It wasn't till much later that I realised that a number of Streatfeild books had been re-titled to create a 'series' where none had originally been intended. Thus Curtain Up! became Theatre Shoes, White Boots became Skating Shoes, The Circus Is Coming became Circus Shoes etc. The Painted Garden became, ridiculously, Movie Shoes. (Tennis Shoes was always Tennis Shoes.) Blerch. What even are Movie Shoes, or Theatre Shoes, supposed to be, anyway? (Though I have to admit that if you google 'theatre shoes', the internet summons... shoes.)
So, I have read Theatre Shoes before, but under its old moniker of Curtain Up! I didn't remember much about it, except for the name Sorrel, which I think is gorgeous. It's war-time and the three Forbes children, unknowingly part of a famous theatrical family, are sent to Madame Fidolia's famous stage school where the Fossil sisters had gone before them. There's another tiny cameo for the Fossils, who are all overseas or flying planes, but provide scholarships for the Forbes siblings. Sorrel discovers that she wants to be an actress, Mark really wants to be a sailor but can endure acting and singing if he's allowed to 'pretend' himself into a role, and the youngest Holly turns out to be a gifted comic.
In this book, it's the details of wartime privation that are the most striking -- the shops are all empty, Grandmother's grand furniture has been sold to make ends meet, the children long for smart attache cases and lovely clothes, but have to make do with 'utility frocks.' (I had never heard of these, but came across them again in Domestic Soldiers, of which more presently.) The extended family are beautifully sketched -- Grandmother, the egotistical matriarch, kind uncles and aunts, and Uncle Francis who is a bombastic Shakespearean Ac-Tor, as well as the children's cousins, supremely self-confident Miranda and funny Miriam. Annoyingly, there is one rather racist scene where a wounded Chinese sailor speaks pidgin English to Sorrel.
The obligatory Grand-Nanny role in this book is filled by Hannah, who had been housekeeper to the children's late grandfather, but is assumed by everyone (including herself) to inherit, without question, the job of looking after the children. This means moving to London and living in a very run-down house, sharing a bedroom with Holly and (horrors) riding escalators. I couldn't help wondering if poor Hannah might have had somewhere else she would rather have been.
Reading academic books exercises different muscles in the brain. I'll admit that I found this a difficult text to grapple with; sometimes I could barely understand it, though most of the time I think I had a foggy idea. Here goes.
The issue of child (more accurately here, adolescent) sexuality is a vexed one in anglophone societies at the moment. Angelides examines a number of case studies of 'sex panics' centred on young people's sexual knowledge and expression -- sex education; the scandal around Bill Henson's photographs of pubescent youths; laws around sexting which can see young people themselves branded as sex offenders even when the activity has been fully consensual; relationships between teachers and students. Broadly speaking, he argues that in the rush to protect young people from the consequences of 'premature' exposure to sexual knowledge or activity, we erase their own desires, awareness and ability to act. Adolescents don't magically become sexual beings overnight when they reach the age of consent -- and that age can vary depending upon the activity and the parties involved. Yes, of course it is important to shield young people from abuse. But it's not alway so easy to decide what is abusive behaviour, and what harm might result. Young people need more information about sex, not less.
Steven has been the target of some unfounded attacks as the result of writing this book. It's a controversial topic but his approach is thoughtful and nuanced. I found it extremely interesting, and it gave me lots to think about.
Pete and his dad are on the run. Pete's diary offers us an entertaining account of their difficulties hiding out in an old shed, but very quickly the reader is aware that something is deeply wrong. It's not until quite late in the book that Pete grasps that his father is actually mentally ill, and that the danger he fears from helicopters and pursuers exists only in his mind.
This is a poignant little book. Luckily Pete connects with old friends and makes new ones, and his father finds the help he needs. It's not an unalloyed happy ending, but there is definitely hope on the horizon. Though this novel is only fifteen years old, I have a nasty suspicion that there might be less support out there for the Pete's dads of this world than there used to be. Helicopter Man would be a great resource for kids with mental illness in the family, and it's a good story in its own right. Set in Melbourne, which is a bonus.
Disclaimer: I purchased this book after having lunch with Elizabeth, who is a lovely person. Totally didn't influence my opinion, though!
Apparently this is French's first departure from a series about the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, and it centres on golden boy Toby whose life is upended after a brutal home invasion which leaves him mentally and physically wounded, and then by the discovery of a skeleton inside a tree at the house of his uncle Hugo, where he's staying to recover. With his newly unreliable memory, Toby has to wonder if he himself might have been the murderer... and if not him, then who?
Another character dying of a brain tumour! It's so weird that I seem to have been attracting these books all year; it's definitely not intentional. Hugo's cancer is ruthless but relatively slow moving; he hangs around long enough to take care of Toby even though Toby is supposed to be keeping an eye on him. This is a study of privilege, taken for granted and then lost; about being blithely oblivious to things that are obvious to others; about how it feels to be wrecked, and how fragile is our knowledge of ourselves.
This is a thick, densely layered but very readable novel, an intelligent, literary murder mystery. Is there a more satisfying kind of holiday book? And lucky me, now I know about Tana French, there are at least six more terrific books for me to explore!
However, I have no qualms about endorsing this junior chapter book! It's a simple story about budding scientist Marlow, whose experiments with ants, dogs and Mum's white roses cause such chaos at home that she seems likely to be banned from experimenting altogether.
With a push to encourage girls into STEM subjects, this is an appealing and timely book, and I loved that it includes ideas for the reader's own experiments at the back. Loads of fun and educational too. Hopefully this will be the first of a long series.
I don't think I ever came across this book as a child. Even if I had, I wouldn't have picked it up as I had zero interest in tennis. Unfortunately this seems to have also been the case for Streatfeild herself, who was apparently looking for a follow-up to the hugely successful Ballet Shoes and decided (or perhaps the publisher decided) that tennis would fit the bill. After spending months dutifully researching for this book of a family of tennis stars, Streatfeild reportedly said, 'I know one thing for sure, I simply hate tennis.' (According to the note at the back of this edition, she later changed her mind and Tennis Shoes 'became one of her favourite books.' Yeah, right.)
