9.4.21

The Searcher

 

There are five reserves at my local library on Tana French's latest novel, The Searcher, so I'd better hurry up and return it. Like her other books, the Dublin Murder Squad series and The Wych Elm, The Searcher centres on a dark mystery -- in this case, what has happened to Trey's missing brother, Brendan? Trey enlists the help of Cal, our narrator, an ex-Chicago cop who has retired to the Irish countryside to rebuild his life after a stressful career and a broken marriage, and reluctantly Cal agrees to assist.

Even French's most urban novels always have one eye on the power and mystery of the natural world, and Cal's chosen village, Ardnakelty, is remote, rural, and overlooked by brooding mountains. The young people are fleeing the area, and most of those left behind are either tough, bitter old men or relentlessly gossipy and communal women. Cal tries to fit in but he's never quite sure how well he's doing; as he grows closer to desperate Trey, and closer to the heart of the mystery, the gaps between his world and the village world begin to widen.

This is a book about gender, about being outcast and the price of conforming. Expectations are flipped. There is unexpected and inexplicable violence. As always with Tana French, while the mystery is the engine that keeps the story pumping, the true satisfaction lies in the careful, vivid evocation of place and the deep exploration of character. There are things we need to know about Cal's past that we don't find out until quite late in the story; he has thrust down some uncomfortable truths far out of our sight, and his own.

Slowly, Cal works on the abandoned house he is renovating. Whether he will ever succeed in making a home there, or in the village whose secrets he has uncovered, we will never know for sure.

6.4.21

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

 

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a LOT of fun! I was alerted to its existence a few years ago but couldn't find it anywhere, until it popped up recently (while I was searching for something else entirely) on Brotherhood Books, and I giggled and cringed my way through it.

Diana Wynne Jones knows the world of high fantasy backward, upside down and sideways, as revealed in entries like this:

SCURVY: Despite a diet consisting entirely of STEW and WAYBREAD, supplemented only by the occasional FISH, you will not suffer from this or any other deficiency disease. It is possible that, while on the Tour, you absorb vitamin C through the pores of your skin.

 She  mercilessly skewers not just the tropes of the genre but also the writing, pointing out OMTs (Official Management Terms) throughout, eg galley overseers will be brutal, monastery libraries will smell mustily of old books, and Runes of Power will glow in the air

It's all very funny, but I was mortified to realise how many boxes I had ticked in my own forays into fantasy. To name a few, I included LEATHERY-WINGED AVIANS, a TALENTED GIRL who SAVES THE WORLD with MUSIC, MIND-SPEECH, an OLD RUINED CITY which is also an ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECT, PIRATES, an OTHER CONTINENT, and a TEMPLE with ornate pillars (OMT) and an elaborately tiled floor. Oh dear!

Highly recommended. However, if I'd read this before I embarked on the Chanters of Tremaris, I don't think I would have finished one volume, let alone four 'brochures', as Wynne Jones calls them. I would have died of shame!

30.3.21

Inheritance

 

I have wanted to read Carole Wilkinson's Inheritance since it was published in 2018, particularly as it shares some common ground with Crow Country. Both books are upper middle grade time travel stories set in rural Victoria, both dealing with family secrets and crimes committed against the Aboriginal people -- in my book, a murder, in Inheritance, a massacre -- both featuring young female protagonists who make friends with Aboriginal boys to explore the past together. But Carole Wilkinson's spin takes the story in an intriguing direction of its own.

In Inheritance, the ability to travel through time has been passed down through the women of Veronica's family, using a magical handful of stones and a special place (a weak spot in the fabric of space-time). I absolutely love the idea of generations of women criss-crossing through time and the story of Nic's mother was especially surprising (though I did find myself wanting a clearer resolution at the end). I also loved the huge, neglected mansion of Yaratgil which is Nic's more tangible inheritance. After a slow-ish start, the story gathers pace once Nic discovers the mysterious boarded-up Rose Room and cracks the secret to time travel, and it gains immense gravitas with the horrific massacre of the local people around which the plot revolves.

