I re-read Wonder by RJ Palacio for the Convent book group (we are doing multiple POVs as our theme for this month). I'd read it three years ago but I remembered a lot about it; this book had stayed with me. But I was more than happy to read it again, and barely put it down.

I believe this book is one of those instant classics. It's cleverly structured, immediately engaging, funny and confronting, and the multiple viewpoints give every reader someone to identify with. Ten year old Auggie Pullman is a 'medical wonder'; a million-to-one combination of genetic factors has caused extreme facial deformities and a history of other medical problems (which we hear a bit about, but don't seem to interfere with the events of the story much). After years of home-schooling, Auggie is about to attend a normal school for the first time; but how will the other kids react to the way he looks?

This is a book with a message, and an unashamedly uplifting ending, and I DON'T CARE. I love it. I think it's so well done. I find myself feeling particularly for Via, Auggie's older sister (hm, sister of a sibling with a disability, wonder why that resonated...) The cheese is laid on fairly thickly at the end, but I really don't care. This is a Wonder-ful book (I wonder how many people have made that pun?)


The Book That Made Me

I'm so excited to be a part of this gorgeous book! The Book That Made Me, superbly edited by Judith Ridge and illustrated by Shaun Tan, will be published in September 2016, with all proceeds going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It's a collection of 32 short pieces by various authors, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, talking about the book or books that were most significant to them when they were young.

The result is a gloriously eclectic melange of reminiscence, humour and pathos, with authors' favourites ranging from Dr Suess through Roald Dahl to Anne of Green Gables to more unexpected choices like Jolliffe's Outback, The Odyssey, and Dolly magazine. Though many of the books discussed were old acquaintances already, I have earmarked several unfamiliar titles to check out for myself, and made a mental note to re-read others. I particularly enjoyed Julia Lawrinson's memories of pretending to be blind after reading By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which reminded me both of playing Little House on the Prairie in the dugout space under our house, and also pretending to be paralysed Clara from Heidi, lying on a couch with a rug over my legs (I was always a lazy child).

The Book That Made Me is an absolute delight. And yes, I do have a chapter in it, where I talk about my love for Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, which is for my money the Best Time-Slip Ever. (There's also a photo of me, aged about ten, reading in a tree.)

The House: Its Origin and Evolution

This book was not at all what I was expecting! I had anticipated something like Bill Bryson's immensely entertaining and readable Home, or Stuart Brand's How Buildings Learn, which I adored. 

What I got instead was a very academic and scholarly architectural text from Stephen Gardiner, himself a noted architect. It was interesting (when I could understand what the hell he was talking about), but very hard work, and it assumed a level of familiarity with architectural theory and history that I just don't possess. Here's a random sample:
The first trace of the megaron appears in Crete as an incidental reference at the palace of Knossos. But at Tiryans it has assumed a more dominant role in life, commanding the main courtyard facing the entrance. Learning and civilization bring confidence, and the megaron form takes over the palace itself, as one sees in Homeric times. But the final outcome of learning is wisdom, and so, at Nippur, the megaron returns to a position of less dominance, seeming to understand the extent of its limitations within the larger context of existence...
See what I mean? (I never really managed to discern exactly what a megaron was, either!) I did manage to follow Gardiner's main argument, which was that architecture should adhere to a human scale, that buildings work better in harmony with nature, and that a lot of modern architecture is pretty ugly. 

I'm embarrassed to say that the only way I managed to finish this book was to read it in tandem with The Book That Made Me. But I'm still in the market for popular, readable, engaging works about architecture -- recommendations will be appreciated!



I must admit, I usually have to force myself to read literary novels these days. They're so fat, and I know it's such a big commitment, I'll have to devote a couple of weeks of reading time to a single volume -- will it be worth it? Actually, it usually is, and Middlesex certainly was.

I borrowed this from my friend Sandra, because it was one of Those Books I Know I Should Have Read. But it then sat beside the bed for months while I tried to work up enthusiasm to actually open the damn thing. I had to push myself through the first 50 pages or so, getting into the rhythm of the writing. But after that I was totally hooked, and I raced through the second half at top speed.

Middlesex feels like several shorter, almost (but not quite) self-contained books stitched together, and this is reflected in the structure, which is broken into four separate 'books'. The first two sections deal with the protagonist, Cal/Callie's, grandparents, who emigrate from Turkey to America in 1922, their life in Detroit, and then the story of Callie's own parents, Milt and Tessie. So far, so sprawling family saga (with surreal touches). But for me, the novel really took fire in the third quarter, when Cal/Callie him/herself arrived on the scene and began to tell his/her own story, which occupies the remainder of the book. It's great, meaty, vivid, and absorbing.

I got the feeling that the 'family' part of the story contains a fair amount of autobiographical material (Eugenides himself is Greek-American, from Detroit). I've previously read The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, the novels that come before and after this one, but Middlesex is the one -- it feels like the great book Eugenides was born to write. I'm actually glad I saved it till last: it's terrific.

