21.9.21

The Serpent's Sting


The problem with reading books in a series like Robert Gott's William Power Fiascos out of order is that you leave yourself wide open to spoilers. The Serpent's Sting, being the fourth and final chapter of Will's adventures, unfortunately provided many hints of what happens in Book 3 (Amongst the Dead). I'll probably still read books 1 and 3 in the series at some point, because they are very entertaining.

The Serpent's Sting opens with Will back in Melbourne, for once enjoying some theatrical success, albeit playing a pantomime dame rather than the Shakespearean heroes he'd prefer. But Will is nothing if not pragmatic and he's willing to accept any notoriety rather than none. He's still entangled in military intelligence, knee deep in bodies, drug dealers, cross-dressers and mystery, this time with family complications thrown in for good measure.

Will is really an unpleasant human being: he's selfish, blinkered, and cynical. But for a brief adventure, he is remarkably good company.

17.9.21

A Million Wild Acres

I bought Eric Rolls' classic history of the NSW Pilliga Forest, A Million Wild Acres, after seeing it lauded in Wildwood by Roger Deakin -- the only chapter in the book devoted to an Australian author. A Million Wild Acres is certainly an impressive achievement: an exhaustive history of the area's exploration and settlement, forestry and agriculture, and detailed description of the local flora and fauna, the book runs to over 450 pages and I must admit it has taken me a long time to work my way through it.

This may have been partly because I don't know the Pilliga area at all and so found it difficult to picture the landscape Rolls describes in such loving and forensic detail. I did enjoy his respectful attention to the original First Nations inhabitants of the land, and the foreshadowing of Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe's later work in describing how this fertile territory resembled 'an English parkland' when first seen by explorers, ie lightly wooded, with low grass, for easy grazing and hunting of kangaroo and other game. It was the settlers who dramatically changed the character of the landscape by clearing the trees and then tearing up the fragile soil with the hard hoofs of cattle and sheep, which led to the scrub running wild and thick forest taking over.

First published in 1981, A Million Wild Acres is clearly a labour of love and must have taken decades of painstaking work to assemble. Rolls sets out the back and forth of land ownership over generations, recounts numerous anecdotes of bushrangers and wild cattlemen (including the tragic story of the Aboriginal outlaw Jimmy Governor -- the basis for Tom Kenneally's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith -- though Rolls describes Governor's life oddly as 'a sinister comedy'), and includes his own observations of flowering gums, bushfires, and wild creatures, birds and insects.

An admirable work, and I take my hat off to him, but I must admit I felt slightly exhausted by the end of it!

14.9.21

A Solitary Blue

A Solitary Blue, Book 3 in Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Saga, shifts the focus away from the Tillerman family and onto Dicey's friend/boyfriend Jeff Greene. All the Tillerman books seem to share a theme of loners learning to make connections, and Jeff is even more of a loner than Dicey -- she has her siblings, but he feels entirely alone. Abandoned by his mother, brought up by his loving but undemonstrative father, Jeff has learned to keep himself small and obedient out of fear that his father will abandon him too. When his mother reappears and turns the full beam of her charm and focussed attention on him, Jeff starts to believe he doesn't need his father after all. But beautiful Melody betrays him again, and Jeff has to learn to lean on the parent who has never let him down.

A Solitary Blue (the title refers to the heron who becomes Jeff's talisman) is painful to read, especially the early chapters. Jeff's wariness, his inner fears, his blossoming when he believes he is loved for the first time, and the agony of his mother's betrayal, are all exquisitely described. We've already met Jeff in Dicey's Song, where he seemed a self-contained but confident teenager; now we see how fragile that shell really is, and how close he comes to turning his back on Dicey when he suspects she might let him down too. 

Again, it's the power of music and the beauty of the wild Chesapeake Bay that begins Jeff's healing, and it's connecting with the Tillerman family that continues it. This is a delicate, piercing portrait of childhood pain and the damage it leaves behind.

10.9.21

A Thing of Blood

 

An impulse buy from Brotherhood Books, Robert Gott's A Thing of Blood turned out to not quite what I was expecting -- it's much funnier than I thought it would be, and not the kind of book I would normally pick up, which goes to show that impulse buys can be a good thing.

A Thing of Blood is the second 'William Power Fiasco', but I didn't feel I needed to have read the first volume to appreciate this novel. The element that most appealed to me was the setting: wartime Melbourne, 1942, a world of blackouts and austerity, American soldiers flooding the streets and a bohemian underlife. It's also a city riven by sectarian hostilities, Catholic v Protestant, a division that has now completely disappeared. 

