Reading Roundup 2016

It's that time again, when I analyse my year's reading -- it's interesting to me, even if it's not that fascinating to anyone else! I read a total of 87 books this year, well up on last year's total. I think this may have been because I made a conscious decision to read books I wanted to read, rather than books I felt as if I should read.

I discovered this afternoon that the pie chart is considered "the Comic Sans of the data visualisation world"! Oh dear! But I still like them. (Also, I get a kick out of the fact that Florence Nightingale invented them.)

Male/female authors

As usual, the ladies dominated. But the chaps came much closer to parity! This might be partly due to my discovery of Ben Aaronovitch's six book Peter Grant series, late in the year. I noticed while I was doing my figures that men seem to have written most of the non-fiction I consumed this year. Hm. Something to keep an eye on, perhaps. I read four books with a mix of male and female contributors.

Adult/Children's & YA
Very close to a fifty-fifty split this year! I think I found some adult books I actually enjoyed this year for a change -- I haven't had much luck with adult books in recent times.


And again, fiction is a clear winner, with about three quarters of the total. This is consistent with last year.


What a lovely, colourful, even spread! I'm surprised the proportion of secondhand books is down -- however, this doesn't account for the huge pile of books I've bought secondhand that I haven't got around to reading yet! Lots of books bought for the Kindle, too, a combination of desperation (when I couldn't find a book group title elsewhere) and impatience (hello, Ben Aaronovitch). I re-read lots of books this year too, all my Antonia Forest collection and L. M. Montgomery's Emily series.

Yeah, well, so much for diversity. I'm a little ashamed to say that this was the year of the comfort read, not the challenging read, and the diversity of my authors suffered accordingly. Although I think within those national categories, I did read more diversely than this chart would suggest. Maybe.

Publication date
More than half the books I read this year were published in the last sixteen years, so relatively recently, with the other half being more or less evenly spread through the decades of the twentieth century. Though I notice I didn't read anything published in the 1930s! How did I manage that?

Of the 87 books I read, 5 were graphic novels or predominantly pictorial.

Favourite books of 2016
In no particular order, the books I most enjoyed reading this year were:
A Tangle of Gold, Jaclyn Moriarty: rich, imaginative fantasy
Strandloper, Alan Garner: challenging, thought-provoking, poetic
Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner: deft, sharp, unsparing
Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane: deep, inspiring, quirky
Peter Grant series (Rivers of London), Ben Aaronovitch: intriguing, immersive, magical
Longbourn, Jo Baker: Austen from the servant's perspective; delightful
And I loved re-discovering Elizabeth Goudge, a neglected old favourite: The Dean's Watch, Linnets and Valerians and The Rosemary Tree all soothed and refreshed me this year.

Wishing you all a wonderful 2017 -- and a year filled with reading!

Simple Gifts: Lesson in Living from a Shaker Village

I didn't know much about the Shakers before I read this book. They were an American sect who made chairs? It turns out they were quite similar to the Quakers, but with some crucial differences: they lived in celibate, communal communities, and instead of silent worship, they celebrated God with dance and song. Not surprisingly for a celibate organisation, they've now all but died out -- I think there are four Shaker Brothers and Sisters left. But their legacy endures, in their beautifully crafted, clean-lined furniture, their art and music, and their intriguing history. They were one of the rare sects who truly believed in, and practised, equality of the sexes -- founded by a woman, and with two Brothers and two Sisters appointed to run their affairs. There's much that appeals about the Shaker way of life, and I'm not surprised that they were still attracting converts well into the twentieth century.

In this memoir, June Sprigg recalls the summer of 1972, when she was nineteen, working as a tour guide in one of the last Shaker villages, populated by a mere handful of old women. The young June forged a profound connection with these (mostly) wise, humorous and kind women, a connection that shaped the rest of her life (she went on to write several books about the Shakers, and worked in Shaker museums). She even contemplated staying on as a permanent member of the community, but decided that way was not for her.

It's not exactly a gripping narrative, but this quiet, contemplative book was not a bad way to finish off my reading year.


The Doggies Almanac

Since the Western Bulldogs' unexpected Premiership victory, there has been a veritable tide of memorabilia pouring out of the Whitten Oval and AFL shops: DVD box sets, signed posters, blockmounted jumpers, replica cups, stubby holders, you name it. We've been relatively restrained at our house -- two books and one box set, and a framed photo collage which was a Christmas present and therefore not our fault!

I wasn't aware of this book until I unwrapped it on Christmas morning. Put together by John Harms and Mandy Johnson, it's a product of the on-line site, the Footy Almanac, which collates and publishes fan accounts of each game of the season. This book is a collection of pieces about the Bulldogs' year, round by round, culminating in lots of accounts of the extraordinary journey through the finals. There are lots of stories here, some funny, some poignant, from fans aged 80 and fans aged 11. It was so much fun to live through the year all over again, though there were some very dark moments -- Mitch Wallis's screams of agony, Bob Murphy's knee -- but the happy ending makes it all worth while.

The Bulldogs' story this year reminded everyone what can be so good about football -- the romance, the heartbreak, the history, and the possibility of overwhelming joy, and I'm so grateful to have experienced it all.


Foxglove Summer & The Hanging Tree

Foxglove Summer takes our hero, Peter Grant, out into the countryside of Herefordshire for a nice change of scenery, if not pace. He rapidly becomes entangled with the search for two missing girls, some mysterious bees, the fairy people and echoes of the events of the last book. I really enjoyed this foray into rural magic, feeling more at home with that than the urban kind, much as I've relished that, too. Downside: not much Molly or Thomas Nightingale in this one. But otherwise this is close to being my favourite. I love that Peter, so street smart and knowlegeable on his own turf and filled with fun facts about architecture and the history of London, can't tell one tree from another.

And speaking of trees... The Hanging Tree finds us back in London, but this time it's posh London, with spoilt kids and fast cars and flash apartments, and Peter is getting closer to discovering the identity of the Faceless Man. I think Guleed, the Somali ninja, has taken over Lesley's place in my heart... All the threads of the story are starting to weave together, and we are getting some answers. I love that the magical world is expanding, too, with schools of American magic and parallel women's magic entering the plot. But the story isn't finished yet.

How long till the next one, Ben? HOW LONG???


Broken Homes


I wasn't expecting -- that.

I was expecting something big and shocking to happen, because Memoranda had warned me that something big and shocking happened at the end of this book, so as I was reading, I was scanning for clues and anticipating possible scenarios.

But not this.

I read Broken Homes* in less than a day, vacuuming up the story which this time revolves around architecture - apparently Peter Grant wanted to become an architect, or perhaps Ben Aaronovitch wanted to become an architect, because there has been quite a bit of information about London's buildings sprinkled through the previous volumes. I love architecture, despite knowing almost zilch about it, so I really enjoyed all that stuff. In this book, Peter and Lesley are closing in on the Faceless Man, a rogue wizard, who seems to be using a block of flats as a kind of magical engine.**

But the ending has left me gobsmacked... though it does make sense. I think.