(A word on the consumption of this novel. Lately I've been snatching reading time here and there -- a few minutes' guilty break from work, a quarter of an hour in bed before lights out, a tram journey, twenty minutes before the girls come home from school. But this weekend I found myself up early, in a quiet house, and I sat and read for two hours undisturbed. And then I was... blessed?... with a migraine, and in the convalescent phase in the late afternoon, was able to lie in bed and read for another hour or so, until I'd finished the book. It made me realise that it's been a long time since I read like that, in long luxurious wallows. Maybe if I could carve out more chunks of time like that, I'd read more Big Novels?

Food for thought...)


The Truth About Alice

Purchased on the Kindle, for the Convent book group, because my library didn't have it. It should.

The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu was published in 2014. It's an American high school story, which is a genre that usually bores me to tears, to be honest, but I whipped through this compact little novel in no time at all.

Everyone in the small town of Healy knows two facts about Alice Franklin: she slept with two boys in one night, and she killed Brandon Fitzsimmons by distracting him with sexy texts while he was driving. Except that neither of these facts is true. Mathieu cleverly tells us the story of how Alice is bullied, slut-shamed and ostracised, through the eyes of four characters: queen bee Elaine; Alice's former best friend, insecure Kelsie; Brandon's best friend Josh, who is hiding a secret of his own, even from himself; and school geek and social outcast Kurt. Only at the very end of the book do we hear from Alice's point of view.

It's a fairly predictable story, sadly, and it's not without stereotypes, but here, it's extremely well done. The chapters race along, building layers of deception, self-deception and betrayal in an all-too-believable cascade of rumour and bullying. See here for a succinct summary of real life cases of this kind.

Highly recommended for teenagers, and anyone who has a teenager in their life.

The Stream That Stood Still

The Stream That Stood Still (1945) is the second volume of a trilogy by Beverley Nichols, the other books being The Tree That Sat Down and The Mountain That Moved. I remember at least one of these being on the shelves of my Grade 5 classroom, and I know that I enjoyed it, but I can't remember anything else about it clearly, except for the feeling of incredulity when I figured out that Beverley was actually a bloke (it was the forties, so... yeah...). I found this Lions reprint in a second hand book shop in Maldon.

This is, not surprisingly, an old-fashioned fantasy. Little brother (who happens to be a prince) is turned into a fish by a wicked witch; brave older sister (a princess) rescues him, with the help of wise old granny who makes her a magic mask so she can breathe underwater. The illustrations are lovely.

But the thing that struck me most forcefully was the opening chapter:

... you may have been taught that witches spend their lives moaning in ruined castles or lonely forests; you may even have been told that there are no such things as witches at all. Which only goes to show how much you are never taught at school.

There are, of course, as many witches in the world today as there ever were... In fact, for all you know, the lady next door may be a witch. You may think that her dustbin is filled with ordinary things, like old tins and tea-leaves and egg-shells, but if you were only to peep inside, you would see that it contained her favourite toads...

Well, Miss Smith was one of these new modern witches... As for being pretty, almost everything about her was false. Her teeth were false, her nose was false, and her hair was a wig...

Does that remind you of anything? I have to say it reminded me pretty powerfully of the start of Roald Dahl's The Witches! Which goes to show that everyone does it, even the masters.


Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

Another impulse buy - I was watching Grantchester on a Friday night with a couple of glasses of champy under my belt, and I had the Kindle to hand, so I looked up the first book in the series (I didn't realise Grantchester was based on a series of novels by James Runcie until I read a review in the Green Guide...) Anyway, I found it, and it was only a couple of dollars, so I clicked BUY.

This was a peculiar reading experience. Usually I read the novel first and then feel critical of the televisual or filmic adaptation. This time it was the other way around. James Runcie has a background as a screenwriter, and - how can I put this politely - it shows. Grantchester (otherwise known as Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death) works much better as a TV show than it does as a book. For a start, there's the title -- going for a Harry Potter vibe, maybe? Sidney Chambers is an appealing enough character, in the grand tradition of clerical detectives (I remember reading quite a bit of Father Brown and Don Camillo at school) and the 1950s setting is attractive, too -- Miss Marple territory, social upheaval and lovely frocks. The plots are neat enough, and there are six short stories in each volume, which makes for easy reading.

But some of the dialogue is terribly clunky and Runcie seems to have taken to heart the primary school injunction to avoid the word 'said' -- his characters are forever replying, answering, asking, beginning, enquiring, continuing... I couldn't help feeling that one more editorial sweep might have cleaned up Runcie's awkwardness and made this a smoother reading experience.

Having said this, by the time I got to the end of the book, I was enjoying it... Perhaps not quite enough to go back for volume 2. But it makes good television, and I've got hooked on Grantchester season 2. Maybe they should skip the books and just go straight to the script-writing stage? Hm. Jury is out.