I grabbed Alice Pung's Laurinda the second I saw it on the library shelf (even though I was at the library to return books, not borrow). I've wanted to read this since it came out. I greatly admire Alice Pung as a writer, and I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at a literary festival in Perth a couple of years ago, and she was absolutely lovely. Laurinda is her first work of fiction, and it's a YA novel, so of course I've been hanging out to read it.

I raced through this novel in a day (thanks partly to the fact that I was immobilised in bed). It's the story of Lucy Lam, who wins a scholarship to a prestigious girls' school in Year 10 and finds that she turns into a different person -- quieter, less opinionated -- in her new surroundings. And she soon falls foul of the powerful trio, 'the Cabinet', who are the self-appointed guardians of school excellence, taking it upon themselves to weed out those they perceive as weakening the institution -- feeble teachers, conceited students.

I think I almost felt too invested in this book. I went to a school very like Laurinda (albeit in the 1980s, not the mid-90s, when Pung's book is set), and I was also a scholarship girl (albeit from Upper Ferntree Gully, not Stanley/Footscray) -- and I hasten to add, a very white scholarship girl. But I still found a lot to relate to in Lucy's story. My school was a privileged place, and we were constantly reminded how privileged we were -- but paradoxically, the true sources of our privilege were often invisible to us, and thoroughly internalised.

I did spent rather a lot of the novel silently yelling at Lucy to find some better friends -- or just to give the nice girl from the first chapter another chance (which she eventually does). Lucy's desire to both fit in and also to rebel against the injustices she observes, and her love and loyalty to her family and neighbourhood, mingled with shame and embarrassment toward them, were realistic and moving. I'm still processing how I feel about this book; I think I need to discuss it someone! Any takers out there?


The Second Mrs Gioconda

Picked up E. L. Konigsberg's The Second Mrs Gioconda at the library book sale several moons ago after reading and very much enjoying From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, and I finally got around to reading it -- threw it into my handbag when I needed a slim volume to take on a tram trip.

What a delightful little book this was. In just over a hundred pages, we explore the relationship between the great Renaissance artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, his (real) apprentice Salai, and the (real) Duchess of Milan, Beatrice d'Este, who is used to being the plain second choice to her beautiful older sister. Beatrice and Salai form a bond of shared mischief and delight, despite the difference in their social stations. When Beatrice dies at only 22, Salai grieves; but he finds some solace in encouraging Leonardo to paint the portrait of the humble merchant's wife, the second Mrs Gioconda, who possesses the same inner beauty and outward plainness as their lost Beatrice. Of course, this portrait will become perhaps the most famous painting of all time, known to us as the Mona Lisa.

It's an interesting and plausible thesis, and Konigsberg makes clever use of Leonardo's artwork, included at the back of the book, to support her story. A wonderful introduction to Leonardo, Renaissance Italy, and some magnificent pieces of art. I would have loved reading this when I studied European History for HSC, a long long time ago; it had been published nine years before.


Egg and Spoon

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire is our YA selection for the Convent book group's Witches month, and it's quite long -- more than 450 pages. I borrowed it from the library, let it languish by the bed for a while, then had to finish it in a gallop because the due date came up and I couldn't renew it because someone else (perhaps another member of my book group) had reserved it!

Possibly this haste means that I didn't get to savour the book as much as it deserved. I haven't read any other Gregory Maguire titles, though he is probably best known for writing the book on which the famous musical Wicked was based -- he is clearly drawn to witches. And there were certainly echoes of Wizard-of-Ozzery in the presentation of the witch featured here, even though she is the figure of Russian folklore, Baba Yaga.

I found Egg & Spoon in the adult Fantasy section of the library; the cover has a bet each way by claiming it's a book 'for readers of all ages' and I think this time I might have to agree. While it features two youthful protagonists in the 13 year old peasant girl Elena and young noblewoman Ekaterina, it's emphatically not a stereotypical 'YA' story -- it's crammed with magical allusions, historical asides and imaginative leaps. It might belong in that select category of Books for Adults Who Like YA. In the early stages it reminded me a lot of The Book Thief (also a member of that group) but the slightly laboured pyrotechnics of the writing settled down after a while and I relaxed into the story. I could imagine it being enjoyed by able primary school readers, young adults and adults.

I ended up liking this book much more than I thought I would at first -- maybe the lesson is to push on past the first fifty pages, because it really picked up steam after that.


The Witches

I borrowed Roald Dahl's The Witches from the library for the Convent Book Group next meeting, which has the theme of, you guessed it, Witches. We have done Witches before, but there are so many options out there, we had no trouble coming up with fresh titles!