Gotta go -- book 5 is waiting on my Kindle... Do I really have to cook dinner first? Just one chapter? Please?

* These titles are so clever, by the way.
** This idea appeals to me because I once used it in a book myself -- ie The Waterless Sea.

Whispers Under Ground

I am deep in my Ben Aaronovitch binge session and I inhaled this third volume in next to no time - hey, it's the holidays now, right? So it's perfectly okay to sit in bed and read during daylight hours. Anyway I have to be quick in case I need to buy any more books before my New Year's Eve deadline!

Whispers Under Ground is a creepy adventure involving the Tube, wading through sewers, magic pottery, modern art, half-goblins, an FBI agent, and Lesley becoming a fully-fledged member of the Folly (though it's never been really explained to my satisfaction how she can do magic without being properly and laboriously taught the way Peter himself is. But never mind, I'm just glad she is more involved in the story, with her proper policing instincts.) The more we learn about the Folly and Nightingale's colleagues, the sadder it is -- they were all wiped out during World War II during a dreadful operation at Ettersburg, the wizarding equivalent of the destruction of Gallifrey in the new Dr Who. I think Nightingale, marooned in his pre-war understanding of the world and codes of honour, might be my favourite character. After poor Lesley. And Peter himself is pretty good too. And then there are all the other fantastic, colourful, interesting characters. Oh, I can't decide!

Suffice to say that I am loving this world and feeling thoroughly immersed in it. Had to buy Broken Homes on the Kindle because the library doesn't have it. And as of last night, I am 51% through...


Moon Over Soho

If Moon Over Soho wasn't part 2 of Rivers of London, there's no way I would have picked it up cold - what an unappealing cover! I much prefer the UK cover designs; this is the American version. And because it was the US edition (I may as well get all my gripes out of the way at once!), I also had to put up with US spellings throughout (favorite, gray etc) which I don't mind in a US book, but which grates horribly when I'm reading a book written and set in England. But my biggest annoyance was the fact that they changed Lesley's name to "Leslie" which is, conventionally, the male version of the name. I mean, why?? It's not like it's uncomprehensible spelled the other way! (I'm pleased to report that in vol 3, also an American edition, they have reverted to the right spelling. Which just makes the decision all the more bizarre...)

So... more adventures of Peter Grant, Thomas Nightingale, Molly, Dr Walid and the crew. This book is a fair bit raunchier than the first, which is important for the plot. It also centres on the jazz scene in Soho, and jazz doesn't really float my boat, but having said that, this is a satisfying follow-up. The action and the gore are exciting, but the parts of the series I really enjoy involve Peter's deepening knowledge of magic itself and the history of the practioners who have gone before (also important to the plot in this book), and, funnily enough, the mundane details of police work, the jargon and insider culture. I don't know if that stuff is all invented or if Ben Aaronovitch has an informant in the force, but it's very convincing.

These books have been coming out in rapid succession. Either Aaronovitch is an impressively swift writer, or he's been planning this series for a long time. Either way, kudos to him, it's a great achievement.

I've already started book 3...


Rivers of London

Oh my lord, this book is SO GOOD! It was highly recommended by both Memoranda and The Great Raven, so it could hardly fail, but trust me, it was pure delight. One part police/crime mystery, one part Neil Gaiman, with a good sprinkle of history and geography, a dollop of gore, a generous serving of laughs... This book has it all.

Peter Grant is a London police constable who becomes an apprentice wizard, working for the mysterious and older-than-he-seems Detective Inspector Thomas Nightngale, dealing with a supernatural serial killer,  ghosts, and a territorial dispute between Mother Thames and Father Thames, among other things. The son of a white jazz musician and a woman from Sierra Leone, Peter is also clearly a geek who recognises an Edwardian smoking jacket from watching Dr Who. (This is not altogether surprising as Ben Aaronovitch has actually written for the show.)

The good news is that, having raced through the first book in the series at top speed, I know that several more volumes await. I actually walked to the Northcote library to grab the next two while they were still on the shelf. But after that I might be in trouble -- my New Year's resolution is to not buy any more books till I finish the ones I've already got... But I can foresee a serious Peter Grant addiction coming on, in whose grip I will be helpless.

Oh dear!


The Voyage of QV66

This is one of the books I picked up in Castlemaine. I was chuffed to add it to my collection of Penelope Lively's children's books, which are among my favourites. But I'm kicking myself that I didn't also buy A Stitch In Time, because I wasn't sure if I already had it -- does this ever happen to you? I lose track of which books I actually own and which books I just wish I owned. Anyway, I was pretty sure I had A Stitch In Time, but of course when I got home and checked, I didn't. Bugger. Then I would have had them all!

Published in 1978, The Voyage of QV66 is a funny little book, whereas A Stitch In Time is a classic Lively time-slip. The heroes of QV66 are a dog, a horse, a cow, a kitten, a pigeon and Stanley. At the beginning of the book, no one is quite sure what kind of animal Stanley is, and the book narrates their quest to find out. (Spoiler: you can see him on the front cover, so there's not much doubt in the reader's mind, at least, that he's a monkey.)

In a way, this is a kind of time-slip book; it's set in a vague future England where apocalyptic floods have necessitated the mass evacuation of humans (apparently to Mars!), leaving the Earth populated with animals and the detritus that People have left behind. And there is a weird episode at Stonehenge, which is very Penelope Lively, where some animals (crows, oh dear) seem to have slipped into a kind of barbaric pagan ritual. In fact there is a lot of oblique commentary on the foolish ways of humankind, as played out by the animals, including prejudice against those who are different, the exercise of power through violence and religious ritual, even pointless bureaucracy. Much of this would probably fly over the head of a child reader, but the animals' journey is eventful and amusing enough even without the social analysis. This would be a great read-aloud for a seven or eight year old, and would probably provoke lots of discussion -- like 101 Dalmatians did at our house.


Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth

Perhaps not the best, but definitely one of the most interesting books I've read this year. I've been looking out for this for ages but I'd given up hope of ever finding it, it was so obscure -- an ethnographic study of fanfic writers from 1992 -- but miraculously, good old Brotherhood Books came through for me again! And wow, I'm so glad they did.

Camille Bacon-Smith spent eight years infiltrating the Star Trek fan fic community and Enterprising Women is the result of her study. (Apparently it was quite controversial on publication, as some of her informants felt they'd been misquoted or misunderstood.) It's quite an academic text, and in parts pretty dense with theory and analysis, not necessarily an easy read.

But there were so many fascinating aspects to this book, not least of which was the account of the daunting logistics of producing and distributing fan fiction and fan art before the internet came along, not to mention viewing 'source product' ie the original TV shows. Bacon-Smith spends many pages detailing the elaborate system of 'circles' and fanzines, with photocopied stories passing from hand to hand, and videotapes of videotapes copied in someone's lounge room and lent to friends -- stuff you can find now with the press of a key on YouTube, not to mention the millions of words of fanfic for every possible fandom, instantly accessible on your laptop screen.

