2.4.20

Re-Reading Alan Garner: Elidor

For my money, Elidor is where things really start to pick up. Alan Garner once observed that as his writing career progressed, his protagonists grew older, but always staying about the same distance from his own age. With Elidor, we move from children's literature to young adult, from high fantasy to what we would now label 'urban fantasy.'

The children (we are never told their ages, but they seem like young teens to me) enter the ruined land of Elidor through a portal in a derelict church. After a brief quest-and-test journey, they are sent back to our own world with four Treasures -- a sword, a spear, a cup and a stone (these reminded me of the four suits of the traditional tarot deck). But once in our world, the Treasures are disguised as a pair of nailed lathes, an iron rod, a cracked china bowl and a rock: the kind of imagined 'treasures' that any kid might pick up in a game of pretend. But the children are being pursued from the other side of the veil...

The section where the Treasures give off an electrical charge, causing household appliances to malfunction, is funny, and the part where intruders from Elidor rattle the door of the house is genuinely creepy. Garner's prose is beginning to be more carefully pruned in this book, and is much more powerful for its restraint.

The door of the children's house, which Roland conjures in Elidor, is the door of Garner's own childhood home, and the blasted landscape of Elidor is based on the 'ceiling world' he lost himself in as a sick child lying in bed. I think this is my favourite aspect of Elidor, the collision between real and imagined, created and remembered, mythic and quotidian, until the climactic scene with the unicorn rampaging in the demolished slums of Manchester. This is a very strong book.

31.3.20

I Capture the Castle

I've owned this copy of I Capture the Castle for several years (I bought it second hand but it was so long ago I can't remember exactly where it came from -- I paid $12) without realising that the girl on the cover is actually a very young Romola Garai, from the movie adaptation. (I have been trying to watch the movie for days but it isn't on any of the streaming services at the moment. Someone said it was on Kanopy, which I managed to install -- but it wasn't there either! Except in Egypt, apparently...)

Anyway, I had forgotten how much I adore this book. It was absolutely perfect comfort reading, and my only complaint is that it could have been ten times longer and I would have happily gone on reading it until quarantine ends. Thank you, Susannah, for reminding me about it!

It reminds me somewhat of my teenage favourite books, Nancy Mitford's Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate -- but Nancy Mitford can be brutal, there is a sense that she will ruthlessly sacrifice anyone for a laugh. Dodie Smith is far kinder. Her characters are just as charmingly eccentric as Mitford's, but there is more love. Is Cassandra, our narrator, 'consciously naive,' as she is described at one point? She grows less innocent and more mature as the book progresses, as she experiences the bitter bliss of first love, the agony of that love being unrequited, the complicated envy of her sister, and the whole wretched 'game of second-best we have all been playing -- Rose with Simon, Simon with me, me with Stephen...'

A modern reader will find it credulity-straining, perhaps, that none of the family is able to get a job of any kind, but that they all sit around waiting for their father to write another book, but the girls were not educated with employment in mind.

I Capture the Castle is also  very funny -- the scene with the bear, the green hands, the abduction of their father -- but for all its eccentricities and its bizarre setting (they live in a ruined castle, less romantic than it sounds), its heart is true. I'd remembered it as having a more straightforwardly happy ending, but in fact the bittersweet balance between melancholy and hope is pitched perfectly. I don't think I could love this book more.

27.3.20

Freakonomics

I studied Economics in Year 12. It was my worst subject and I have been sceptical of economists ever since -- what they say is either bleeding obvious or irrelevant to reality (in my opinion). But Freakonomics comes at economics from a different, and far more entertaining, angle. It's really about looking at data and asking questions -- not obvious questions, and not irrelevant ones, but questions that produce unexpected answers.

The most striking (and notorious) example of this approach concerns the youth crime wave predicted to swamp the US in the 1990s -- a crime wave that never eventuated. Commentators and politicians put this down to better policing, increased prison terms and a host of other causes, but Levitt (an economist) and Dubner (a journalist) have crunched the numbers and concluded that the real cause of this crime wave failing to occur was actually Roe v Wade -- the pro-choice legal decision which enabled many poor and desperate young women to have abortions. Twenty years later, a whole demographic of unwanted children had not been born and not grown up to become criminals. The crime rate fell.

This is probably the most controversial of their conclusions but the numbers do seem to stack up. There are also case studies involving parenting, names, real estate, crack dealers and many other topics. Since this book came out, Levitt and Dubner have produced several more and a successful podcast, but I think I've dipped my toe in deep enough for now.

25.3.20

Magpie Murders

My beautiful sister-in-law (who is something of a magpie herself) picked this up secondhand and I snaffled it (get well soon, Trae xxx). I am a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz's wartime detective series, Foyle's War, which wonderfully combines history, character and mystery. Magpie Murders is not on the same level, but it is a bit of fun -- which is something we all desperately need at the moment.