There can never be too many books that help to uncover the shameful, almost forgotten history of the 'settlement' of Victoria, in reality a swift and bloody invasion. This is a terrific story, both enjoyable and uncomfortable, as all the best fiction should be.

25.3.21

The Herb of Grace

 

The Herb of Grace continues the story of the Eliot family a few years on; the war that was looming in The Bird in the Tree has ended, leaving pain and exhaustion in its wake. Nadine has left David and gone back to her husband and children (not that she ever actually left them) and this time the story centres not on Lucilla's old house of Damerosehay, but on the equally lovely and historic inn, the Herb of Grace, which Nadine's war-weary husband George purchases almost on a whim. Poor bloody Nadine has no say in the decision, obviously. 

The old inn welcomes and protects the whole family, including eventually Nadine herself (she just has to accept and surrender, like she did in the last book) and the two mysterious newcomers, Annie-Laurie and Malony, who are hiding some very dark secrets. I do feel for Nadine, the mother figure, who has sacrificed so much for a life that she doesn't really enjoy. I would love to see her have some outlet for her creativity beyond beautifully decorating the rooms and being a perfect hostess! (She does gain some fulfilment in her friendship with Annie-Laurie, but still.)

I think I've worked out why the Eliot Family trilogy is so peaceful to read -- there is no action at all! Almost every scene is someone thinking about their life, or people talking to each other, usually in a beautiful woodland setting or a lovely old room, described in minute detail. The drama comes from the interaction of different personalities or from an inner struggle. Even Annie-Laurie's very dramatic backstory is given to us in conversation, in retrospect. I don't say this in a disparaging way, it is a real gift to carry a whole novel (let alone a trilogy) without leaning on action and plot, and it's clear that these novels are much loved and often returned to. They are meditative to read and spiritually refreshing, a great source of comfort and strength for many readers, including me.

22.3.21

Mythos

 

Every generation needs its own re-interpretation of these ancient stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, which, together with the Bible, form the bedrock foundation of Western culture. Who better to hold your hand through this complicated landscape than Stephen Fry, erudite, funny, articulate, a lively companion who is quite prepared to throw in a footnote about language development or his own personal history if it will illuminate the stories he is telling? Prometheus stealing fire for humanity, the war of the Titans, Pandora's box (or jar) of evils, Midas' greed backfiring as literally everything he touches turns to gold, Pygmalion falling in love with his own creation, Narcissus and Echo -- these stories are part of the fabric of our history and art, a common language of the West.

Mythos was such a hit with the younger daughter that she has gone on to devour the follow-up volumes, Heroes and Troy. Even as I write this, I'm thinking that I can see a gap in the market for Fry to re-tell Bible stories in the same way -- I would have loved my kids to have the same basic knowledge of Biblical myths and stories as the younger one has been able to gain about Greek myths from this book, though I was too wary of the religious baggage that goes with them to do much about passing them on myself. The stories of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the wisdom of King Solomon, David and Goliath, the parables of Jesus, are also part of the assumed knowledge that's been carried through our European cultural history, reference points for art and literature that a lot of secularly-raised kids today won't understand. Or maybe that's just my children.

How about it, Stephen?

11.3.21

Eleanor and Park

 

It's taken me a long time to catch up with Eleanor and Park. I enjoyed Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell's second novel, but Eleanor and Park is even better. I should say that my younger daughter had already read it and wasn't too enthusiastic -- she found Eleanor unlikeable and the ending anti-climactic -- so I was a bit wary going in; but I was completely sucked into Eleanor and Park's story, their friendship that turns to romance, and their family difficulties.

I enjoyed the fact that neither of them are conventionally gender conforming -- Eleanor is a big girl, and wears quirky men's clothing, while Park experiments with eyeliner and hair gel. But their clear appreciation of each other's physicality is delightful. I also enjoyed the mid-80s setting and music, which reflected my own adolescence. Eleanor has a frankly ghastly home life, with the sinister presence of her step-father, Richie, a catastrophe waiting to explode. Park, in contrast, has a loving and supportive family, though his father struggles with Park's seeming lack of typical masculinity.

