14.9.20

Are We Nearly There Yet?

 

Ben Hatch's 2011 bestseller, Are We Nearly There Yet? arrived in a mystery box of books that Elder Daughter and I treated ourselves to earlier in lockdown. When I chose it from the box, I thought it might be a mildly diverting companion to Bill Bryson's Road to Little Dribbling, another amusing travelogue of Great Britain. But it proved to be much better than that.

Hatch's account of travelling round the UK with his wife and two kids (both under four) researching a family-friendly guidebook is definitely amusing. The usual tribulations of parenting young kids (lost toys, food meltdowns, poo and vomit) are added to a punishing timetable that can require up to four or five 'attractions' per day. Add to that some darker episodes, including a serious car accident, inexplicable pain and hospitalisation (Ben has a kidney stone), and raking over the marital coals as their travels lead them down memory lane to the sites of childhood holidays, first houses and first jobs.

But the real gravitas of this book is provided by the illness and death of Ben's father which unfolds over the months of their trip. Sir David Hatch joined the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as comic luminaries like John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden, but he diverted into producing, becoming a BBC bigwig. Young Ben rebelled against his larger-than-life father, and his reflections on this rebellion and their ultimate gradual understanding (not explicit, because they are English, after all) is the most moving strand of this story.

Ben Hatch has also written several novels, one of which was published this year. With his impeccable comic timing, ear for dialogue and acute observational skills on display in this memoir, I'm interested to see what he's come up with.

7.9.20

The Road to Little Dribbling

 

I was quite startled to realise, when I went looking, how many books by Bill Bryson are lined up on my shelves. There are his many travel memoirs, like this one, and Down Under, his book about Australia; his popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything; his wonderful history of domestic life in the West, At Home, and I'm sure there are others tucked away that I didn't spot. I've certainly read more of his books than I actually own, and there are plenty I haven't read yet, like his new history of the human body, which sounds like fun.

Bill Bryson is an utterly reliable literary companion. He is the genial, charming, slightly grumpy uncle (he has grown grumpier with age, I find) who is always ready to whip out a fascinating fact or a bizarre anecdote as you stroll around together. It's easy to dip in and out of his books; they are always interesting, never demanding, invariably good fun, sometimes poignant, sometimes cross.

The Road to Little Dribbling is a kind of sequel to Notes From a Small Island in which Bryson wanders around his adopted home of Great Britain, often delighted by what he observes but occasionally annoyed -- mostly by what he sees as people taking for granted the things that delight him and thus paving the way for their destruction. He adores the English countryside and hates seeing it despoiled by litter or unsightly development. He loves the fact that national parks are places where people live, not areas of wilderness specially cordoned off (I hadn't realised this either and I've always been somewhat bemused by UK real estate listings headed 'Houses in National Parks.')

Of course, this veneer of relaxed charm belies the huge effort that goes on beneath the surface of the writing -- the extensive research, the search for the precise phrase that brings a smile, the actual hoofing it around the country and actually visiting these places. Bryson makes it all look so easy, but to produce book after book of such reliable enjoyment is very hard work. Respect, Bill.

31.8.20

Mansfield Park

 

I know I've read Mansfield Park before, and I've seen at least one film version, but this least popular of Jane Austen's novels hadn't left much of an impression. It's a long, complicated novel, and it suffered in this reading from the fact that I went off and read (the immensely long) The Other Bennet Sister after I'd started it, and I'd forgotten all the characters and their complex interrelationships in the meantime, and had to learn them all again. (This was rendered more difficult because I was reading on the Kindle, so I couldn't simply flick back and skim the pages as required.)

But, unlike some critics (including Claire Tomalin, who wrote the Jane Austen biography that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place), I found Mansfield Park a very satisfying and intriguing book. Claire Tomalin describes it as a flawed work, because the supposed villains of the piece, the Crawford siblings, are so much more attractive than the supposed heroine, meek Fanny Price.

Well, let me declare it now: I like Fanny Price. And I've found support for my position online from other introverted, quiet, anxious, but inwardly strong readers who identify strongly with shy but staunch Fanny. Mary Crawford is much closer to the conventional Austen heroine, like Lizzy Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. She is lively, witty, sparkling -- okay, I admit it, she does sound superficially more attractive than Fanny. But in this novel, she is not the heroine; she is the rival who comes dancing onto the stage crying, look at me! while Fanny fades into the shadows. (This is why Mansfield Park doesn't work for the cinema -- they have to turn Fanny into a more 'typical' sparkly Austen heroine, and the whole point of the novel is lost.)

But in the end, it's Fanny who sticks to her principles, despite the mockery and outright anger of her rich relatives, and it's quiet Fanny who wins the day (and the best husband). Hooray! Joan Klingel Ray makes a persuasive argument that Fanny is actually a victim of child abuse, so her survival and her thriving is even more satisfying.

Mansfield Park is Austen's most socially nuanced novel. It explicitly examines class and privilege. The fact is that poor relation Fanny can't afford to act with the cavalier flirtatiousness of her rich cousins; without money, she lacks protection from society's harsh judgement, and faces the very real threat of crushing poverty and extinguishment. Her physical weakness reflects her social vulnerability. She has to be a 'prig' -- her principles are her armour.

I think this might be another reason why Mansfield Park is difficult for a modern reader. The sins of the Crawfords and Bertrams seem so inconsequential to us -- putting on a play? Totally harmless. Flirting? Who cares! Leaving your husband? You go, girl, be your best you. But all these actions in Austen's time had very real and serious moral consequences, consequences which only Fanny, because of her disadvantage, can see clearly.

Fanny is a quiet heroine, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, and like Anne, it's her loyalty and faith which ultimately prove her strength. Funnily enough, Persuasion is my favourite Austen -- maybe time for a re-read?

26.8.20

The Time of Green Magic


When I grow up, I would like to be Hilary McKay. In my mind she ranks with the classic writers for children that I loved most when I was young -- Noel Streatfeild, Penelope Lively, E. Nesbit -- a safe pair of hands, an ever-reliable story-teller, someone with whom you can relax and enjoy the ride.

The Time of Green Magic is the kind of novel I wish I'd written myself. It's a gentle tale of a blended family, a spooky house and mysterious magic, linked with books and art. It touches on feelings of displacement and belonging, friendship and connection, but it's not an 'issue' book, it's a warm, often funny, touching story which wraps around the reader like a comforting quilt.

Thoroughly enjoyable.

23.8.20

Ghost Empire

 

I picked up Ghost Empire from Brotherhood Books and I feel as if I've been reading it for a long time -- but a very engrossing, entertaining time it's been. The Byzantine Empire is a huge hole in my historical knowledge, a vague impression of golden icons, labyrinthine politics, and purple shadows. Richard Fidler's masterly and very readable history of this thousand-year empire has finally shone some light on this dark corner.