The second most appealing element was our narrator, Will Power, described on the back cover as 'the fatally over-confident hero.' As my own protagonists are usually have to fight to overcome crippling anxiety and self-doubt, it was quite refreshing to spend time with Will, an actor with no self-doubt whatsoever, despite other people telling him frequently how much he overestimates his own abilities.

The third element I enjoyed was Will's jaded, cynical, but enjoyably florid style of narration.

A chipped mug was placed before me containing a liquid that was wine only if that term is expanded to include sump oil. I took a small sip, and felt that if I had any more my teeth would dissolve.

There is a very high body count, lots of abducted and murdered ladies, and a lot of violence (most of it directed against Will himself). I loved that the action was centred around the streets of Parkville and North Carlton, an area with which I am very familiar. In fact I enjoyed Will's company so much (I definitely would not enjoy it in real life) that I immediately reserved the rest of Robert Gott's books from the library.


6.9.21

Imaginative Possession


 I bought Imaginative Possession: Learning to live in the Antipodes after hearing Belinda Probert speak on the radio. As an immigrant from England, she found adjusting to the shape and meaning of the Australian landscape a difficult leap; not just the heat and the bright light, the wide horizons, but the look of the trees, the sound of the birds and the shape of the hills and fields. Eventually she bought a country property in the Victorian Otways, to create a garden as a way of making herself more at home, and she admits the this was not a wholly successful experiment.

The project of Imaginative Possession caught my attention because it raises some of the same issues I was grappling with in Crow Country -- how can strangers to this land, especially those of us brought up on European stories, myths and meanings, adjust ourselves to and learn to love this very different place, without trying to apply the more familiar language of the Northern Hemisphere that has shaped out imaginations? The obvious answer is to ask the original inhabitants, but this is a route that European immigrants have been sadly reluctant to adopt. At last we are learning to listen and to see with the eyes of those who know this place so much more intimately than we do.

Imaginative Possession is filled with enticing titbits of information. Australian birds tend to screech and squawk rather than sing, because birds (not bees) are the main pollinators in our flowering forests, and have evolved to scare off rivals to the blossom harvest. The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti owned a pair of wombats and mourned them when they died.

Probert (like me) is the kind of person who tends to turn to books for enlightenment, and she quotes many other writers in her quest. Some I was familiar with: Billy Griffiths, Bruce Pascoe, Bill Gammage, Judith Brett. Others, like Kim Mahood, I don't know, but I'm looking forward to discovering. Part memoir, part rumination, Imaginative Possession perhaps ends up raising more fruitful questions than it answers.

2.9.21

Dicey's Song

 

Cynthia Voigt's second Tillerman novel, Dicey's Song, picks up where Homecoming finished, with the four Tillerman children making a home with their irascible grandmother. It's not easy for any of them: Sammy soon starts fighting again, Maybeth falls behind at school, and prickly Dicey is misunderstood. But gradually they begin to make connections in the community and Crisfield begins to feel like home, a solid foundation, which is something they need when bad news about their absent mother arrives.

The theme of Dicey's Song is about reaching out, and holding on. And it's not just the children, particularly Dicey, who needs to learn that lesson, but their grandmother too, who has seen her whole family disappear. Though Dicey's Song is less eventful than the adventure quest of Homecoming, it's still highly engaging. Voigt has a gift for describing the small incidents of everyday life in a way that makes them fascinating and totally involving; whenever I put down Dicey's Song, I couldn't wait to pick  it up again.

I loved that Dicey hates home economics, wishing she could do mechanical drawing (a 'boys' subject) instead - she already knows how to feed a family of four on twenty dollars, she spent all summer managing with less; but her teacher marks her down. The last section of the novel, where Dicey and Gram visit Liza in hospital, is almost unbearably moving, without ever being sentimental. I'm already halfway through book three, and I'm looking forward to revisiting the rest of the series.

30.8.21

Skylarking

 

If Kate Mildenhall's 2016 novel Skylarking hadn't already been on my radar, I would have been seduced by this beautiful, understated cover. I think Skylarking was written as a young adult novel but it works equally well as an adult book.

Based on a true story, Skylarking tells a story of friendship, adolescence, intense attachment and ultimately tragedy between two teenage girls, Kate and Harriet, both daughters of keepers at a remote lighthouse in the 1880s. Harriet is a little older than Kate, a little less bold, a little more beautiful. But the girls' close bond is disrupted by the arrival of a man into their tight, isolated community.

