Reading Round-Up 2017

Time for my annual reading round up! This year I read a total of 109 books. I feel like that's more than usual. So a good year for reading!  Now for the breakdown:

Children's & YA v Adult

Wow, I read more adult books than children's and young adult! Has the tide turned? Am I growing up at last? I must admit that I enjoyed more adult books than kids' books this year -- and the books I hated were all YA (not naming any names...)

Female v Male authors

As usual, the ladies have it -- but not by much. I read two books with a mixture of male and female contributors. I might need to start a non-binary category, if I can find some books by non-binary-identifying authors.

Fiction v Non-fiction

Quite a bit more non-fiction this year, though fiction is still clearly dominant. I had a couple of binges which might account for the swelling of the non-fiction ranks: I read a lot of Oliver Sacks books early in the year, and then later on I had a binge on WWII and post-war memoirs and non-fiction. I also read a handful of books about the English language.


Oh my God!! My secondhand book spending habit is clearly out of control! I knew it was bad, but I've been in denial about how bad it actually is... The red part is taking over the whole pie! I cannot let my husband see this. Clearly I have a major problem. And this was supposed to be the year when I didn't buy any more books till I finished the ones I had!


Okay, I may as well move to the UK and have done with it. I seem to have a British reading-soul. Must be all those English children's books I grew up with that I've never managed to shake off. Thank God for Elena Ferrante and Tove Jansson or this chart would look even worse.

Publication date

Clear majority of books were published in this century, so maybe my addiction to antique books is not as bad as I feared. I caught up with some late 20th century children's books that I was too old for when they were first published, so I'm filling in some gaps there. I'm happy to say that most of the newest publications were by Australian authors, and mostly YA and children's books. #LoveOzYA!

Favourite books of 2017
Perhaps the single book that made the greatest impression on me this year was Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, a scholarly, enlightening and convincing examination of the possible astrological pattern behind the Chronicles of Narnia.
I was delighted to discover the books of Kate Atkinson, and thoroughly enjoyed both the Jackson Brodie series and Life After Life. There are still titles of hers I haven't read, and she has a new novel out next year.
Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu made me angry.
Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight made me laugh.
John Lanchester's Family Romance made me cry.
Michelle Cooper's Dr Huxley's Bequest taught me loads about the history of medicine.

I had two extraordinary reading experiences this year. First was Alan Garner's Boneland (so good I read it twice) and the accompanying Guardian blog, and my subsequent delving into Garner's back catalogue.
Second was the on-going Twitter read-through of Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, #TheDarkIsReading, which is being held over the actual time frame of the book, from midwinter's day to Twelfth Night. More about this later.

Happy 2018 to you all and may your year be filled with books!


Walk Two Moons

'Don't judge a man till you've walked two moons in his moccasins.' Sharon Creech's classic novel Walk Two Moons is all about judgments and preconceptions, about grief and memory and misunderstandings.

Salamanca Hiddle has lost her mother and her father has moved them to a new town. But when Sal begins to tell the story of her own new friend Phoebe (whose mother also disappears) to her grandparents, she begins to understand her own story better.

Creech's adept weaving of these three strands -- Phoebe's story, Sal and her parents' story, and the story of Sal and her grandparents as they take their cross-country trip -- builds a layered narrative which is never difficult to follow, and the ending is very moving.

I didn't love this book unreservedly; there were elements that made me uncomfortable, like the slightly stalkery relationship between Sal and Ben, and the part where their English teacher reads extracts from their private journals to the class. I was also annoyed that Creech uses a saying that I was planning to use in my own WIP -- about the birds of sadness/worry flying overhead but not nesting in your hair... Damn it!

But overall this is a beautiful little book with a deceptive depth of feeling and a sort of naive poetry.


The Lacuna

Just look at that beautiful cover. I think that's the reason I picked up The Lacuna at the library book sale, even though I knew nothing about the novel. I had read The Poisonwood Bible many years ago but couldn't remember much about it. So I put The Lacuna next to my bed, and there it stayed. I'm ashamed to say how long it loitered there before it went into hiding in the wardrobe... three years maybe? But finally it's seen the light of day, part of my 'yellow' quota. It counts as a 'yellow' book because its spine is the same colour as the frilly bits at the top of the cover. Apart from that I knew not one thing about it. It was a complete mystery.

I was about a hundred pages in before it dawned on me that Kingsolver was doing something very technically interesting -- she was writing a first person narration without using the word 'I.' And doing it very effectively, since it had taken me that long to notice!

Harrison Shepherd is a character who seeks to blend in, not stand out. But he finds himself in the centre of some riveting events -- shuttled between Mexico and the US due to his mixed parentage, never feeling entirely at home in either country, he becomes a plaster-mixer for Diego Rivera, no less, then a cook for the Rivera-Kahlo household, and eventually a cook and secretary for Leon Trotsky. I didn't know that Trotsky and Rivera knew each other, or that Trotsky and Kahlo had an affair! After Trotsky's murder (spoilers), Shepherd flees to the US and becomes a best-selling author, before getting tangled in the McCarthy-era Un-American Activities witch-hunts...

I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy The Lacuna but by the end I was utterly absorbed, and now I want to know more about Rivera and Kahlo and Trotsky, and the Incas and Mexico (I already know enough about the McCarthy trials, thanks). And coincidentally, I was reading about Frida Kahlo just when Salma Hayek published her article about the making of Frida, which now of course I am desperate to see!



Teens is a funny little book, the first fiction title published by Angus & Robertson, a YA book before such a thing existed. The title makes it sound as if it might be a contemporary of The Outsiders, but in fact it was first published in 1897!

The author, Louise Mack, later became the first female war correspondent and a war lecturer, mixed with the bohemian set of Sydney and London and by all accounts was quite the flamboyant eccentric. She was a school friend (and sometime rival) of Ethel Turner, and indeed the close friendship between Lennie and Mabel described in Teens is partly based on their relationship at Sydney Girls High School.

Despite being first published 120 years ago, Teens is a fresh and lively read, often very funny, and with a welcome lack of moral preaching that can mar even the greatest of antique children's books (I'm looking at you, Little Women, and even you, Anne of Green Gables!) Lennie and Mabel play pranks, squabble, are fired with inspiration, slump and triumph and grieve like all young adolescent girls.

Teens may not aspire to the heart-wrenching emotional heights of Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians, but it is still a delightful peep into a lost world, and deserves not to be forgotten. Thanks to Suzanne, for passing it on.


The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I have no memory of reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child; I think the first Alan Garner book I read was Red Shift. I do remember picking up a copy a few years ago at a library book sale, opening it at random and hastily putting it down again -- not for me. Should I admit, as an author of several High Fantasy books, that it's a genre I find more fun to write than to read?

But since I've been on something of an Alan Garner bender lately, and I've read both Boneland and The Moon of Gomrath, when I stumbled across another copy of Weirdstone in a secondhand bookshop, it seemed like a sign to go back to the very beginning of the trilogy -- or the ennealogy, as Garner has said that his nine novels all form one story.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a beloved part of many people's childhoods, as witnessed by the disappointed outcry in some quarters when Boneland appeared and didn't fit the same pattern of elves and svarts and high-flown language. I must admit, the satisfaction for me lay mostly in seeing the links with Boneland. Of its type, The Weirdstone is not bad -- the story is full of tension and atmosphere. But the two children are barely distinguished as characters, and in the latter part of the book they have no agency at all, just tagging along with the adult farmer Gowther and their two valiant dwarf companions for the final pursuit and confrontation.

