25.11.20

Nothing New

 

Robyn Annear is a prolific Melbourne writer (actually I think she lives in Castlemaine) but I'm aware of her from her history of early Melbourne, Bearbrass, and A City Lost and Found, which is the story of Whelan the Wrecker. It's not surprising that she's chosen to turn her pen to a history of second-hand -- well, everything! (Ironically Nothing New is one of the few books I've read lately not sourced from that massive trove of second-hand reading matter, Brotherhood Books; I borrowed this one from the library.)

Nothing New examines many different aspects of secondhand goods and trading, but focuses particularly on clothing. In the olden days, there was no such thing as vintage -- clothes were worn, cut down, and adapted until they simply wore out, whereupon they were transformed into multi-purpose rags. Everyday clothing doesn't get preserved for museums, which is why the historic clothes we see on display tend to be strictly for special occasions - silk dresses, bridal gowns and parade uniforms.

Annear also looks at the enormous trade in used clothing in Africa, the valorisation of mending and making do during times of shortage during the First and Second World Wars, and the subsequent backlash in the 1950s when consumers were encouraged to throw out the old and embrace the new in order to help the economy along. 

These days we are encouraged (perhaps vainly) to reuse and recycle what we can, but at the same time, society isn't organised to facilitate this. It's almost impossible to get major appliances repaired -- why would you, when it's just as cheap to buy a new fridge or washing machine? I'm constantly horrified by participants on House Hunters who cast an eye over a perfectly functional kitchen or bathroom and pronounce that it 'needs to be updated.' Does it, really? Having lived in many houses with sub-standard kitchens and bathrooms and survived perfectly well, I can tell you that having everything new might  be nice, but it's by no means essential.

There is, however, a sub-section of society (which clearly Annear belongs to) which celebrates the pre-loved, the historic, the shabby, the characterful. My sister-in-law is currently making a fortune connecting discarded items with new owners. Long may she and her kind flourish.

17.11.20

The Shepherd's Life

 

James Rebanks' unexpected 2015 bestseller, The Shepherd's Life, chimed well with my recent readings of Underland and Alan Garner -- and also with Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk. Rebanks is part of a farming family in England's Lake District: Beatrix Potter country. For generations, his ancestors have farmed sheep on the fells, and he has witnessed the rise and fall of farming fads, eventually returning to the traditional methods of managing sheep on these marginal lands.

His connection to the land is unbreakable; he glories fiercely in the deep family connection to farming that stretches back for hundreds of years, and which he in turn is passing to his own young children (though he accepts that they may or not not also become farmers). He is no fool, and doesn't suffer fools either, like well-meaning outsiders who take a more romantic view of the countryside and see the sheep and the farmers as a picturesque decoration rather than an integral part of the landscape. His people are proud and prickly, and that comes through forcefully in his prose.

Just as when I read Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, I was struck by the parallels, half a world away, with Australian First Nations' visceral connection to country and how these English authors experience their own deep roots in the land. It's not the same experience, but it chimes, and it makes me wonder if all traditional societies share this fundamental sense of connection to the landscape -- if it's a universal experience that modern, mobile societies have lost. 

The Shepherd's Life is divided into seasons and describes the rhythm of the farming year; the book also traces Rebanks' own life. He drifted through school and didn't think much of it, dropping out as soon as he could to help on the farm. But clashes with his father contributed to driving him back to education. He ended up at Oxford (he describes wryly how he found himself suddenly rebranded locally as 'clever') and now finds himself a writer. (I didn't know it, but he has a new book out: English Pastoral.) I've also just discovered a Conversations podcast with Richard Fidler which I am now itching to listen to.

9.11.20

The Stone Book Quartet

 

I think The Stone Book Quartet is my favourite Alan Garner novel. It's really a collection of four novellas, each focused on a child of a different generation of a family strikingly similar to Garner's own: he has said that this is his most personal book. In these slim but tightly controlled stories, each taking place over a single day, Garner explores themes of family and history, memory and craft, belonging and loss.