For instance, I had no idea that when Emperor Constantine moved his base to Constantinople after the sack of Rome in 330 (well, let's face it, I had only the haziest idea that that was how Constantinople started in the first place) that he and his successors still regarded themselves as Romans, albeit Christianised Romans -- right up until the city and empire was lost to the Persians in 1453, they were still calling themselves Romans! 'Byzantine' was a label slapped on them by later chroniclers.

As anyone knows who has listened to Fidler's Conversations series on the ABC, he is the perfect companion for a journey like this -- intelligent, lively, and well-informed. He leads us through a complex and confusing history with a solid rope of fascinating anecdote and piquant trivia (apparently the Emperors all wore special thigh-high purple boots -- so very disco!) and threads through an account of a trip to Istanbul with his teenage son which brings a personal angle to the uncovering of history. (Joe sounds delightful, too.)

At nearly 500 pages, Ghost Empire was a big commitment, but it's well-illustrated and broken up into bite-sized chunks. Well worth the effort, and I think I might look out for Richard Fidler's books about Prague and the Icelandic sagas, too.

14.8.20

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

I've been wanting to sample Ambelin Kwaymullina's The Tribe series for a long time so I snapped up The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf when it popped up on Brotherhood Books. This is the first volume of the series and it does a terrific job of setting up the post-apocalyptic world of Ashala and her friends, young Illegals living with forbidden abilities -- Firestarters, Rumblers who can cause earthquakes, people who can fly or alter memories. 

Ashala herself is a Sleepwalker, someone who can do the impossible while she sleeps. (Unfortunately I didn't realise till almost the end of the book that I was pronouncing Ashala's name wrongly. It's supposed to be Ash-shay-la, but in my head I was saying Ash-shar-la. Whoops!)

This is a fast-paced, action-packed young adult fantasy with a wonderful grounding in Indigenous lore that sets it apart from your standard dystopian novel. The Tribe features strong, sympathetic characters and the plot is satisfyingly twisty. There are two further volumes in the Tribe trilogy, and I'm also keen to read Kwaymullina's latest, the award-winning Catching Teller Crow, which sounds amazing. 

31.7.20

Too Much and Never Enough


I couldn't resist buying Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough on the Kindle after seeing her interviewed on A Late Show, and I wolfed it down quickly (partly while waiting in the queue while my daughter had a COVID test -- negative, thankfully).  This short but punchy book is sub-titled How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, and it's a sobering account of life in the Trump family which certainly helps to explain the sometimes baffling behaviour of the current US President.

Donald Trump's father, Fred, was a German immigrant who made his fortune developing and managing real estate in Brooklyn. The eldest son, Freddy, was being groomed to take over the family business, but Freddy wasn't suited to real estate and briefly became a pilot. Fred Sr despised this career and referred to him as 'a bus driver in the sky' and Fred Jr ended up crawling back to the family firm. His father constantly belittled and criticised him, and greatly preferred young Donald, whose arrogance and meanness displayed the 'killer' instincts that Fred Sr admired. Thus Donald was rewarded for the traits we see today -- ruthless lack of empathy and compassion, deriding the perceived weakness of others, talking himself up, an inability to see anything he says or does as anything other than 'the greatest' or the most 'tremendous.' 

According to Mary Trump (young Fred's daughter and Donald's niece), the Trump family was brought up to value nothing but money (and in Donald's case, TV ratings). Any sign of vulnerability was denied or mocked. Young Donald Trump received both 'too much' (financial support and approval from his father) and 'never enough' (the unconditional love and security that a small child needs to thrive). So President Trump has ended up as a blustering, apparently confident figure who knows deep down that he is hollow inside, terrified of the failure and weakness that lurks within.

An enlightening but scary read.

28.7.20

The Other Bennet Sister


I had reserved The Other Bennet Sister from the library before COVID-19 hit; I managed to collect it during the brief (oh so brief!) window between Lockdown I and Lockdown II, and I feel as if I've been reading it for weeks (in fact I have been reading it for weeks). I finished it just as the return chutes were closed again, so I will be hosting it on my bedside table for a few weeks more. But it has been a welcome guest.

Janice Hadlow's very new (2020) novel takes on a subject who has always been close to my heart, namely Mary Bennet, Lizzy Bennet's plain and pompous sister from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, whose piano playing is famously dismissed by her father announcing, 'You have delighted us long enough.' I've always felt sorry for Mary, eclipsed by her prettier, more flirtatious sisters, always overlooked, trying to be intellectual but only succeeding in making herself ridiculous.

Hadlow is also sympathetic toward poor Mary, and gives her a narrative where she is the centre of the story. She plausibly traces Mary's childhood as the middle sister, shut out from the closeness of both the elder daughters and also the younger two, scorned by her mother because she is plain and wears spectacles, overlooked by her father because she lacks Lizzy's sparkling charm. Mary earnestly tries to improve herself but without guidance, makes heavy weather of her studies (as well as the piano).

Over the course of this extremely long novel, Mary finds refuge with her kind aunt and uncle Gardiner (who also help out Lizzy in the original story) and after her own trials, finds an ending as happy as Elizabeth Bennet's own. 

There is plenty here for the Austen fan -- battles between sense and sensibility, plenty of prejudice and pride, dollops of persuasion, and cameos from many of the characters from Pride and Prejudice, some of whom are also given a more sympathetic portrayal than originally allowed by their inventor (notably Mr Collins).

At 658 pages and 95 chapters, one can hardly claim that The Other Bennet Sister is 'perfect in being much too short' but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

25.7.20

Just My Type


Judging from the huge number of different editions I found on the internet when looking for a cover image, I would guess that Simon Garfield's Just My Type has been wildly successful. It examines a ubiquitous but often overlooked aspect of modern life: the font.

Just My Type is an entertaining look at the history of printing and publishing, the development of different typefaces, and the careers of various font inventors. I must confess to being pretty font-blind myself, barely able to distinguish a serif from a sans serif and totally incapable of justifying a preference for one font over another (I generally write my rough drafts in a different font for each book, picking typefaces more or less randomly -- currently I'm working in Garamond, an earlier draft of the same manuscript is in Avenir, my last novel was submitted in Century Schoolbook).

That most reviled font, Comic Sans (which I'm ashamed to admit I frequently used for newsletters twenty years ago when I worked at Warner Music) was invented to accompany a 'friendly' software assistance package when the designer noticed that Times New Roman was too stiff and formal, and hardly deserves the hatred heaped upon it, though I groan like anyone else when I see it on the side of a van. I must say that reading this book has made me want to watch the documentary Helvetica, about a font which has apparently taken over the world (without me noticing).

I don't know if Just My Type will make me any more observant about fonts, but I'm going to try to pay more attention from now on.

20.7.20

Verity Sparks, Lost and Found


I was so pleased to see the second Verity Sparks book, Lost and Found, pop up on Brotherhood Books recently, because despite very much enjoying The Truth about Verity Sparks some years ago, I had never got around to reading it. And I very much enjoyed this sequel, too.