Alan Garner has described this as 'a fairly bad book'. I wouldn't go that far, though it is certainly the book of a young writer, still developing his subject matter and working out a style to go with it. I'm very thankful that he didn't get stuck in this groove. Perhaps today, having had one massive success with this book, he might have met with greater pressure to produce more of the same. I have the feeling that The Weirdstone was very influential on later writers. Garner didn't need to write more books like this; other authors did it for him.


Family Romance

I scored this book in a book club lucky dip (thanks, Sian!), and what a great score it was.

It wasn't until after his parents' deaths that John Lanchester realised how little he knew about their lives. In the case of his mother, her name, her birthdate and her past were all lies. In this terrifically readable memoir-cum-family history, Lanchester examines the lives of his mother (born in Ireland, former nun and school principal in India, shaved a decade off her age in a breathtaking act of identity theft before marrying John's father, and lived with this secret all her life) and father (born in Hong Kong, grew up in Australia while his parents were interned in HK during the war, worked all around the world but still thought of the UK as 'home' despite never having lived there). I found many resonances with my own family history, especially the post-colonial upbringing and the yearning for a mythical 'home,' as well as some shrewd observations about the generational effects of alcoholism.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book (and the reason I've decided not to give it to my mother to read after all) is the final, shortest part, where Lanchester examines his own childhood and his ongoing battle with anxiety. Given his family history, parts of this story come as no surprise, but they are still difficult to read.

Family Romance is a fascinating personal history, a love story, a meditation on the nature of narrative, a history of the late colonial period and the Second World War, and much more. Highly recommended!


Dark Emu

This remarkable book has won multiple awards, and deservedly so. It's been on my to-read list for a long time but I finally got around to reserving it at the library (thanks for the nudge, Judy!) and got my hands on it last week.

Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu will be, I hope, just the first step in a thorough re-examination of pre-settlement Australian history. It's profoundly shocking to realise the extent to which we have been lied to, and remain in ignorance of, the sophistication of the Aboriginal nations before the European invasion. The evidence is there in the words of the white explorers themselves, but their testimony has been systematically ignored, to preserve the shameful myth that the Aborigines were primitive savages, wandering the country aimlessly, hunting and gathering when they got the chance.

The truth is very different. The First Australians maintained a highly developed land management system, involving periodic controlled use of fire. They built complex fish traps and netting, and far from squatting in simple 'humpies', many lived in villages with large stone and thatch dwellings. They stored large quantities of food and seed (plundered by whites). The idyllic grasslands observed by the first Europeans (ideal, so they thought, for grazing sheep and cattle) were no accident, but had been carefully created. And within a few years they were destroyed.

I became so angry reading this book. So much precious knowledge thrown away, an ancient heritage trashed. But Pascoe ends his book on an optimistic note. Perhaps the native species that sustained a continent for tens of thousands of years can be revived -- the yam daisy, native rice and others -- far better suited to Australian conditions than the imported rice and potatoes we insist on growing here. Perhaps we can learn from the sustainable practices of this country's first inhabitants just how to live in sync with the land, rather than fighting it.

But I have to say I'm not holding my breath.


A Candle For St Jude

Rumer Godden wrote many, many books in her long life (thank heavens!) and it's almost reassuring to find one which is not quite a masterpiece. Which is not to say that A Candle For St Jude isn't a good book, or beautifully written -- it is both -- but just not quite at the level of Godden's very best work.

My edition of A Candle for St Jude says it came out in 1973, but apparently it was first published in 1948! Truthfully, it doesn't really matter, because the novel takes place in an enclosed world, over a mere 24 hours, in a London ballet school during the night and day before Madame Holbein's important anniversary concert, a celebration of her life's work. The first half of the book is rather melancholy and despairing, as it seems the concert is going to fail -- there is jealousy and regret, fear and anger. But in the second half, Madame has a last minute inspiration, and her crackling energy and determination come to life, infecting everyone around her. Now we get to see the love and passion and whirlwind fire that have made her so successful, and the book ends on a note of triumph after all. As always with Rumer Godden, her characters are drawn with delicate precision and depth.

READING NOTE: I have so many books hiding in my wardrobe that I've devised a random system to get through them all -- first I pulled out half a dozen with blue-ish covers, then a handful with reddish ones (scroll down and check if you don't believe me!) Now I've embarked on my yellow phase... I know colour-coding books is so last year, but I'm finding it surprisingly satisfying.


Take Three Girls

We are blessed in Australia with some of the most gifted YA authors in the world -- and here is a chance to enjoy three of the best in a single volume! Individually, Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood have written some of my absolute favourite Australian YA books, so the opportunity to grab this collaboration between them was way too good to pass up.

Take Three Girls, as the title suggests, entwines the stories of three girls (each strand written by a separate author -- and yes, I guessed correctly who wrote which, but I'm not telling...) at a private boarding school in Melbourne. Clem used to be a star swimmer but now she's not sure what she is, apart from being crazy in love. Kate is facing the biggest choice of her life: follow her life plan or throw it away for music? And Ady seems to have everything, but in the background, her family is falling apart.

This is a novel about reinventing yourself -- or discovering who you really are. It's a novel about friendships: how they spark, how they build, and sometimes, how they die. Clem, Ady and Kate are in Year 10, and though they make dumb decisions and take stupid risks, in many ways they are more mature and self-aware than some twenty-somethings I used to know.

Collaborations can be hugely fun, paradoxically liberating, and with a built-in feedback loop of reward as you build a story together. But it can be difficult to establish distinctive individual voices, especially when your characters share a single background setting and many of the same experiences. I confess I struggled at the beginning of the book to keep the three girls clear in my mind -- but that passed quickly, and once I was absorbed, I stayed that way right up to the final page.


Dr Huxley's Bequest

Michelle Cooper, the award-winning, best-selling author of The Montmaray Journals has blogged about her experience of writing and publishing Dr Huxley's Bequest at her blog, Memoranda. I've been looking forward to reading this book ever since Michelle first mentioned it was on its way, and I was not disappointed!

Dr Huxley's Bequest is fiction, but it contains a lot of facts -- it's a short history of medicine wrapped in a palatable mystery/quest/friendship narrative, just like a sugar shell disguising a pill... but that's a poor analogy, because in this instance, the pill is just as tasty as the wrapping. Via thirteen mysterious objects, short, chatty chapters lead us from ancient Egyptian medicine, through the classical era to medieval plagues, vaccines, scurvy and much more, right up to the ethics of genetic testing, the fight against malaria, and sexism in science.

Our guides, Rosy and Jaz, are a pair of smart (and very well-informed!) thirteen year olds who naturally emphasise the quirky, the peculiar and the fascinating in their historical-scientific treasure hunt. I learned something new on every page, but this was such a fun read, I never felt preached or lectured at -- this is a massive achievement for such an informative, educational book -- it never feels too educational! It's just like a very clever, funny person telling you loads of really interesting stories about medicine. (Favourite thing I learned: treatment with foxglove can make you see the world in shades of yellow. Guess who was treated with foxglove? Vincent van Gogh!)