Magpie Murders gives you two murder mysteries for the price of one. The book opens with editor Susan Ryeland reading the latest manuscript in the popular Atticus Pund post-war detective series. This manuscript is the first mystery, featuring a classic cosy English village murder. But the last chapter, with the solution, is missing... and then the author, Alan Conway, turns up dead... Did he really kill himself, or was he murdered too? And if the latter, by whom and why? Susan is determined to find out.

I enjoyed this novel, which cleverly plays with many of the tropes of detective fiction by interweaving the 'fictional' and the 'real' mysteries, just as Conway did with his novels. Perfect for curling up with in quarantine.

23.3.20

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage

So long ago that it feels like a completely different life (I think it was some time in January) on a hot summer's night, I heard Judith Brett talking about this book, a history of the Australian electoral system, and I was so intrigued that I hopped out of bed at 1am and crept to my laptop to reserve it at the library then and there.

I was about eighth in the queue, but it finally arrived a couple of weeks ago -- also in another lifetime, in a different world. Now the libraries are all closed, re-opening who knows when, and I poked the book through the returns slot yesterday. I wonder when I will next be able to borrow a book -- all my lovely reserves are still waiting for me...

Judith Brett's firm contention is that Australia does elections better than just about anywhere in the world. We take our innovations for granted, but we should celebrate them, because a solid, impartial electoral system is one of the best safeguards for democracy. We didn't invent all of the following, but we did invent some, and others we adopted permanently.


  • the secret ballot: for a long time this was actually known as 'the Australian ballot.' Before this, people had to declare their votes publically, which is obviously a problem if you rely on the goodwill of the local landowner or whatever and don't want to be seen to choose someone other than their favoured candidate. Candidates used to bribe voters with alcohol, so election days became violent, riotous gatherings; the secret ballot ended this practice.
  • voting on Saturdays: it still amazes me that the US hold elections on Tuesdays, and in the UK on Thursdays! Australians have prioritised making voting easier, whereas some other jurisdictions seem to try to make it as difficult as possible.
  • compulsory voting: in fact, voting itself isn't compulsory, it's just compulsory to turn up and get your name crossed off the roll; once you're in the booth (another Aussie innovation), you can leave your paper blank, scribble on it or whatever. In Australia, voting was seen as a necessary civic duty, and determining the will of the majority of voters was always paramount.
There are lots of other elements, and not every aspect of Australian voting is a cause for celebration -- for example, the deliberate disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people (though we were early to give the vote to women). The emphasis on ease of voting is leading inexorably to a preference for early, postal and absentee voting before the actual election day (I don't approve of this). But in general, election days in Australia are genial, good-humoured community festivals, and that is in itself a cause for celebration.

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is a slim book but it's much more interesting than you might think!

21.3.20

Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away

I'm indebted to Susan Green for reminding me about these books in her discussion of Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays (which I must also re-read). I'm feeling a strong need for comfort books at the moment and thank heavens I have shelves and shelves of glorious children's books which I've collected and in which I can immerse myself in the coming days and weeks and -- God help us -- months.

As a child, I was utterly bewitched by Gone-Away Lake (which I bought from the Scholastic Book Club in PNG some time in the mid-70s -- there's no date on the edition, annoyingly -- it was the only way to buy new books in PNG at the time and I would get so excited!) and Return to Gone-Away (I picked up this copy at a library book sale a few years ago).

The premise is fabulous -- two children discover, by the shores of a swamp which used to be a lake, a collection of long-abandoned holiday houses, now inhabited only by aged brother and sister, Pindar Payton and Minnehaha Cheever. The relationship the children form with the old people is gorgeous, respectful but fun, and 'Uncle Pin' and 'Aunt Minnehaha' tell them entertaining stories about their own childhood adventures when the lake was there. There is humour and excitement (Portia's little brother almost drowns in the swamp, they search for the lost safe and treasure of the formidable Mrs Brace-Gideon) but the most enjoyable aspect for me, of course, is the idea of the deserted houses, still filled with furniture and old stuff for the taking, sinking into gentle decay. Min and Pin are vigorous and wise, perfect godparents, and in the second book, Portia's family have bought and are restoring one of the more-intact houses.

Throughly enjoyable, and the illustrations are terrific, too. The books were written in the 1950s, and the houses haven't been inhabited for fifty years -- they would be about 120 years old now. Which makes them even more enticing... I don't really fancy the swamp, though.

19.3.20

Avalanche!

It feels timely to be talking about a book that deals with natural disaster, community, courage and selflessness in the face of danger and uncertainty.

