18.9.19

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Kate Atkinson's first novel, and it exploded on the scene with huge fanfare and multiple awards in 1995, kickstarting Atkinson's wildly successful career. I have read all the Jackson Brodie novels (apart from the very latest one) and most of the others (haven't got round to A God In Ruins yet) and found them extremely satisfying (mostly).

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.

16.9.19

Storytime

Birthday present! And a joyous one this time.

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.

11.9.19

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain

Let me get this out of the way: I have never read a John Boyne book that I've liked. I loathed The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is not as bad, but I still didn't like it.

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!

9.9.19

The Valley of Song

It has taken me sooooo long to finish this book! I ordered The Valley of Song from Girls Gone By months ago and I have been crawling my way through it since it arrived.

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.

5.9.19

See What You Make Me Do

Two years ago, a friend of mine was murdered by her intimate partner, so issues of domestic violence and abuse have taken on an immediate and personal horror.

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.

2.9.19

Dumplin'

Julie Murphy's 2015 bestseller Dumplin' was the YA selection for the Convent book group this month, with the theme of Body Positivity. By a fortunate coincidence, the movie of Dumplin' is also currently available on Netflix, so I was able to gulp them both down together this weekend.

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.