This book would make a wonderful read-aloud (I accidentally read some to my sixteen year old and she begged for more) or an equally great read-alone for younger readers (it's already been noted eagerly by a librarian friend looking for recommendations for a student who can't get enough to read about medicine and science). Highly recommended.


Shadows of the Workhouse

Jennifer Worth's second book, Shadows of the Workhouse, was her follow-up to the immensely popular Call the Midwife, and this particular cover is obviously trying to trade on the success of the BBC series. However, for this volume, it's actually quite misleading! There is not ONE baby or birth scene in Shadows of the Workhouse, despite the smiling midwives and bonny babes pictured on the front.

There was more to Worth's work in London's Poplar in the 1950s than delivering babies, and in her second book she tells the stories of people she visited as a home nurse (intercut with a poignant episode involving Sister Monica Joan, a ninety year old nun accused of jewellery theft). Worth departs from her personal memories (which is why I hesitate to call this book a memoir) to narrate the experiences of a brother and sister who grew up in the grim environment of the workhouse before rediscovering one another in their teens, and an old soldier with whom she forms a touching bond.

If the popularity of Call the Midwife shines a light on this forgotten and horrific element of social history, that can only be a good thing. In some ways the shadows of the workhouse still fall on social policy -- the notion that poverty is a sign of moral failing or laziness, the disregard for human dignity, the ignorance and disdain of those more fortunate, have all crept back into public discourse. Shadows of the Workhouse is a good reminder of where that path ultimately leads.


Shakespeare: The World As Stage

There are few more engaging companions on a non-fiction journey than Bill Bryson. I have gone with him happily on trips around Australia, explorations of the history of the English language and the domestic home, and many others. So it was a canny move by the publishers of this Eminent Lives series to hire Bryson to deal with what must surely be their most problematic subject: William Shakespeare.

The problem is that although Shakespeare left behind the richest body of work in the English language, he left us almost zero information about his personal life. Not even his birth date is certain. This hasn't prevented a tidal wave of speculation about his loves, career, even his identity; as Bryson points out, it's not that the world needs another book about Shakespeare -- it's that this series does.

If anyone is skilled at spinning an interesting tale out of a bare handful of recorded (and contested) facts, it's Bill Bryson. And Shakespeare: The World as Stage tells us a lot of very engaging stuff about the Elizabethan theatre, publishing, London, class and religion in Shakespeare's time. But -- and this is not Bryson's fault -- it tells us next to nothing about the man himself. It is truly amazing that so much mystery still surrounds this most luminous of literary figures. Was he gay? Why did he leave his wife their 'second-best bed'? ( I suspect a coded message...) What was he up to in the 'lost years'? We don't even know for sure what plays were written when, or even in what order.

I'm still glad I read it, though, because it succinctly filled in some useful background to the events of  Antonia Forest's The Players and the Rebels. Which reminds me, I still need to get The Player's Boy! I feel a Christmas present coming on...


Life After Life

Every novel I've read by Kate Atkinson has been a treat*, and Life After Life is no exception. A perfect middle-brow read, it teems with ideas and juicy story-lines, as well as a killer conceit. I had a lot of trouble putting this novel down and raced through its 600 pages in a couple of days.

What if you had the chance to live your life over and over, until you finally got it right? Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and dies, the cord wrapped round her neck. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and lives, because the doctor arrives just in time to save her. We see Ursula's childhood and later life play out, with each forking path of chance explored. Sometimes these paths reconnect, sometimes they lead to wildly divergent outcomes. One of Ursula's lives takes place in wartime Germany; in another, she marries an abusive conman. Her adulthood takes place in the London Blitz -- plenty of opportunities for untimely death there. It's a measure of Atkinson's skill that the necessary repetitions and backtracks inherent in her scheme don't become tedious; half the fun is picking out the variations from the life before.

It hadn't occurred to me until I read a review this morning that Atkinson might be playing with the whole idea of the author's power to play God -- to bestow good fortune or many kinds of suffering. The character of Ursula herself seems to possess a growing awareness of her cyclical journey -- in one life in particular, she is actually calculating her own destiny. But then there is a coda that doesn't make sense in that narrative, planting doubts about whether this is really Ursula's "true purpose"; is there any such thing?

Characters talk of reincarnation, but Ursula's experience is not quite that; she lives the same life over and over, not one life after another in different bodies. But this book certainly fleshes out all those delicious or terrifying 'what if' ruminations that all of us indulge in from time to time.

* though I did feel that the Jackson Brodie series ran out of steam slightly towards the end.



After the publication of Boneland, Alan Garner said that he regarded all his nine novels as really one novel: after reading Thursbitch, I think I understand what he means.

Thursbitch (named for a valley in the Pennines) is an adult novel. It grew from a (real) memorial stone by the side of a track, which reads Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snow storm in the night in or about 1755; the print of a woman's shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.

From this mysterious seed, Garner weaves a double tale, of two couples separated by time: Jack and Nan Sarah in the eighteenth century, and Ian and Sal in the twenty-first. Jack is the guardian of an ancient rite, and a jagger -- a travelling trader; Nan Sarah is his wife. Ian is a scientist and a priest, Sal a geologist; they were once a couple, but now Ian is Sal's carer as she grows slowly weaker from a degenerative illness. Their twinned stories, of faith and ritual, different kinds of knowledge, illness and grief, cross and divide through time but not through space, echoing and united in this place of grim power with its standing stones and ancient springs.

I found many resonances with the later Boneland, which also centres on a grief-struck and suffering man, as well as Red Shift, which also uses the technique of parallel narratives. Though Thursbitch is a slim novel, there is much meat to chew on. One day I will read all Garner's novels back to back. What a rewarding experience that will be.


The Pattern in the Carpet

Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet is one of those strange unclassifiable books that give marketing departments a headache. Part memoir, part history, part reflection, it's been subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws, which is as good a summary as any.

Margaret Drabble was possibly my first adult author crush; I read The Millstone at about fourteen and recognised myself in the character of Rosamund, solitary and almost pathologically independent, scholarly and paranoid about causing any kind of inconvenience to others (Rosamund, as I did too eventually, breaks out of this diffidence when she has to defend her baby). I've read most, but not all of Drabble's novels over the past few decades. I was vaguely irritated by The Pure Gold Baby, which I found meandering and unsatisfying.

The Pattern in the Carpet was also meandering, but perhaps because it wasn't a novel, this time I found its detours charming rather than annoying. Drabble reminisces about her childhood, about the satisfactions of jigsaws and puzzles and their history (beginning with 'dissected maps' as an educational tool and gradually becoming purely pleasurable time-wasters). Many authors are apparently addicted to jigsaws, finding their purely visual meditation an effective antidote to wrestling with words. I have found this myself (though lately I've taken up piano and knitting as similar non-verbal occupations).

This memoir is itself built up from interlocking pieces, jumping from the origins of children's books to the appeal of twee rural nostalgia to the sad biography of Alison Uttley to conversations with London taxi drivers to Roman mosaics to the incredible flower collages of Mary Delany, in short, entertaining chapters.