Verity has been reunited with her father and they have relocated (along with several friends from book one) to Australia, more specifically Melbourne. It's always fun to read books set in your historic home town! Lost and Found divides into two parts and two mysteries, one episode set at Verity's school, the next in the Macedon Ranges. 

Verity might have lost her gift for finding things (not sure how to pronounce teleagtivism) but she still has her wits, her kindness and her sense of adventure, all of which stand her in good stead when trouble arrives. As it's seven years since this book was published, I doubt that there will be any more Verity Sparks stories, which is rather sad. But it's lovely to have two!

13.7.20

The Reef


My friend Chris (my yoga teacher, not my piano teacher) had been talking about this book and then it popped up on Brotherhood Books. The subtitle of the book is A Passionate History, and Iain McCalman obviously does feel a passionate enthusiasm for the extraordinary natural wonder that is Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and its history.

McCalman has structured the book in twelve stories, each focused on an individual or a group who interacted with the reef in some way -- mostly white naturalists, colonists or ecologists, though McCalman is careful to acknowledge and pay tribute to the long interdependence of Australia's Indigenous peoples with the reef. 

McCalman brings a sense of wonder and awe to the history of the reef which made me long to see it with my own eyes -- I have never visited the reef and I fear now I never will. The reef has been, and is being, irreparably damaged by climate change, a sorry development discussed in the final chapter (and possibly the impetus for the whole book). This book is seven years old, and things have only got worse.

Younger readers will enjoy Kirsty Murray and David Hartley's Strangers on Country, which tells some of the same stories of shipwreck and rescue canvassed here. They really are incredible tales!

9.7.20

In The Woods


Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have developed a huge writer-crush on Tana French and I have now read all of her books. Weirdly I seem to have saved her first book, In the Woods, until last, and I have already watched the TV adaptation, which combined this novel with the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Likeness.

Even though In the Woods was published to huge acclaim and kickstarted French's highly successful career, for me it was the least satisfying and least accomplished of her novels. She has only got better as she's gone along. There are some themes here which French has returned to in later books -- the almost mystical bond of friendship, the power of memory and self-deception in the stories we tell ourselves, a touch of the supernatural.

Since it has been on TV and the book has been out for a long time, I don't think I'm spoiling too much to say that there is an element of the mystery in this story which is left frustratingly unresolved. The big twist of the novel also relies on the reader trusting a certain character, which I never did from the beginning. It's not that In the Woods is a bad book by any means -- it's still several cuts above your average murder mystery -- but I'm glad it wasn't my introduction to Tana French.

In the Woods came from the local library, which was briefly running a click and collect service for reservations. I'm guessing now that we are back under lockdown, that service will cease. It was good while it lasted!

6.7.20

Charlotte Sometimes


Charlotte Sometimes was a book that I admired as a young reader, but didn't return to very often - it was so eerie, so uncanny, that it disturbed me. With the benefit of age I admire it and enjoy it all the more. It is probably Penelope Farmer's best known work and inspired not one but two songs by The Cure ("Charlotte Sometimes" and "Splintered in her Head"; and also possibly the title of their next album, Disintegration?)

It was Penni Russon who enlightened me that Charlotte Sometimes is actually book three in a trilogy about Charlotte and her sister Emma, the first two being The Summer Birds and Emma in Winter. All three books share that dark, uncanny quality that makes Charlotte Sometimes such a haunting experience. (Thanks to Penni for lending them to me; I'm still on the hunt for copies of my own.)

In many ways this is a very bleak book. Set in boarding school, and later in grim lodgings, during winter, Charlotte swaps places with Clare in 1918. At first the girls change places every night, with no worse consequences than confusion over homework and bewilderment from Clare's sister; but then Charlotte finds herself in the wrong bed on the wrong night, with no way of getting home to her own time. 

There are some genuinely terrifying moments: when Charlotte fears she's swapped places with Agnes, the spinster daughter in their lodgings, even further back in time; when she's spent so long impersonating Clare that she begins to forget that she was ever Charlotte; the excursion to the shadowy sick bay. It's almost a horror story, truly creepy. It's a story about the slipperiness of identity -- who is Charlotte, what makes her Charlotte apart from people seeing her that way? The theme of identity and twinship is one that Farmer, herself a twin, has returned to repeatedly.

I've just learned that my 1985 copy is different from the original. The ending was changed by the author  and some material was removed. So now I'll need to find myself a 1969 edition too, because that would have been the one that I first read.

3.7.20

Jane Austen: A Life


Despite this very ugly cover, I picked up Jane Austen: A Life on impulse to fill out a Brotherhood Books order, as part of a Jane Austen binge I have going on, and I am SO glad I did. 

This is a superlative biography -- warm, sympathetic, acute and fascinating. I am sure that Jane herself could not have selected a better biographer than Claire Tomalin. She rounds out the crowded Austen family background, seeks her evidence with care and discrimination, and paints such a lively portrait of her subject that you almost forget how little she left behind for us to pore over.

I wasn't aware of the huge gap between Austen's first three novels and her last, and when I discovered why I was outraged and indignant. Austen's parents, apparently on a whim, decided to sell up the Steventon parsonage where the family had grown up and where Jane had a settled writing routine, and moved themselves (and Jane) to Bath, which she loathed. Ten years were lost while the Austens flitted about between rented lodgings and visits to family, with Jane unable to recapture the stability she needed for her work. It wasn't until after Mr Austen's death that a more permanent home was found for Jane, her mother and sister at Chawton, where (you can almost hear the sigh of relief) she was able to pick up her pen once more. 

It's infuriating to think how many novels we might have lost, thanks to the family's disregard for Jane's work, and bizarre to contemplate that, out of this large, colourful, active and largely successful family, it was Jane and her scribbles who have been remembered the longest, and don't seem likely to be forgotten any time soon.

29.6.20

The Owl Service


The Owl Service is a modern classic, first published the year after I was born. I remember seeing it on the classroom shelf at one of my primary schools, but I didn't pick it up; I had some confused idea that the owl service must involve a squadron of owls delivering messages, like the postal service, which didn't appeal to me particularly. I'd never come across the word 'service' to denote a set of plates.

The novel is a retelling of a Welsh myth, a love triangle centring on a woman made of flowers, made into an owl. The tragic triangle pattern has recurred in the valley in every generation since (I didn't realise until this re-reading how this idea had influenced my own book, Crow Country), but in this incarnation, it's also tangled in class and wealth (not the same thing) as well as culture. Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves in the grip of the myth as the book unfolds, with really creepy touches -- the scrabbling in the roof, the recurring noise of a motorbike, the smell of petrol, the disappearing paper owls, the shadowy figure in a photograph. It's brilliantly done, not a word wasted, with Garner beginning to hone his elliptical style. One character, Alison's mother, never actually appears on the page, though she hovers over the action throughout.