Again we have the weird Nanny-figure/governess in Pinny (and the children's mother, a doctor's wife, seems to do nothing all day). Again we have conscientious older children, twins Jim and Susan, who work hard at their tennis but lack what we would now call X factor. Youngest brother David loves his dog, Agag, and long words. And we have 'difficult' middle child Nicky (did you know that Noel Streatfeild was a middle child??) who unexpectedly becomes the real star of the family.
This is a competent, amusing tale from Streatfeild, but her lack of connection to sport is clear. Part of the enduring charm of her books is the intimate detail and the acute understanding of how it feels to be part of a theatre production or to struggle with ballet steps. Tennis Shoes goes through the motions but I never felt I got inside the tennis experience. I think the only other 'sporty' book Streatfeild wrote was White Boots, about ice skating, which is much closer to dance than tennis will ever be!
Emily was born in Sussex in the 1870s and at twelve years old, went into domestic service. She started as nursery maid and ended up as head nanny. At one point she did contemplate marriage, but her fiancé was killed in an accident and for the rest of her life, she devoted herself to 'her' children. Certainly Streatfeild's father was devoted to her, much more so than to his actual mother. No wonder, because Emily brought him up, loved and disciplined him, and he rewarded her with his first love.
This book is a window into another time, where people 'knew their place' and didn't question it. Emily is clearly the origin of all those comfortable, loving but strict non-mother figures that litter Streatfeild's fiction -- Nana in Ballet Shoes, Peaseblossom in The Painted Garden, Pinny in Tennis Shoes. Long after nannies had disappeared from the average middle class household (let alone the genteel poor who form the majority of Streatfeild's fictional families), these figures keep cropping up, with increasingly strange relationships to justify their presence -- an old school friend, daughter of a former patient -- and these women, always single, seem content to join the household as something between a servant and a relative, always doing the worst chores, the mending, escorting the children round town, and never complaining about their lot. They are always a fount of folk wisdom, which it transpires comes straight from the lips of Emily Huckwell: Satan finds work for idle hands, don't care was made to care, it will all be Sir Garnet.
It seems that Grand-Nanny was such an integral part of Streatfeild's own family that she found it impossible to imagine any family without a similar figure as part of it, taking up the slack from Streatfeild's universally useless mother-characters.
I've found Michael Chabon a little patchy in the past. Loved Kavalier and Clay; Gentlemen of the Road, meh. I was impressed to see that he was one of the creators of Netflix's terrific show Unbelievable. So I'll always give him the benefit of the doubt. The Final Solution is, of course, the last case of Sherlock Holmes, though the old gentleman is never named. We are in wartime Sussex, where Holmes has retired with his hives, when a murder and a mysterious disappearance require his involvement.
The plot itself is not amazingly satisfying, but the writing is gorgeous and the atmosphere of regret and nostalgia is tenderly conveyed. A quick read, but a sweet one.
Jane's family contains the usual array of Streatfeild characters. Rachel is the conscientious eldest daughter, a ballet dancer. Tim is the precocious youngest son, a gifted pianist. There is the usual non-parent helper attached to the family, in this case a school friend of the children's mother known bizarrely as Peaseblossom. Stroppy Jane is not talented at anything and wants to be a dog trainer, so she is charmed by the boy who plays Dickon.
The aspect of this book that always stayed with me was the clash between sunny America and post-war Britain. The children don't stay up for dinner with the adults but eat early supper of cereal and fruit on trays then go to bed at six thirty. The girls' clothes are humiliatingly shabby (Streatfeild is always aware of clothes). Transport is a problem as the children's aunt Cora, with whom they are staying, won't drive them all over town and public transport is non-existent, which is probably still true.
The best part is the reappearance of Posy and Pauline Fossil from Ballet Shoes. Pauline is now a film star and Posy is her same irrepressible self, dancing in movies but still part of the great Manoff's company. Posy befriends Rachel and Peaseblossom gets on well with Nana -- no wonder, because they are essentially the same character in different bodies.
In some ways Noel Streatfeild does write the same story over and over, but I enjoy the template so much that there is always something to relish in each variation. Comfort reading of the highest order!
Human Croquet starts out with a similar feel to Behind the Scenes -- a crowded, inter-generational family saga with lots of characters, very eventful, busy with word-play and inner dialogue, swooping back and forth in time and place. After the sparse elegance of Between a Wolf and a Dog, it felt as if there was almost too much going on.
But then just when I felt as if I had a handle on it, Human Croquet swerved in a different, disquieting direction that made me sit up. This was when the book became really good. Then there was another swerve and things just got really weird and stayed that way. I was not satisfied by the ultimate conclusion, though the section that dealt with Isobel's mother's story was absolutely masterful.
Also: false advertising! The blurb on the back made this novel sound like a time slip story with travel not just to Shakespeare's time, but involving actual William himself. Don't be fooled. The Shakespearean part is very short and doesn't come until very close to the end. Overall, I was slightly nonplussed by this novel. I'm not sorry I read it, but I couldn't help feeling that it could have done with a good edit and a bit of attention to structure.
Eve Rodsky sets up Fair Play as a game. She divides household and family work into 100 tasks in four suits: Home (meals, laundry, cleaning etc), Out (school liaison, cars, bills, travel etc), Caregiving (pets, bedtime routine, homework, medical appointments etc) and Magic (gestures of love, fun, holidays, magical beings). Some of these tasks are further designated as Daily Grind, things that have to be done, usually at a certain time, or the place falls apart (like meals, laundry, transport, grocery shopping).
The holder of any particular card, say Laundry, takes full responsibility for Conception, Planning and Execution of that card -- so not just, can you put a load of washing on, love? But noticing that the basket is full, sorting the wash, loading the machine, hanging it out, bringing it in, sorting and folding and putting away, noticing that we're almost out of detergent and adding it to the shopping list, making sure that X's school shirt gets washed by Monday and Y's socks get soaked before soccer day.