Skylarking reflects on womanhood, growing up, and growing away, with a strong distinctive voice from the narrator Kate. It's a bit of a slow burn, but the final chapters of the book are particularly sensitively written, with a tantalising glimpse of Kate's later life. I have also heard great things about Kate Mildenhall's new novel, The Mother Fault, so I'm off to find that one!

27.8.21

Crow Country Audiobook!!


 Great news! After many, many requests, Crow Country is finally available on audiobook! 

It's published by Voices of Today, read by Elizabeth Chambers and should start appearing on various platforms shortly (it's already on Kobo, more to follow...)

After my own daughter's struggles with literacy, I know how important audiobooks are for some students, and for general readers, too, so I'm absolutely delighted that Crow Country will be available on audio. Elizabeth has done a wonderful job with the recording, and I'm so grateful to Sarah Bacaller for making this project possible.

It's great to have something to be happy about!

26.8.21

The Vetting of Wisdom


 Full disclosure: I was a student at PLC during the events discussed in this book. Joan Montgomery was my headmistress; she left the school the year after I did. Kim Rubenstein, the author of The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and the Fight for PLC, is also a former student. She was my school captain in 1982, a couple of years older than me.

The Vetting of Wisdom is an unashamedly partial account of the furore that enveloped the school in the 1980s, after PLC was awarded to the Continuing Presbyterian church (after the split in the Presbyterians that followed the formation of the Uniting Church) and a campaign began to oust Joan Montgomery as Head. Despite the support of staff, parents, students, Old Collegians and the educational establishment as a whole, a stubborn rump of Continuing Presbyterian men were determined to get rid of 'Monty' and ultimately succeeded.

I was absolutely riveted by this book. It's astonishing to me how little I knew about the controversy that unfolded while I was a student at the school. My parents weren't involved in school affairs and Miss Montgomery and the staff succeeded in shielding the students from the fuss to a remarkable degree. I was aware that Joan Montgomery was going to leave at the end of 1985, but I didn't understand why. I was vaguely outraged when it was announced that she was to be replaced by a man, and not even an Australian man, but did I realise why it was happening? I don't think I did. I certainly didn't appreciate the degree to which a stacked School Council had been hijacked by conservative, narrowly religious forces hostile to the ideals that Joan Montgomery represented -- a liberal, expansive, humane education for young women, equal in quality to that available to boys. These men wanted to see a more 'Bible-centred' approach to education, and they were deeply agitated about courses like Liberal Studies or Human Relations (the course I did in Year 10). They wanted to send representatives to sit in on the Human Relations classes -- I can only imagine the chilling effect that observers would have had on classes about sex and relationships filled with 16 year old girls who were all embarrassed enough as it was! Luckily that idea was scotched.

'Monty' was a wonderful principal. She's been described as 'a woman who embodies an exceptional combination of intelligence, perception, energy, loyalty and common sense.' I would add compassion, dignity and humour to that list. We all revered Miss Montgomery -- we respected her more than the Queen, and she moved through the school with an air of unassailable grace and serenity. But at the same time, she was never intimidating. If she spoke to you, you'd be awed but not overwhelmed. She turned up at my last school reunion to our absolute delight, and she is still going strong at 97. What an incredible waste of talent, and what a terrible shame for the young women of PLC, that she was forced to retire at the young age of 60, instead of having her term extended at least until she was 65.

I accept that for someone who doesn't know the setting or the characters involved, this book's detailed account of school meetings and political intrigue might be drier reading than it was for me, but I found it utterly compelling, outrageous and shocking. To see this remarkable educator torn down, despite a massive outcry of protest, is thoroughly dispiriting. It's almost a 'Me Too' story, albeit without the sexual element, but it is still an account of a gifted, respected women brought down by a conspiracy of men, and there's no other way to spin it.

What a waste. The deepest irony of all is that the Presbyterians were convinced that Joan Montgomery was neglecting the religious education of the girls under her care. In fact, her thoughtful addresses at daily assemblies sank deep, certainly into my consciousness, and probably did more to awaken my spirituality than any other influence in my life. We were encouraged to question, to doubt, to think for ourselves, to pray, to reflect, to sing, to be grateful, to consider how we could help others. It might have taken years for that gentle encouragement to bear fruit, but I know that ultimately it did.