I was very sad to learn that Drabble's daughter Becky , who is mentioned several times in the text, died of cancer earlier this year. This added an extra layer of poignancy to the text. The Pattern in the Carpet is not quite the slim stocking-filler that Drabble initially envisaged, but it was a diverting and intriguing journey.


Openly Straight

Confession: I didn't really expect to enjoy this book much. I really bought it for Evie, because I thought it seemed like the kind of book she'd like (and indeed she is just about to read it). I thought it would be one of those overly earnest, American YA novels where all the characters are impossibly witty and everything is heavy with feels. (John Green has a lot to answer for!)

And early on, Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight did seem to be that kind of book. But gradually I started to realise, this is actually really good. Emotional, yes, but subtly so. Witty dialogue, yes, but also moments of excruciating awkwardness. Funny, and complex, and interesting.

I happened to notice the back flap and saw the imprint 'Arthur Levine.' Aha! My very own US publisher, an imprint with excellent taste in manuscripts. Hastily I consulted the acknowledgments and saw a thank you to Cheryl Klein, pearl among editors. With such a pedigree, how could Openly Straight fail to be good?

The novel has a great premise. Rafe is sick and tired of being 'the gay kid' at his school. He's sure the label is getting in the way of his getting to know people properly, and he's not even getting a boyfriend out of it! So when he crosses the country to change schools, he decides that at Natick, he won't be 'the gay kid.' Not going back in the closet, just not telling people unless they ask him directly (standing in the doorway, as he puts it). He just wants to be 'normal' for a while.

But of course things are not that simple. Yes, he gets to experience being 'one of the boys' without the complication of his sexuality getting in the way. But when he starts to make real friends, when he finds himself falling in love, it's his lie of omission which starts to get in the way.

This is a really terrific book and I thoroughly enjoyed its bittersweet exploration of labels, identity, acceptance, friendship, love and celebration.


The Bell Family

Ah! Reading a Noel Streatfeild novel, even one I haven't read before (amazing to think that such a book exists...), is like slipping into a lovely warm bath. The ultimate comfort read!

The Bell Family began life as a radio serial on the BBC, and it contains all the familiar Streatfeild ingredients: money worries, family fun and quarrels, a child who wants to become a dancer. The Bell family live in a London vicarage and finances are tight. Alex and Cathy are the patient, loving parents; Paul, the eldest son, wants to be a doctor, but his grandfather is pressuring him to join the family business; Jane would be a dancer if only there was money to pay for her training. Ginnie ('Miss Virginia Bell') is impulsive and always getting herself into scrapes, and Angus is the youngest, musical and funny. The last member of the family is the adored dog, Esau, and then there is Mrs Gage, another familiar Streatfeild character, the comfortable, down-to-earth family helper, who appears to work as a full time cook and housekeeper for little more than love alone.

The Bells seem to live in roughly the same area of London as the setting for Call the Midwife, and at roughly the same time, though their troubles are far less severe than those described by Jennifer Worth. The genteel poor is a category Streatfeild is very comfortable with, and so am I! The delightful Shirley Hughes illustrations are the perfect complement to the gentle story.

Apparently there is another book about the Bell family. But given it took me this long to find the first volume (thank you, Brown & Bunting!), I doubt that I'll ever be able to track down the sequel.


The Adventure of English

It's taken me a long time to get through this volume -- not because it's not interesting, but I became a bit bogged down in the latter stages. Based on a TV programme Melvyn Bragg made in the early 2000s (which I would really love to see!), The Adventure of English is a journey through the history of our language, its diverse origins, the moments when it was in most danger of being overtaken, its many divergences and meldings, and its likely future as a global tongue.

I most enjoyed the first part of the book which traced the Old English, Norse and Norman roots of the language we speak and write today. I have read heaps of histories of the English language and perhaps now I've reached my limit! The place where I stuck was probably around the chapters on American English (sorry to my American readers, if I have any...) But there were some really interesting chapters on black English (which I was reading, coincidentally, when we watched Twelve Years A Slave the other night), West Indian English, accent snobbery and Indian English. But of course I turned eagerly to the chapter on Australian English and found it full of inaccuracies, so perhaps I should take the rest of Bragg's insights with more than a grain of salt!


Big Magic

I'd wanted to read Big Magic for a while, and I am one of the millions who enjoyed Eat Pray Love and (to a lesser extent) Committed, so when I saw it on my friend Chris's shelf, I grabbed it.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a chatty, disarming, insistent companion, with a refreshing respect for the role of luck and chance in the creative journey. In this book she is determined to convince the reader that you, too, can live a creative life -- write, paint, knit, research, whatever -- and be richer for the experience (not necessarily financially richer, as she's at pains to point out!)

There are lots of lovely things to share here. I love the notion that ideas float through the ether, searching for a receptive home -- Gilbert maintains that one such idea for a novel was passed via a kiss from herself to Ann Patchett. I've also had this experience where someone else produces 'my' idea before I can manage to get it out there, and it rings true to me that ideas have an independent existence and a will to live.

I also agree with Gilbert's refusal to fetishise the trope of the Suffering Artist; her focus on joy in creation rather than material success; her insistence that curiosity will serve you better than passion; and her belief that it's essential to trust enough to keep putting your work out there, even if there's no response, or not the response you hoped for.

But ironically the very fact that I agreed with so much of what Gilbert says means that this book was not really written for me. I already know that I have to be persistent, to seek enchantment, to have courage, to not expect that writing will support me. I don't feel I need permission to pursue my craft. I'm already following her advice. Which doesn't mean it's bad advice -- it's excellent advice -- but that I'm not massively in need of it. Not today, anyway!


I Own the Racecourse!

This week I was asked to take part in a radio discussion of I Own the Racecourse!, which has necessitated a quick re-read. (Tomorrow morning, 2SER Final Draft, if you're interested...)

A few years ago, I was asked to write the introduction to this new edition of Patricia Wrightson's beloved 1968 novel. I was hugely flattered, of course, but I'm not sure why Text approached me, perhaps because Crow Country had just won the Patricia Wrightson Prize at the NSW Premier's Awards, or because people were making comparisons between Wrightson's handling of Indigenous magic and the similar subject matter of Crow Country. But the magic at play in I Own the Racecourse! is of a very different kind, and nothing to do with Aboriginal culture.

Andy Hoddel is different from the other boys who skateboard and play cricket and scrounge for scrap on the streets of Appington Hill; though Wrightson never explicitly says so, he is intellectually disabled. He is vulnerable, and easily conned into thinking that he is the new owner of the racecourse. Indulged by the workers at the track, Andy's delusion becomes so deeply ingrained that, though his friends try to protect him, everyone, even the Committee themselves, end up going along with it.

I had never read I Own the Racecourse! and strangely it turned out that I had a different, very personal connection to this particular novel. My sister, born the year after this book was published, also has an intellectual disability, and I could recognise her in Andy: her vulnerability, her stubbornness, her eagerness to belong. I found it impossible to write a truthful response to the book without talking about her.

This sparked off a deep discussion within my family. Should I write about something so private? How would my sister feel about it? Did she even think of herself as intellectually disabled? Believe it or not, this was not something we ever spoke about within the family. Asking my sister what she thought, giving her the introduction to read and approve, and discussing it with her, ended up being a really therapeutic process for the whole family and something that was long overdue.