Of course the first thing I did was sit down and work out who holds which cards in our house. We only play 60 cards out of Rodsky's hundred, and I added in an extra one (transport of my parents). Eleven of those are shared (a big no-no in Rodsky's system), I hold 29 and M holds 21. Apparently, lucky me, couples report feeling equity when the husband holds... wait for it... 21 cards!! And I do feel that our split is fairly equitable.
But one thing that did leap out at me is that I hold the vast majority of Daily Grinds. So, the not negotiable, non-deferrable, daily tedium like cooking and washing and getting kids off to school falls largely to me. On the other hand, M has more control over when he chooses to play his cards, like Lawn & Plants, Home Maintenance, Cash & Bills. This helped me to clarify why I still sometimes feel hard-done-by even when we've both spent a weekend working hard -- I have less choice and control about what I do and when. People gotta get fed...
Anyway, there's a lot more to it and I doubt that I'll actually change up anything much, but it was certainly food for thought and conversation. Well worth reading.
I wasn't familiar with the expression 'between a wolf and a dog' (it's French) but it refers to the hour of twilight when apparently it's difficult to distinguish between those two animals. The whole novel is like this: strong but delicately poised, at once tender and steely. It takes place over a single rainy Sydney day, following Hilary as she contemplates her illness and the decision she's taken; her daughters April, a singer, and Ester, a therapist, estranged over the infidelity of April and Ester's pollster husband Lawrence. The narrative dips back to happier and also more fraught times, and Ester's patients introduce vignettes of lost love, loneliness and pain.
This was the kind of novel I aspired to achieve when I first began writing -- acute psychological insight married to beautiful, sparse, lyrical prose. I never quite got there, and discovered my strengths lay elsewhere (to put it kindly). What a terrible loss is Georgia Blain, but how fortunate we are that she was with us long enough to produce superb work like this.
Judith Hoare's biography is sub-titled The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes and in many ways Weekes' life was indeed extraordinary. She was a scientific researcher in the 1920s, when women were barely admitted to university, and her pioneering work on lizard reproduction is still cited today. She reinvented herself several times, planning a musical career, then an upmarket travel agency. The latter plan being kiboshed by the outbreak of WWII, she went back to university and qualified as a GP. Then, in the 1960s and beyond, came the self-help books.
This is where her story, sadly, becomes less extraordinary. Being a woman, and a mere general practitioner rather than a psychiatrist, writing for a popular audience (so she could actually help as many people as possible) rather than in academic journals or psychiatric forums, her work was belittled and overlooked. And yet her mantra (based on both scientific knowledge and personal experience) -- Face, Accept, Float, Let Time Pass -- presaged modern approaches to dealing with anxiety like CBT and ACT. Her key insight was not to fight the feelings of panic, but to let them wash through you, and to "float" through them.
I would have liked a little more on her work, which was sometimes presented in a slightly confusing way by Hoare, but overall this was a fascinating introduction to a woman who should be more widely known. Borrowed from my friend Christine.
I've been meaning to read Kim Kane's time slip novel, When the Lyrebird Calls, since it first came out, and I found this copy at Brown & Bunting. My ladies' book group thought highly of it, but someone said, what a shame the cover is so drab.
Having read the book, I think the designer (ooh, I just discovered it's Debra Billson, who has produced a gorgeous design for my forthcoming middle-grade book, The January Stars) has done an amazing job of tracking down contemporary photographs that resemble the four girls in the story. And, spookily, yesterday I happened to look up that first classic Australian time-slip novel, Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow, and noticed the original Puffin edition cover:
As Kim Kane makes a point of referencing Beatie Bow in her acknowledgements, the similarity in these covers can't be a coincidence. But I'm not sure how many readers, especially young readers, would pick up on the homage, particularly as it eluded a bunch of highly experienced school librarians and children's literature enthusiasts (shame on us).
Aanyway, I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this book when it opened with a scene of three young girls destroying a fancy doll. I have a tendency to feel sorry for inanimate objects and this overt cruelty didn't endear the young protagonists to me. But once the time slip happened, I was all in. Madeleine doesn't travel back and forth but stays in 1900 for an extended period, which gives a good solid look at the issues of the time (Federation, suffrage, racism, spiritualism) as well as the tangled family dynamics of the Williamson household where Madeleine ends up. (Extra points to Gertie for attending my alma mater, PLC!) It's not till the final chapter, back in her own time, that Madeleine discovers some family secrets that make sense of what she's seen.
Kim Kane has a quirky and often humorous turn of phrase that adds to the enjoyment, and I appreciated the feminist emphasis as well as the sensitive portrayal of a young Aboriginal man (he deserves his own book, I reckon). Loved it!
This is a mystery story, in some ways a horror story, but packaged up in highly entertaining wrapping. Eleanor Oliphant tells her own story, and her voice is fresh, funny and very distinctive, even while she's recounting a story of pain, loneliness and childhood abuse that might be impossible to digest otherwise. At times the reader almost feels guilty for finding Eleanor amusing, as she is clearly dealing with a legacy of tremendous suffering.
As always, salvation lies in connection. Through small acts of kindness, Eleanor re-enters the world she has shut out, and it's rewarding to journey with her, as bit by bit, she blossoms. She is supposed to be about thirty, but sometimes she reads like a woman twice that age. A bonus is that the book is set in Glasgow and lovely Scottishness lies over the whole book like a mist. An excellent pick-up.
Well, suffice to say that both the daughter and I felt that Stephen Fry had gone a little overboard with his praise this time. She slogged through it first, heroically sticking to her routine of one chapter per night (the chapters are quite long), then handed it to me. That was months ago, but I've finally managed to push through to the end.
This is not a terrible book, by any means. The subject matter is fascinating (how does the language we speak influence our perception of the world?) and Deutscher does his best to jolly us along with linguistic humour. But it's a thorough (some may say, too thorough) survey of a quite dry academic field, and its conclusions are fairly underwhelming, to wit, yes, language does influence some aspects of how we perceive the world, but not much, and only in certain areas (colour, gender, spatial orientation).
Probably the most interesting section dealt with one Australian Aboriginal language (Guugu Yimithirr) which requires its speakers to take note of the compass directions whenever they describe the position of something. So instead of saying, 'there is an ant to the right of my foot,' they would say, 'there is an ant to the south-west of my foot.' This means they are constantly, unconsciously orienting themselves geographically in their surroundings. That would be a handy skill to have.