Bacon-Smith's study deals principally with the Star Trek fandom, but also covered Blake's 7 and The Professionals, which was a pleasant surprise, as they were both shows I was obsessed with in the 1980s. And here I must confess my personal interest in this subject. I too was a fanfic writer, though I never heard the term and never shared my work with a living soul. In fact most of the time my narratives played out only inside my head and were only occasionally written down.

What interested me especially was the realisation that I had independently explored several common fanfic genres without knowing that they existed as a category: the Mary Sue story (featuring the idealised ingenue), the cross-universe story (mixing up Blake's 7 with Dr Who, or Dr Who with All Creatures Great and Small... ah, Tristan!), and the hurt-comfort story (which was so easy to act out when you were lying in bed at night before you fell asleep). Clearly there are specific psychological needs which are being met by these narratives, and while Bacon-Smith has her own theories, they didn't always completely convince me.

Anyway, there was lots of food for thought and memory here, and it's inspired me to think about maybe writing something about this important phase in my life, and what it meant to me.


The Stone Book

I spent last weekend in Castlemaine with seven wonderful women, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of our book group. (I've only been a member for about five years, but I was allowed to come along anyway!) We had a fabulous time, eating, drinking, wandering, chatting about life and books -- and of course we visited book shops.

Most of our book shop experiences were positive and enjoyable. But there was one book shop, which shall remain nameless, where the proprietor was weirdly hostile. The books (of which there were admittedly plenty) were higgeldy piggeldy, in tottering columns, so you couldn't actually access the shelves behind. Our polite enquiry ('are you open this afternoon?') was met with a snappish reply ('the hours are on the door'). A simple yes or no would have done the job...

ANYWAY during our brief visit, and despite the best efforts of the book seller to prevent me, I still managed to find three books that I wanted, including this slender volume, Alan Garner's The Stone Book, the first part of The Stone Book Quartet (I'm still looking for the other three books.)

Alan Garner's ability to pack in such vivid poetry and elliptical wisdom into so few pages leaves me breathless with admiration. Every word packs a punch; nothing is wasted. In The Stone Book, Mary longs for a book to carry in church like the other girls. But her stonemason father (echoes of William Golding's The Spire which I read a couple of months ago!) instead takes her to a hidden place underground, where she discovers a secret that moves her more profoundly than words.

I feel as if I've only had part of the story. Now I need the other three quarters of the whole.

Fight Like A Girl

Clementine Ford is a welcome, in-your-face presence in mainstream media through her Daily Life articles and her lively Facebook and Twitter activity. Now Fight Like A Girl has collected her thoughts and observations on a variety of feminist issues in one volume. She's angry, and so she should be, and so should we all: at sexual violence, inequality, the silencing of women's stories, at the routine abuse of women, like Ford herself, who dare to speak up and speak out.

Ford quotes some of the obscene comments that her opinions have attracted. At first it's shocking, disgusting; you can't quite believe that there are men in the world who actually think this way and feel justified in saying it openly (albeit anonymously, behind the shield of a keyboard). But after a while, it becomes absurd and laughable. Come on, guys! Seriously? I agree with Ford that ridicule can be a powerful weapon, as effective as the Ridikulus charm against a Boggart.

Clementine Ford is unapologetically, entertainingly ranty, and the energy of her anger and her humour is bracing. At times I found myself wanting some slightly deeper analysis, and perhaps a clearer pathway for change. This is not academic feminism as I encountered it at university, and it's all the more accessible for that. I'll be lending this book to my fifteen year old daughter; it's a good place to start, but it's only the first step on the journey.


More Emily!

Emily Climbs sees our friends and relations from New Moon relegated to the background as Emily goes off to high school in Shrewsbury, boarding with her prim, judgmental Aunt Ruth, forming new friendships and setting out on her 'Alpine path' -- her writing career. The book ends with a potentially life-changing offer from a fairy godmother figure; but can Emily tear herself from her beloved New Moon?

Spoiler: she doesn't! Emily's Quest is in many ways the saddest of the trilogy. Where Emily of New Moon is fresh and sweet, and Emily Climbs is hopeful, Emily's Quest is a book of disillusionment, misunderstandings and disappointment. This final novel sees the tangle of relationships between Emily, Teddy, Ilse and Perry (and the creepy Dean!) which was set up in the first book, play out in full. There are moments of joy, where Emily has her first book published, and she has plenty of offers of marriage, but of course we know that no one will do for our Emily but Teddy... But Teddy is going to marry Ilse! How are they going to get out of this one?

I think I prefer the first two books, before Emily gets sad and lonely, even though it all works out in the end. In some ways the last book feels rather perfunctory, as if Montgomery had decided well in advance how the story was going to end but almost lost interest before she came to actually write it (dear readers: this can happen.) There is quite a bit of Tell-Not-Show and the quirky character studies and amusing anecdotes are less prominent, and as I get older I find that these are the parts of Montgomery's writing that I enjoy the most. It's still a lovely trilogy though!


Comfort Re-Read: Emily of New Moon

I grew up with Anne of Green Gables, but I didn't find Emily until quite recently (thanks to dear Suzanne from book group, who shares my tastes!). I've been in the mood for something non-threatening and sweet, and Emily fits the bill perfectly.

There are certainly parallels with Anne's story -- eccentric, gifted orphan girl lands in a household where she is not at first entirely welcome, wins over her guardians, makes friends and communes with nature as life's lessons help her to mature -- but Emily is quieter than Anne. Instead of a fiery temper and impulses that land her in scrapes, Emily has a steely determination and a gift for poetry (surely at least in part a self-portrait of the author?)

There were a couple of aspects of the story that made me cringe slightly. There is a frankly creepy friendship with a thirty-five year old man (Emily is twelve) who comes across like a grooming paedophile (he says, rather ominously, that he'll 'wait for her' -- yuk!) and the story of Emily's friend Ilse, completely neglected, even disliked, by her father, because he's under the impression that her mother betrayed him, just makes my blood boil! The morality of the day has not aged well. It was chastening, too, to read about children dying of measles. This is why we have vaccination, people!

But on the whole, this was a quick, delightful re-read.


The Brain That Changes Itself

I've been meaning to read The Brain That Changes Itself for ages, especially since Dad had his stroke -- it's very pertinent to the problems he has been facing (partial paralysis and aphasia). It's become a bit of a modern pop-science classic since it was first published in 2007; this was an updated edition from 2010 and I'm sure the science has advanced even further in the last few years.