24.8.21

Homecoming

 

As I passed my bookshelf the other day, Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman series caught my eye. It's been a few years since I read those, I thought, might be time for another look. When I consulted my reading diary, I was amazed to see that it's been TEN YEARS since I read Homecoming! Definitely time for a re-read.

I was introduced to Homecoming through the Convent book group I used to attend, and what a wonderful gift it was. Re-reading this book I marvelled all over again at Voigt's skill, her descriptive power, the easy readability, the depth of characterisation and the wholly engaging story of this family in trouble.

This cover makes Homecoming look like a horror story, and in a way it begins like that -- four children, aged 13, 10, 9 and 6, are waiting in a car for their mother to return from the shop. But she never comes back. It's up to the eldest girl, Dicey, to lead her siblings on a long journey cross-country to a relative they've never met in search of a new home. Dicey is an extraordinary character, and the novel hinges on her courage, resilience, practical good sense, and fierce protectiveness. She makes mistakes -- what thirteen year old wouldn't? But she is far more resourceful that I would be in a similar predicament, and I'm forty years older than Dicey. I love and admire her as much as any fictional character I've met.

The other characters are just as vivid -- smart, thoughtful James, gentle Maybeth (is she slow, or just shy?) and energetic Sammy. We also meet twittery Cousin Eunice, kind college students Windy and Stewart, and eventually the children's prickly, eccentric grandmother Gram. I love the way that Voigt shows that there's more than one way of facing the world, more than one set of valuable gifts. James is academic, full of ideas. Maybeth is musical and intuitive. Sammy is stubborn, which is another word for determined. The portrait of the children's mother is a spare but deeply moving picture of depressive illness. Homecoming is sometimes a painful book to read; it doesn't spare its characters, and it doesn't offer easy solutions. But wow, it packs a powerful punch, and Dicey is a person you'll wish you could have as a friend.

19.8.21

The Python Years


 I am such a sucker for a diary! Michael Palin's The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 is more than 700 pages long, yet it flew by (I had to ration myself to reading one month at a time). Palin writes well, as you'd expect from a writer of Monty Python and the classic Ripping Yarns. He is an acute and sympathetic observer, an insightful listener, and a reflective person (though his moments of reflection never drag down his impressive energy level). And of course during this decade he began to mix in a star-studded milieu, as Monty Python went from weird unknowns to cult obsession to international fame.

It was fascinating to read about the irritations and power struggles within the group of six Pythons, each of them hugely talented and each wanting to express their creativity in individual ways, yet also conjuring such rich comedic magic as a group. The diaries chart the making of the original Monty Python series, as well as the films Holy Grail and ending with the explosively controversial Life of Brian, which was never a mere parody of Jesus, but had sharp points to make about organised religion and the abuse of power.

Michael Palin has always been seen as the 'nice' Python (he shares a lament at one point with Tim Brooke-Taylor, who was likewise seen as the 'nice' one of the Goodies) but he is not shy about standing up against censorship or protecting the Pythons' creative integrity. It's amusing to eavesdrop on John Cleese's money moans (which don't seem to have changed in 50 years) or meet Lorne Michaels, the American TV comedy super-producer (we have been watching 30 Rock lately, which is one of his babies). There is a sad sub-plot as Palin's father declines from Parkinson's disease, and lovely vignettes of his children as they grow up.

One aspect which is highly annoying is Palin's seemingly inexhaustible energy. He sits down to write a novel or a play and a few entries later, it's finished! (Mind you we haven't seen them actually published or performed yet.) Still, I envy him his productive output.

I enjoyed The Python Years so much, I think I might have to invest in the later volumes.

16.8.21

Nowhere Boys


 Full disclosure: Elise McCredie and I were good friends at college back in the dim and distant past, and I've followed her career as a filmmaker and screenwriter with intense interest and pride. I knew that she was one of the writers of the hugely popular Nowhere Boys television series (as well as Stateless, Sunshine (which I really loved), Ride Like a Girl and more) but I didn't know that she'd written the novelisation of the first series as well.

It's great! It sent me searching iView to watch the TV version (annoyingly I could only find the fourth series and the movie -- my own fault though for not watching it earlier). Nowhere Boys is a terrific concept where four teenagers tumble magically into a parallel world where they have never existed, and have to work out a way home. The book is very well-written: four boys are distinct and lively characters, their dilemma is poignant and painful, but also often funny, there is plenty of action and the details of the magic make sense and don't weigh down the story. And it ends with a hint that there is more adventure to follow (as we know, because there were three more series).