Sick Bay is a story of friendship. Riley has diabetes, but dealing with her anxiously controlling mother is a bigger problem than her health. Meg takes refuge in Sick Bay when life becomes too hard -- her father has died and her mother has sunk into a deep depression. Compounding the girls' personal problems is the landscape of friendship at school with one girl, Lina, who dispenses and withholds her approval like a weapon.
Come to think of it, Sick Bay is really about control -- the things you can control and the things you can't. Riley is struggling to take control of her own diabetes management, while Meg is powerless to help her mother. These are Grade 6 pupils, with high school on the horizon, and the world is about to get bigger and even harder to navigate. Nova Weetman writes so beautifully about friendship and family and the blindsides of mental health. Perhaps it's appropriate that this was the last cover from Sandra before we lost her.
But he certainly knows what he's talking about when it comes to the subject of writing itself, and this slim volume On Writing has terrific, pithy and straightforward advice about the craft, as well as including an interesting autobiographical section and an equally interesting account of the road accident that nearly killed him while he was writing it.
He has paid his dues, beginning his writing career while holding down a hideous job in a commercial laundry and living with his young family in a trailer, tapping out his first books on his knees. So he's earned his success and I don't begrudge it to him.
But Stephen. Come on. He describes his current working day: mornings, writing with the door shut to prevent interruptions until you reach your daily target (for him, 2,000 words; lesser mortals might aim for 1,000). Afternoons: naps and letters. Evenings: hanging out with the family, walking, reading. That sounds, frankly, idyllic.
When do you do the housework, Stephen? When do you make the lunches and dinner for everyone and do the grocery shopping? When do you drive your mum to the doctor and your anxious teenager to school? When do you clean out the rabbit and vacuum the floors? When do you hang on the phone to Centrelink to sort out the finances of your disabled sibling? How do you shoehorn all that in, Stephen? Or is there someone in the background taking care of all that?
To be fair, he is generous with his acknowledgement of his wife Tabby's help and encouragement along the way, and I have no doubt that he works hard at his job. But wow, wouldn't it be nice to be able to shut that door in the morning and never be interrupted.
The Secret Garden, published by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911, was somewhat overlooked in her lifetime, and wasn't even mentioned in her obituary. The sweet Cinderella story of A Little Princess and the ghastly Little Lord Fauntleroy were praised, but no one thought much of The Secret Garden. These days it's regarded as a classic, a masterpiece.
I love so much about this book. The notion of a secret, hidden, neglected garden, closed in by high walls and a locked door, is deliciously enticing. I love sour, lonely Mary Lennox; sturdy Dickon who communes with the wild animals; and fretful, sickly Colin. The scene where Mary and Colin scream at each other in a furious fight in the middle of the night used to give me such a thrill. And all the while, spring is creeping over the moor and reaching into the children's garden, healing their bodies and their minds.
It's been a few years since I last read The Secret Garden, and this time it was the mental health angle that jumped out at me. Neglected, unloved Mary is isolated and angry with the world; poor 'spoiled' Colin is actually tormented with anxiety; and his father, Mr Craven, is sunk in a deep depression after his wife's death. It's communion with nature, fresh air and sunshine and exercise, and a meaningful project in bringing the garden back to life, as well as connecting with each other, that brings them all back to health and happiness. It's a very simple story, but it's the very simplicity of the message that carries such power.
It really is a surreal book. Famously, the novel follows the last few months in the lives of a handful of characters stranded in Melbourne, at the bottom of the world, as nuclear fallout from a catastrophic international war drifts southward. At the beginning of September or the end of August, everyone will get radiation sickness, and everyone will die. It's literally the end of the world.
What struck me most was how calm everyone was about it. Life goes on pretty much as usual. Oh, there's some drunkenness, some fast car racing, but people still plant their gardens, fret over their baby's teething, do their jobs, pay for their purchases in shops. Frankly, I would have expected a LOT more lawlessness, with no consequences to come.
Also, the tone is one of emotional restraint. Some characters are in denial, in one breath acknowledging that everything is coming to an end in a matter of weeks, and at the same time 'believing' that their family in the war zone is carrying on life as usual. Paradoxically, this is much more effective and horrifying than melodrama would have been, even if it is quite implausible.
It's weird and old-fashioned and unbelievable, but this is one dystopian novel that will stay with me. And hey, it's set in Melbourne!
The story centres on Laura Thornby, at 45 a resolutely independent woman who guards her privacy and her emotions fiercely. In search of a diversion, she picks up with 23 year old Claud, an aspiring writer, and adroitly finds him a place to live (in a loft, naturally) and gainful employment while he's writing (an antique stall at the local market, which she helpfully stocks with items from her mother's attic). As Claud matures, Laura finds herself becoming more emotionally involved than she intended.
The sting in the novel's tail comes when it's revealed that Laura is the offspring of an incestuous union between brother and sister (not really a spoiler, as this is hinted at very early in the novel). This is apparently why she keeps herself so determinedly single and childless. Her elderly parents are a rather creepy pair, not surprisingly, and this shadow over Laura's origin made the whole novel very dark for me, and not as much fun as Mary Wesley can sometimes be.
Incest is a theme in several of Wesley's books (though seldom as overtly as here) and it's possible that she had a wartime romance with two brothers; it seems to have been an idea that intrigued her, at the very least. I wouldn't class Second Fiddle among her finest work.
This is a book I've been looking for for a long time. Ever since I started my research on Crow Country, nearly ten years ago now, and began to perceive tantalising hints of the Aboriginal world view, diametrically different to the Western assumptions I'd inherited, I've been longing for a clear, comprehensive guide to what Yunkaporta calls 'Indigenous thinking.' Now at last I've found it.
It's not easy to summarise the Aboriginal viewpoint and experience of the world, and I'm not going to presume to try to do it here. But one fundamental difference is that the Indigenous worldview never considers any one factor in isolation, never separates out one element of the picture to examine it 'objectively.' In the Aboriginal world, everything is connected, including us: land, Law, story, spirit, weather, plants and animals, humans, all inextricably intertwined. This is wisdom that the Western world is only just dimly beginning to reclaim.