I think I was expecting more of a focus on stroke treatment, but Norman Doidge covers a range of brain injuries and human issues -- there's one chapter on sexual attraction, and one on psychoanalysis, as well as stroke, OCD, phantom limbs and pain. Doidge's central thesis is that the brain's functioning is not fixed, but is capable of incredible feats of 'plasticity,' adapting and modifying itself to cope with injury, expanding neural networks as we learn and reinforce that learning (as when we learn an instrument or a new language, or as blind people use the parts of the brain normally used for visual processing to enhance their hearing instead.)

I have a weakness for pop-science books and this one was particularly relevant to my interests. Doidge is very encouraging about the human capacity for recovery from brain injury, and we have seen for ourselves the amazing advances that my father has made since his massive stroke 18 months ago. He can now stand steadily, walk for short distances with a quad cane, and has improved his mental processing with the help of brain exercises from our wonderful speech pathologists. (Though I was a bit disconcerted to read in a footnote this morning that there's evidence that people recovering from stroke can improve either their physical movement or their cognitive function -- but there just isn't enough capacity in the undamaged brain to cover both. I don't think I'll be sharing that particular speculation with Dad.)


Going Solo

As attentive readers will no doubt recall (!), I recently read the first volume of Roald Dahl's selective memoir/autobiography, Boy, for book group. Because I bought Boy on the Kindle, they threw in the first chapter of the next installment, Going Solo, as a bonus. It wasn't quite enough to entice me to buy the rest, but kind Diana at book group had brought along her copy and generously lent it to me. This is what book groups are great for, the sharing of books - sometimes figuratively and sometimes very literally! Thanks, Diana.

I read Going Solo in one day, more or less, as I was lying ill in bed. It was perfect sick-in-bed reading -- vivid, easy to read, large-ish print, lots of pictures. It covers a particularly eventful few years in Dahl's life -- sent out to East Africa in 1938 to work as a representative of Shell (lots of colourful colonial stories about snakes and lions), then with the declaration of war, training as a fighter pilot, crashing in North Africa and recovering in Egypt, then actually fighting in Greece. Finally the headaches caused by his first crash prevent him from flying any more and he is invalided home.

As in Boy, Dahl is brisk and matter-of-fact about some terrifying situations. He describes with precision and verve how it feels to scrunch up in the cockpit of a fighter (he was well over six feet tall and not well suited to the dimensions of a plane); the exhilaration and dread of air-to-air combat; and the horrific cost of war. As he notes at one point, here is this beautiful machine, his aircraft, which took thousands of hours to build, and in the hands of a barely-trained and inexperienced pilot, it probably won't last five minutes of actual combat... He also notes, along the way, the deaths of many of his fellow pilots and friends.

I can imagine this book going down a treat with young boys who hunger to know exactly what it was like to fly and fight, and nearly die in the desert, without sugar-coating the danger and the cost. Dahl manages to capture both the real excitement and the horror of war in an easily accessible book. I might even persuade my husband to read it. When he was a kid, he would have absolutely loved it.


Reading along on my push-bike

A few months ago, Alice found this cute retro exercise bike on hard rubbish, and brought it home (because what else is hard rubbish collection for, if not to rid your household of two unwanted items and pick up five things that other people don't want any more?)

Since then, it's been sitting on our front porch, screened by bushes and with a lovely view of the garden and the street. Alice rode it a few times then got bored (because that never happens with stuff you find on hard rubbish, right?)

Then I decided that if the dog wouldn't walk with me any more (long story), I had to find an alternate form of exercise. I used to ride a bike everywhere and for a few years, I was never fitter. So I timed myself pedalling away and was horrified when I could only last about three minutes before toppling off breathless, my heart thumping out of my rib cage. I used to ride for an hour and barely break a sweat! So I've set myself the goal of slowly increasing my pedal-time and making sure I have a daily ride.

But while the bike is in a pleasant spot, stationary riding is... dull. Then I realised I didn't need to look where I was going, or steer, or even hold onto the handlebars. I brought a book outside with me, and dear reader, the minutes fly by while I'm lost in a book. Talk about two birds with one stone. It's perfect.


The Boundless Sublime

When I was about nineteen, I came pretty close to joining a Christian youth group. Not a cult? I hear you say. But as Ruby's friend reminds her in The Boundless Sublime, Christianity was once regarded as a dangerous cult, and arguably still is (albeit a cult with a huge numbers of adherents). I can well remember that sensation of seductive excitement as I teetered on the edge of joining my potential new friends/'family' -- telling myself that I was too smart to fall for this, but knowing full well that, paradoxically, it's intelligent people who are most vulnerable to joining cult-ish organisations.

In The Boundless Sublime, Ruby is aware of this too, but that doesn't stop her from getting caught up in the weird, disturbing world of the Institute. It helps that she is made vulnerable and isolated by grief over the recent death of her younger brother, which has ripped her family apart; and it also helps that her entry to the Institute is eased by the 'hot wild angel boy' Fox. Before too long, and despite her initial wariness, Ruby has been well and truly taken in -- literally and figuratively. And the way out may be even harder than she thinks...

This is Lili Wilkinson's best book yet, darker and deeper than her previous novels, but no less readable and engaging. Ruby's journey is highly plausible. (Lili has made an accompanying series of videos, Let's Talk About Sects, which my elder daughter highly recommends.) A terrific, disturbing, sinister read.

Oh, and I didn't end up joining the Christian youth group. That particular cult will have to manage without me.


Never Let Me Go

This is the second Kazuo Ishiguro novel I've read this year, and like The Buried Giant a few months ago, Never Let Me Go left me feeling weirdly uncomfortable, disturbed, irritated and intrigued. I bought Never Let Me Go from Brotherhood Books not long after reading The Buried Giant, because I wanted to explore further my ambivalence about Ishiguro's writing.

But I don't know that I've actually clarified anything! There is something about the way Ishiguro tells a story, something so oblique and elliptical, that gives me the screaming irrits. 'That incident reminded me of the time, about three years ago, when we talked by the duck pond. But to explain why that conversation upset me so much, I have to go back to the encounter between Lucy and me, that day when it rained and we were all in the pavilion...'* Aargh! Just tell the story, already!

 And yet... I was completely hooked, drawn back to the book at inconvenient moments, to devour just a few more pages while I stirred the bolognese. I suppose everyone but me has, if not read the book, seen the movie, so you probably know the premise of the story -- and it's a great premise, even though very little happens in the way of actual plot. The plot is the slow reveal: who are these kids? Why are they special? And then, when the horror of their situation becomes clear: will they escape their fate?

Come on, it's an Ishiguro novel. Of course they won't escape their fate. They won't even resist very hard. I wonder if the film replicates the characters' meek submission? I wouldn't be surprised if they re-wrote the ending. I'll have to run and find out now... But there is something so haunting, so eerie and sad about this novel, that despite the frustrations, I'm glad I read it.
*not an actual quote


Arthur at the Crossing-Places

Ah, the difficult middle book of the trilogy! It's always a tricky prospect, and while I would read with joy and delight any book by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Arthur at the Crossing-Places is for me the least satisfying of this series (I'm including Gatty's Story here).