Though set in Switzerland, Avalanche! was published in Holland in 1954 and subsequently translated into English in several editions. Anna Rutgers van der Loeff sets her story in a small Swiss village in an unusually heavy winter, where even a shout can bring a deadly avalanche of snow roaring down the mountainside to bury houses and people. In Australia we are more familiar with fire and flood as natural disasters and I've never really considered the perils of avalanche (I've spelt that word wrong every time I've typed it). Precautions like carrying lengths of coloured rope, so that people know where to dig for you, were all new to me.

There is lots of action here but the heart of the story is centred on the boys of the Pestalozzi Children's Village who had travelled to the Alps for a skiing holiday and become caught in the disaster. I'd never heard of these villages, set up for war time orphans, but they still exist to provide homes for displaced youths. These boys, from a variety of nations, speaking different languages, have formed a family of sorts and in turn they connect with the local boy, Werner, whose parents and little sister  have been buried in an avalanche early in the book. The friendship between stoic Werner and excitable Italian Paolo is the true core of Avalanche!

I would like to hope that in the current crisis, we could all show the bravery, fortitude and practical compassion displayed by the characters in this book.

17.3.20

Rebel on a Rock

Not a very appealing cover -- a friend gave it to me, knowing that I collect old books, I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise, though I am a fan of Nina Bawden (author of Carrie's War and The Peppermint Pig). Thanks, Cathy!

Rebel on a Rock actually features a grown-up Carrie herself and her children, and is mostly told from the point of view of her daughter, Jo. The family, complete with new step-father Albert, have arrived on holiday in Ithaca. We're not told what country Ithaca is, because it's a dictatorship, but it's not too hard for the adult reader to guess the identity of this hot, sunny country with its honey and olives and goat's cheese, with a capital city called Zenith. (Greece was in fact a dictatorship in the 1970s, when this book was written and set, period of history about which I know absolutely nothing.)

I enjoyed Rebel on a Rock, it's an engaging story featuring Carrie's four children and the relationships they form with the townspeople of Polis. Because this is Nina Bawden, there is a lot going on, a subtle to-and-fro: Jo is torn between idolising her new step-father and suspecting he's a spy; soft-hearted young Alice befriends a policeman who is shunned by the rest of the population as an informer; their new friend Alexis is simultaneously irritating and brave. The story is mostly about not taking people at face value -- hardly anyone in the book is exactly who or what they seem at first.

Looking for an image for this post, I was surprised to find several different editions out there. I'd never come across Rebel on a Rock before. It's a shame it's such a naff title, not to mention this off-putting cover, but some of the others are better!

15.3.20

Shy

I'm shy. I think probably most writers are inclined to be shy, or at least introverted, which is why we feel so comfortable in the world of books and imagination.

Sian Prior has had a very public persona as a broadcaster, journalist and singer so it was a surprise to me that she describes herself as having always been shy. In this memoir she distinguishes between Shy Sian (fleeing from a party with clammy hands) and Professional Sian (who can be calm, confident and chatty when required). She describes a constant battle between two elements of her personality: Look at Me/Don't Look at Me. She speculates that this is the difference between the shy and the introverted. Introverts are quite happy not to be looked at and content with their own company, whereas the shy crave social attention but are terrified of asking for it.

Prior was already working on Shy when 'Tom,' her partner of ten years, unexpectedly broke up with her. This event gives the memoir a raw, agonising immediacy, and it's as much a story of grief and loss as it is a tale of shyness. Horrible for Prior, but Shy is probably a better book as a result. It's also interesting to juxtapose this loss with the death of Prior's father when she was an infant, and the ripple effects of this early absence on the rest of her life. (Prior doesn't name 'Tom' in the book, but it's easy enough to find out his identity.)

Shy is part memoir, part meditation, part psychological exploration of social anxiety. Next time I'm forced to make small talk with people I don't know, I'll remember that something like 40% of people describe themselves as shy. Maybe it's just as excruciating for them as it is for me!

12.3.20

Re-reading Alan Garner: Boneland

I have written about Boneland before. This time I was reading it primarily with an eye to its being a sequel to Weirdstone and Moon of Gomrath, and it succeeds surprisingly well, considering that it's an adult novel completing a trilogy initially aimed at 10-12 year olds.

Like all Garner's work, this is a multi-layered work. Without help, I would never have picked up the references to Camelot (the round table at Colin's workplace, his boss R.T. (Artie = Arthur) and colleagues Gwen and Owen), Gawain's quest, the medieval poem Pearl... And yet Boneland (only this morning I wondered if there is an intentional resemblance to homeland in the title?) contains magic, too. Who is the unconventional psychiatrist Meg (Morrigan/Margaret = Pearl?), and her offsiders Bert and Fay? If she is indeed the sinister Morrigan of the previous books, what are we to make of her helpful aspect here?

