and finishes up with holes in linen being mended by the unfortunate inmates of Magdalene Laundries... which links to the next chapter, the history of beds.

Broken up into easily digestible tidbits, this is a great book for browsing. I ended up reading a chapter a day. Overall, it's too thick a book to consume in one go, but it's clearly not designed for that. Like a podcast, best swallowed one tasty bite at a time.

1.2.19

Geordie

Geordie was published in 1950 (though it was written during the war) and turned into a film shortly thereafter. I assume that after the horrors of war, people were in the mood for a gentle tale about an innocent Highlander who finds himself putting the shot for Britain in the Olympics in faraway America (though actually the 1956 Olympics were held in Melbourne, rather than Boston, as the novel surmises).

Though it's pitched as a sweet, amusing story about a gentle giant and his love, wee Jeanie, and the rapacious Helga who sets her lusty sights on our naive hero, I found David Walker's novel pretty irritating. I have Scottish ancestry and Scottish friends, and I found myself bristling at the patronising, condescending tone of the book, the thick dialect and the thick heads of the Scottish characters. Also, this copy was missing twenty pages in the middle (to be honest, I don't think that affected my enjoyment).

But I can't deny, Geordie is way buff. Check out that cover! How can anyone resist a man in a kilt? No wonder Helga got carried away.

29.1.19

How Nell Scored

How's that for a title? Settle down, it's not what you think. How Nell Scored is in fact an old-fashioned adventure story, set in New Zealand, involving a shipwreck, stolen pearls, and a cross-country trek by the eponymous young heroine (who is forced to hide up a tree at one point, though probably less gracefully than depicted on the cover).

I think this book was first published in 1933, and it certainly shows its age -- the two sons of the family are both away at school, being educated, while the two daughters stay at home to help on the farm. Not fair, or even particularly logical, since the boys will presumably inherit the farm eventually. The book opens with Nell exhorting her sister not to cry in front of their parents, and shaking her vigorously to drive her point home.

Bessie Marchant was an insanely prolific English author who produced dozens of books like this, often set in exotic locations: Ceylon, Sudan, Uruguay, Canada. She married a clergyman with the gorgeous name of Jabez Ambrose Comfort -- maybe it was the name that appealed, because he was 28 years older than her. It's easy to mock Marchant's output and her far-flung settings (she doesn't seem to have ever visited any of the places she wrote about) but she did challenge the gender sterotypes of her time by putting young girls in the middle of the kinds of adventures that usually featured boys. So good on you, Bessie.

27.1.19

Illuminae

Can I confess that my heart sank a little when I saw the thickness of this novel? And that I cursed the name of the book group member who suggested we read it, then quit the group? (Sorry Heather -- I forgive you).

Because it turned out that Illuminae was a lot of fun to read, and it must have been even more fun to write. Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (disclaimer: I met them both at a dinner a few years ago, round the time this book came out, and they were both lovely) have collaborated to create an unconventional narrative, stitched together from purported transcripts of security briefings, private text messages, surveillance reports... and the inner thoughts of a rogue computer...

This immediately gives Illuminae a distinctive look and feel; but to Kaufman and Kristoff's credit, the substance of the story matches the style. Set mainly on three stranded spaceships, there is a space plague that creates violent paranoia in its victims, a secret mining base, missing family members, and a pair of smart teens who were inconveniently negotiating a break-up at the very moment their home was blown to pieces. How Ezra and Kady manage to reconnect, and then cooperate to survive and fight back is at the core of the story.

I enjoyed this book a lot. There are two more volumes in the Illuminae Files, and I'm sure they are just as satisfying as the first.

24.1.19

The Princess Diaries

Our first theme for the Convent book club this year is Epistolary narratives. Unfortunately Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries is in diary rather than letter form, but never mind!

I can see why this novel spawned a highly successful series and movies. Mia is a breezy, funny teen who is more concerned about the social consequences of her mother dating her maths teacher than the fact that she herself turns out to be the hair to the throne of a European principality. At fourteen, Mia agonises over her crushes, her hair, and myriad possibilities of social embarrassment, but she doesn't seem to think particularly deeply about anything else, which made this an easy, amusing read, but not a very meaningful one.

Published in 2001, the references to technology have already dated. Mia receives 'princess lessons' from her exacting French grandmother, which revolve around etiquette, though one would think politics might be useful, too. When I imagined being a princess at twelve or thirteen, I saw my alter ego making unexpected diplomatic interventions, not just sweeping around in gorgeous ball gowns (though to be fair, there was a bit of that, too). But maybe that was just me!

21.1.19

Truly Madly Guilty

Ah, Liane Moriarty. The easy summer read you don't need to feel bad about. Liane Moriarty has made a specialty of producing satisfyingly chunky, eminently readable (and 'relatable' -- hate that word!) suburban stories which sneakily also tackle some big issues -- family violence, alcoholism, damaged childhoods.

Truly Madly Guilty (which I borrowed from my friend Justine) revolves around events that occur at an ordinary suburban barbecue* -- six adults, three children -- and what goes wrong when people are distracted. Everyone at that barbecue has their own reason to feel guilty about their behaviour that afternoon, and their individual responses to that day weave into an absorbing, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, narrative.

It's great to know that an Australian author has had such international success with books that are still solidly Australian. She makes it look easy, but of course it isn't. Her sister Jaclyn is also a writer (in my view, a genius). What a talented family they are -- not ordinary at all.


*Barbecue or barbeque? I use the former spelling, this book used the latter. I know it's also correct, but it just looks wrong to me!

15.1.19

Lost Connections

Another incredible book to start off my reading year! Johann Hari's Lost Connections is subtitled Uncovering the real causes of depression -- and the unexpected solutions. I'd asked for it as a Christmas present, but before I had a chance to read it myself, it was co-opted by my beloved, who has been suffering from severe depression. It is a great recommendation that he not only read it cover to cover (concentration has been a problem) but found it helpful and persuasive.

The Western world is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, and we are also more medicated with anti-depressants than ever before. (In my own household, four out of five of us are taking happy pills.) But Johann Hari argues that there is actually very little evidence that these medications do much to help. Sure, they do something to our bodies, and they are very difficult to wean ourselves off. But do they make us happier, more stable? Do they raise our serotonin levels or whatever they are supposed to be doing? Hari argues convincingly that they don't. (Thank you Big Pharma.)

So what does make a difference? And how did we get here? According to Hari (and I have to agree) we are really suffering from a lack of connection in our lives. This can be expressed in many ways -- lack of meaningful relationships, lack of meaningful work, lack of connection to nature. And the solutions, not surprisingly, involve reconnecting.

This was a stimulating and engaging read, filled with lively personal anecdotes and enlightening information. It's extremely readable, and packed with food for thought. The only downside is that most of Hari's recommendations involve a radical reorganisation of the whole of society, though there are things a depressed individual can do to help themselves.

But the most helpful thing would be a revolution in the way we live. Highly recommended.