In The Stone Book, Mary's stonemason father takes her up to the stop of the church spire and then deep into the earth to discover a secret painted cave. In Granny Reardun, Mary's son chooses to come a blacksmith rather than a mason, to work with metal instead of stone. In The Aimer Gate, Robert helps with the wartime harvest but alone of the children, can't find a moment of joy or a vocation. Finally, in Tom Fobble's Day, set during the Second World War, William's grandfather (the smith of Granny Reardun) makes William a perfect sledge on his last day of work.

There are echoes and resonances between the four stories. The demolished house from Granny Reardun reappears as rescued rubble in The Aimer Gate. Robert climbs inside the church tower and finds his grandfather's mark hidden in the 'cave' of the belfry. In each generation, there is deep skill and respected mastery. And Alan Garner himself, descended from these craftsmen, has created a homage to them using the tools of his own craft: words.

There are also gaps and mysteries here. No one seems to know what the 'aimer gate' means. Mary, who longed to work in a great house and care for beautiful things, can't afford to care for her own firstborn son. Robert is not drawn to any particular mastery and we don't know what becomes of him; the last tale centres on William and his grandfather, and William's father doesn't even appear. 

Hot on the heels of Underland, it was especially wonderful to read of the ancient painted cave of The Stone Book with its vivid animal scenes, overlapping footprints and handprints, a secret handed down through a single family. Do the later children know of it, or is the secret lost? The broken loom of Mary's uncle becomes William's perfectly balanced sledge four generations later; some knowledge, some possessions, are passed down unknowingly. 

Like the sledge, swift and balanced, sweeping and sure, the product of hand and eye and history, The Stone Book Quartet itself is close to perfection.

26.10.20

The Magician's Book

 

I found out about The Magician's Book from my Facebook friend Neil Philip (expert on myth and folklore, poetry and Alan Garner, among other subjects) and bought it impulsively on Kindle because I couldn't wait to read it. Now I almost wish I'd been more patient and ordered a paper copy (I guess I could still do that).

I am a sucker for books about Narnia. Planet Narnia by Michael Ward (another Kindle impulse I wish I owned non-digitally) reshaped the way I read the Chronicles. The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia was less revolutionary, but still contained much food for thought and plentiful insights for lovers of C. S. Lewis's creation.

Like many of us, Laura Miller fell head over heels in love with Narnia as a child, but became disillusioned as an adolescent when she recognised the 'Christian propaganda' embedded in the stories. But as an adult, she has returned to the books with a more thoughtful eye and acknowledged that they can offer joys and wisdom beyond that obvious 'message.' There is a lot of material here about Lewis and Tolkien, their friendship and the relationship between their respective works and beliefs -- probably slightly more material, if I'm honest, than I really needed (not a fan of Middle Earth); but I did learn a lot and the discussion was illuminating.

I'm going to keep my eye out for a hard copy.

22.10.20

Underland

 

Robert Macfarlane is one of my very favourite current authors (he just writes beautifully about nature and history and science), so when I heard that his latest book was about underground stuff, I was slightly dismayed. I don't like underground. Even going into the little mine at Sovereign Hill makes me nervous; I can't help being conscious of the weight of all that stone and rock hovering above my head. However, I am such a fan of Macfarlane that I reserved a copy from the library anyway.

There was a long reservation queue. There was Covid. I had to wait months to get my mitts on Underland. And boy, it was worth it.

I suppose I had expected a series of visits to mining tunnels or scary caves, and there are indeed some hairy passages where Macfarlane is squeezing through narrow gaps in the dark, deep underground; but he also visits the icy wastes of Greenland; parties deep in the extensive limestone catacombs dug out beneath Paris, inhabited by a whole community of explorers; discovers the wood-wide web life creeping beneath the forest floor; and pays a surprisingly hopeful visit to a nuclear waste facility where people are trying to find a way to communicate the danger of this material ten thousand years into the future, when we will be long gone from the face of the world. Upsettingly, everywhere he goes he comes across plastic waste, even on the shores of the remotest northern islands.