I keep forgetting to mention the other strand of the story, the ancient shaman who is guardian of the land, and whose role it seems Colin has inherited. His loneliness is almost unbearable, and it echoes Colin's own unbearable isolation. And yet the Watcher's story has a happy ending, of sorts.

It's been suggested that the whole of Boneland takes place in the last few moments of Colin's life, that its events occur inside the 'boneland' of his skull, a last frantic firing of the neutrons before death. But perhaps ultimately that is where all stories take place, in that mysterious territory between place and thought and dreaming.

10.3.20

The Likeness

I seem to be working my way backwards through Tana French's back catalogue: The Likeness is her second novel, and part of the Dublin Murders series currently screening on SBS (which I've managed to hold off watching so far...)

The Likeness opens with a bit of a gimmicky premise -- a murder victim who just happens to be a nearly exact double for a Dublin detective, who then goes undercover as the victim to discover the murderer. That notion was pretty hard to swallow, but once I accepted it, there was lots to enjoy. This is the third book of French's (The Wych Elm, The Secret Place) that has featured a beautiful, tight-knit, idealised group of young friends in a beautiful, slightly shabby but gorgeous setting (a private school, a run-down mansion), so this is obviously a theme that appeals to her. It appeals to me too, and The Likeness is perhaps its most perfect iteration.

Like Cassie-posing-as-Lexie, I was seduced by the world of Whitethorn House and its brilliant, socially dysfunctional student inhabitants, though I found it hard to believe, however close the resemblance and however many phone videos the victim had helpfully provided for Cassie to study, that she could really impersonate Lexie so perfectly that the others didn't suspect something! This book is all about identity and pretence and secrets and turning yourself into somebody else -- Cassie falls so far down the rabbit hole that she has trouble pulling herself out.

The Likeness was such a rich, luxurious, though ultimately really sad, read. I absolutely wallowed in it.

3.3.20

Listening to Country

Listening to Country is a memoir by Ros Moriarty, who is a white woman married to an Aboriginal man, John Moriarty. In 2006, she was taken on a journey to country, deep in the desert, with members of her husband's family, and included in traditional ceremony. The book is partly an account of that trip (excluding ritual details which need to remain secret), and partly the story of hers and John's marriage and their very successful design business, which has brought Aboriginal imagery and colour to everyday Australians and the world (they designed the Qantas planes with the indigenous paintings, among many other things).

Moriarty is aware of her privilege, both as a white woman, and as a welcome member of her husband's extended family. Listening to Country is her sharing of the insights and experiences she has gained from family, and also a sharing of their personal histories, stories which remain largely hidden from many Australians.

One element that made me sad was Moriarty's conviction that the time of deep connection to country is coming to an inexorable end -- that when these old women and men die, ritual, ceremony and knowledge will die with them. I'm not so sure -- my recent readings of Tyson Yunkaporta and Bruce Pascoe, among others, give me hope that these traditions are still highly valued and that real effort is being made to preserve and build on them. I really hope so. In these days more than ever, humanity is crying out for a closer connection to country, to the swing of the seasons and the balance of the natural world. Indigenous Australians have so much to teach the rest of us and this knowledge is more essential than ever. I feel as if we are, at last, almost ready to listen. Or maybe I just spend too much time on the ABC?

29.2.20

Re-reading Alan Garner: The Weirdstone & The Moon of Gomrath


Alan Garner is an extraordinary writer, but in my opinion, his first two books are nowhere near his best work. It seems strikingly unjust that they are by far his most successful (as far as I can tell).

Garner has stated that his nine novels, written over a span of decades, are really all one long book. This reminds me of Aboriginal story-telling, in which one simple layer of the tale is told to children, and deeper layers of myth and meaning are gradually revealed to adults as they grow in wisdom and understanding. Thus Garner's stories become ever more complex, more resonant, more meaningful and in some ways more obscure, culminating in Boneland, which completes the trilogy begun by these two novels in a very adult, subtle and intricate way.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen didn't appeal to me as a kid. The Moon of Gomrath is much better, creepy and sinister and centred around female magic. Cadellin the sorcerer, central to the first book, barely appears in the second one; this guardian figure will re-emerge in Boneland, in the form of a long-ago shaman, and as adult Colin himself.

I've read these two volumes a few times now, and I still find the elves and the dwarfs a bit much. But they helped to introduce several generations of readers to Garner's more sophisticated work, and without them, we might not have the magnificent triumph of Boneland. For that I'm grateful.