The first time I read this book as a teen, without the benefit of the internet, I found it hard to visualise the pattern on the plates which could be read as flowers or owls. Here is an image of the plate that inspired the story:

And here is an example of the paper model owls that Alison compulsively makes:

The book was adapted into a TV series (which I've not seen) a couple of years after publication, and apparently there were creepy incidents on set. The actor who played Gwyn was killed in a pub fight a few years later, and Alan Garner himself suffered a mental breakdown during the filming. 

The Owl Service is a spooky, disturbing story, a masterclass in spare, powerful writing. Genius.


25.6.20

The Flight of the Maidens


I can't believe I completely forgot to talk about Jane Gardam's 2000 novel, The Flight of the Maidens! What a dill. My system broke down because I put the book straight onto the shelf instead of next to my laptop for review.

I enjoyed this novel so much. It's set just after the war, and follows three clever young women who have just finished school and are about to set off to various universities. (Jane Gardam was this age when the war ended.) 

Una is headed for Cambridge, and unsure whether she should persist with her working-class boyfriend, Ray, the son of the local coal delivery woman. But (slight spoiler) Ray turns out to have hidden depths. The saga of Una and Ray attempting to consummate their relationship in a series of remote youth hostels, none of which turn out to be as deserted as they should be, is hilarious.

Hetty -- sorry, she's calling herself Hester now -- takes herself off to a B&B in the Lake District to catch up on her reading, horribly suspicious that she's won her place on the coat-tails of her condescending boyfriend. She's also trying to avoid her helicopter mother and damaged father, but she's soon plunged into a new milieu with its own pitfalls. Gardam's genius for eccentric characters is in full flight here.

And then there's Lieselotte, a Jewish refugee rescued by Kindertransport. She is whisked away, first to unknown sponsors in London, and then to an unsuspected relative in America. In many ways, Lieselotte's journey is the oddest of them all.

The three girls are only together at the very beginning and the very end of the novel, but their stories intertwine and resonate throughout the story. Jane Gardam is at her best writing about young women, with their inchoate passions, self-doubts and determination. The Flight of the Maidens was a highly entertaining, and at times poignant, ride.

22.6.20

Black Faces, White Faces


I'd almost forgotten picking up this (very) slim volume of short stories by Jane Gardam in a second hand bookshop in Ballarat last year -- or maybe it was the year before. It's a funny little book, and I'm not sure that it would be published today. 

Originally published in 1975, it's a format I really enjoy, a suite of interconnected short stories where characters wander in and out of each other's tales. It seems to have arisen from a trip by Gardam to Jamaica, and it won two fiction prizes. But though the writing is vintage Jane Gardam -- funny, sharp, eccentric and unsentimental, reading it was not an altogether comfortable experience. 

The title of the collection is Black Faces, White Faces, but the emphasis is definitely on the white faces and voices of a group of English tourists and the way they are affected by the exotic location of the West Indies. There is no story from the point of view of a Black character, and the very first story contains some offensive language. On the other hand, I wouldn't have loved it if Gardam had spoken in the voice of a Black character either, without doing a lot of work first. Perhaps that means that there is simply no longer a place for a collection like this, presumably inspired by a brief visit to an unfamiliar setting.

This is a slight book, in every sense. I'm not sorry to have read it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it again.

10.6.20

Thimble Summer

I bought Thimble Summer on the Kindle and it didn't have a cover image at all, so I've picked the one from the many editions this book that appealed to me most. However I'm not sure about the tagline, which reads: Do you believe in magic? Garnet finds a silver thimble in the creekbed at the start of the book, and good things do flow for the rest of the summer, but there's no real suggestion that magic is responsible. (So I guess the answer to the question is no.)

Thimble Summer was Elizabeth Enright's first book, after she'd already embarked on a career as an illustrator, and she immediately won the Newbury Medal. Talk about starting on a high. Thimble Summer shares many of the characteristics of Enright's later work -- the episodic storylines, the small, undramatic events, a rural setting, stories about the past. I would say the defining feature of Enright's novels is a gentle charm. About the most exciting thing that happens is that Garnet and her friend Citronella get locked in the library -- they don't even stay there all night!

Interestingly, just like in Then There Were Five, a stray boy appears and joins the family. This time it's Eric, who has travelled across country and experienced much hardship before he finds refuge on Garnet's farm. Although Thimble Summer won the Newbury, I don't think it's Enright's best work, but the seeds of her future books are discernible here.

7.6.20

Daydreaming and Fantasy

I ordered this 1975 psychology textbook from AbeBooks at vast expense -- well, a lot more than I usually pay to feed my book habit! -- but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. It was a very earnest discussion of the benefits of fantasising and daydreaming.

Jerome Singer reminds me of those people who argue in favour of the arts or healthcare in terms of their economic benefit, rather than their intrinsic worth. He was very keen to point out that daydreaming about possible futures can help the daydreamers turn those futures into reality; that imagination and creativity can lead to invention and innovation (and economic benefit, presumably); that fantasising can help develop empathy and compassion, and often hardcore daydreamers spin their fantasy habits into an artistic or literary career. Well, that's all great, but it came across a little too try-hard for me.

My favourite section of Daydreaming and Fantasy was where Singer discussed his own daydreaming habits -- putting himself to sleep at night with imagined baseball games, spinning elaborate childhood stories where he became a senator and a famous singer. I wanted more of this stuff, and less of the experiments on distractibility!

My reading of Daydreaming and Fantasy coincided with a family obsession with Bluey, and reinforced the importance of play and imagination games in early childhood. Bluey is all about the benefits of pretending -- imagination, negotiation, processing troubling events, trying on activities and feelings, and most of all, fun. Unfortunately Daydreaming and Fantasy mostly neglected the enormous enjoyment that imagining can provide.

2.6.20

Re-reading: Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two

It's not very often I acquire a whole series all in the same edition: the Melendy books are an exception in my collection, thanks to the fact that I bought all four at a library book sale. I don't mind these covers, except for Spiderweb for Two, where Randy looks as if she could be Oliver's mother, she's so unnaturally mature (be grateful the resolution on this image is so bad).

Daughter (15) was taken aback by the title of Then There Were Five, suspecting a murder mystery. On the contrary, this is the book where the Melendy acquire, rather than losing, an extra member -- orphan Mark joins their family after his evil cousin Oren sets their farmhouse on fire and perishes in the flames. Apart from this grisly and dramatic episode, the bulk of the book is very gentle -- the kids build a swimming hole, meet colourful local characters, decide to can and preserve all the garden produce on their own, collect caterpillars, hold a fair. The book ends with the unanimous decision to adopt Mark, who gets to sleep in the cupola (lucky Mark).