But Macfarlane is not just an adventurer, he is also a philosopher and a deep thinker about the meaning of what he sees below and within ground -- burials, forgetting, hiding, safeguarding, sacred art. His journeys under the surface inevitably become journeys within ourselves and into our own deep past.  

Underland is a wonderful book, and gorgeously written. Here is just a taste:

That night the Northern Lights appear for the first time. A scarf of radar-green flutters in the sky. the mountains shoot jade search-lights into space.

We lie on our backs on the cold black air and watch the show, amazed into silence.

16.10.20

Persuasion

 

This is the only image I could find of my edition of Persuasion, my favourite Jane Austen novel. It's a very dull cover, it's not surprising that it was replaced, but it does show a view of the Cobb at Lyme Regis, the scene of the most dramatic incident in the book, where Louisa Mulgrave falls and injures her head. 

I may be one of the few people in the world to visit the Cobb without thinking of poor Louisa, because I hadn't yet read Persuasion (however I did think of Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman, also set in Lyme. Here she is, looking suitably melodramatic:

)

Anyway, the reason I was in Lyme with my parents was because my father went to boarding school there. He showed us the secret spot in the woods where they used to sneak off and smoke, and we were able to explore the corridors filled with glass cases of stuffed birds -- it was very creepy!

None of which has anything to do with Persuasion, but it may explain why I approached it with a feeling of proprietorship from the get-go, and I was quickly drawn in by quiet, uncomplaining Anne Elliot, disappointed in love -- no, cheated out of love by her meddlesome friends and relatives, who are some of the most unlikeable characters in Jane Austen's universe. But it's the most satisfying of Cinderella stories, as Anne's patience and steadfastness is ultimately rewarded by a man whose own loyalty shows that he deserves her. Although I have my doubts that in real life, Captain Wentworth would have remained so faithful.

Persuasion is a very comforting book for troubled times, but its razor-sharp observations save it from sentimentality.


11.10.20

The Conversations

 

The Conversations: 66 Reasons to Start Talking is an odd but strangely absorbing little book. Novelist, mother of five sons, and ex-probation officer Olivia Fane loves to talk -- not small talk, but big discussions about provocative and person topics, what we used to call when I was young 'deep and meaningfuls.' 

Here she collects 66 short essays, only a couple of pages long, on various topics (fame, violence, jealousy, forgiveness, mirrors, cooking, sex), lets us know her thoughts on the matter -- Fane might be open to debating, but she is quite decided in her opinions, she reminds me of an English aunty with full confidence in her own conclusions -- and then poses a list of questions for us to explore with a conversational partner, perhaps a friend, a spouse, or a stranger at a party or a bus stop.

Sample questions: At a party, do you often feel an outsider and want to go home?

    Do you believe in ghosts?

    Have you ever tried to change your behaviour to please a partner?

    What has been the loneliest time of your life?

    Have you ever been a feminist? (Der!)

    Can you think of an act of free will which has changed your life?

Well, you get the gist. I enjoyed Fane's company through these chapters, though I certainly didn't agree with her on everything, and I did actually use some of her questions to start conversations with my husband. At the end of each chapter I did stop and think about the questions. Some were easy to answer (like the one about feminism), some were much harder (like the act of free will).

As someone who struggles for small talk at the best of times, I'm planning to tuck this book away for long car drives or boat trips (one day...) with the hope of sparking some really meaty D&Ms in future.

8.10.20

Down in the Cellar


I've been returning to some old favourites from my bookshelf lately. Down in the Cellar stands up brilliantly, sixty years after its first publication. 

