17.2.20

A Very Special Year and Lost For Words


My lovely friend Suzanne lent me a couple of books about bookshops recently, just for fun, and now I have read them both, so I thought I would discuss them together.

The first was A Very Special Year, by Thomas Montasser, first published in German. Now, I'm hesitant to say that any book featuring an abandoned bookshop, a mysterious aunt, a whimsical young woman and a magical book that tells readers the story of their own lives could ever be a BAD book... but this is not great. It has the great virtue of being very short. It's possible that it suffers from translation, but I suspect the problem lies in the original. It's just awfully, awfully twee. It's trying to celebrate the inspirational and comforting role that books can play in our lives, but it struggles to pull together anything like a story. The author is a university lecturer, and I respectfully suggest that he sticks to his day job.

Having trudged painfully through A Very Special Year, I approached Stephanie Butland's Lost For Words with some trepidation. But this is a very different kettle of fish. I loved it. For a start, this book contains real characters: damaged, defensive Loveday, avuncular Archie, annoying Melodie, possibly-too-good-to-be-true magician Nathan, creepy Rob. This bookshop isn't a magical fantasy (except that it is...), but a place that feels real, crammed with books, stories and secrets. Loveday's secret is a particularly large and painful one, and she has devoted the last decade of her young life to guarding it. Gradually we discover its details, and gradually Loveday starts connecting with people.

One element I really enjoyed was that Loveday has the first lines of important novels tattooed on herself: for the first time I thought, that's a tattoo idea I could get behind.
They were not railway children to begin with.There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.Some things start before other things. (I didn't know that one.)
The primroses were over.The book was thick and black and covered with dust.And naturally: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
If you think know any of these, tell me in the comments and I'll tell you if you're right!

14.2.20

The Arsonist

I was reminded about Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist when I woke up in the night and heard the author talking about the book on the radio (I hear a lot of interesting things via night radio).

The Arsonist has won multiple awards and deservedly so. Although it centres around the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, it was uncomfortably relevant during this past horrific Australian summer (which is not over yet, despite the blessed downpours). This is the story of Brendan Sokaluk, who was found guilty of deliberately lighting one of those cataclysmic Black Saturday fires, but it is also a story about the struggling rural community where he lived, a power station town in the Latrobe Valley; about the fires themselves, and the apocalypse that killed so many people. It is searing to read about the nightmare the those people endured, and you begin to think that anyone who deliberately caused that suffering and devastation must deserve the harshest possible punishment.

And yet. Things are rarely simple in a Chloe Hooper book. Sokaluk became a figure of terror because of what he'd done, yet Hooper shows that he is also deeply pathetic. Possibly autistic, definitely intellectually disabled, Brendan moves in a small world that he has trouble understanding, with people who find him irritating. His only true friend is his dog, who loves him without judgement. Like many people with ID, Brendan may have trouble grasping the complexities of social interaction, but he is expert at forming and holding onto grudges, and knowing when he's being bullied; he has been bullied his whole life.

Having said that, it's hard to feel too much sympathy for Sokaluk, and it's impossible to know if he fully understood the consequences of his behaviour when he lit that fire. Was he a cunning, manipulative criminal, or one of life's victims who got out of his depth? It's Hooper's skill that lets the reader see that both options are probably true.

12.2.20

Apple Bough

I've seen reviews of Noel Streatfeild's Apple Bough in which people say that they dislike the book because the parents are so awful. Well, awful parents are nothing new in the Streatfeild-verse, let's face it, but I actually don't think that these particular parents are so terrible. In fact I have a soft spot for this book and I enjoyed re-visiting it.

Sebastian Forum is a violin prodigy and for years his whole family has travelled the world as he tours the globe. The children's parents, Polly and David, are thrilled with this arrangement, but as time goes on, Sebastian's siblings become increasingly disillusioned and homesick and put in place 'Operation Home.'