As I say in the introduction, I just wish my sister had had a group of friends like Andy's.


My Brilliant Friend

Appropriately, this book was a birthday present from my brilliant friend, Sandra Eterovic. I think I felt rather intimidated about reading this novel, as the series has received so much praise -- but now the Neapolitan fever has cooled somewhat, I've finally managed to hop onto the Elena Ferrante bandwagon (have I mixed enough metaphors there?)

My Brilliant Friend, as everybody surely knows by now, is the story of two friends, Lila and Lena, growing up in a poor district of Naples in the 1950s. Right until the very end, I assumed that the 'brilliant friend' of the title was Lila, being described by Lena, the narrator; but it turns out that it's Lila, describing Lena. The two girls are both very clever, sometimes rivals, each driving the other to greater feats of excellence, but as Lena notes, they seem bound by some mysterious fate whereby Lila thrives when Lena's life is hard, and vice versa.

This is a very people-focused novel, with little physical description of the setting. But it still paints a vivid picture of 1950s Naples. Maybe it helped that I've been there? My heart was wrung for these two young girls who are forced to grow up so fast, the age of my own daughters. Despite their brains and their strength, they are so much at the mercy of their parents, the local boys and men, the judgements of the neighborhood. You long for them to burst free and taste the joys they deserve, and there are hints that this might be possible. I just hope I don't lose track of all the characters and their complicated, intertwining histories.

Three more books to go, and I'm hooked.


Joe Cinque's Consolation

Once again, a book read years ago has drawn me to a film, which has in turn sent me back to the original book. This week it was Joe Cinque's Consolation which screened on SBS on Friday night. Though Helen Garner's book deals with the legal and moral aftermath of the killing, the film focuses instead on the events leading up to Joe Cinque's death; so when I returned to the book, I had a clear picture in my mind of what had gone before.

I say a clear picture, but in fact the events are far from clear; they swirl in a muddy, ambiguous tangle of intention, possible psychosis, passivity and grief. Cinque was drugged with Rohypnol and then injected with heroin by his girlfriend, Anu Singh, who had been talking for a long time about suicide and was judged to have been suffering from mental illness. Her friend Madhavi Rao helped her acquire the heroin and plan the bizarre "farewell" dinner parties which preceded the killing -- she was cleared of all charges.

Garner grapples with the questions of culpability and guilt that this scenario throws up. If Singh was mentally ill (something Garner seems to never quite accept), then who bears responsibility for Cinque's death? Did Rao have a duty to prevent Singh from acting, to call the police, to call for an ambulance? Legally, apparently she did not; but what about morally? Again and again Garner circles back to the brute fact that "Joe Cinque is dead." What is his death worth? Who will pay? She befriends Cinque's wounded, dignified parents, and ultimately seems to see her own moral duty as a kind of bearing witness to their pain, to making sure that this gentle young man Joe is not forgotten.

I've read absolutely scathing reviews of this book which find Garner racist, sexist, judgmental, self-absorbed. I'm inclined to be a little more lenient, and I think Garner is not unaware of her own compromised position in telling this story and the sides she chooses. But I guess I choose to be forgiving mostly because of the sheer crystalline quality of Helen Garner's writing. I raced through this book in less than an evening, utterly gripped, thrown this way and that by the force of the big questions Garner ruthlessly pursues and is brave enough to leave unresolved.


Encounter in Eltham

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being a guest at the Eltham Festival of Stories at Eltham Library (that's me on the right, above). It was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with some old friends, and meet some new ones, like Ailsa Wild, author of the Squishy Taylor series (she's the cool one in the middle), and the lovely Teagan who interviewed us both with panache (she's the one with the mic).

The topic of our panel was 'Where Do Stories Come From?' and I'd expected to be talking mostly about Crow Country, which is my best-known book. But as it happened, the lovely Teagan wasn't able to get hold of Crow Country -- all the copies were out from the library, which is nice to know! -- and she read New Guinea Moon instead. So I mostly talked about that.

New Guinea Moon is partly based on my own childhood memories of growing up in the Highlands of PNG in the 1970s. My father was a pilot, and my memories of the Mt Hagen ex-pat community and my later adult unease with their colonial attitudes, even at the time of Independence, were at the centre of the novel.

After we spoke, as always happens when I talk about New Guinea Moon, members of the audience came up to say that they, too, had a connection with PNG. It amazes me that so many Australians have a personal history with our nearest neighbour, and yet PNG receives so little attention (compared to say, the UK!) and we know so little about the place. Someone always wants to tell me, my aunt was a missionary or my grandfather was an engineer or even, I grew up there too.

This time a woman came up to say that her uncle had also been a pilot in the Highlands, from the 1970s until he was killed in a crash in the early 2000s. I asked his name, but somehow I already knew the answer. I remembered her uncle vividly. He had worked with my father and been a good friend of my parents; we'd all been shocked to hear of his death, which featured in a story on the ABC's Foreign Correspondent a few years ago. In fact, the character of Tony in New Guinea Moon was partly based on my memories of him. We both ended the conversation in tears.

It's strange how sometimes what seem to be the most personal, private stories end up being the ones that other people find most easy to share. And what a coincidence that she had happened to attend this particular session on this particular day, and that I'd happened to discuss this particular book. It turned a lovely day into a really special experience.


Holding the Man

I happened to catch the 2015 film of Holding the Man the other night on SBS (it was excellent) and it prompted me to hunt out the book, which I hadn't read since its first publication in 1995.

Holding the Man is a memoir by Timothy Conigrave, about his relationship with John Caleo. They fell in love as schoolboys at a Catholic private school in Melbourne in the 1970s, moved to Sydney, and became caught up in the horrific AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. Conigrave writes simply and almost unbearably movingly of his and Caleo's illness, and Caleo's death. Conigrave died ten days after completing Holding the Man, and it was published posthumously to great acclaim.

I had forgotten how funny and honest, and how sexy, the early parts of this book are, perfectly describing the thrills of young love (especially forbidden love!). But the prejudice of their families, and the stigma that clung to AIDS, are painful to read, and timely in the current climate. It would be nice to think that we have progressed as a society in the last twenty years, and I believe we have; but only up to a point.

Reading about Conigrave and Caleo's treatment brought back all the terminology that was part of our lives in the 1990s, words I had forgotten -- AZT, T-cell counts, PCP, Karposi's sarcoma. But the story of their unwavering love is very moving, and I was forcibly struck by the account of the loving friendship and support that surrounded the couple. Though the epidemic was a terrifying and devastating time, it did prove the amazing strength and generosity of the gay community. That's a good thing to remember.


Iris and the Tiger

This book was a gift from my wonderfully talented friend Sandra Eterovic, who made the cover art and the internal illustrations. She is so clever!

Iris and the Tiger is the first junior fiction (I think!) from accomplished local YA author Leanne Hall. Twelve year old Iris has travelled to Spain to meet her eccentric great-aunt Ursula; she is also on a secret mission for her parents, to check out any possible rival heirs to Ursula's estate, Bosque de Nubes (Forest of Clouds). But nothing is as it seems in this magical place, and Iris soon finds a multitude of secrets to explore and riddles to solve.