The story is told by the oldest sibling, Bruce, in a style reminiscent of E. Nesbit's masterful narrator, Oswald Bastable. It begins as a fairly straighforward kids' adventure -- the four brothers and sisters discover a wounded and delirious escaped convict in a quarry and decide to shelter him in the rambling cellar of their uncle's rectory. But before long supernatural elements begin to creep into the narrative -- mostly things seen by the youngest sister, five year old Deirdre, whose creepy pronouncements about green lanterns and invisible malevolent 'Spoilers' would surely have her instantly referred to a child psychologist in these more enlightened days.

Poor Bruce can't see any of these weird phenomena, though his twin Julia and younger brother Andrew both get glimpses of other-worldly happenings. As the net tightens with the arrival of sinister witches, as well as prosaic police searching for the helpless Stephen, the children find themselves under siege. Deirdre's friend, the mysterious Lady of the Hill, is their only help -- if she really exists.

Down in the Cellar is honestly a masterclass in writing a subtle and unsettling narrative, rendered all the more powerful by the fact that Bruce himself only witnesses the magic indirectly, and doesn't believe in it himself. I get shivers whenever I read it, I wonder if it's too scary for sensitive children? I've never been able to acquire Nicholas Stuart Gray's other books, The Seventh Swan and The Stone Cage, but on the basis of Down in the Cellar I think he is an unjustly neglected talent.

Haunting!

5.10.20

Jane and I

 

Jane and I: A Tale of Austen Addiction by Susannah Fullerton was an impulse buy on the Kindle after my friend Suzanne mentioned that she'd been reading it in a comment on my Mansfield Park post. See how one thing leads to another? Apparently Susannah Fullerton shares my admiration for the much-maligned Mansfield Park. That was enough to get me clicking the BUY button (also it was only $3!)

In truth, Jane and I is a very slender but engaging memoir, containing much more about Fullerton than about Austen. It traces Fullerton's early introduction to the works of Jane Austen, her growing obsession, membership of Austen appreciation societies in Australia and abroad, and ultimately the way in which she has managed to create a whole career out of her love for Austen and her novels -- as a writer of books like A Dance with Jane Austen, Jane Austen and Crime and Happily Ever After: Celebrating Pride and Prejudice; as a literary tour guide; and a popular lecturer on literary subjects (not just Austen).

It's incredible to reflect that Jane Austen is so enduringly popular that she makes such a career not just possible, but profitable! I'm sure Jane herself would be astonished. But I know if I come across any of those other Fullerton-penned Austen celebration books, I won't be able to resist.

1.10.20

Capital


A few years ago I read John Lanchester's brilliant memoir Family Romance and thoroughly enjoyed it, so when Capital popped up on Brotherhood Books, I pounced. For some reason I thought it would be non-fiction, but it's a huge door-stopper of a novel, Dickensian in scope if not in style.

Capital is set in London just before the 2008 financial crisis, and its cast of many characters is centred around Pepys Rd, a once nondescript street where the inexorable rise of property prices has left the inhabitants sitting in houses now worth millions of pounds. The main plot thread concerns a mysterious campaign of anonymous messages to the residents, saying We Want What You Have. Is it the faceless artist, Smitty? Smitty's grandmother, fading Petunia Howe? Greedy Arabella Yount or her obscenely overpaid financier husband Roger? Their gorgeous nanny, Marta? The Kamal family who run the corner shop? Hard-working Polish builder Zbigniew? Senegalese soccer star Freddy Kamo? Or political refugee Quentina, illegally working as a parking officer?

Divided into short sharp chapters, these multiple points of view are brisk and entertaining, but the sheer multiplicity of characters means that the story takes a long time to get going. It's not until about two thirds of the way through that the individual threads begin to tie together, and while most of the plot threads are resolved, there are some left dangling (I was particularly cross about Quentina, who was really left in limbo -- but that was probably the point.)

Capital is a sprawling, generous, funny saga about money, property and the things that have true value. I really enjoyed it.

28.9.20

Red Shift

 

I thought I'd written about Red Shift recently; when I checked, it turns out it was five years ago!  Ah me, how time does fly and double back on itself, which is one of the themes of the book.