24.2.20

The Call

I picked this up from Brotherhood Books a while ago, and seeing as footy season is just around the corner (go, Dogs!) I thought I'd pull it out.

The Call is an odd book; it's described as a novel, but it reads like non-fiction -- except that Flanagan invented many (but not all?) of the 'documents' he 'quotes': contemporary letters, newspaper articles, diary entries. It's impossible to tell which of these texts are actually primary sources and which are imaginary, which is a testament to Flanagan's powers, but makes for a rather uneasy reading experience.

The Call is the story of Thomas Wills, the founder of the Australian Rules code of football in the 1850s. While NSW and Queensland adopted rugby, as played in the public schools of England, Wills drew up the rules for 'a game of our own.' Aussie Rules was actually codified before soccer! It's probably that Wills was inspired by the local Aboriginal game marngrook, which involved leaping and catching the ball as well as kicking and running with it, and gives Australian Rules its distinctive, exhilarating flavour.  I don't know much about sport, but when I've watched rugby and soccer, the games seem to be played in two dimensions, up and down the field, whereas AFL is truly 360 degrees.

Wills straddled two worlds, between the white colonists and the Aborigines he grew up with (he famously took a team of Aboriginal cricketers to tour England). He was a consummate sportsman, a cricketer first and foremost, but the brutal murder of his father in outback Queensland by local tribes, and the inevitable loss of his sporting prowess as he grew older, seemed to rob him of meaning and purpose, and he ended up taking his own life.

The most moving section of this book invites us to imagine Tommy Wills returning to the MCG, the ground where he experienced many of his own sporting triumphs, and witnessing a modern Grand Final -- a crowd of 100,000 fans, the power of the athletes, the speed and skill of the modern game. And today (The Call was published in 1998) we could add the AFLW to the list of developments that Wills would never have foreseen.

PS Last night I watched Stan Grant's documentary about Adam Goodes, The Australian Dream. Sadly, Australian racism doesn't seem to have improved much, even after more than a hundred years.

21.2.20

The Trauma Cleaner

The Trauma Cleaner is a remarkable book, multi-awarded and much discussed. It tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a transgender woman who has survived childhood abuse, exploitation, drug addiction and rape, and who now operates a highly successful business as a trauma cleaner -- cleaning up crime scenes, the houses of hoarders, places where people have died.

Sandra's story is compelling enough on its own, but it's told brilliantly by Sarah Krasnostein. The book loops between Sandra's history -- her imperfect, patchy memories, supplemented by Krasnostein's own researches -- and her current life, the various scenes where her work takes place, in all their heartbreaking and sometimes revolting vividness. These poignant encounters, Sandra's empathy and compassion, and the strange hollowness within, are beautifully described. This is an incredibly moving book.

I read The Trauma Cleaner simultaneously with Lost For Words, and it was interesting to compare the two accounts of damaged and resilient women, one fictional, one true. Now that I've begun reading books concurrently, I'm astonished at how frequently these correspondences crop up, without any planning on my part.

19.2.20

White Boots

Since I watched I, Tonya, I have a much less rosy view of the world of ice skating. However, it seems it's always been an expensive, snobby sport, and certainly White Boots confirms that impression.

White Boots has always been one of my favourite Streatfeilds. And it DOES feature a nice mum -- Olivia, shabby-gentry mother to convalescent Harriet, who takes up skating to strengthen her legs after illness. Harriet's whole family subsist on the proceeds of what seems to be a very unrealistic shop, supplied with random goods by Harriet's country uncle, who eats all the best produce himself and sends them ninety sacks of rancid brussels sprouts. I have never fathomed how anyone could possibly run a shop on this basis, but there you go.

Harriet soon befriends Lalla Moore, who has a much more typical Streatfeild family (!) -- ambitious, snobby Aunt Claudia, kind but distant Uncle David, and her two benevolent guardians in the form of loving Nana and intellectual Miss Goldthorpe. Lalla is a skating prodigy, but she likes the attention more than the discipline, the opposite of Harriet, who works away steadily but without Lalla's showiness. I really enjoy the way that Streatfeild contrasts the two friends' different strengths and shows there is a place for both. White Boots is a really optimistic book and a lovely story of friendship and following your dreams.

17.2.20

A Very Special Year and Lost For Words


My lovely friend Suzanne lent me a couple of books about bookshops recently, just for fun, and now I have read them both, so I thought I would discuss them together.

The first was A Very Special Year, by Thomas Montasser, first published in German. Now, I'm hesitant to say that any book featuring an abandoned bookshop, a mysterious aunt, a whimsical young woman and a magical book that tells readers the story of their own lives could ever be a BAD book... but this is not great. It has the great virtue of being very short. It's possible that it suffers from translation, but I suspect the problem lies in the original. It's just awfully, awfully twee. It's trying to celebrate the inspirational and comforting role that books can play in our lives, but it struggles to pull together anything like a story. The author is a university lecturer, and I respectfully suggest that he sticks to his day job.