Appropriately perhaps for a hinge-book, this volume finds Arthur treading water. He is now squire to Lord Stephen, who is preparing to leave on the crusades; but by the end of the book, they still haven't left. Most of the book is taken up with Arthur watching events unfold in his seeing stone, the adventures of King Arthur and his knights. Frankly, the array of ladies in distress, gallant knights and evil-doers to be overcomes, challenges and jousts and romances, becomes a little dizzying. In the real world, Arthur is troubled by his parentage; he has discovered that the unpleasant Sir William is his father, while his mother remains unknown. He wants to find her, but doesn't know how, and again, the book finishes with this issue unresolved.

But I don't read Kevin Crossley-Holland for the story, really, but for his glorious, brightly-coloured language, which glows like a stained glass window or an illuminated manuscript. And for the sake of that, I'm happy to be frustrated on the plot front.

Arthur at the Crossing-Places was the last book of this series I managed to buy, so I've read them (re-read them) all out of order. But now they are all happily lined up on my shelf, and I'm very pleased to see them there, complete. I think these are books I will go back to again and again in years to come.


The Story of Art

Art is another of those areas, like music, that I don't know much about. And naturally my favoured method of learning is to go off and read a book...

(As a side note, it's taken me a long time to realise that this method is not necessarily the most effective for everyone. My elder daughter learns best by watching documentaries; my husband through listening to podcasts; my younger daughter by researching on-line. I can push fascinating books at all of them but the chances of them actually flipping through them are minimal. Weirdos!)

So I decided to Learn About Art and this massive tome (first published in 1950, last updated in 1989) seemed like the perfect starting point. It was originally intended for younger readers -- teenagers at a guess -- and though it has many, many, MANY pages, there are loads of illustrations and the text is not too dense. I think I remember art students at my school lugging this around back in the 1980s. It has taken me many weeks to wade through this history, a chapter at a time, and I'm not sure how much of it I will retain long-term. There is a heavy emphasis on Western art and particularly painting, but hey, you can't cover everything and since my ignorance is pretty much total, it was just as well to chip away at one area.

E. H. Gombrich succeeds in laying out a fairly coherent narrative trail by framing each era of art as an attempt to solve the problems thrown up by the one before, which was an interesting, and to me, novel way to look at it. And best of all, now that I've finally finished it, I feel incredibly virtuous!


Grant and I

Despite (because of?) working for international music companies for more than a decade, I am not really a music person. I very rarely listen to music these days, and when I do, it's always an old favourite album and not anything new.

The exception to this rule is the wonderful mix discs made for us by our friend David (through whom both Michael and I got our music jobs...). And it was David who gave me Robert Forster's Grant and I for my birthday, knowing that one of the albums I return to time and again, the soundtrack of my twenties, is the Go-Betweens' 16 Lovers Lane.

This is the story of a band, a musical journey, and most of all, a friendship. Grant McLennan and Robert Forster found each other as sensitive outsiders at university in Brisbane, back when Queensland was a black hole ruled by Joh Bjelke-Peterson. Robert taught Grant how to play guitar; Grant introduced Robert to arthouse cinema. The union of two singer-songwriters gave their band an unconventional structure; it became both a strength and a weakness, as the Go-Betweens fought for creative and commercial success in the UK, Europe, the US and at home in Australia -- two steps up the ladder, then another slide down. The Go-Betweens never became 'big,' but they certainly gathered a devoted following, despite Grant and Robert splitting the band and going their separate ways for a decade before coming together again.

'There's bad blood between us' is a line from 16 Lovers Lane, before it all fell apart, but it sums up a period when the long hard slog of being in a not-quite-successful enough band and the tensions of personalities and relationships took their toll. At different times, Robert was going out with the drummer, Lindy, and Grant was going out with Amanda, the violinist, and though at times love fuelled the music, there were times when this history proved destructive.

I loved how Forster describes the memory of writing a strong song as setting off a 'flare' in his mind, illuminating a particular room at a particular moment in time: the carpet, the way the light fell, a half-open door, Lindy applying makeup in the bathroom.

Grant and I is a wonderful, moving story of a creative partnership, and it's sent me searching for all the music, both from the Go-Betweens and from McLennan and Forster's solo work, that I missed along the way.


The Hate Race

I bought The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke on impulse, on the Kindle, prompted by a review in The Monthly that reminded me, oh, yeah, I totally meant to read that book...

I'm so glad that I did. This is an important, heart-breaking memoir, sometimes zingingly funny, sometimes painfully sad, the kind of book that leaves feeling winded, like someone snuck up while you weren't looking and punched you in the guts, but because you needed it.

Maxine Beneba Clarke grew up in the Sydney suburbs in the 1990s, daughter of British immigrants who were born in the West Indies, her mother an actress, her father a university mathematician. This is the story of Clarke's Australian childhood, the slow dawning of the realisation that in the eyes of many of her fellow citizens, her skin colour sets her apart -- sometimes perceived as exotic ('where are you from?' 'can you show us some tribal dances?'), but most often as inferior. Clarke's account of the daily, bruising, numbing, casual and deliberate racism she encountered as a child and adolescent (and still encounters) is illuminating (to me) and horrible. It made me feel deeply ashamed, and angry, and sad, because I know things are no better now.

I think this book is being marketed as an adult memoir, but it should be required reading for every teenager too.


How To Be Happy

I borrowed David Burton's memoir How To Be Happy from the library for the Convent book group, as next month's theme is Non-Fiction.

How To Be Happy, winner of the Text Prize, is funny, wry, engaging and honest. Reading it also made me feel very anxious. It took me straight back to my own adolescent and young adult struggles with anxiety and depression, and forced me to face the fact that my daughters are also in the thick of those difficult years and may well have a similar experience. Not comfortable reading.

But I think this is a valuable book. It reassures us that there is help available, that hard times and grief can be survived, that friends are important and families can endure. David Burton is now a playwright in Brisbane and in a loving relationship (at least he was when the book was written). He is still young; he may not be out of the woods yet.

I hated being young. It wasn't the best time of my life, it was the most miserable, the most uncertain, stressful and painful time. I wouldn't go back there for quids. Maybe that's why I write for kids and young people, because when I was young, books were my lifeline, my escape, and the promise that there was more to life than confusion, fear and sadness. Wow, that got dark quickly -- I didn't mean it to! And How To Be Happy is not a dark book, though it touches on some dark material; it ends on a promise of hope. Read it.


Mrs Robinson's Disgrace

I relished Kate Summerscale's previous non-fiction exploration of a Victorian-era crime, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, an absorbing and sometimes shocking account of one of the first modern-style murder investigations.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace is also an examination of a Victorian scandal, but this time based in the newly-minted divorce courts rather than the Old Bailey. Isabella Robinson is unhappily married, bored and depressed. She consoles herself by writing in her private diary, recounting her attraction to various men and ultimately, her intimacy with one of them. Alas, while Isabella is ill and feverish, her husband discovers her diary, reads it with mounting rage, and demands a divorce for adultery. The only evidence is her diary, but can it be trusted? Or did Isabella, as her alleged paramour insists, invent the whole story?