Again I was struck by the fact that this novel is not a children's book, maybe not even YA. Not only is the style opaque and challenging, the events are violent and bloody, though because of the oblique style, they are not graphic. And again I noticed links of dialogue and description between the three interwoven story strands that I hadn't noticed before. 

This is such a slender book, but it's so packed with layers and echoes. I noticed quite a few similarities between modern Tom and the Colin of Boneland, their wordplay, their wariness, their interest in stars. Red Shift marked a decisive turn in Garner's writing, away from overt magic and toward resonance through time. I wouldn't say that it's a book I love, exactly -- it's too frightening and lonely for that -- but I do admire it perhaps more than any other.

24.9.20

The Year The Maps Changed

 
This is such a lovely book! Danielle Binks' debut is an accomplished middle grade novel set in Sorrento (a town I know well) on the Mornington Peninsula in 1999, the year that Kosovan refugees were brought to the old quarantine station at Portsea for 'safe haven,' told through the eyes of eleven year old Fred.

The obvious reference for the maps changing thus applies to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the terrible conflict in Kosovo. But it also applies in a deeply personal way for Fred herself. Her mother has died and her step-father Luka, a policeman, has re-partnered with Anika, bringing Fred an unexpected younger brother in the form of ten year old Sam. And then Luka and Anika announce that they are having a baby. Where does that leave Fred? Is she still part of their family?

The arrival of the refugees unsettles the whole town, even though they are kept far down the road at Portsea, but as Fred finds herself drawn to the strangers, she finds herself reassessing what really matters.

This is a beautiful story about belonging and welcome, about fear and suspicion, and ultimately about the elastic bonds of family and love. The Year the Maps Changed has had rave reviews everywhere, and deservedly so. This is a terrific book.

21.9.20

Let's Talk About Harry

 

I don't really have anything new to add to this story. I was a huge fan of Harry Potter. The success of the books was probably responsible for my own fantasy books being published; certainly there was more cash for my publishers, both in Australia and the US, to risk on a new author. My US editor, the incomparable Cheryl Klein, was the continuity editor for the series, and that gave me a one-degree-of-separation thrill. So I owe quite a bit to Harry.

I'm also grateful to Harry for another reason. Because I loved the old-fashioned magical universe and Rowling's intricate and often funny world-building, I shared the books with my daughters. They adored them. I read the entire series to them both, not just once but multiple times; they were one literary taste that we all shared. Both girls also played the Stephen Fry audiobooks to lull them to sleep, many times over many years. And of course we watched the movies. 

This deep familiarity meant that when my dyslexic daughter, at the age of twelve, finally picked up a book and began to read independently for the first time, the book that did the trick was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Because she knew the story so well, the words came more easily. Seven years later, she has read Anna Karenina and The Lord of the Rings and she is almost as addicted to books as I am, though she still has to work much harder at reading than I do.

I thought that JK Rowling had achieved a remarkable feat. She had created this rich, complex universe which had captured the imagination of countless children; she had got kids reading! I saw the midnight queues, I went to the parody musical, I saw the joy and delight, and it was good. I knew there were problems -- if Dumbledore was gay, why wasn't he gay in the books? What about the house-elves? But I shrugged them away. But now it seems that those problems were a sign of an underlying conservatism that has now exploded in a different forum.

The depth of my delight in the stories is mirrored in my disappointment and sadness that that magical world, which seemed to have a place for everyone, has been spoiled by Rowling's own poisonous beliefs. Trans kids are hurting. This matters. Can we still love the books, while ignoring or condemning their author's opinions? I wish with all my heart we could. But in these days, when Rowling herself seems hellbent on spreading her views as widely as possible, any trans fan of the books can easily find out what the author really thinks of them. The betrayal is real.

I'm not sure there is any way back now. I will remember Harry Potter fondly, for the special place he occupied in my family's history. But I can't imagine ever reading the books again.


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...