It's true that David and Polly are protected from the children's true feelings until quite late in the book, but once they are informed, they don't stand in the way. Polly is another distant Streatfeild mother, wrapped up in her own work (she's an artist), not at all hands-on, but loving in her own way. The Nanny role in this book is filled by the delightfully efficient Miss Popple and also the charming tutor Paul (I have a bit of a crush on Paul). It's really enjoyable to see the other children working their way into making the most of their own gifts -- Ettie in ballet, Wolfgang acting and composing -- but my favourite character is the eldest sister, Myra, whose strength is wisdom and encouragement. By the end of the book, it's clear that Myra will the one member of the family who will provide a solid base for the high-fliers to return to. And that is a very worthy role, too.

Apple Bough is a splendid comfort read.

10.2.20

Terra Nullius

Borrowed from my friend Chris K, Claire G. Coleman's novel Terra Nullius is difficult to discuss without giving away what makes it special: a killer twist.

The book starts in fairly pedestrian fashion, so much so that I was beginning to wonder why Chris had lent it to me. The writing seemed oddly textureless, the story unfolding in a predictable direction. But luckily I persisted, because then the twist kicked in and made me review everything I'd read up to that point in a new light.

Terra Nullius is probably a little too long; after the twist is established, the story doesn't need as much space as it's been given to unfold, and the language can be a little flat at times. Also the characters are fairly shallow, but that's not unexpected in this kind of spec fiction. I can't really say too much more about this, but it's a clever recasting of Australia's history. Terra Nullius has won a slew of awards, and no wonder. I think it's bee marketed as an adult title, but I think it would work very well for young adults.

I'm looking forward to seeing Claire Coleman in conversation with Tyson Yunkaporta next month at the Carlton library!

8.2.20

Only

Caroline Baum has been a familiar face from the ABC, where she worked for many years as a journalist and presenter. Only: A Singular Memoir is a family story, which she describes as a triangle consisting of herself, her father and her mother, with a struggle to pull to the top spot.

Baum's family history is an extraordinary one. Her French mother had a dramatically tragic background; her Viennese Jewish father escaped the Nazis via Kindertransport to England, but lost his entire extended family in the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, these losses permanently marked Baum's parents, with her father an especially forceful personality with a lot to prove. His love of luxury, money, high quality clothes and cars, meticulously organised travel, made his daughter's childhood in some ways highly privileged; but she also suffered the crushing burden of being the only child -- treasured, but expected to be perfect. It's not really until the second part of the book, when Caroline's father's health fails, that she truly feels the pressure of singleness. Suddenly the whole responsibility for caring for both parents lands squarely on her shoulders.

There was much in this memoir that resonated with me. Though I'm not an only child, my sister has an intellectual disability, so for practical purposes I'm the only one who can take charge when things go wrong. And they did go spectacularly wrong a few years ago, when my father had a debilitating stroke. Overnight, our roles were reversed; instead of running to my parents for support and refuge, suddenly they were both dependent on me (and so was my sister). Luckily I didn't have to deal with it alone; my marvellous husband shouldered a huge part of the task. But I understood what Caroline Baum was going through, especially when she was running around London trying to find suitable accommodation for her father. Many secrets came tumbling out in the aftermath of her father's illness.

This was a thoughtful, moving and fascinating memoir. Baum says that three never felt like enough to make up a family, and it's true that the bonds between the three of them were intense and super-charged with emotion. I thoroughly enjoyed Only.

6.2.20

A Vicarage Family

I haven't read Noel Streatfeild's A Vicarage Family for years, but it used to be one of my very favourite books. I must have read it twenty times, and as I read it again, whole passages leapt into the light, breaking the surface of my memory.

I'm not sure now why I was so attracted to this book. It's described as A Biography of Myself, and it's a lightly fictionalised memoir of Streatfeild's own childhood, with herself as the 'difficult' middle child Vicky Strangeway. But though Vicky is awkward, stubborn, sulky and misunderstood, her relationship with her sisters, particularly artistic older sister Isobel, is strong and supportive. She is also close to her worldly cousin John.