Spiderweb for Two must have been my favourite book of the quartet when I was young, because I remembered quite a bit of it. Randy and Oliver, the two youngest Melendys, are left behind when the elder siblings go off to boarding school. But to stop them from being bored and lonely, the rest of the family devises a treasure hunt, with clues in enigmatic poetry. Randy and Oliver have to puzzle out fourteen clues in all before the final triumphant unveiling, which take them all over the countryside, into cemeteries and cellars, into butcher's shops and up trees, with plenty of mishaps and misunderstandings along the way. This is an elegant and fun book, with many digressions into the past, which I'm realising were a feature of all Enright's work.

I think the aspect that really distinguishes the Melendy books is that they are truly about a whole family. They aren't based on one sibling, with the others making cameo appearances; everyone shares the story equally. They aren't books aimed at either boys or girls; anyone could enjoy them. It's sad that this strikes me as being such a rarity.


28.5.20

Nine Days


Gee, this is a terrific book! Nine Days is an adult novel, but it would work equally well as a YA title. It tells nine interconnected stories, over four generations of a single Richmond family. The story swoops back and forth in time, from the 1930s to the present day; we get hints of what's to come, and sometimes misdirections. Most of the nine narrators are young, but not all of them.

Toni Jordan has achieved the difficult feat of giving each of her nine characters a distinct voice; sometimes in these kinds of collections, all the chapters end up sounding quite similar, but Jordan has avoided this trap. The book was inspired by the wartime photo shown on the cover, a soldier and his girl kissing goodbye, and Jordan has woven a moving, sometimes tragic (but also often funny) story around the pair.

Nine Days is a deceptively ambitious project that absolutely works. Skilful and satisfying, the nine individual stories click together into a perfectly shaped whole.

21.5.20

Gods and Angels

I feel as if I've been immersed in Irish literature lately -- what with Tana French and Sally Rooney -- and David Park adds a masculine perspective. Gods & Angels is a collection of short stories which was lent to me by my friend Suzanne (we have very similar literary tastes!)

Gods & Angels took me a long time to read. In some ways it was a very sad volume. Many of the stories deal with loneliness and isolation, which have an extra resonance at this time. There is also a wry humour and some touching moments. One long story deals with a tentative relationship between an elderly widower and a young single mum, its ebbs and flows of trust and betrayal, comfort and reserve. I particularly enjoyed Man Overboard, in which a group of men attempt, in their own clumsy but sincere way, to support their depressed friend. In Heatwave, the balance of power in a marriage shifts during a disastrous excursion to the beach. In the gentle and bittersweet Gecko, a teacher takes his wife of twenty five years to see the Northern Lights.

Perhaps the most moving story is the last of the book, Crossing the River, in which the ferryman conveys his mother across the river of death. Dedicated to Isabel Park, this is obviously Park's tribute to his own mother. The writing is dark and lyrical, but ultimately comforting.

12.5.20

Al Capone Does My Shirts

I really enjoyed this book! Set in 1935, Al Capone Does My Shirts follows twelve year old Moose Flanagan, who moves to the prison island of Alcatraz when his father takes a new job as guard and electrician. It's a demanding job, but the family needs the money to pay for Moose's sister to attend a special school on the mainland. Natalie is "ten" and has been "ten" for several years; she has autism, though Moose never uses the word and has probably never heard it. But when Nat's school rejects her, the family must make other plans for her future.

The relationship between Moose and Nat is beautifully drawn -- his love for her and the close bond between them, his occasional embarrassment and exasperation with her behaviour, all have the ring of truth, and indeed author Gennifer Choldenko's own sister has severe autism. Moose's quiet connection with his father and his problematic relationship with his mother are also skilfully explored.

The history and the setting are fascinating. The children who live on the island are understandably intrigued by the glamour of Al Capone and the other dangerous prisoners with whom they share the rock. Capone himself ends up playing a very significant, albeit off-screen, role in Moose's story.

Al Capone Does My Shirts (in the prison laundry) is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful and touching read.

7.5.20

The Winter Book UPDATE

A Winter Book was obviously put together as a companion volume to Tove Jansson's classic The Summer Book. And it worked, because that was why I bought it. But it's a very different kettle of fish.

Tove Jansson is best known (certainly outside her native Finland) for her Moomin books -- strange, melancholy stories shot through with longing for travel and longing for home. I owned and loved several of them as a child and they always made me feel enjoyably sad. I came to The Summer Book as an adult. It's a series of vignettes, set on a summer island, centred on the relationship between an old woman and her grandchild. It's beautiful and strange and wise, with the same enjoyable sadness and mood of nameless nostalgia and yearning as the Moomin stories.

A Winter Book is a selection of pieces from throughout Jansson's life, many taken from the memoir of her childhood, Sculptor's Daughter. I think I enjoyed these pieces the most, especially the story about the little girl who throws her torch onto an iceberg so it can drift away, lit with a greenish glow. A couple of chapters of  letters sent and received were poignant and sometimes very funny.

But there were two stories that made me feel deeply anxious! One was set on a cruise ship (which I think was enough in the current climate to trigger unease). The other long story was called The Squirrel, and it was about a woman living alone on an island who develops an uneasy relationship with a squirrel who turns up there. I can't describe how anxiety-provoking I found this story. Perhaps the theme of solitude, the protagonist's attempts at self-discipline (she's a writer) and her eventual retreat into depression were just too close to the bone at the moment. Anyway.

The Moomin stories are often held up as simple, sweet, charming tales; you can buy loads of Moomin merchandise for kids. But there is a vein of darkness (Finnish noir?) in Jansson's work that surfaces quite plainly in this volume. If you're only after Moomin sweetness, don't look for it here.

UPDATE: By chance I just saw this article in The Guardian by Tom Holland about Mooninland Midwinter, which has both haunted and comforted him since childhood, and which he finds particularly pertinent in this time of lockdown -- Moomintroll wakes up in the midst of hibernation and finds his world changed and cold and frightening. I don't remember reading this one as a child but  it does sound scary in the same way that A Winter Book is sometimes scary.

4.5.20

Depends What You Mean By Extremist

I vividly remember when John Safran burst onto Australian TV screens twenty years ago with Race Around the World. He streaked through the streets of Jerusalem wearing only a St Kilda beanie and scarf. He's been shocking, provoking, asking awkward questions and popping up in strange places ever since.

Depends What You Mean By Extremist begins with Safran poking around in his area of special interest -- political extremism. We quickly discover that nothing in this murky world is straightforward or predictable. Safran hangs out with ethnically white fanatical converts to Islam (one was later arrested for attempting to join ISIS), brown-skinned activists against multi-culturalism (yes, I said against), supporters of Pauline Hanson who are married to Asian immigrants (despite her notorious opposition to Asian immigration), socialist and anarchists who get into punches at supposedly peaceful protests (but it's okay because it's 'non-structural violence.') Race, religion and ideology are hopelessly tangled, and Safran is gleefully romping in the middle of it, growing a beard and pulling on disguises, buddying up and needling almost in the same breath.