This is a really good, moving, YA romance. I'm not surprised it's been such a hit (though not with my daughter). The cover of my copy, seen above, is not great -- there is no way that neat, slim silhouetted girl could be Eleanor! Read the bloody book, cover designer!

4.3.21

The Bird in the Tree


I think I must have read Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family Trilogy at some point, because parts of this book did seem familiar; or perhaps it's just a sense of familiarity with the world of Elizabeth Goudge. The first thing that Goudge's adult books demand of the reader is to slow down. Her pace is leisurely, her descriptions rich and detailed, but never in purple prose; she layers her portraits of characters and pictures of landscapes in deceptively simple brushstrokes that build up a vivid, vital image.

A random example: 

As Caroline stood gazing the Japanese anemones were like fallen moons beyond the grey trunks of the oak-trees and there was a soft mist of mauve where the autumn crocuses were growing in the rough grass. The fires of autumn had already touched the leaves over her head, and spun from twig to twig and from bush to bush was that exquisite silver filigree of dewy spiders' webs.

The isolated old house and its garden, the marshes, the shipbuilding village of the Hard, the woods and fields are all painted for us with such loving attention that we are forced into mindful imagining (although there will be some readers who turn away in boredom, I suppose). And her character portraits are equally tender, compassionate and clear-eyed.

Having said all that, the central story of The Bird in the Tree strikes the contemporary reader as somewhat bewildering (it's set in 1938). George and Nadine's unhappy marriage has broken down; their three children have gone to live with their strong-willed grandmother, Lucilla, in her lovely old house of Damerosehay; meanwhile Lucilla's adult grandson David and Nadine have fallen passionately in love. Lucilla, when she discovers this development, is determined to put a stop to the relationship and persuade Nadine to return to George. A modern reader will find this inexplicable. Why should Nadine and David's proposed marriage mean that George will lose his children? Why should David have to give up Damerosehay, which he loves? Why the hell shouldn't David and Nadine be happy together? Why should Nadine have to return to a marriage that makes her miserable, just because Lucilla did, long ago?

However, once one accepts the premise of the conflict, the exploration of self-sacrifice, selfish passion, pain, duty, faith and the demands of love is carefully and sympathetically laid out. As Susan Green commented here recently, Goudge is 'not a fluffy writer.' She is not sentimental; she recognises the agony of grief and the torture of doing the right thing, which applies in so many circumstances, even if the situation of this particular novel might not seem to justify the pain required. Life is not easy, but it can contain moments of joy. And there is always a sprinkling of humour in Elizabeth Goudge.

'Life is rather an unhappy affair, dear,' said Lucilla. 'And it's just as well to face the fact. It's essentially sad, woven of grey stuff; yet embroidered with such bright flowers.'

One thing I discovered from reading The World of Elizabeth Goudge is that Damerosehay is based on a real house, now sadly demolished. Thank heavens its beauty has been preserved in these loving books.

1.3.21

The Late Scholar

 

The Late Scholar, the fourth of Jill Paton Walsh's novels based on Dorothy L. Sayers' characters, returns Peter and Harriet to Oxford, the setting of perhaps their best-loved adventure, Gaudy Night (it was definitely the one I loved best), the book where Harriet finally allows Wimsey to persuade her to marry him. With Harriet teetering on the acceptance of love, Gaudy Night was more romantic than Busman's Honeymoon, where they sickeningly consummate their long courtship.

Anyway... it's always lovely be back at Oxford, even with murder victims dropping like flies, and what seems like a very personal connection to Harriet, as each murder echoes a plot from one of her books, which in turn echo Wimsey's previous cases (this neatly absolves Paton Walsh from having to come up with a murder method of her own). The plot turns on a choice St Severins college must make, between selling a valuable medieval manuscript to buy land, or keeping the manuscript and going broke; the members of the college are evenly divided and Peter, as Visitor to St Severins, must help them decide, as well as stem the growing body count and track down the missing Warden.