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Nowhere Boys and if it does pop up on a streaming service somewhere, I am definitely watching it.

10.8.21

Crusoe's Daughter


 Jane Gardam has become one of my reliable authors -- she has written lots of books, I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to get when I crack one open, and I can be confident that I'll enjoy the ride. (Side note: I wonder if early Kate Atkinson was influenced by Jane Gardam?)

I hadn't come across Crusoe's Daughter (1986) before, but it's vintage Gardam. Ostensibly it's the story of Polly Flint's life, but about three quarters of the book deals with her childhood and youth; Gardam especially excels at depicting awkward, eccentric teenage girls, surrounding them with even more eccentric, sometimes grotesque characters (most often forceful women and timorous men), and throwing in a massive twist at the end of the book. 

Polly moves to the Yellow House by the sea, surrounded by marsh, to live with her aunts when she is four years old, and remains there for the next eighty years while wars rage and the town grows up around the house, swallowing the marsh, and the outside world advances and recedes like the tide. Polly is also obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, and there are many parallels between Polly's isolated life in the yellow house and Crusoe's stay on his desert island. Polly is another character who is involved with/obsessed by a fictional character (the inevitable irony being that she is fictional, too).

Mind you, I just asked my 17 year old if she knew anything about Robinson Crusoe, and she said she's never heard of him, so perhaps Polly's confident prediction that his fame would live forever might be misplaced?

5.8.21

Smoky-House

 

Smoky-House is definitely a minor Elizabeth Goudge, but for a long time it was the only book of hers that I actually owned -- I think I received it as a Christmas present when I was about nine. Unlike Linnets and Valerians or The Little White Horse, my real favourites, I haven't reread Smoky-House for decades, but I was surprised when I pulled it from the shelf to see how well-thumbed it was -- lots of page corners have been nibbled, which is a sure sign that I read it many times.

I'd forgotten most of the plot, which involves smuggling and the assistance of the Good People, but there were a couple of unexpected details which had stayed vivid in my mind. One was the plain second daughter Genefer (I'd never seen it spelled like that before) and her dresses of soft pale butterfly orange and blue; the other was the angels who stand round the bedposts of the children and watch over them as they sleep.

Four posts to my bed,
Four angels round my head.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Bless the bed I lie upon.

For several years I used to pray this at bedtime, and imagine my own watchful angels. This little prayer caught my fancy, but there is a LOT of poetry in this book, which I could do without. There are the usual wise, resourceful animals, courageous children (including the compulsory naughty youngest), a vigorous Squire to marry the sweet eldest daughter Jessamine (that's her on the cover) and various magical beings. There is also the figure of the bitter Fiddler, who is very similar to the character of Sebastian Weber in The Heart of the Family, though the Fiddler finds his redemption far more easily than poor Sebastian. 

Not one of Goudge's best, but I'm still fond of it -- and just look at that pretty 1970s cover!

2.8.21

The Labyrinth & One Whole and Perfect Day

 

At first glance, these two novels, which I read simultaneously, may seem very different. One Whole and Perfect Day is a young adult book published fifteen years ago; The Labyrinth is an adult literary novel which has just won this year's Miles Franklin Award. But as I read them together, I found more and more common elements.

Both are written by Australian women authors, born only a few years apart (I have just discovered that Judith Clarke sadly died last year). Both books are set in New South Wales -- Perfect Day in Sydney and Katoomba, The Labyrinth partly in Sydney and partly in the fictional coastal town of Garra Nalla. Both books centre on women, one a teenager, one at the other end of life, who are both struggling with family history and stumbling toward making sense of their lives. Though they are written in very different styles, I found the books chimed together in their compassionate approach to human frailty, forgiveness, and the drive to create (in Lily's case, a party to bring her fractured family together; in the case of Erica, to build a labyrinth).

One Whole and Perfect Day is naturally lighter in tone, and skips between a large cast of characters before wrapping up with a neat and satisfying ending. The Labyrinth is more sombre, a reflective and character-driven novel rather a story-centred one. Lohrey has said she was interested in the efforts that humans make to fulfil their spiritual needs, even after religion has lost its force -- for Erica, the creation of the labyrinth becomes a spiritual quest which draws in her neighbours and begins to resolve her difficult past.

I enjoyed immersing myself in these very different but overlapping worlds, created by two wonderful Australian women authors who both deserve your attention. (And thanks to Chris and Pam for lending me The Labyrinth.)