Time is not a straight-line arrow into the future; it's an endlessly repeating cycle as the universe breathes in and out. All trouble begins with the thought I am greater than you. Aboriginal societies devote a lot of effort to trying to wipe out that tendency, the root of inequality, greed and oppression. Yunkaporta has an easy, engaging style, sprinkled with plenty of humour and anecdote -- this is far from a dry, academic read, but it's packed with ideas and questions nonetheless.
I don't necessarily find all of Yunkaporta's ideas comfortable. The chapter on violence was very confronting, the section on male-female relations didn't chime with my Western feminist standpoint. But Sand Talk has given me plenty to ponder on. I first read this book on the Kindle, and now I'm going to read it again in hard copy.
So good I've bought it twice! For a tight-arse like me, that's recommendation indeed.
I chose Robert Newton's 2017 novel Mr Romanov's Garden in the Sky for the Convent Book Group, to fit with our November theme of Gardens. But it turns out that the book doesn't actually have much to do with gardening at all.
This is a terrific novel. But while I was reading it, I was haunted by the feeling which all writers know, which I'll call Authorial Serendipity. This happens when Author A (in this case, me) has a book coming out soon, and reads a book by Author B (in this instance, Robert Newton), which shares some of the characteristics of Author A's book... It's disconcerting, it happens all the time, and there's nothing you can do about it except grit your teeth and assure Author B that you have NOT plaigarised their work... it's just coincidence.
So. Mr Romanov's Garden in the Sky is about two kids and an old man who go on a road trip together. My forthcoming book, The January Stars, is also about two kids and an old man going on a road trip together. Mr Romanov's Garden is set in Melbourne (and also the road to Surfer's Paradise). The January Stars is also set in Melbourne (and various places around Victoria).
But. Mr Romanov's Garden is a fair bit darker than The January Stars. Lexie's dad is dead, her mum is a junkie, Mr Romanov has dementia, and the novel opens with someone throwing his dog off the top of the housing commissions. At this point, I confess, I almost abandoned the book. I'm glad I pushed on, but it was a hard hurdle to pass. I promise that there are NO dead dogs in The January Stars.
Also, The January Stars has a bit of magic in it. So I guess maybe they're not so similar after all.
Times change fast in the world of technology. In 2009, being deprived of their iPods was a major hurdle. In 2019, I'm not sure that iPods even exist any more. Now music and podcasts are streamed through our phones. Maushart's kids didn't care that much about losing their phones, because back then phones didn't do as much as they do now. I laughed at the fact that Maushart's elder daughter, at 19, was addicted to Facebook. Ten years later, no 19 year old in their right mind would go anywhere near Facebook (so I'm told). Facebook is for nanas!
The details may have changed, but the central lessons are still valid, in fact more valid than ever. Boredom is good for us. Without a screen in the way, we can see the real world more clearly. Constant distraction is robbing us of deep concentration. Hanging out with our friends is more rewarding than social media. Access to screens stops us sleeping properly.
The three teenagers (heavily bribed to take part) survived. Maushart's son picked up his neglected saxophone and embarked on a musical career. Her daughter rebooted her disordered sleeping patterns and hugely improved her mood and her health. And Maushart, with more time to reflect deeply on her life, decided to relocate the family back to her home, the US. (How the kids reacted to this decision is not recorded.)
When I talked to my own teenagers about this experiment, their reaction was swift and predictable. No way. Impossible. And sadly, I fear they might be right. I don't think the digital world we live in now is all bad, but it does come at a cost, and I'm not sure our kids even realise what that price is.
Minnow on the Say is a lovely, very enjoyable, old-fashioned children's story, but it lacks the transformative brilliance of Tom's Midnight Garden. The Minnow of the title is a canoe, and the Say is a river, and the two boys on the cover, Adam and David, are searching for a lost treasure that is the only thing that will save the home of the canoe's owner, Adam. There is an enigmatic rhyme to guide them, penned by a mysterious ancestor, and Adam's grandfather's failing memory.
Adam's grandfather, old Mr Codling, is a poignant figure. Suffering from what we would now call dementia, he's trapped in a melancholy past, looking forward only to his son's return from the war. But his son is dead, and Mr Codling doesn't even recognise Adam, his grandson. The moment that stays with me, and reminds me most of Tom's Midnight Garden, is when old Mr Codling sees Adam in the moonlight and is joyfully sure that his son has at last returned home.
The treasure hunt itself is painfully slow and I doubt that a young modern reader would persist with the story. The Edward Ardizzone illustrations add greatly to the charm of the book -- when I think about it, I realise that Ardizzone illustrated so many of my childhood favourites (I'm thinking particularly of Nicholas Stuart Gray's creepy and moving Down in the Cellar). Why don't kids books have illustrations any more? (Answer: because it costs too much, I suppose. What a shame.)
How Bright Are All Things Here is a story about family and identity, regrets and joys, secrets and masks. It contains lots of my favourite elements: art, London in the 1950s, a Melbourne setting, relationships between siblings. Bliss is in the last days of a long, rich and crowded life, and her memories intertwine with the lives of her adult step-children, who are struggling with their own problems as well as their sometimes fraught relationship with Bliss herself.
This is a beautiful novel about a complicated woman that reminded me (serendipity!) of Mary Wesley's life story -- lots of relationships, some joyful, some sad; the struggle between creativity and family responsibilities; the wry humour and delight in sensual pleasures. Bliss and Mary might not have hit it off in real life, but they have quite a bit in common.
I'm so happy that I came back to this novel, I enjoyed it tremendously.
Sales begins with her own 'worst day' -- the birth of her second child where (almost) everything went wrong (they both survived, but it was close). She's had another few pretty bad days as well -- her older child has medical issues, and her long-term marriage collapsed. This was the impetus behind her quest to discover how other people manage to pull themselves through terrible experiences.
She interviews high profile survivors like Walter Mikac and Rosie Batty, as well as professionals in the field of trauma like coroners, journalists, and police. While she reminds us that some people don't recover from trauma, all her interviewees have succeeded in remaking their lives to some degree, though they all stress that life is never the same.