Having trudged painfully through A Very Special Year, I approached Stephanie Butland's Lost For Words with some trepidation. But this is a very different kettle of fish. I loved it. For a start, this book contains real characters: damaged, defensive Loveday, avuncular Archie, annoying Melodie, possibly-too-good-to-be-true magician Nathan, creepy Rob. This bookshop isn't a magical fantasy (except that it is...), but a place that feels real, crammed with books, stories and secrets. Loveday's secret is a particularly large and painful one, and she has devoted the last decade of her young life to guarding it. Gradually we discover its details, and gradually Loveday starts connecting with people.

One element I really enjoyed was that Loveday has the first lines of important novels tattooed on herself: for the first time I thought, that's a tattoo idea I could get behind.
They were not railway children to begin with.There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.Some things start before other things. (I didn't know that one.)
The primroses were over.The book was thick and black and covered with dust.And naturally: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
If you think know any of these, tell me in the comments and I'll tell you if you're right!

14.2.20

The Arsonist

I was reminded about Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist when I woke up in the night and heard the author talking about the book on the radio (I hear a lot of interesting things via night radio).

The Arsonist has won multiple awards and deservedly so. Although it centres around the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, it was uncomfortably relevant during this past horrific Australian summer (which is not over yet, despite the blessed downpours). This is the story of Brendan Sokaluk, who was found guilty of deliberately lighting one of those cataclysmic Black Saturday fires, but it is also a story about the struggling rural community where he lived, a power station town in the Latrobe Valley; about the fires themselves, and the apocalypse that killed so many people. It is searing to read about the nightmare the those people endured, and you begin to think that anyone who deliberately caused that suffering and devastation must deserve the harshest possible punishment.

And yet. Things are rarely simple in a Chloe Hooper book. Sokaluk became a figure of terror because of what he'd done, yet Hooper shows that he is also deeply pathetic. Possibly autistic, definitely intellectually disabled, Brendan moves in a small world that he has trouble understanding, with people who find him irritating. His only true friend is his dog, who loves him without judgement. Like many people with ID, Brendan may have trouble grasping the complexities of social interaction, but he is expert at forming and holding onto grudges, and knowing when he's being bullied; he has been bullied his whole life.

Having said that, it's hard to feel too much sympathy for Sokaluk, and it's impossible to know if he fully understood the consequences of his behaviour when he lit that fire. Was he a cunning, manipulative criminal, or one of life's victims who got out of his depth? It's Hooper's skill that lets the reader see that both options are probably true.

12.2.20

Apple Bough

I've seen reviews of Noel Streatfeild's Apple Bough in which people say that they dislike the book because the parents are so awful. Well, awful parents are nothing new in the Streatfeild-verse, let's face it, but I actually don't think that these particular parents are so terrible. In fact I have a soft spot for this book and I enjoyed re-visiting it.

Sebastian Forum is a violin prodigy and for years his whole family has travelled the world as he tours the globe. The children's parents, Polly and David, are thrilled with this arrangement, but as time goes on, Sebastian's siblings become increasingly disillusioned and homesick and put in place 'Operation Home.'

It's true that David and Polly are protected from the children's true feelings until quite late in the book, but once they are informed, they don't stand in the way. Polly is another distant Streatfeild mother, wrapped up in her own work (she's an artist), not at all hands-on, but loving in her own way. The Nanny role in this book is filled by the delightfully efficient Miss Popple and also the charming tutor Paul (I have a bit of a crush on Paul). It's really enjoyable to see the other children working their way into making the most of their own gifts -- Ettie in ballet, Wolfgang acting and composing -- but my favourite character is the eldest sister, Myra, whose strength is wisdom and encouragement. By the end of the book, it's clear that Myra will the one member of the family who will provide a solid base for the high-fliers to return to. And that is a very worthy role, too.

Apple Bough is a splendid comfort read.

10.2.20

Terra Nullius

Borrowed from my friend Chris K, Claire G. Coleman's novel Terra Nullius is difficult to discuss without giving away what makes it special: a killer twist.

The book starts in fairly pedestrian fashion, so much so that I was beginning to wonder why Chris had lent it to me. The writing seemed oddly textureless, the story unfolding in a predictable direction. But luckily I persisted, because then the twist kicked in and made me review everything I'd read up to that point in a new light.