This is a fantastic concept for a story, expertly combining a cast of intriguing characters, an enticing setting, and the world of surrealist art. Iris and the Tiger has a marvellous, mysterious atmosphere, where sunflowers play tennis on an overgrown court, giant steaks drape over balconies, trees have eyeballs, and tigers might escape from paintings to run wild in the woods. In fact there is so much going on that I found myself occasionally muddled about what exactly was going on; this is a novel that rewards close attention, and there is plenty of fun for adult readers picking up the artsy allusions. This is a gorgeous book, inside and out.


A Leg To Stand On

One of the ugliest covers I think I've ever seen! But I'm now committed to reading everything that Oliver Sacks has ever written, so I didn't pay any attention to the packaging, and dived into the contents of A Leg To Stand On.

This slim volume, first published in 1984, is Sacks' account of an accident and serious injury he sustained as a young man, falling down a mountain in Norway. The operation to mend the injury went well, but in the aftermath of recovery, Sacks experienced an unexpected and to him, inexplicable, sense of alienation from his own limb. He felt that this leg was an utterly foreign object, unconnected to his sense of self, unable to be controlled, horrifying and even disgusting. Eventually this feeling was overcome, but not by thinking and brooding -- only by unself-consciously doing and actually using the leg, was it joyfully re-integrated and truly recovered.

The most striking thing about this experience was the degree to which Sacks felt unable to communicate how he was feeling to the doctors, nurses and therapists, even with the advantage of his own medical standing. Only with fellow patients was he really able to express what he'd been through and discover that such feelings were quite common. Hopefully this book, and Sacks' research, has led to greater awareness.

Sacks also expresses beautifully the journey of every patient -- from the intense terror and dread of being struck down by injury or illness, the relief of rescue and sense of safety when treatment commences, the delicious sensation of being excused from normal life, when it's enough just to be still alive, and the ultimate chafing at restriction and desire to reconnect with the world again. I found this memoir extremely moving, in every sense.


The Mirror Image Ghost

Picked this up at Brown and Bunting because I admire the powerful Marianne Dreams by the same author (Catherine Storr). Annoyingly, Marianne Dreams has gone missing from my bookshelves, I must have lent it to someone and neglected to chase it up.

I wasn't aware of The Mirror Image Ghost but it's an interesting, eerie little book. It's probably too light on plot to appeal to most of today's junior readers, but I thought it wove together several story strands with deftness and subtlety, and I would have loved it if it had been around when I was about ten or eleven.

Lisa's mother has just remarried and now Lisa finds herself saddled with a French step-sister and -brother whom she intensely dislikes. The tensions of a blended family are well-drawn. Her beloved grandfather lost his family in the Second World War but no-one wants to talk about exactly what happened (the adult reader can guess easily, but a child reader is led gently toward the revelation of the Holocaust). Meanwhile Lisa is glimpsing snippets of the past in an old mirror; will she discover the secrets on her own? And is she herself a part of the story?

The Mirror Image Ghost doesn't have the punch of Marianne Dreams, and though it was first published in 1994, it has the feel of a much older book. Not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned, but it might put other people off!


Run, Pip, Run

Thankfully, the junior fiction selection for the Convent book group Homelessness theme was much more enjoyable than the YA book! Run, Pip, Run was a deserved winner of the 2016 Readings Children's Book Prize, by debut Australian author J.C. Jones.

Pip's tenth birthday starts horribly when her carer, gruff old Sully, collapses with a stroke and goes off to hospital. With no other family, Pip is determined not to end up in the hands of 'the welfare' and goes on the run. If this was a current YA book, it would probably descend into dark and grim territory, but Pip is brave and resourceful, and her adventures are handled with a light touch that emphasises the help she receives along the way.

Run, Pip, Run is a terrific read for boys and girls alike.


I'll Be There

Bought on the Kindle for our next Convent book group meeting, with the theme of 'Homelessness.' We've actually already read Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting By Sevens, but I'll Be There was her first novel, after much experience writing screenplays.

This was a hugely successful debut, so Sloan doesn't need any boosting from me, and I must confess, this novel didn't really work for me. The story certainly rocketed along, with plenty of action, loads of feels, and all the loose ends tied up neatly at the end. Sweet Emily and sensitive Sam, our star-crossed lovers, seemed too perfect to be true, and came across as younger than seventeen and eighteen respectively. It's no surprise that Sloan, with her screenwriting background, is a master of pace and plot. And the themes of caring and compassion are definitely worthy ones.

But the writing style was just so flat!  
And then... and then... and then... (End para)  
It was true. (separate para for emphasis)

Plod, plod, plod! I know this sounds like a contradiction, because the plot was fast-moving, chopped into swift digestible chunks -- but within each short chapter, the prose was painfully clunky. There were a few bonus chapters of the sequel included at the end of the Kindle edition, but (gulp) I couldn't bring myself to bother.



I've had Alan Garner's third novel, Elidor, on my bookshelf for I don't know how long, but I'm ashamed to say that until now, I've never actually read it. I think I feared another Weirdstone disappointment. But I needn't have worried -- Elidor is a much, much better book than either Weirdstone or The Moon of Gomrath, and in this novel, you can see Garner truly beginning to come into his powers.

Despite the high fantasy cover, Elidor is actually grounded firmly in our world. The excursion of the four children into the mysterious, blighted land of Elidor comes early in the book, and it's brief. They return to their own world as guardians of four precious items, disguised in our world as a chipped bowl, a 'sword' of wooden planks, a stone and an iron bar. The children hide the treasures, but it's not long before the enemies of Elidor come searching.

The everyday creepiness of the Treasures' power is wonderful -- their 'charge' interferes with radio signals and electricity, making kitchen tools come to life even when they're not plugged in. This part of the story reminded me of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, where high fantasy and the everyday  intersect in a similar way. I also loved the humdrum disguise of the Treasures -- and which imaginative child hasn't known that the cracked china dug up in the garden was really a magical chalice, or waved a stick for an enchanted sword? Or was that just me?

Elidor has been criticised for not elaborating more fully on the alternate world; but I think it's all the more powerful for being elusive and oblique. The predicament of Nick, the eldest, who tries to explain away their experience as a mass hallucination, foreshadows the suffering of the adult Colin in Boneland, who also has to deal with the aftermath of a magical encounter that can't be rationally accounted for. Originally written as a radio play, Elidor is a taste of wonders to come in Red Shift and The Owl Service.


A Thousand Acres

I couldn't find an image of the edition of Jane Smiley's 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, but this is pretty close. My copy was released as a film tie-in (the movie was directed by Aussie Jocelyn Moorhouse!) and the cover put me off for a long time. You know when you have a book sitting next to your bed for months, and then finally you force yourself to read it, and you think, wow, this book is really good, I wish I'd read it sooner? Yeah... that.

I picked up this novel because it had been recommended so many times as a great book club read in a book I read about book clubs (meta, hey). Set on a farm in rural Iowa, this prosaic story felt more remote from my life than some of the fantasy novels I've read recently.