I came away from this book marvelling at the strength and faith of human beings in the face of horror that most of us try not to even imagine. My family has faced some challenges in the last few years, though nothing approaching the terrible experiences recounted here, and I have to concur with Sales' closing message: to cherish the ordinary days, because they are the most magical times we will have.
Born in 1912, Mary Wesley found her writing career late in life -- her first adult novel was published when she was 70, and she wrote about nine more (all bestsellers, with TV adaptations and international sales etc) before she died. After a few decades of grinding poverty, she was catapulted into sudden wealth: a dream come true!
Mary Farmar was born into a genteel military family. Her father was the British liaison with John Monash's Australian regiment, and he landed with the Australian troops at Gallipoli. But, with some justification, she felt neglected by her parents and older siblings, and rebelled with a defiant adolescence and young adulthood (this is where she picked up the nickname 'Wild Mary').
She made a conventional marriage into minor nobility, but the marriage was not a success, and the couple drifted apart during the Second World War. Mary was working for British Intelligence and had quite an adventurous time, with many lovers and entanglements before she met her second husband, Eric, with whom she remained until he died. (They were friends with Nancy Mitford.) But Eric had a truly ghastly wife, who stalked and harrassed them for years until they managed to shake her off, and the strain of this reign of terror took its toll on Eric's own mental health.
Eric aspired to be a writer, but never really had anything published. It makes you wonder what Mary might have been able to achieve if she'd had the freedom to write earlier... There was another complicated family scandal later on when a nasty solicitor tried to get Mary's second son disinherited so that he could take control of the whole estate. By the time Eric died, Mary was on the bones of her arse, ill herself, contemplating suicide, having to sell her house which she could no longer afford to live in -- and then her manuscript, Jumping the Queue, was accepted for publication and everything changed. (Jumping the Queue is about a widow contemplating suicide after the death of her husband.)
Mary's books struck a chord because they combine the recklessness and adventurous spirit of youth with the experience and cynicism of old age. They can be really dark at times -- there's incest, betrayal, violence and deception -- and yet they have an exuberant devilry about them which is kind of thrilling. With such rich and racy material to draw from, thank god 'Wild Mary' didn't succeed in 'jumping the queue' after all.
Anyway, for some reason, I wasn't as fond of The Story of the Amulet, though it was a time travel story and contained lots of the same elements as the other two stories: the same cast of children, the same sly humour, the same absorbing magic, and the delightfully grumpy Psammead.
But... I was surprised and dismayed to note how the story is marred by several instances of really gratuitous anti-Semitism. Did I pick up on that as a child reader? I think I actually did, and it made me so uneasy that I didn't return.
I decided to re-read this time because the elder daughter and I have just finished reading a 1940s book about archaeology* which has proved to be surprisingly engaging (it was a classic of its time, apparently, and may have kick-started the Indiana Jones trope of the archaeologist as adventurer), and took us to Babylon, ancient Egypt, Tyre and even the destruction of Atlantis. And apart from the gross and disappointing anti-Semitism, which was completely unnecessary to the plot, The Story of the Amulet is great.
Another episode I had forgotten was the chaotic visit of the Babylonian Queen to Victorian London, which surely must have 'influenced' a very similar scene in CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, though the figure of Jadis is more chilling than the flighty young Queen.
*Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram, 1949. Apparently Ceram is the pseudonym of a former Nazi propagandist -- I bet he was successful, he writes really well, even translated from German.
In my defence, Growing Up Asian in Australia did take me a long time to read, because it's so crammed with stories, memories, reflections, some hilarious, some poignant, some angry, some deeply sad, from Asian-Australians of all varieties: Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese and more, some by professional writers and some from contributors who have never written a piece for publication before.
There is an amazing array of experience here, but common themes do emerge. Without wanting to stray into stereotype, the weight of parental expectations and sacrifice looms large; the sometimes uneasy balance between belonging to both cultures, or neither; the knowledge of looking 'different', which is not shared by all immigrants. This book was a fascinating and rewarding read, and worth my fine.
The Boy and the Spy moves at a cracking pace, from the first few pages when our hero, Antonio, dives from a cliff to escape Nazi soldiers, to the very end when Sicily is invaded by the Allies. We hardly have time to draw breath as Antonio and his new American friend, the spy of the title, hurtle through a narrative crammed with gangsters, daring escapes, chases, stolen radios, bombing raids and train journeys in disguise.
For such a slim novel, it packs in plenty of action. But there is emotional depth too. Antonio is a rota, a baby abandoned to the mercy of the nuns, who carries the stigma of having no birth family. But his adoptive mother Nina is ill; who will take him in when she's gone? Ultimately, this is a story about family, home and belonging as much as it is about wartime intrigue and derring-do.
*Disclaimer: I have met Felice socially and through work, and he's a lovely guy.
Behind the Scenes was not at all what I was expecting; it's quite unlike any of her other novels in subject matter, though her exuberant, playful, psychologically acute style is the same. It's a family saga, deftly interweaving strands of four generations of mostly women with the central story of Ruby Lennox (who happens to be born in the same time and place as Atkinson herself) and whose life centres on a big mysterious gap -- which the reader figures out long before Ruby herself does.
There are plenty of Atkinson's trademark coincidences and surprises, and it's tempting to assume that there are parallels in this family history with Atkinson's own life, but who knows? You can't always assume that first novels are drawn from life, but there are vivid and baroque details here that do seem like the product of memory more than imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
I cannot get enough of these books about childhood reading. I gulp them down like lollies from the jar. In Storytime, Jane Sullivan (who writes a column about books for The Saturday Age) goes back to a dozen of her childhood favourites, first recalling what them special, then re-reading to see how accurate her memories were, and giving some adult context and reflection. So we have chapters on E. Nesbit, the Famous Five, Wind in the Willows, Little Women and more.