Based on court records and other research, Mrs Robinson's Disgrace gives Summerscale the opportunity to explore all kinds of threads concerned with female sexuality, Victorian morality, truth and fiction, the romantic imagination, marital cruelty, and the emergence of scientific, rational approach to sexual desire.

All this is very interesting, but unfortunately I found Isabella Robinson, though intelligent and dealt a rotten hand in husbands, rather wearing company. She was rightly outraged that her husband had violated the privacy of her journal. Some words are not meant to be shared with others. Alas, Isabella's diary, like so many unedited diaries, is repetitive, self-serving, over-written, exaggerated and rather dull. That doesn't mean it wasn't valuable for her to write it; my own diaries, more than a hundred years later, were pretty similar! But I would shudder if they were shared with the general public, and I fear Isabella Robinson would probably feel the same way.



Bought Boy: Tales of Childhood on the Kindle as my library had deleted their two copies since I last checked! Why? There seems to be this drive by libraries to clear out their back catalogue and only stock new books. When someone says, this place looks like a bookshop, they take it as a compliment. It's not. Libraries should not be faux-bookshops, they should be repositories of history, oddities, overlooked classics ripe for discovery. I know they can't stock everything, but still, it's disappointing when well-loved books like Roald Dahl's autobiography are unceremoniously binned.

Rant over.

Perhaps calling Boy an autobiography is a bit of a stretch; it's more like a highlights reel, with, as they say in footy circles, some mayo on the top. Roald Dahl selects the most memorable events of his childhood and shares them in his trademark highly-coloured style. There are dead mice, operations without anaesthetic, and lots and lots of flogging. Dahl attended British public schools in the 1920s and 30s and never got over his outrage that masters and senior pupils were licensed to assault younger boys in the name of discipline - not just a tap on the bum, but real, bruising, blood-drawing injuries.

Regulars readers may know that I'm not a massive fan of Roald Dahl's writing; the celebrated streak of darkness and fondness for the gross side of life does not appeal to me and never has. But I found Boy a galloping, engaging read. I took it on the train to amuse me on the way to and from a school visit in Caulfield, and I was started and disappointed when it finished before my train reached Richmond!

I might even read the sequel, Going Solo. But I'm not promising anything.


Catching Up

Image: AFL
So... we went on a little holiday to new Zealand. I know, I know, what self-respecting football fan books an overseas holiday in September? But the decision to take the family on a brief break across the Tasman was a form of tempting fate -- come on, surely the Bulldogs wouldn't still be playing in the last couple of weeks of the finals? At best we might scrape into the semis...

Well, unless you've been living under a rock, you know how this story ends. Our Bulldogs DID win a preliminary final, gaining entry to the Grand Final for the first time since 1961. We watched the astounding victory (underdogs for the third game in a row...) on cable TV in our hotel room in Wellington. A couple of days earlier, a random stranger had bounced up to Michael in the Auckland Museum and wished us luck (Michael happened to be wearing a jacket with a very discreet Bulldog logo attached).

We made it home in time to secure tickets. We were there, high up in the Southern Stand, to witness the game. We chewed out nails, plaited the tassels on our scarves, cheered and howled and roared. And before the siren sounded, I was already in tears.

Anyway, while we were away, I read a couple of books: The Spire, by William Golding, about a medieval priest who is driven to add a spire to his church, against the warnings of his master builder, and the effects of his misguided vision on the community around him; and also Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane, an absolutely beautiful book which examines some of Macfarlane's favourite nature writers, and also gathers a glossary of local terms for landscape and weather, words that describe with precision and poetry the interplay of water and air, earth and sky. Macfarlane laments that with the loss of this language, we lose our ability to really see what lies around us. This immediately led me to think of the tragic loss of Aboriginal languages and place-names, which perform the same function of knitting together people, spirit and place. And it felt as if New Zealand, with its proliferation of Maori place-names, and its bi-lingual signage, is miles ahead of Australia in recognition and preservation of local language.

But since I finished Landmarks, nearly all my reading has been about football, and that glorious, thrilling victory: match reports, interviews, newspaper articles, blog posts... and I still haven't even unwrapped the Footy Record!!

This post has already gone on long enough, so I will conclude with a simple, joyous shout of GO DOGS!


The Singing Bones

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan is the last book on my graphic novel list - this one counts as the 'picture book', though I have to say the designations for each category this time around have been more then a little arbitrary!

The Singing Bones is not really a book for children. It is exquisite and uncanny, using short extracts from about 60 of Grimms' fairy tales as inspiration for a series of clay sculptures by Tan, best known for his drawings. An afterword states that Shaun Tan was influenced by Inuit and Mexican sculpture, and these weird, wonderful little works cry out to be held in the hand. But I think if I was a young child, I'd find them slightly terrifying. The extracts from the stories, too, many of which were unfamiliar to me, were dark and creepy. Not saying that's a bad thing, but I think I got more pleasure from this book as an adult than I would have as a child.



Art Spielgelman's classic graphic account of his family's survival under the Nazis, Maus, was first published in 1973. To my shame, I had never read it, until now.

In Maus, and the sequel Maus II, Spiegelman retells his father's account of life in Poland under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The Jews are drawn as mice, the Nazis are cats, the non-Jewish Poles are pigs. Each panel crackles with energy, as if Spiegelman were scribbling it at top speed, and the story is filled with both tragedy and unexpected humour. Vladek is resourceful, courageous, quick-thinking, determined to survive against horrendous odds. But as he recounts his history to his son, in current-day America, he is also infuriating, comically miserly, irascible, impossible to live with. He is a hero, but not a straightforwardly admirable man.

I raced through this book, gobbling it so fast that I barely took in the artwork, focused on the dialogue and the words that propel the story forward. We know (because this is a true story) that Vladek and Anja will live. But plenty of others we encounter along the way will not survive. It's easier to digest the horrors of the Holocaust when it's presented in the form of cats and mice playing out the drama, and it's a story that is so brutal, so hard to comprehend, that perhaps we need a little help to face it.

During Maus II, Spiegelman himself reflects on the difficulty of his task. How can he draw Auschwitz? Can he find a way to depict a tin workshop without drawing machinery? Can he do justice to his father's story, and overcome his own feelings of guilt and anger toward Vladek? Does the world even need another Holocaust story?

If that story is Maus, then the answer is, yes, it does.


The Sacrifice

We are doing Graphic Novels next month in the Convent book group, and I had Bruce Mutard's The Sacrifice on my list as our junior fiction title. I'm not entirely sure how it got there, because this is definitely an adult novel. I had some trouble sourcing this book, and eventually borrowed it on Michael's card from the Moonee Ponds library (Kelvin was very helpful, thanks Kelvin!)