I've described the story as prosaic, but that's unfair. It's a re-telling of Shakespeare's King Lear, a play with which I'm not familiar, so I kept a Wikipedia summary of the plot open beside me as I read. Not that I needed it -- the major plot points and characters are loosely paralleled, but it's the emotional truth of the tale, and the harrowing, complicated pain that families can hide, which is the heart of the novel. This was a clear, adult, deeply satisfying read, filled with hard wisdom.


Memory in a House

A quick read between the cracks -- very kindly lent by Pia at book group, where we were discussing The Chimneys of Green Knowe. I devoured this book in a single sitting! It's Lucy Boston's account of her rescue and restoration of the house that Green Knowe is based on, complete with floor plans and photographs. I am going to copy the floor plans and tuck them away for reference with my Green Knowe collection so I can picture the house more clearly.

It turns out that the Manor, Hemingford Grey, is much smaller than I imagined from reading Boston's exquisite novels -- it's almost just two-up, two-down, with extra bedrooms in the attic. The core of the house is very old indeed, a Norman hall from the twelfth century, with alterations, additions and demolitions in the generations since. Boston painstakingly stripped away the awkward adaptations of the intervening years and allowed the history of the house to breathe. Since her death, the Manor has been cared for by her daughter-in-law Diana, and can be viewed by the public. While Green Knowe is home to a number of beloved spirits, the Manor also hosts some ghostly presences which are less well defined.

It's obvious that Boston's love and respect for the house became the over-riding passion of her life, and the direct inspiration for her writing. It seems that every book she wrote had its roots in the house, not just the Green Knowe books, but also her adult novels and memoirs.

It was lovely, and unexpected, to discover that Boston was also a noted quilter -- her patchworks gave her the idea for The Chimneys of Green Knowe. Her designs can be found on the internet, and they are truly beautiful, works of art in their own right.


Not If I See You First

Another book read in a galloping hurry, as our book group meeting is tomorrow, and the library didn't supply Eric Lindstrom's Not If I See You First until last Friday. It's fat, but the print is large, fortunately, so I was able to race through it.

As I read the first chapter my heart sank slightly, as we discover in short order that our narrator, Parker, is blind; her mother died in the car accident that took her sight; and her father has also recently died. To add to her trauma, her aunt and family have moved into her home to care for her and insist on doing things for her when she's actually very independent. This seemed to set the scene for one of those YA books I loathe, where off screen family death raises the stakes artificially high, AND we have disability thrown in for good measure. Plus the teens are all Fault-in-Our-Stars-style bitter and whip-smart. I was all set to hate this novel!

Well, it improved as it went along (though it probably went along a little too long for my liking). The conceit of the blind narrator works really well, and it was cleverly used by the author a few times to test the reader's assumptions, too, about race and appearance. We are in the same position as Parker -- we can only judge characters on what they say, not how they look. This means that Parker gets a few things wrong (that's kind of the theme of the novel) but it also means that she has to judge people on their actions, rather than their appearance. (I guess this means that a film adaptation won't work for this book!)

I learned a lot about the experience of a blind teenager, and had my own assumptions tested -- for instance, music is not super-important for Parker. She can't waste precious audio-book listening time on music if she wants to keep up with classmates, and she can't multi-task listening to music with reading or jigsaw puzzles or flicking through her phone. I also liked the way she wears a blindfold as a fashion statement. For me, the book dragged a little during the angsty relationship conversations; but it really took off when Parker runs. I would have liked the balance tilted further in that direction.


Brave New World

Long story short: in a burst of enthusiasm after receiving an NGV membership for her birthday, Alice signed up for an NGV book group session about Brave New World. She tried to read it, and listened to an audio dramatisation, but couldn't get into it, and with time running out, gave her ticket to me instead.

I first found this ancient paperback on my grandmother's bookshelf as a child of ten or eleven (I think it belonged to my mum). At the time I found it mystifying but compelling; I must have re-read it at high school (the inscription on the front page says I was in Year 11), but I have no memory of studying it.

The book group discussion was interesting (if Alice had gone, she would have been the youngest person there by about thirty years!) We all agreed that for a novel written eighty years ago, some elements were frighteningly prescient: the relentless consumerism, the constant distraction of shallow entertainment preventing deep thought, the lack of privacy and solitude. (My best line was 'FOMO is our soma.') Of course Huxley didn't foresee the internet, or seem to take into account the likely future automation of ... well, everything, apparently... but in the last part of the book it's explained that this was restricted deliberately, to give the population a necessary level of activity -- a precaution which our capitalist system seems unlikely to follow. Huxley's biggest 'miss' was the degree of social liberalisation that has occured since the 1930's -- BNW is sexually progressive, but horribly misogynist and racist.

Overall, we agreed it was a chilling and still highly relevant warning. It's terrifying how classic dystopian novels seem more relevant than ever at the moment -- Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale. We may not be too close to a cloned, artificially stratified society, but many of Huxley's other predictions are uncomfortably near the bone.


The Moon of Gomrath

It was a fascinating exercise, after reading Alan Garner's Boneland, to return to the previous book in the series, written more than fifty years before. The Moon of Gomrath was first published in 1963; my edition is from 2002. (I say 'return' but in fact I don't think I have ever read this book before, though I'm sure I've read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the first volume of the trilogy.)

The Moon of Gomrath and Boneland, separated by decades, are very different in style. Boneland is an adult's book, spare, powerful, layered with meaning, but so stripped back it's almost like deciphering poetry. In contrast, Gomrath is high fantasy, with elves and dwarves, a wizard and a witch, who speak in heightened language. 'Are we to talk until all that has ever slept has woken?' That kind of thing. The two children, Colin and Susan, remain largely blank ciphers. They are brave, curious, rescourceful, as required by the story, but as people they remain utterly opaque.

I'm glad I read Gomrath as it illuminated several elements of Boneland -- Colin's memories of being held prisoner by the Morrigan, the witch-figure of the early books (who may be revealed as a more complex figure in the last volume), his hatred of rhodedendrons, and of course the familiar landscape, which is simultaneously concrete and numinous.

In Boneland, Colin has been left behind to cope with the tumultuous events of the first two books. There is a theory that story that unfolds in these books is actually the attempt of a juvenile Colin to make sense of a more prosaic disappearance of his sister. It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not sure I buy it!

I don't think I'll seek out The Weirdstone. Garner himself has described it as 'a fairly bad book' and when I picked it up a few years ago I was dismayed at the first few pages. If it falls my way, I'll take another look, for the sake of Boneland, but otherwise I'll let it lie.


The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

A hugely entertaining concept, executed in perfect, chatty style. Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England provides a tourist's handbook to the fourteenth century, focusing on the details of everyday life -- food, clothing, what you can expect to see in a town, the sights of London (mostly gone now), the perils of medical attention, how the legal system works and much more.

This book gives a terrific overview of medieval English society and beliefs, but it's also packed with fascinating titbits. None of those sturdy peasant folk would have worn any knitted garments, because knitting hadn't been invented yet. Rabbits were only introduced to England in the twelfth century! No potatoes, tomatoes or (surprisingly to me) carrots. English wine was made until the end of the century when the weather changed. The Black Death, mid-century, turned the feudal structure on its head as villages were deserted, lords competed for scarce labour, and a whole country mourned the loss of a quarter of the population. Men's clothes underwent a complete transformation over a hundred years, from long formless sacks to tight, short, sexy doublets and hose; meanwhile, women's fashions stayed almost static! That must be the last time in Western history that's happened.