I approached this book from the odd position of being extremely familiar with the first half of the story, and knowing nothing at all about the second half. This is because we had the first disc of the audiobook version in the car for a long time, so I heard the first part many times, read by the brilliant Simon Callow, rolling his Rs beautifully and relishing the Norwegian and other accents (especially the grandmother). (I've just realised, I don't think the little boy narrator is ever given a name! I hadn't noticed…)

Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the first section much more than the second part -- the spooky stories of the disappearing children, who are turned to stone, or vanish into paintings, are really creepy. But the rest of the book, where the boy encounters a mass meeting of witches and falls foul of their evil ways, before giving them a taste of their own medicine, didn't engage me as much.

Can I make a confession, possibly at the risk of being thrown out of the ranks of children's authors? I don't really like Roald Dahl's books. There, I've said it. Dahl's much celebrated 'streak of darkness' I find just plain cruel. The gruesome and repulsive hi-jinks leave me cold. I do quite like Matilda, but her parents were so repellent I found it hard to believe that they could have produced such a sweet and gifted daughter…

Anyway, The Witches. It's unusual for a kids book in that the child hero ends up as a victim of the evil-doers -- he is turned into a mouse, and not turned back. And the book ends with his being quite pleased that mice don't live very long, because he will die at the same time as his beloved grandmother -- which is a refreshing attitude! So I give points for that.

Or is it just disturbing??



Again, I must confess that my copy of Noel Streatfeild's adult novel, Judith, is not the one pictured here -- mine has a very boring plain black hardcover, which wasn't worth reproducing here. I bought it from Brotherhood Books, though I hadn't heard of it before, and it was relatively expensive for a secondhand book.

I knew I would enjoy Judith, and I did. I galloped through it in two days. Noel Streatfeild's authorial voice is the voice of my childhood reading; I read Ballet Shoes so many times that I still know it almost by heart, and I read every book of hers that I could lay my hands on. And even though this is an adult book, the voice is the same -- calm, astute and wise -- clear-eyed but compassionate about human psychology and the infinite ways that people can torment and test each other. Noel Streatfield is the story-telling voice I think of when I talk about being 'in safe hands'; I trust that she will carry me through a story without jarring, without hysteria, but always with something interesting to say. I can settle down into her writing like I'd settle into a warm bath.

BUT having said all that, I was amused by many aspects of this book, not in the way the author intended. Published in the mid-1950s, it bears the assumptions of its time. Judith, at the centre of the story, is a needy and vulnerable adolescent who clings to whoever will show her love, and the novel charts her interactions with her various family members, who mostly let her down. I did balk at the very end when Judith, who has been exhorted to find her independence throughout, is married off at nineteen; and also that her final moment of standing up for herself, which fills her husband with a warm glow of happiness, follows a car crash where someone is killed… Hm!

Noel Streatfeild often breaks the rule of 'show, don't tell.' She does a lot of telling; often, the dramatic and decisive moments of the plot occur off-screen, and are recounted by one character to another (and the reader) long afterwards. In fact, plot is not really Streatfeild's strong point; her strength is character. She's not a radiant writer like Rumer Godden, but for my personal comfort reading, she's my first choice.


If You Could Be Mine

Sara Farizan's debut novel, If You Could Be Mine, ticks a number of my should-read-more-of boxes, and I have to confess, I sought it out for that reason. Borrowed from the library.

Set in Iran, If You Could Be Mine tells the story of Sahar, a seventeen year old girl who has been in love with her best friend Nasrin since childhood. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, which is bad enough, but now Nasrin is getting married. Sahar has to face losing her love forever, unless her wild idea to save their romance works. Bizarrely, it seems that transsexuality is not frowned upon by the Iranian religious regime, and surgery is even state-funded. In desperation, Sahar considers changing her sex to convince Nasrin that they can stay together.

This book certainly exposed a world that I don't know much about (though I probably know a little more than most of its prospective teen readers). Life in contemporary Iran is certainly no picnic for women, and for those on the margins, and the novel doesn't pretend otherwise, with an ending that is quite realistic and rather sad. But although the subject matter is meaty, the execution left me a little disappointed. Written in what seems now to be the standard YA format of first person, present tense, the style was rather flat, and I would have loved more detail about daily life in Iran. The author is the American-born daughter of Iranian migrants and maybe lacked the direct experience that would have added extra authenticity to the novel. I would still recommend it as an eye opener to a world that is mercifully different from middle class Australia, but I'd recommend Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis first.