I really enjoyed the fact that this book was set in Melbourne. The graphics gave a vivid sense of the city in the late 30s and early 1940s, and the characters were of a demographic I haven't seen much of -- communists, pacifists, slightly bohemian types -- people who would probably have been my tribe if I'd been alive back then. The Sacrifice is part one of an ambitious project, the Robert Wells trilogy, with volumes two and three still to come, which will presumably chart Robert's experiences at war and afterwards; this book deals with his struggle to decide whether or not to enlist.

I have to admit that I took quite a while to get into The Sacrifice. If I hadn't had to read it for book group, I might have given up. The start was very dialogue heavy, as the characters discuss politics, religion, duty and ideology for page after page, before I'd managed to distinguish who they were! The story did pick up down the track, though, and by the end I was hooked into the story and the history. I still didn't feel particularly connected to the characters though. Maybe I need more practice with graphic novels as I do find them difficult! But I do admire the ambition of this project.


Linnet and Valerians

Birthday present! I haven't read Linnets and Valerians for a very long time, and as I read it, it came back to me, like a magic painting's colours when you brush it with water, and I remembered why I adored it so much.

Partly it was the character of Nan, who is 'plain,' but still becomes much loved. This was a great comfort to me, and I remembered how much I relished reading about Nan and her private parlour, because she needed time alone, and fierce Uncle Ambrose who nonetheless cares deeply for the children. I loved his owl, Hector, and the bees, and Ezra with his pointed ears who is the repository of old magic, while Uncle Ambrose stands for logic and civilization. It takes a balance of these powers, and the courage and energy and compassion of the children, to defeat the forces of badness in the village and right an old wrong.  There were echoes of The Little White Horse in this theme, but I could relate more to quiet, plain Nan than to the confident, self-possessed Maria Merryweather!

But... geez, it was slow in patches. Lots of detailed description of the moor and the hill and the woods, which is the kind of thing I normally love, but it was in great undigestible slabs that bogged the story down. The characters were all wonderful, and it was the characters who stayed with me down the years, but this time, unlike LWH, the setting didn't quite catch fire for me. And the solution to the 'mystery' was perfectly plain from practically the first chapter.

Still, I'm very glad to have re-acquainted myself with this old favourite (though I wish it still had the original cover), and very content to have it on my shelf.


It's My Birthday and I'll Read If I Want To

I didn't buy ALL of these for myself -- some were mere suggestions, and some were genuine unasked-for (but very welcome!) gifts. But is there any better way to celebrate a birthday than with a big pile of books?? (Don't answer that!)

Iris and the Tiger was a gift from my dear, clever Sandra, who provided the cover art.

I've been waiting to read Lila since it came out; Marilynne Robinson is one of my favourite authors, and I'm looking forward to a thoughtful, meditative read of the story already partially told in Gilead and Home, this time from Lila's point of view.

Robert Macfarlane is a relatively recent discovery, and it was a review of Landmarks that first alerted me to his books. How remiss of me, then, not to have actually read Landmarks yet! Language and landscape -- my kind of book. (Technically, this one is a gift from Alice.)

I spotted The Spire at Savers at the weekend, and also not one but three copies of a Rumer Godden I don't possess: An Episode of Sparrows (why three? all the same edition, by the look of it -- weird... I left two copies at Savers in Brunswick if you're interested...)

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who was a gift from my fan-girl younger daughter, thank you darling xxx

And I was telling my mum how much I longed to buy Linnets and Valerians, but wasn't sure if I could justify it, and she said, I'll give it to you for your birthday. L&V was my second favourite Elizabeth Goudge book when I was a child (after The Little White Horse) but I haven't been able to read it for over thirty years and my memories are sketchy -- red-haired, stubborn little Betsy; there are bees; Uncle Ambrose teaches the children about Greece ('Greece' (grease) is 'a shining light,' says Betsy -- now why did that stick in my head when so much else has fallen away?)

Now my only problem is, which to read first?


Brat Farrar

Oh dear, I'm so easily distracted... I bought this on impulse on the Kindle -- too hurriedly as it turns out, because if I'd investigated further I could have found an even cheaper version -- oh, well, serves me right for being impatient I guess!

My interest was piqued because I'd seen Brat Farrar mentioned in Antonia Forest (Ginty picks it up as 'an easy re-read', and I have a feeling it turns up somewhere else as well, but for the moment I can't think where... have to look out for it next time I read the Marlows books...). Published in 1949, it's a classic thriller -- a stranger arrives at the old country estate of Latchetts, claiming to be Patrick Ashby, the long-lost, presumed-dead-from-suicide twin of eldest son Simon. Certainly the two young men look very much alike. But Simon is not convinced -- and he has a very good reason not to believe 'Patrick's story... Can you guess what it might be?

I absolutely raced through this and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a good old-fashioned thriller with a fabulous set-up. But what gave me the most fun was finding all the echoes of Forest's own books -- clearly this novel was on her mind when she wrote Falconer's Lure! The setting is very similar: there are two neighbouring estates, one solidly yeoman (ie Trennels), one more aristocratic (Mariot Chase). There are horses galore, and a set-piece local horse show toward the end of the book where villainy is exposed. One of the main characters is called Patrick. And there are animals called Regina and Buster (though in Falconer's Lure, Regina is a falcon, rather than a horse...)

I must admit I've been guilty of putting in little 'homages' of my own in the books I write, so it was rather lovely to see that Antonia Forest had done the same!

The Big Twitch

I found Sean Dooley's The Big Twitch in the library while I was vaguely browsing for bird books (for work). It had that well-thumbed look that oft-borrowed books acquire, which is usually a good sign, and indeed so it proved to be.

The story of one man's odyssey around Australia, in a quest to see as many bird species as possible in a single calendar year, sounds as if it might yawn-inducingly dull, and in lesser hands, it might have been. But Sean Dooley (who has a history of writing TV comedy) is such an entertaining companion, it becomes a fascinating and funny travelogue, broken into small chunks as he travels into every corner of the country, from Tasmania to Christmas Island and all points in between. He doesn't linger too long on the bird stuff, giving us just enough detail to feel involved in his 'birdy-nerdy' quest, and he weaves in plenty of amusing anecdotes and local history and geography along the way. Who knew that birding politics were so complex and passionate? Dooley's droll eye misses nothing, and he also shares some poignant family history along the way (his journey is made possible by an inheritance from his parents, both recently dead from cancer).

In short, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I anticipated. A sweet and drily humorous tale, perfect for reading on the tram.


The Magic and Mystery of Birds

Found in the library. Full title: The Magic and Mystery of Birds: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. Written by American Noah Strycker who seems to be something of a prodigal child in the world of birding, and last year broke a record for the most number of birds ever spotted in a single year (about 6000, I think).