There was only two of Jane's choices that I'd never read. One was a collection of horror stories and the other was a comic strip, "The Silent Three," which appeared in School Friend magazine. Well, would you believe, I have several 1950s School Friend annuals decorating my living room (thank you, Judy Ballantyne!) so I was able to check out "The Silent Three" for myself, with their improbable hooded robes and their plucky ivy-climbing and ingenious riddle-solving. Utterly ludicrous but I could definitely see the appeal.
I knew I had to buy this book when I heard Jane mention a book she was sure no one else in the world had read: Gillian Avery's The Warden's Niece, which was a particular favourite of my own. Apparently the illustrator who produced the distinctive ink-blotted pictures for the book lived at the bottom of child-Jane's garden, and gave her a copy! I adored Maria's adventures in 19th century Oxford (which paved the way for all the other Oxford-set books I was to love in the future) and her detective work in company with the boys next door and their embarrassing bean pole of a tutor, Mr Copplestone. I completely agree with Jane that Gillian Avery is overdue for rediscovery.
The one book we disagree on is Little Women, which I loved and Jane couldn't stand. I fell in love with the March family and I was charmed by their playacting and mock-Pickwick newspaper, which grated on Jane's nerves. But hey, it's so dull when we all agree.
I tried to make Storytime last longer, but I couldn't help myself -- finished it in two days.
John Boyne has been hugely successful (also hugely reviled, most recently for the trans-themed My Brother's Name is Jessica) so he doesn't need my praise or support in any way. I'm only reading this book because it was suggested for our list by a new member of the Convent Book Group, who has now left! (The topic is War.)
The Boy in question is young Pierrot, son of a French mother and German father, who is taken in by his German aunt Beatrix when his parents die. Beatrix just happens to be housekeeper at the Berghof, Hitler's country retreat, and Pierrot, now known as the more Germanic Pieter, quickly falls under the Fuhrer's spell.
The point of the book is to show how easily an individual can be seduced into a corrupt and obnoxious philosophy, and I guess that is a worthy aim. But there is something about the nudging style of Boyne's writing, where the adult reader is always in on the joke (not that it's a joke), that I find really off-putting. We know the mysterious master of the house is Hitler, we know why Pierrot is forbidden to mention his Jewish friend, we know why the showers in the planned concentration camp will have no water. The young readers might not guess these things, but in their ignorance, will they feel the full horror of the big reveal? It feels as if Boyne is having a bet each way, laying clues that only make sense if you already know the secret; if you don't already know, you won't actually learn anything.
This gets to the heart of my objection to Boyne's books. I'm sure it's well-intentioned, but it just feels too cutesy to be playing games like this with such serious subject matter. It makes my blood boil!
I have very dim memories of reading this book as a child, from the Mt Hagen library, but it wasn't my favourite Elizabeth Goudge (The Little White Horse, Linnets and Valerians) and re-reading it, I can understand why I didn't return to it. In many ways, it's a gorgeous book, all about the joy and wonder of making, and a glorious mixture of myth, religion and fantasy (not unlike the Narnia books).
But... an it's a big but... there is NO STORY. The book essentially consists of a series of visits by Tabitha Silver to the Workshop, a kind of studio of Heaven where animals and flowers and trees are made -- it sounds terribly twee, but it's really not that bad... well mostly -- while she and her companions (adults reclaiming their child-selves -- oh, God, it sounds more twee than ever, doesn't it!) assemble the materials they need to build a beautiful ship.
This is the favourite childhood book of lots of people, and I can see that, at the right age, it might strike an impressionable child like nothing else. There are passages of extraordinary, lyrical beauty; wonderful tableaux; and as so often in Goudge's work, an atmosphere of ineffable joy and wonder and gratitude. But with no plot to propel it along, The Valley of Song remains a rather static hymn of praise.
I asked for Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do as a birthday present, but I actually received it a little early, which I'm grateful for. This is not an easy read; it's one of the most harrowing, disturbing books I have ever read. But it's clear, confronting, and essential.
There is so much information here, so many terrible stories, that I don't know where to start. But two chapters stood out. 'Through the Looking Glass' shows how the Family Court has been so thoroughly captured and corrupted by the aggrieved fathers' movement that if a mother alleges abuse, the presumption now seems to be that she is inventing accusations to 'alienate' the children, and she is more likely to lose all custodial contact, while her children are returned to their abuser. I couldn't believe what I was reading, but the day after I finished this chapter I saw a story in the newspaper where a murdered child had pleaded not to be handed over to his abusive father, because he was terrified of him. This corruption of the Family Court system is a desperately urgent problem, which goes largely unrecognised because reporting on Family Law matters is so restricted (ironically, to protect the privacy of the children).
The other really powerful chapter is about the experience of Aboriginal women. It contains a brilliantly succinct account of the inter-generational damage caused by colonisation, and also some really encouraging stories of the way Aboriginal women have fought back against abuse and social harms in some communities.
See What You Made Me Do ends on a hopeful note, examining some proven pathways in the US and in Australia which have managed to dismantle the structures that enable perpetrators to escalate their abuse. There ARE solutions, there IS hope. All it takes, as Hill points out, is political will and determined people to work together. We have changed social norms before -- smoking, drink driving. And in the long term, it will cost less economically than the alternative, not even considering the cost in human lives and psychological injury.
Women and children are dying every day from male violence, but it doesn't have to be this way. Highly recommended.
I can see why Dumplin' has been such a huge hit. Willowdean Dickson is an appealing heroine, both bold and insecure, as she says herself, unashamed of her big body but at the same time beset by images of skinny 'perfection', particularly from her mother, who runs the annual small-town beauty pageant. With Dolly Parton as her inspiration, Will's own doubts are her biggest enemy as she tries to sort out her first boyfriend relationship, and untangle her first serious row with her best friend. Oh, and did I mention, in a moment of madness, she has actually entered the beauty pageant?
I loved the gang of 'misfit' girls who also claim their space in the pageant, and become new friends for Will. I loved sweet Bo, who fancies Will just the way she is, and poor Mitch, who also fancies Will but whom she doesn't fancy back. Overhanging the book is the memory of Will's aunt Lucy, who allowed her weight to dictate how she lived her life (interestingly, this is not the image of Lucy we see in the film version, and poor Mitch also hits the cutting-room floor, as the film focuses much more intently on the pageant and the friendships between the girls, rather than the romance angle. A good decision, I think.)