The subtext of the book concerns what is most valuable: knowledge, property, money, truth? Tradition and duty or personal preference? Harriet and Peter's eldest son has decided not to follow in Peter's footsteps and go to Balliol; instead he chooses the much more practical option of agricultural college. I must admit I didn't really see what the fuss was about with this one, since their second son seems pretty keen to go to Oxford, and as Peter is a second son himself, it's hardly smashing a family tradition if the eldest son doesn't go. But in general I enjoyed the philosophical musings.

The only Walsh/Wimsey I haven't managed to find so far is Thrones, Dominations. I've relished these extensions to the Dorothy Sayers universe, so I'll definitely keep an eye out for that one.

26.2.21

A Long Way Home


I went to see the movie Lion when it came out in 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Dev Patel's performance (and his outstanding Australian accent!) So I was interested to read the autobiographical book by Saroo Brierley, A Long Way Home, on which the film was based.

It really is an extraordinary story. Aged 5, Saroo wound up on a train that carried him across India to the city of Kolkata. Unable to tell anyone where he'd come from, he survived on the streets for several weeks before entering an orphanage and very shortly being adopted by an Australian couple and taken to Tasmania to begin a new life. Though happy and grateful to his new family, he never forgot his old life and as a student, began a painstaking search on Google Earth for the town he'd left so many years before, with only a half-remembered name and some geographic markers for guidance. 

It was startling to learn that Saroo had vastly underestimated how far he'd travelled to wind up in Kolkata; he was searching the wrong part of the country, and only by chance came across the tiny railway station with the landmarks he remembered. His account of how he managed to reconnect with his family (his mother had never moved, in case he did one day find his way home) and discovered the truth of what had happened that fateful day, is very moving. 

Saroo had garbled the name of his neighbourhood, the name of the town he'd travelled from, and even, most startlingly, his own name -- his family knew him as Sheru. Reading A Long Way Home made me want to go back and re-watch Lion, which brought the lost little boy's experiences so vividly to life.

23.2.21

The Growing Summer

 

I found this copy of Noel Streatfeild's The Growing Summer in Savers in Footscray, where my big girl has moved. While she was hunting for novelty glasses and board games to furnish her new flat, I was scouring the book shelves. 

The Growing Summer is dedicated to Elizabeth Enright, which is a lovely touch. Enright's books often centre on children exploring their environment and developing their independence, and this novel shares that flavour. The rather sheltered Gareth children are abruptly shipped off to their great aunt in Ireland (topically, their father is researching a 'microbe' that 'might start an epidemic' in the 'Far East' and then falls dangerously ill himself).

Great Aunt Dymphna is highly eccentric, lives in a near-ruin of a big old house and leaves the children very much to their own devices, expecting them to cook and clean and amuse themselves; which over the course of the summer, they gradually become capable of doing. There is an added complication in the form of a mystery runaway boy whom the children shelter, and while his presence provides the excuse for secrecy and drama, he is quite peripheral to the heart of the story which concerns the growing self-sufficiency of the family as they learn to cook, to fish, to do laundry and generally look after themselves.

Poetry-loving Great Aunt Dymphna introduces her nephews and nieces to the 'quotation game' where each player in turn recites a line of poetry, and the next player has to offer a quote where the first word starts with the same letter as the last word of the previous player's quote. Weirdly, I was simultaneously reading Jill Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death, where Harriet and Peter play the same game!  It was the only time I've come across this somewhat esoteric pastime (and I doubt very much that any child of this generation would be capable of playing it -- with the help of Google, maybe!)

21.2.21

Songlines

 

Songlines: The Power and Promise by Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly was an impulse Kindle buy because I couldn't wait to read it. It's the first in a series of six books introducing Indigenous knowledges to a general reader; other titles will explore topics like astronomy, medicine, land management and architecture and design.

Margo Neale, who has co-ordinated the whole series, is a Senior Research Fellow and Principal Indigenous Advisor to the Director of the National Museum of Australia. Lynne Kelly is an Australian academic, an expert on orality and memory systems, and she draws in many other examples of oral and indigenous cultures from around the world, including Native American, Inuit and Pacific Island learning and knowledge systems.