I was in the mood to learn something and this non-fiction book was easy to digest. It read like a collection of magazine articles (not a bad thing) on various topics, bouncing off weirdnesses in bird behaviour into discussions on human psychology, physics, love, game theory and a dozen other topics.

Highlights include: a link to an amazing Youtube video of a flock of starlings in flight at sunset (look up 'murmuration' and check it out for yourself); the information that vulture poo is completely sterile (because they live off rotting meat, their stomachs have to handle any bacteria -- they can even process anthrax); albatrosses live 95% of their lives on the wing, gliding effortlessly over the world's oceans; the only species in the world who dance to music are humans, elephants and parrots. And lots of other bizarre and unexpected facts.

It wasn't what I'd call a deep read, but Stryker succeeds in communicating his enthusiasm for his life's passion, and intriguing the reader too.


Cosmos, Then and Now

I was flicking through the channels last night when the screen filled with wheeling stars. 'Evie!' I yelled. 'Space!'

Evie loves space. She ran in to join me on the couch and I soon realised that we were watching the 2014 series of Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. The first episode had just begun, and Evie and I watched, entranced, as Tyson led us on a tour of our local galaxies, then the observable universe. Having explored the limits of space, he then conducted us on a nifty tour of time, that compressed the history of the cosmos to a single calendar year -- on this scale, the whole of human history takes place in the last few seconds of the last day of December. It really does blow your mind... Evie was transfixed.

During an ad break (they are useful sometimes) I told Evie that I'd been hooked on the first iteration of Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, which was produced in 1980 when I was only a couple of years older than Evie is now. And I was just as thrilled and enchanted by that version of the show, even though the effects weren't nearly as spectacular. It's the big concepts that are the real source of the magic, not the special effects.

And when the show resumed after the break, Neil Tyson told a lovely story about meeting Carl Sagan in person, when he, Tyson, was a 17 year old kid from the Bronx who dreamed of becoming a scientist. Sagan made time to take him on a tour of his lab, signed a book for him, escorted him to the bus stop. It brought the show into a beautiful, human-scale circle.

Evie and I can't wait for part 2.


Back Home

Back Home was published in 1984, and has twice been adapted for television, but I had never heard of it until someone mentioned it during the Trennels read-through of Antonia Forest's books (which I'm sure you're sick to death of me banging on about). I've been alerted to, and reminded of, lots of books via that read-through! So when I spotted this on Brotherhood Books, I nabbed it, and I'm very glad I did.

Back Home deals with an aspect of WWII that I hadn't given any thought to at all. Rusty (christened Virginia) was evacuated to America at the start of the war, as a timid seven year old, but at the start of the novel, she returns to England as a far more confident and exuberant twelve-year old. Her accent, speech and manners have been thoroughly Americanised; her clothes are bright, unlike the drab, rationed clothing of the English; her voice is too loud, her opinions too decided for her reserved English family's comfort. Poor Rusty soon finds herself exiled to a strict boarding-school, where she suffers not just the torments of inadequate heating, poor food, and petty rules, but the pain of bullying and social exclusion.

Although all does eventually end well, Rusty's plight is truly painful to read about. Her misery is almost unbearable at times. But it's an engaging story, vividly told. This novel brought the period of immediate post-war England strikingly to life, and provided an interesting counterpoint to the far more benign (though sometimes equally irrational) world of Kingscote, the Marlows' boarding-school, especially as the first book in the series, Autumn Term, was published in 1948.


Re-read: Run Away Home

This morning I looked up the post where I wrote about my first reading of Antonia Forest's Run Away Home. I had completely forgotten that I'd written that post on 26th March last year, and seeing that date sent a peculiar shiver down my spine.

Why? Because that was the last day Before; the last day when life was normal. Run Away Home was the last book I read before the day my father had a massive stroke, and all our lives turned upside down. On March 27th, 2015, my father almost died. He was in hospital for a month, and went from there straight into an aged care home. My mother moved in with us. Dad has not been back to his own home since the day he left in an ambulance. These days he gets around in a wheelchair, or, tremblingly, shuffling, with a cane. He can't use his right hand or arm at all. And since that day, he cannot speak.

Our lives have changed so utterly that it's weird to look back and realise that it's only been a year and a half. We're working toward getting Dad to move in with us, too, into the granny flat that we've built for Mum. We think we'll be able to manage it (unhelpful bureaucracy notwithstanding!). And that will be another massive change.

It's odd to reflect that this is one of the recurring themes that Antonia Forest's novels explore: how swiftly life can alter, from one moment to the next; how freely we toss around terms like 'tomorrow' and 'the rest of our lives', without thinking how conditional our futures are, how lucky we are when we do manage to string together our tomorrows.


Re-reading: The Cricket Term

Still re-reading my Antonia Forest collection, and The Cricket Term is one of my favourites of the lot, and one I re-read most often when I was in high school myself. Someone elsewhere has described it as a summery, joyous book, and that is certainly true. In some ways, it seems rambling and episodic, the term punctuated by the usual small dramas (Lawrie's difficulty in finding a way to play Ariel in The Tempest, Nicola's determination to win the Cricket Cup), along with some more serious matters (Nicola finds out that due to lack of family funds, she might have to leave Kingscote; there is a wholly unexpected death). Yet the overall atmosphere of the book is happy and triumphant, with several storylines that have played out over previous books being satisfactorily brought to conclusion. The Cricket Term almost reads like the last of the series -- except that there are two more books to come, the jarringly 'with-it' The Attic Term, in which Ginty features largely (not my favourite Marlow sister!), and the disappointing Run Away Home.

Even though I've read The Cricket Term so many times before, I was forcibly struck this time by the degree to which this novel is about luck. There are many references to superstitions, rituals, and bargains with the gods. Stuff Happens, for no apparent reason, and with no apparent bearing on the overall plot: Nicola hurts her hand, but it doesn't stop her playing in the all-important final match; the person who dies has been off-screen for the whole book, and we readers have forgotten about them such as much as the characters have. Ginty relies on her lucky clover for success in the Diving Cup, but it doesn't work. Nicola's team seem to have lucky breaks in the cricket matches -- flukey catches, unlikely run-outs -- but in fact, luck is with them because Nicola has trained them relentlessly to fly for every chance. And the final awarding of the scholarship is similarly flukey and surprising, the winners and losers unexpected yet somehow right.

And there is a striking contrast drawn between Nicola's hard-won stoicism, which enables her to handle her troubles and disappointments with grace and dignity, and the reactions of her arch-enemy, Games Captain Lois Sanger, whose self-deceiving, fundamentally dishonest approach to life leaves her ill-equipped to face the future that awaits her after school, as she steps out of the pages of this book and the series. It's a subtle lesson, but a valuable one.

I'm considering making this pleasurable re-read an annual event -- a treat for August, perhaps, which is always such a hectic, stressful month. Something to look forward to!