I think he gets away with it because he's so non-threatening. Slim and weedy (despite all those workouts at the Jewish gym where the trainer is trying to recruit troops for Israel), he has a distinctive lisp which makes him seem immediately harmless. He doesn't take himself or any of his subjects too seriously and he has a keen eye and ear for absurdity.

But by the end of the book, he admits that the topic has got out of hand. He begins his journey with  a weird community rally and ends it with the election of Donald Trump. Extremism has gone mainstream.

Two things stood out especially clearly. Firstly, Safran's observation that most of the organisers of Reclaim Australia and the like are really out for political power and are just using the muddled prejudices of ordinary people to hoist themselves to a seat at the table.

 Secondly, when dealing with religious extremists (a different kettle of fish altogether), 'It's hard to cut a deal with people who think that what they're doing will bring on the Messiah.' Something I sometimes wonder about our own proudly pentecostal Prime Minister...

1.5.20

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

This is the book that inspired last year's addictive Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I adore Marie Kondo and I was so excited when her book turned up on Brotherhood Books -- I'd been waiting to nab it for ages. After watching the show, I was inspired to reorganise my drawers and discard lots of clothes. This is stage one in the Marie Kondo de-cluttering process. Then I managed to clean out the kitchen cupboards. But alas, I got stuck after that.

Marie Kondo comes across on TV as a sweet, quirky, almost elfin presence -- kneeling to commune with the house before she begins the tidying process, thanking each article of clothing for its service before she discards it, squealing with delight and clapping her hands in her swirly skirt and neat blazer. But under this dainty persona lies a will of steel and a ruthless determination.

There are two parts to the Marie Kondo process. The Netflix series focused primarily on the first part: throwing stuff out. But the second part is just as important: finding a home for everything. This is the part we have trouble with at our house. I'm pretty good with my own personal possessions but there are lots of things in our house that 'float' -- just looking around me now I can see remote controls, magazines, jigsaws, notebooks, textas which are picked up and put down randomly as required. This is the very definition of clutter!

Then there are the contents of laundry and hall cupboards which might be cleaned out periodically and reorganised (my other half is very keen on this activity, which we call 'shifting deckchairs'), but not really in a systematic way. So we end up with three lots of extension cords, two boxes of batteries, several rag bags etcetera. One area I can't agree with Kondo is books: she says get rid of them all! (Okay, almost all.) But my books spark so much joy that I'm going to break that rule.

You could summarise Marie Kondo's philosophy very simply as 'when in doubt throw it out.' This works well unless you start to get squeamish about landfill, but the real point is not to keep acquiring stuff you don't need (because you probably already have it but don't realise it, because it's lost in the back of a cupboard somewhere), and to truly care for the things you do have. I think I'm inspired to have my life changed again!

29.4.20

Broken Harbour

I was actually looking on my Kindle for Tana French's Into the Woods after watching Dublin Murders on SBS (and feeling quite frustrated by the ending, by the way) but then I saw that number 4 in the series, Broken Harbour, was available for a ridiculously low price, so I couldn't resist buying that instead.

I was very surprised to find that our narrator this time was Scorcher Kennedy, a character I had paid absolutely no attention to up till now -- an old school, unimaginative detective who sees the world in black and white. Despite his own troubled family history (mother suicided, sister has severe mental illness), he believes that basically you bring your fate on yourself -- murder victims, he tells us and his newbie partner Rick, are mostly asking for it. Hm... let's say we don't really warm to Scorcher.

At first glance, this horrible family murder scene looks like a bog standard domestic abuse situation. But Scorcher doesn't want to believe that dad Pat Spain, trying so hard to do everything right, could have been responsible. So he starts looking for other explanations.

Broken Harbour, set in the wake of the crash of the Irish boom, felt eerily apt. People suddenly out of work, struggling financially, the promise of prosperity betrayed. The Spain family, trapped in their house (from shame not quarantine, though), going slowly nuts... it all felt uncomfortably close to home.

One of the complications Scorcher and Rick discover is that Pat was obsessed with an animal he kept hearing in the roof -- a mink, a rat, a wolverine? He has set up monitors and traps, haunted internet chat rooms, stayed up all night on guard. I swear it is pure coincidence that it was this week that a possum has chosen to expire in MY roof! It took us several days to figure out that was where the hideous stench must be coming from... and now the possum guy has to open up the roof to extract it, but he can't do that until the rain clears... So we are stuck in lockdown with the delightful aroma of rotting brush tail. Ah, quarantine!

26.4.20

Re-reading: The Saturdays and The Four Story Mistake

Years ago I picked up all four of Elizabeth Enright's Melendy family books at the library book sale, but I don't think I re-read them at the time. The editions I read originally were hardback copies from the Mt Hagen library, and I remember being enchanted by these first two books in particular -- I'm looking forward to re-visiting And Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two, which I don't recall much about at all. Someone got adopted? And in Spiderweb, the older kids make a treasure hunt for the younger ones. I think that was fun.

The Melendy family are almost too good to be true. They get along so well together, they have small adventures, but there are no wrenching dramas. Mona wants to be an actress, she is given a part in a radio serial, but she gets into terrible trouble when she cuts her hair and has her nails painted red without permission. Rush plays piano and builds stuff, Randy draws and dances, Oliver (much younger than the others) enjoys his food and looks forward to tomorrow.

My copy of The Four Story Mistake (which to my Australian eyes should really be Four Storey Mistake) has the library sticker right over the cupola. I always loved the cupola, but I've never been sure how to pronounce it. Couple-a? Cup-ole-a? Coop-ola? If anyone knows, please enlighten me! (Google has just informed me that it should be cue-pella, which I never even thought of. Oh well.)

Having recently re-read the Gone-Away Lake books, Enright's fascination with the past has leapt out these pages too: there is the mysterious sealed room the children discover in their new house in the country, and the story old Mrs Oliphant tells about having her portrait painted as a child in The Saturdays. Not surprisingly, it's these stories that have stayed with me most vividly, while the everyday adventures of Rush finding a stray dog and Randy riding her bike into the back of a bus have faded from my mind.

Of course, all the Melendy stories are historical stories now. They were first published nearly eighty years ago. But I wish I'd thought to read them to my girls; they are such fresh, natural stories, it's been a delight to rediscover them.

24.4.20

H is for Hawk

I read H is for Hawk a few years ago on the Kindle but I loved it so much that when it appeared on Brotherhood Books I snapped it up. It certainly bears re-reading; a beautifully written, deeply felt meditation on many things -- wildness and grief, TH White, the history of falconry, the lust of the hunt, depression and obsession.

The aspect that seemed particularly apt to me at the moment, in this time of isolation, was the contrary pull of the solitary, and community. McDonald loses herself in identification with her goshawk, Mabel, but the more closely she sees the world through Mabel's eyes, the more she risks losing touch with what makes her human. In the end, it's connection with people that pulls Helen back from the brink of depression and grief.