Terra Nullius is probably a little too long; after the twist is established, the story doesn't need as much space as it's been given to unfold, and the language can be a little flat at times. Also the characters are fairly shallow, but that's not unexpected in this kind of spec fiction. I can't really say too much more about this, but it's a clever recasting of Australia's history. Terra Nullius has won a slew of awards, and no wonder. I think it's bee marketed as an adult title, but I think it would work very well for young adults.

I'm looking forward to seeing Claire Coleman in conversation with Tyson Yunkaporta next month at the Carlton library!

8.2.20

Only

Caroline Baum has been a familiar face from the ABC, where she worked for many years as a journalist and presenter. Only: A Singular Memoir is a family story, which she describes as a triangle consisting of herself, her father and her mother, with a struggle to pull to the top spot.

Baum's family history is an extraordinary one. Her French mother had a dramatically tragic background; her Viennese Jewish father escaped the Nazis via Kindertransport to England, but lost his entire extended family in the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, these losses permanently marked Baum's parents, with her father an especially forceful personality with a lot to prove. His love of luxury, money, high quality clothes and cars, meticulously organised travel, made his daughter's childhood in some ways highly privileged; but she also suffered the crushing burden of being the only child -- treasured, but expected to be perfect. It's not really until the second part of the book, when Caroline's father's health fails, that she truly feels the pressure of singleness. Suddenly the whole responsibility for caring for both parents lands squarely on her shoulders.

There was much in this memoir that resonated with me. Though I'm not an only child, my sister has an intellectual disability, so for practical purposes I'm the only one who can take charge when things go wrong. And they did go spectacularly wrong a few years ago, when my father had a debilitating stroke. Overnight, our roles were reversed; instead of running to my parents for support and refuge, suddenly they were both dependent on me (and so was my sister). Luckily I didn't have to deal with it alone; my marvellous husband shouldered a huge part of the task. But I understood what Caroline Baum was going through, especially when she was running around London trying to find suitable accommodation for her father. Many secrets came tumbling out in the aftermath of her father's illness.

This was a thoughtful, moving and fascinating memoir. Baum says that three never felt like enough to make up a family, and it's true that the bonds between the three of them were intense and super-charged with emotion. I thoroughly enjoyed Only.

6.2.20

A Vicarage Family

I haven't read Noel Streatfeild's A Vicarage Family for years, but it used to be one of my very favourite books. I must have read it twenty times, and as I read it again, whole passages leapt into the light, breaking the surface of my memory.

I'm not sure now why I was so attracted to this book. It's described as A Biography of Myself, and it's a lightly fictionalised memoir of Streatfeild's own childhood, with herself as the 'difficult' middle child Vicky Strangeway. But though Vicky is awkward, stubborn, sulky and misunderstood, her relationship with her sisters, particularly artistic older sister Isobel, is strong and supportive. She is also close to her worldly cousin John.

But Vicky's relationship wth her mother is clearly troubled; hence all those distant, inept mothers in her fiction. It's hard to think of a single sympathetic mother figure in a Streatfeild book (maybe Cathy Bell in The Bell Family); the maternal role is always filled by a Nanny figure who comes from outside the family. It's intriguing to see the prototypes of these extra family members in their original incarnation -- wiry, sharp-tongued Annie, wise Grand-Nanny, and efficient Miss Herbert.

In all honesty, there is not a lot of action in the story. Life in the Vicarage is pretty uneventful. But it must have been the detailed texture of everyday life which is captured so vividly, and the intense emotional experiences of Vicky herself, which I found so compelling. It really felt like entering into someone else's true life, albeit the life of an English Edwardian teenager when I was a little Australian girl growing up in PNG. Perhaps it felt exotic!

Some elements that have stayed with me: the strict moral rules of their gentle father, forbidding the girls to eat anything but bread and butter at a birthday party in Lent; the formidable Miss French who won't tolerate a raised voice even when Vicky sprains her ankle; favoured younger sister Louise clutching her golliwog and dramatically fainting, when it's Vicky who is actually much more ill (injustice!); and the last chapter of the book, which is the most moving introduction to the tragedy of WWI I could have encountered.

I only recently became aware that there are further autobiographical volumes, Away from the Vicarage and Beyond the Vicarage, but I've never managed to get hold of them. They cost about a gazillion dollars to buy secondhand, so maybe I never will.

4.2.20

Wild

I don't enjoy hiking. I loathe camping. I quite enjoy a short, gentle bushwalk with a car at the end to take me somewhere warm (or cool) and comfortable. But I adore reading about wilderness and other people traipsing through it.

Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir Wild has been a smash hit. Since reading it, I've also watched the Reese Witherspoon movie of the same name, which is a faithful adaptation of the book, and has the added bonus of showing you the scenery that Strayed made her laborious way across and through (and sometimes around).