Finally, one of those strange coincidences that often occur in my reading journey: the last chapter, on literature, contained a discussion of the anonymous Gawain poet. As it happens, this poet and two of his poems, Gawain and The Green Knight and Pearl, were discussed on the Guardian reading group thread in the context of Alan Garner's Boneland, which contains many allusions to both poems for those who were alert to them. Funny how these links pop up so unexpectedly!

I raced through this book at top speed, learned heaps and had a wonderfully enjoyable trip to the Middle Ages.


The Chimneys of Green Knowe

Have you ever seen such a spoiler-y cover? Guess what, in the last chapter, the house burns down! In the US, the title is The Treasure of Green Knowe, which is just as revealing.

This book is a very old childhood favourite, first discovered in the Mt Hagen library. It was my favourite of all the Green Knowe books and I re-read it many times. For some reason, the first volume of the series, The Children of Green Knowe, wasn't in the library, and nor was A Stranger at Green Knowe, the one with the escaped gorilla -- many years later, when reading that one to a young Alice, she made me stop reading before the end, because she couldn't bear to hear what was to become of poor Hanno.

But I digress. The Convent book group is reading The Chimneys of Green Knowe because our theme next month is blindness. Young Tolly, staying with his great-grandmother at the ancient house of Green Knowe, is told the story of 18th century Susan, whose sea captain father brings her back Jacob as a companion. After many misadventures, and the final conflagration, the two triumph over their enemies, and Tolly uses what he's learned from their story to save the day.

There are several problematic elements of this book which didn't trouble me too much as a child, but which might make me think carefully before sharing it with a young person today. Jacob is purchased in a slave market in the Caribbean (though the author is careful to tell us that slavery is repugnant, and he is instantly set free -- however, he remains as a servant to the captain and to "Missy Susan" for the rest of his life.) He is described with every well-meaning but racist cliche you can think of: woolly hair, rolling eyes, sooty skin, the lot, and he is mercilessly bullied by Susan's older brother -- dressed in the livery of an organ-grinder's monkey, forced up a chimney and numerous other humiliations. But Jacob is no victim. He exacts his own revenges, both subtle and overt, and his lively spirit is never subdued.

There is a lot of racist language too, never explicitly condemned -- but as a child reader, I got the message that only the unpleasant characters used it. I wonder now if one reason I was so drawn to this book was because it dealt with friendship between black and white children, and at the time I was living in the heavily colonial atmosphere of 1970s PNG. There were black students at my international school, and I had some among my friends, but there weren't many of them. Perhaps unconsciously I was trying to make sense of it all?

One vivid image that stayed with me was the creepy embroidery that Susan's mother creates at the end of the book, made from human hair. That gave me the shivers. And she sews it at the behest of fortune-telling gypsies, who are described, by the way, in unambiguously racist terms that seriously disturbed me this time around. It's odd that Boston clearly feels sympathy for Jacob and the way he's treated, but can't seem to extend this same sympathy to the figures of the dirty, conniving, deceitful, greedy gypsies. Which is a shame.


The Anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader's The Anchoress has been on my radar since its release a couple of years ago. I love reading about nuns; one of my favourite books at high school was This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

The anchoress of the title is a kind of super-nun, not just committing herself to poverty, obedience and chastity, but renouncing the world entirely, vowing to live out her life of prayer and contemplation alone in a tiny, windowless stone cell attached to the side of the church. I must admit that when the demands of family and the modern world become too much, I can totally see the appeal of such a solitary, scholarly life!

But Sarah has other reasons apart from piety to wish for enclosure, and she doesn't find it so easy to separate herself from the outside world, or the demands of her body. Paradoxically, the sensory deprivation of her cell leads to enhanced sensitivity, from the subtle tastes of her bland food, the noises of village chatter and birdsong, to the touch of stone and paper. Like it or not, she is part of the village. Forbidden to speak to men (apart from priests), she is sought out by the village women for counsel or just a sympathetic ear. She is also haunted by the imagined ghosts of her predecessors -- holy Agnes and rebellious Isabella, who broke her vows. In the end, Sarah finds a middle way somewhere between the two.

You might think that reading about a woman shut up in a room would be about as interesting as watching paint dry. How wrong you would be. The tiny details of Sarah's daily existence become as significant to the reader as they are to her, and we are also privy to the wider politics of church and estate that make Sarah the centre of power struggles. I did wonder whether the 13th century villagers would be able to articulate their sense of unfairness with their lot as openly as they do here; but perhaps it's impossible to reproduce a medieval mindset that a modern reader would be able to comprehend.

A great, and unexpectedly absorbing read from an Australian author.


A Likely Lad

A birthday present for myself from Brown and Bunting! This poor old paperback from 1973 (first published in 1971) is foxed and mottled and probably lay in a cardboard box in somebody's garage for the last forty years. But I welcome it gladly into my collection.

I hadn't read A Likely Lad before, and it's set in the familiar late 19th century Gillian Avery milieu. Avery does a wonderful line in diffident children, which appeals to me hugely as a diffident child myself. Her protagonists are tormented by domineering adults, mortified by impudent siblings, and agonise over their own perceived failings. This time our hero is Willy Overs, a quiet, school-loving boy who is saddled with an ambitious father who dreams of Willy ascending the social ladder as a bumptious 'thruster'. Poor Willy knows that he doesn't have it in him, but while the adults around him feud and squabble, Willy's own innate kindness and sense of fairness end up winning the day in unexpected fashion.

I really enjoyed looking up the streets and suburbs of Manchester where this book is set. I discovered I could even see the imposing Manchester Town Hall, which plays an important symbolic part in the story, in impressive 3D! What did we do before Google Earth? I've consulted it for Boneland, Call the Midwife and now this novel, and it's added to my reading experience immensely -- not quite as good as visiting the setting, but still pretty satisfying.


Call The Midwife

The television series of Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs by Jennifer Worth, was dropped into an early evening weekend time-slot on the ABC -- the traditional home of quirky, sentimental dramas. And while the world of Call the Midwife does have its share of quirk, and sentiment too, it also contains much grimmer social realism and a glimpse of a life that has now disappeared (in the UK at least).

Worth writes of two neglected subjects. Firstly, she describes the hardships of daily life in the dockland suburbs of post-war London, places like Poplar, the Isle of Dogs, Millwall, Stepney and Limehouse, where tenements housed families of ten or twelve in two rooms, some without running water or sanitation. And secondly, she writes in fascinating (some might say gruesome) detail about the vocation of midwifery. As she asks in her introduction, why are there not more memoirs by midwives? There are plenty by doctors and nurses, but few dealing with this most intimate, joyful, and dangerous of professions. Perhaps because it's still seen as 'women's business'?

While there are humorous stories here, and characters familiar from the TV series, like towering, posh Chummie, earthy Sister Evangelina, and dotty Sister Monica Joan, Worth doesn't shy from the darker side of her work in the slums -- prostitution, violence, the legacy of the workhouse, deprivation and despair. The mixture of light and shade is utterly engaging; Call the Midwife is a thoroughly readable memoir, and I'm not surprised it's been so successful.