Is it perverse that some of us have embraced this enforced isolation, and are even becoming fearful of the time when it will come to an end? Someone on social media yesterday said that she would prefer to stay 'cocooned away from the world.' I must admit I know how she feels, and it's quite a dangerous feeling.

Though H is for Hawk is a dark book in places, it's ultimately a moving and uplifting reading experience. Highly recommended.

22.4.20

How to Make a Movie in 12 Days

This is such a good book! It was a really enjoyable, satisfying read, with some quirky touches that set it apart. How to Make a Movie in 12 Days opens just after the death of eleven year old Hayley's beloved grandmother, who had helped her to write and plan her very own movie. Hayley decides to use the use the last couple of weeks of the holidays to make those plans into reality, by shooting Rosebud, a horror story about a vengeful rosebush, in Grandma's honour. But it seems that someone is sabotaging the shoot...

Fiona Hardy has skilfully woven together a story about friendships, trust, grief and film shoots. I loved the inserts like the filming schedule, the list of sabotage suspects, and especially the film appreciation course at the end of the book, complete with fun activities and an age-appropriate introduction to film criticism.

Bonus points for making Hayley a heroine who openly states that she has no interest in romance. It's increasingly hard to find protagonists who don't sneak in a little romantic interest on the side, even in middle grade fiction, and as a parent of a child who steadfastly resisted romance in all her reading, it's lovely to have a really solid option out there.

Thoroughly satisfying. This is Fiona Hardy's debut, and she is one to watch.

20.4.20

Part of the Furniture

I've had a break from Mary Wesley for a while after a huge binge last year; I was starting to find her novels a little repetitive. But perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder, or the brain less critical, because I very much enjoyed Part of the Furniture. I think I prefer Wesley's wartime novels to the contemporary stories -- the wild coincidences and twists of fate seem to make more sense in that topsy-turvy setting (not unlike the emergency in which we now find ourselves, come to think of it).

Seventeen year old Juno has just farewelled her childhood companions, Francis and Jonty, who are off to war, but when she's trapped in an air raid she takes shelter in the house of a stranger, Evelyn. But in the morning Evelyn has died, leaving Juno with a letter of introduction to his father in the country. (All this happens in the first chapter, so no spoilers.) With nowhere else to go, Juno takes refuge with Evelyn's father and embeds herself at the farm. But her last encounter with Francis and Jonty has consequences.

One thing I struggled with was that I didn't have a clear picture of Evelyn's age. He is described as having almost-white hair, and he is obviously ill and frail, which led me to imagine him as quite old - but then his father turns out to be only in his fifties! This confused me for ages (Robert married very young but I still had trouble with the maths). I love the way that Wesley plunges the reader into the action from the very first page. There are several familiar Wesley themes in this book: the upheaval of war, an idyllic country refuge, pregnancy and social disapproval, quite a lot of sex, an age disparity. Juno is appealing in her self-sufficiency and reserve, though at times she seemed a lot more mature than seventeen. The whole plot is terribly unlikely, but it was a romp that I was in the mood for.

14.4.20

The January Stars

I suppose it's about time I talked about MY book: The January Stars.

The plot of The January Stars is quite simple. While their parents and brother are away dealing with a family emergency, Clancy and Tash accidentally kidnap their grandfather from his aged care facility, and take him on a road trip to find him somewhere better to live. Along the way, Clancy becomes convinced that the spirit of their grandmother is guiding them, and the adventure ends up drawing together a family that has drifted apart.

The genesis of the story was my own father's stroke, five years ago, which left him paralysed on the right side and living with aphasia, which means, in his case, that he can read and understand speech, but can't speak (apart from a handful of involuntary words) or write. So he is in very much the same situation as Pa -- except that he is much better off than Pa, as he still has my mum.

The single hardest aspect of the COVID-19 emergency for my family has been that Dad's home has a strict ban on all visitors. Usually my parents spend every day together, either at Bill's home or at our place. Now their only real contact is a nightly FaceTime call, which is a lot better than nothing, but still not enough.

So while in one way it has been absolutely terrible timing to have a new book out, in some ways it's a perfect book for the weird and stressful times in which we find ourselves. It's about pulling together (and pushing -- wheelchair joke there); it's about family and taking care of elderly, vulnerable relatives; it's about community; and it's about travel, which is something we're not allowed to do at the moment.

I've been getting some lovely feedback about The January Stars already. If the virus hadn't happened, I would have had a launch this weekend. I'm really hoping that when this is all over, I can still have that launch, and that my Mum and Dad can both be there. Fingers crossed.

8.4.20

The Voice That Thunders

What a pleasure and a privilege to revisit this book of essays and speeches by Alan Garner. Not surprisingly, he returns repeatedly to the same themes from slightly different angles: the strength and centrality of myth and story-telling; his personal experience of being torn between his own place and people, and the world of the academy, and his long battle to reconcile those two aspects of himself; his harrowing experience of mental illness and eventual bipolar diagnosis.

Sometimes he is angry. There is a ferocious chapter on the deadening effect of studying books in schools (gulp) wherein he quotes some truly dreadful letters he's been sent by students and teachers. But he also shares some uplifting correspondence, particularly from young readers, and emphasises that this private communication, between writer and reader, is the whole point and purpose of his work.

Sometimes he is sad. His account of his battles with mental illness is difficult to read.

There are gems of insight scattered all through this book. What about this:

A more general aspect of English is that vowels may be seen to represent emotion and consonants to represent thought. We are able to communicate our feelings in speech without consonants, and to understand a written statement when the vowels are omitted. The head defines the heart, and together they make the word.

Garner writes movingly and illuminatingly about the background to his work -- the Welsh myths behind The Owl Service (next on my re-read list), and the story of William Buckley, which inspired Strandloper. Garner is a brilliant man, learned in languages, archaeology, geology, layers of history and legend, psychology and philosophy, and his fiction concentrates all this learning into rich, distilled story, which nourishes and repays repeated reading.

Alan Garner, as I've said before, is the writer I admire above all others. We are so fortunate to be able to glimpse inside his mind and share his hard-won wisdom in The Voice That Thunders.

2.4.20

Re-Reading Alan Garner: Elidor

For my money, Elidor is where things really start to pick up. Alan Garner once observed that as his writing career progressed, his protagonists grew older, but always staying about the same distance from his own age. With Elidor, we move from children's literature to young adult, from high fantasy to what we would now label 'urban fantasy.'

The children (we are never told their ages, but they seem like young teens to me) enter the ruined land of Elidor through a portal in a derelict church. After a brief quest-and-test journey, they are sent back to our own world with four Treasures -- a sword, a spear, a cup and a stone (these reminded me of the four suits of the traditional tarot deck). But once in our world, the Treasures are disguised as a pair of nailed lathes, an iron rod, a cracked china bowl and a rock: the kind of imagined 'treasures' that any kid might pick up in a game of pretend. But the children are being pursued from the other side of the veil...