I must admit, I spent most of my time reading with my phone in my hand, checking out cultural references that mystified me. Dumplin' is set in Texas and it might as well be Timbuktu as far as I'm concerned. Chicken-fried steak? Trunk-or-treat? The whole bewildering pageant scene? Sadie Hawkins? 'Steamer' I eventually figured out was for clothes, not food (maybe the whole dumpling vibe threw me off there). The fact that all these sixteen year old kids, none of them well off, own their own cars? Ambrosia?? Homecoming mums? Not mothers returning home, I can tell you that much, but I'm still not 100% sure exactly what they are. Something to do with chrysanthemums? I think.
I have absolutely loved just about everything I've read by Kate Atkinson, and Transcription gets off to a cracking start. The wartime setting is very appealing, with naive young Juliet Armstrong press-ganged into working for MI5, monitoring and ultimately entrapping 'fifth columnists' (Nazi sympathisers). We know from some flash-forward, post-war sections, where Juliet is working for the BBC, that Something Bad is going to happen during the war; however, when the Bad Thing is eventually revealed, it's a bit of an anti-climax. In the end, I felt the novel ran out of steam, and the final twist didn't feel adequately prepared for.
It's a shame, because the initial premise was fascinating and the detail of Juliet's wartime and post-war experience was absorbing. Weirdly, this was the third book in a row I've read that featured an unusual funeral!
Apparently Constable and Toop is a real funeral firm in London, and it was sitting in a cafe opposite their building that sparked Gareth P. Jones to write this book. This is a real Victorian ghostly treat, teeming with spirits and colourful Dickensian characters. Young Sam Toop is a Talker, who can see and talk to ghosts; Clara Tiltman aspires to become a journalist; Tanner is a Rogue ghost, an urchin with a collection of spirit hounds; Lapsewood is also a ghost, but trapped in the coils of post-worldly bureaucracy. There are many, many more characters intertwining through the pages of this novel (including the wise and kindly Mr Constable!) but the short, pacy chapters never allow the complex narrative to become bogged down.
Constable and Toop is fairly gory, with several murders and ghastly exorcisms, so I wouldn't give this to the squeamish. But on the whole, it's a fun romp and very evocative of Victorian London.
I'm full of admiration for Mary Wesley, who only started writing novels in her 70s and went on to produce a raft of best-sellers. She was no cosy sentimentalist, and no prudish fuddy-duddy. I suspect that the character of elderly Calypso Grant, who reappears in this novel, with her gorgeous woods and garden and her much-mourned husband, might be based on Mary herself. Maybe I'll just read one more novel and then tackle her biography, to see how many of my surmises are actually true.
Reynolds wrote this memoir in the heat of John Howard's condemnation of the so-called 'black armband' History Wars, a conflict in which Reynolds himself was one of the most outspoken voices. And yet just last week I heard a caller to the ABC complaining that the broadcaster placed too much emphasis on telling Aboriginal stories, whingeing that they had an 'agenda.'
I finished reading Why Weren't We Told? during a trip to a regional high school to talk about Crow Country (itself now nearly ten years old). A number of schools have found studying Crow Country to be a useful and not-too-confronting way to raise the troubled history between Europeans and Indigenous people, and I'm very happy to add some extra information into the mix. One student asked me what I thought of the Adam Goodes affair* and I said I was deeply saddened and angered by it. The students had just watched The Final Quarter, and I got the impression that most of them agreed with me. So maybe, slowly, we are getting somewhere? God, I hope so.
*An extraordinarily talented AFL footballer, Goodes started being booed during games when he bagan to speak out on race relations. Eventually he retired, basically driven from the field by the hostility of the crowds. Two recent documentaries have explored this shameful episode.
Staring At The Sun was lent to me by my friend Chris, one of whose jobs is in pastoral care. I found it both confronting and comforting. Yalom is unflinching in facing 'the dread of death' (or 'the terror of death' as it's subtitled in the US), and traces many of the seemingly minor crises of therapy back to the ultimate fear, the fear of ceasing to exist. Yalom is an atheist, and while he doesn't try to talk people out of their personal religious consolations, he doesn't believe in any kind of afterlife. He is quite certain that death is a state of non-consciousness, exactly the same as before our birth.
As usual, the greatest strength of Yalom's writing lies in his case studies, accounts of his clients and their struggles, and his own role in teasing out their fears and assumptions. He readily and refreshingly admits his own mistakes, his own biases and fears; to Yalom, we are all humans travelling the same road together.
As for myself, I think an experience I had a few years ago has done a lot to soften my own dread of death. It was when I went under general anaesthetic for abdominal surgery; I was terrified that I might gag or vomit and die under the anaesthetic, and as I went under I was earnestly explaining my panic to the anaesthetist. Just as I was losing consciousness, I was aware of a sense of liberating surrender. If the worst happens, I thought, I can't do anything about it now. If I do choke and die, I won't know anything about it. This was an immensely comforting thought. So I slipped easily into the dark, and woke up hours later, when it was all over.
Of course I don't know what my own death will be like, and if there is a 'waking up' afterwards, I'll be extremely surprised. But I hope it's something like that experience of losing consciousness under the anaesthetic -- just an inexorable falling asleep.
Therefore it feels slightly churlish to admit that I wasn't completely enamoured of Joey's adventures. Now that I'm thinking about it, it reminds me a lot of Black Beauty, which I read several times as a child -- it shares the same calm, slightly ponderous first person voice, and the same panoramic sweep of potential equine experience. One difference is that Joey doesn't converse with other horses; he makes friends with them, but it's a silent communion. He does overhear many human conversations, on both the English and German sides of the fighting, and he experiences even-handed kindness and cruelty from both sides.
The aims of War Horse are admirable, showing the humanity and futility of the conflict and the way in which innocent animals (and people) became caught up in the machine of war. But somehow I couldn't completely sink myself into the narrative. I've always had a bit of resistance to stories told from an animal's point of view; perhaps this is just my prejudice showing. I'll be interested to see what the rest of my book group make of it.