However, the primary focus of the book is on Indigenous Australian knowledge. I first came across the concept of The Songlines in Bruce Chatwin's book of the same name, and though it's an imperfect and incomplete account, it lit a fire in my imagination which has been burning ever since. Neale and Kelly's book might be less poetic, but it is more authoritative, and fills in some of the blanks that Chatwin couldn't access. It sketches out the way that Aboriginal Australians connect landscape, story, dance and song in a rich web of knowledge, weaving together geography, history, morality, obligation, law, plants and animals, water and weather, stars and seas, and have passed on that knowledge through 60,000 years, generation after generation. There are stories which remember the eruption of long-extinct volcanoes and the existence of long-drowned islands.

I felt overwhelmed with envy reading this book. What an incredible way to live! Imagine being wrapped in such a deep, rich culture, accessible to every member of the community to some degree through performative dance, song, art and story. That is surely the way that humans are supposed to live, in a world drenched in meaning and deeply connected in every facet, moving securely through the universe. And all that knowledge, all that meaning, is still there for all of us to plug into if we choose. What an amazing privilege to be born in this ancient land.

19.2.21

The World of Elizabeth Goudge

 

I ordered The World of Elizabeth Goudge from Girls Gone By. Goudge was one of my favourite authors as a child (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians, Smoky House) and I also read some of her adult titles which my mother must have borrowed from the same library. I enjoyed them too, though some of the  content would have gone over my head; but I do remember the lovely atmosphere of the Cathedral books. More recently I got hold of The Dean's Watch, a masterpiece which I think I must have also read when young, as so many bits chimed in my memory.

Elizabeth Goudge is such a joyful, sensitive writer, and her later books are deeply spiritual, compassionate and forgiving. Perhaps it's not surprising that the daughter of a clergyman would be preoccupied with spiritual matters, but note that I'm using the word spiritual rather than religious. In Goudge's work, solace is often found in churches and wisdom in vicars, but there is surprisingly little overt religiosity -- it's the tranquillity of ancient buildings, the beauty of nature, the faithful love of animals and the very human qualities of kindness, laughter and forgiveness that ultimately give salvation.

The World of Elizabeth Goudge is part biography, part travel guide, part personal reflection, as Sylvia Gower journeys around the various towns and counties where Goudge lived and worked. Elizabeth Goudge enjoyed a relatively peaceful and uneventful life, embarking early on her writing career, but she did live in various parts of England, as well as visiting Jersey where her mother's family lived. She took deep inspiration from all these places, in fact the notion of place and belonging is particularly strong in her work and one of the elements that drew me in, even as a child. 

This book has convinced me to go Goudge hunting. Many of her books are still in print and I think I might try to collect as many as I can.

16.2.21

A Presumption of Death

 

I enjoyed A Presumption of Death very much. I think was the first of Jill Paton Walsh's forays into Lord Peter Wimsey territory and it's excellent. Sensibly Paton Walsh realises that Harriet Vane is the better part of Wimsey-world, and for most of the book, Harriet is detecting alone at Talboys during the war while Peter is off doing mysterious Top Sekkrit spying stuff in Europe. 

During the war, Dorothy Sayers wrote various magazine columns purporting to be letters between members of the Wimsey family, discussing their wartime activities; Paton Walsh has used this material as a canon source for their whereabouts and attitudes, which provides a solid foundation for the story. There is lots of well-researched detail about rationing, black market shenanigans, spy fears, evacuees and so on -- the one nit I would pick is that Peter refers openly to sending a coded message to Bletchley, at a time when Bletchley was super-secret and I doubt he would have mentioned it even to Harriet and Bunter (though Bunter no doubt knew all about it already -- hm, perhaps it is excusable? No secrets from Harriet, obviously!)

Elements of the central mystery were enjoyably guessable, and the relationship between Harriet and Peter is beautifully depicted. It's so nice to see them working together, very much in love but not sickeningly so; it's the rock solid partnership hinted at in Busman's Honeymoon, and thoroughly satisfying.