But Vicky's relationship wth her mother is clearly troubled; hence all those distant, inept mothers in her fiction. It's hard to think of a single sympathetic mother figure in a Streatfeild book (maybe Cathy Bell in The Bell Family); the maternal role is always filled by a Nanny figure who comes from outside the family. It's intriguing to see the prototypes of these extra family members in their original incarnation -- wiry, sharp-tongued Annie, wise Grand-Nanny, and efficient Miss Herbert.

In all honesty, there is not a lot of action in the story. Life in the Vicarage is pretty uneventful. But it must have been the detailed texture of everyday life which is captured so vividly, and the intense emotional experiences of Vicky herself, which I found so compelling. It really felt like entering into someone else's true life, albeit the life of an English Edwardian teenager when I was a little Australian girl growing up in PNG. Perhaps it felt exotic!

Some elements that have stayed with me: the strict moral rules of their gentle father, forbidding the girls to eat anything but bread and butter at a birthday party in Lent; the formidable Miss French who won't tolerate a raised voice even when Vicky sprains her ankle; favoured younger sister Louise clutching her golliwog and dramatically fainting, when it's Vicky who is actually much more ill (injustice!); and the last chapter of the book, which is the most moving introduction to the tragedy of WWI I could have encountered.

I only recently became aware that there are further autobiographical volumes, Away from the Vicarage and Beyond the Vicarage, but I've never managed to get hold of them. They cost about a gazillion dollars to buy secondhand, so maybe I never will.

4.2.20

Wild

I don't enjoy hiking. I loathe camping. I quite enjoy a short, gentle bushwalk with a car at the end to take me somewhere warm (or cool) and comfortable. But I adore reading about wilderness and other people traipsing through it.

Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir Wild has been a smash hit. Since reading it, I've also watched the Reese Witherspoon movie of the same name, which is a faithful adaptation of the book, and has the added bonus of showing you the scenery that Strayed made her laborious way across and through (and sometimes around).

Wild is a book about hiking and camping, but also about self-discovery, grief and healing. There is a reason why so many self-help books recommend walking. Cheryl starts her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (along the west coast of the US) as a raw newbie, with boots that don't fit and a ludicrously overloaded pack. By the time she reaches the Bridge of the Gods on the border between Oregon and Washington, she has toughened up mentally and physically, made friends on the trail, and begun to heal from the death of her mother and some bad life choices.

There are some very funny moments in this book, and also some really painful passages. Strayed succeeds wonderfully in keeping the balance between laughter, fear and sorrow. I'm not surprised this book has been such a massive success.

2.2.20

Faithful Place

Yes, it's another Tana French. Faithful Place is the fourth in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and the earliest novel of French's that I've read yet. This book provides the background to the relationship between hardbitten Frank Mackey, his daughter Holly, and ambitious young detective Stephen Moran, which was touched on in The Secret Place.  But in that book, Holly was sixteen; in Faithful Place, she is just nine.

This is another terrific crime novel, but it's also about family, inheritance, memory and loyalty. Twenty years ago, Frank Mackey escaped from his abusive father and poverty-stricken neighbourhood; but a chance discovery drags him home, and back to the past he thought he'd left behind.

Mackey believes he is utterly different from his violent, brutal father, but we can see that he still carries the legacy of that cruelty and violence just beneath the surface. With his marriage broken, Frank's love for his young daughter is the strongest force in his life, and there's nothing he wouldn't do to protect her. Life in Faithful Place seesaws between protecting family, and hurting family, but a weird code of honour and shame coats everyone's behaviour. It's easy to forget just how hamstrung by religion Ireland was until very recently, maybe still is, for all I know -- a first world nation where abortion and contraception were outlawed means that women's sexual lives are strictly regulated, marriage was often early, and unwanted pregnancy meant unwanted children.

I smugly thought that I'd solved this story about halfway through, but I was too clever for my own good. The ultimate solution was less tricky, but more realistic, than the one I dreamed up. Another deeply satisfying crime novel.