The section where the Treasures give off an electrical charge, causing household appliances to malfunction, is funny, and the part where intruders from Elidor rattle the door of the house is genuinely creepy. Garner's prose is beginning to be more carefully pruned in this book, and is much more powerful for its restraint.

The door of the children's house, which Roland conjures in Elidor, is the door of Garner's own childhood home, and the blasted landscape of Elidor is based on the 'ceiling world' he lost himself in as a sick child lying in bed. I think this is my favourite aspect of Elidor, the collision between real and imagined, created and remembered, mythic and quotidian, until the climactic scene with the unicorn rampaging in the demolished slums of Manchester. This is a very strong book.

31.3.20

I Capture the Castle

I've owned this copy of I Capture the Castle for several years (I bought it second hand but it was so long ago I can't remember exactly where it came from -- I paid $12) without realising that the girl on the cover is actually a very young Romola Garai, from the movie adaptation. (I have been trying to watch the movie for days but it isn't on any of the streaming services at the moment. Someone said it was on Kanopy, which I managed to install -- but it wasn't there either! Except in Egypt, apparently...)

Anyway, I had forgotten how much I adore this book. It was absolutely perfect comfort reading, and my only complaint is that it could have been ten times longer and I would have happily gone on reading it until quarantine ends. Thank you, Susannah, for reminding me about it!

It reminds me somewhat of my teenage favourite books, Nancy Mitford's Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate -- but Nancy Mitford can be brutal, there is a sense that she will ruthlessly sacrifice anyone for a laugh. Dodie Smith is far kinder. Her characters are just as charmingly eccentric as Mitford's, but there is more love. Is Cassandra, our narrator, 'consciously naive,' as she is described at one point? She grows less innocent and more mature as the book progresses, as she experiences the bitter bliss of first love, the agony of that love being unrequited, the complicated envy of her sister, and the whole wretched 'game of second-best we have all been playing -- Rose with Simon, Simon with me, me with Stephen...'

A modern reader will find it credulity-straining, perhaps, that none of the family is able to get a job of any kind, but that they all sit around waiting for their father to write another book, but the girls were not educated with employment in mind.

I Capture the Castle is also  very funny -- the scene with the bear, the green hands, the abduction of their father -- but for all its eccentricities and its bizarre setting (they live in a ruined castle, less romantic than it sounds), its heart is true. I'd remembered it as having a more straightforwardly happy ending, but in fact the bittersweet balance between melancholy and hope is pitched perfectly. I don't think I could love this book more.

27.3.20

Freakonomics

I studied Economics in Year 12. It was my worst subject and I have been sceptical of economists ever since -- what they say is either bleeding obvious or irrelevant to reality (in my opinion). But Freakonomics comes at economics from a different, and far more entertaining, angle. It's really about looking at data and asking questions -- not obvious questions, and not irrelevant ones, but questions that produce unexpected answers.

The most striking (and notorious) example of this approach concerns the youth crime wave predicted to swamp the US in the 1990s -- a crime wave that never eventuated. Commentators and politicians put this down to better policing, increased prison terms and a host of other causes, but Levitt (an economist) and Dubner (a journalist) have crunched the numbers and concluded that the real cause of this crime wave failing to occur was actually Roe v Wade -- the pro-choice legal decision which enabled many poor and desperate young women to have abortions. Twenty years later, a whole demographic of unwanted children had not been born and not grown up to become criminals. The crime rate fell.

This is probably the most controversial of their conclusions but the numbers do seem to stack up. There are also case studies involving parenting, names, real estate, crack dealers and many other topics. Since this book came out, Levitt and Dubner have produced several more and a successful podcast, but I think I've dipped my toe in deep enough for now.

25.3.20

Magpie Murders

My beautiful sister-in-law (who is something of a magpie herself) picked this up secondhand and I snaffled it (get well soon, Trae xxx). I am a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz's wartime detective series, Foyle's War, which wonderfully combines history, character and mystery. Magpie Murders is not on the same level, but it is a bit of fun -- which is something we all desperately need at the moment.

Magpie Murders gives you two murder mysteries for the price of one. The book opens with editor Susan Ryeland reading the latest manuscript in the popular Atticus Pund post-war detective series. This manuscript is the first mystery, featuring a classic cosy English village murder. But the last chapter, with the solution, is missing... and then the author, Alan Conway, turns up dead... Did he really kill himself, or was he murdered too? And if the latter, by whom and why? Susan is determined to find out.

I enjoyed this novel, which cleverly plays with many of the tropes of detective fiction by interweaving the 'fictional' and the 'real' mysteries, just as Conway did with his novels. Perfect for curling up with in quarantine.

23.3.20

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage

So long ago that it feels like a completely different life (I think it was some time in January) on a hot summer's night, I heard Judith Brett talking about this book, a history of the Australian electoral system, and I was so intrigued that I hopped out of bed at 1am and crept to my laptop to reserve it at the library then and there.

I was about eighth in the queue, but it finally arrived a couple of weeks ago -- also in another lifetime, in a different world. Now the libraries are all closed, re-opening who knows when, and I poked the book through the returns slot yesterday. I wonder when I will next be able to borrow a book -- all my lovely reserves are still waiting for me...

Judith Brett's firm contention is that Australia does elections better than just about anywhere in the world. We take our innovations for granted, but we should celebrate them, because a solid, impartial electoral system is one of the best safeguards for democracy. We didn't invent all of the following, but we did invent some, and others we adopted permanently.


  • the secret ballot: for a long time this was actually known as 'the Australian ballot.' Before this, people had to declare their votes publically, which is obviously a problem if you rely on the goodwill of the local landowner or whatever and don't want to be seen to choose someone other than their favoured candidate. Candidates used to bribe voters with alcohol, so election days became violent, riotous gatherings; the secret ballot ended this practice.
  • voting on Saturdays: it still amazes me that the US hold elections on Tuesdays, and in the UK on Thursdays! Australians have prioritised making voting easier, whereas some other jurisdictions seem to try to make it as difficult as possible.
  • compulsory voting: in fact, voting itself isn't compulsory, it's just compulsory to turn up and get your name crossed off the roll; once you're in the booth (another Aussie innovation), you can leave your paper blank, scribble on it or whatever. In Australia, voting was seen as a necessary civic duty, and determining the will of the majority of voters was always paramount.
There are lots of other elements, and not every aspect of Australian voting is a cause for celebration -- for example, the deliberate disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people (though we were early to give the vote to women). The emphasis on ease of voting is leading inexorably to a preference for early, postal and absentee voting before the actual election day (I don't approve of this). But in general, election days in Australia are genial, good-humoured community festivals, and that is in itself a cause for celebration.

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is a slim book but it's much more interesting than you might think!