14.2.21

The Stones of Green Knowe

 

First published in 1976, too late to make it into the Mt Hagen library, The Stones of Green Knowe remained unknown to me until adulthood, and rounds off the series with a look forward rather than backward in time, as young Roger d'Aulneaux, in 1120, becomes the very first child to live in the brand new house that will become Green Knowe.

He discovers the two immeasurably ancient stones on the hilltop which will take him briefly forward (or once, terrifyingly, backward) in time, so he can see what will become of the new stone house of which he is so proud. He meets Linnet and Toby and Alexander, Susan and Jacob, and Tolly, and there is a lovely scene where all the children are able to gather together across time.

However, there is a melancholy undertone to this final book. Moving forward to Tolly's time, Roger is dismayed to notice the devastation of the wildlife -- so few birds and animals, hardly any insects, the wild profusion of plants disappeared. If it was this bad in 1976, one can only imagine how horrified Roger would be in 2021 (unless there has been some rewilding at Green Knowe). And the books ends on an abrupt, brutal note as the ancient stones are uprooted and carried away. It's not a comforting note to end on, rather like the catastrophic ending that The Last Battle provided for the Narnia books. And like The Last Battle, I think if I'd read The Stones as a child, I would have avoided re-reading it. But I do enjoy the glimpse of twelfth century life, seeing the first carving of St Christopher and the newfangled wall-fireplace, and Roger is a worthy ancestor.

12.2.21

A Nursery in the Nineties

 

I ordered A Nursery in the Nineties because someone in the Antonia Forest Facebook group mentioned it, and it turns out that the pertinent section comprised just one short chapter out of 53 in this memoir by Eleanor Farjeon.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known as the author of The Little Bookroom (after which our beloved Melbourne children's bookshop was named) and also the words to the hymn Morning Has Broken (which I sang regularly at school assemblies), but she also wrote poetry, plays, history and biography. Much of A Nursery in the Nineties tells the stories of her father (emigrated to New Zealand, admired Dickens, worked as a journalist), and her mother (from an American theatrical family) before and after their marriage; the last part deals with Nellie's own childhood. Her family moved in theatrical and literary London circles, and many of the names she drops are forgotten now, but she enjoyed a happy, secure and creative upbringing along with her three brothers. She includes plenty of fascinating quotidian detail about Edwardian life which is worth reading (though the family histories drag on a bit).

The chapter that most interested me (and the whole reason I bought the book) is called TAR, standing for Tessie-and-Ralph, a game she and her older brother played (with occasional input from their younger brothers) for over twenty years. She and Harry would pace for hours, narrating and acting out stories of their own invention based on their favourite characters -- originally Ralph and Tessie, from a children's play they saw when Nellie was five. Harry would announce, 'We are X and Y' (perhaps from The Three Musketeers, Greek myths, or any other story that had gripped their fancy) and then he and Nellie would plunge into absorbing parallel lives, until Harry was forced to halt the game by declaring 'We are Harry and Nellie' again.

Farjeon says that this private game absorbed so much of her attention and emotional life that it really became her life, far more real and vivid than her everyday existence, and reflects that ultimately it was quite unhealthy.

I had no desire for new adventures, friends or experience, outside this powerful game. When I should have been growing up, it was a harmful check on life itself, for its imaginative extension did not include natural knowledge. Because of it, I was never aware of my own sex until I was nearly thirty years old, and it took least ten years more for emotional crudeness to get abreast of mental ripeness.

What an extraordinary admission! Though Farjeon credits TAR with turning her into a writer and giving her 'flow of ease,' it's notable that she never married or seems to have had any adult relationship. The Facebook reference came up during a discussion of Antonia Forest's Peter's Room, which also deals with a group imaginative game which spirals out of control, and which in turn references the Bronte's Gondal games and writing.

This is a topic of particular interest to me. Though I didn't share it with anyone else, all through my childhood and teenage years I had a similarly absorbing and addictive private fantasy life. Unlike Eleanor Farjeon, I deliberately renounced it at eighteen (though there were many later lapses), I think because I realised that the potential dangers that she describes above might be lying in wait for me. I'm trying to write about this experience now. If anyone knows of any similar stories, I'm all ears!