Wild is a book about hiking and camping, but also about self-discovery, grief and healing. There is a reason why so many self-help books recommend walking. Cheryl starts her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (along the west coast of the US) as a raw newbie, with boots that don't fit and a ludicrously overloaded pack. By the time she reaches the Bridge of the Gods on the border between Oregon and Washington, she has toughened up mentally and physically, made friends on the trail, and begun to heal from the death of her mother and some bad life choices.

There are some very funny moments in this book, and also some really painful passages. Strayed succeeds wonderfully in keeping the balance between laughter, fear and sorrow. I'm not surprised this book has been such a massive success.

2.2.20

Faithful Place

Yes, it's another Tana French. Faithful Place is the fourth in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and the earliest novel of French's that I've read yet. This book provides the background to the relationship between hardbitten Frank Mackey, his daughter Holly, and ambitious young detective Stephen Moran, which was touched on in The Secret Place.  But in that book, Holly was sixteen; in Faithful Place, she is just nine.

This is another terrific crime novel, but it's also about family, inheritance, memory and loyalty. Twenty years ago, Frank Mackey escaped from his abusive father and poverty-stricken neighbourhood; but a chance discovery drags him home, and back to the past he thought he'd left behind.

Mackey believes he is utterly different from his violent, brutal father, but we can see that he still carries the legacy of that cruelty and violence just beneath the surface. With his marriage broken, Frank's love for his young daughter is the strongest force in his life, and there's nothing he wouldn't do to protect her. Life in Faithful Place seesaws between protecting family, and hurting family, but a weird code of honour and shame coats everyone's behaviour. It's easy to forget just how hamstrung by religion Ireland was until very recently, maybe still is, for all I know -- a first world nation where abortion and contraception were outlawed means that women's sexual lives are strictly regulated, marriage was often early, and unwanted pregnancy meant unwanted children.

I smugly thought that I'd solved this story about halfway through, but I was too clever for my own good. The ultimate solution was less tricky, but more realistic, than the one I dreamed up. Another deeply satisfying crime novel.

31.1.20

Resurrection Bay

Things I loved about Resurrection Bay:

  • It's written by Emma Viskic, a Melbourne author, who happens to be a friend of my friend (and piano teacher) Chris
  • It's set in Melbourne, so there's lots of fun landmark- and suburb-spotting
  • The protagonist Caleb is deaf, which is a fresh twist, and Viskic makes great use of his lip-reading and other abilities as well as the disadvantages of hearing impairment
  • The story is fast and furious, with plenty of action, pursuit, betrayal and fighting; I can imagine teenage boys getting caught up in this engaging novel.
Really, my only reservation about Resurrection Bay was that it wasn't by Tana French... which was a problem of my timing rather than any fault of Viskic's. She's won several awards and the series has spun out to (I think) three volumes now, and she thoroughly deserves her success.

29.1.20

The Trespasser

I am deep in a major Tana French binge, if you hadn't noticed. These novels are the perfect marriage of literary and genre -- gripping plot; thoughtful characterisation; colourful, evocative writing. I'm starting to want to visit Dublin!

The Trespasser is the sixth novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, though I've been reading them all out of order, and I was delighted to be reunited with detectives eager Stephen Moran and bitter Antoinette Conway. Conway is the narrator here, so we get to see Moran through her eyes; in The Secret Place, it was the other way around.

These two have made it into the Murder Squad but they're being chucked the scraps no one else wants, and at first this case looks like more of the same -- a routine domestic violence murder. But because this is a Tana French novel, there is much more to it than that, and it's so satisfying to join Conway and Moran as they peel back the layers to uncover the truth.

More than the other novels I've read in this series, The Trespasser is about the business of police work and the politics of the squad, and how the need for trust and loyalty can warp judgement. And it's also about, as Conway puts it, 'the stories we tell ourselves,'  as she comes to realise that the story she's been telling herself, about how her workmates hate her, is not necessarily true either, though by believing it, she's well on the way to making it so.

Another deeply engrossing tale from the incomparable Tana French.

27.1.20

Iphigenia in Forest Hills

I'm an admirer of Janet Malcolm's writing, but I wasn't familiar with this slim book, which began as a New Yorker article. Iphigenia in Forest Hills follows a real life courtroom drama, the 2009 murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, accused of hiring an assassin to murder her estranged husband. A member of the Bukharan Jewish community, Borukhova cut an exotic and mysterious figure in this murky case.

The Iphigenia of the title refers to the couple's young daughter. In Greek myth, Iphigenia was sacrificed to the gods by her father and avenged by her mother; in this case, it's alleged that Borukhova may have been sexually abused by her father, but despite this allegation, sole custody of the child was awarded to her father. If there was a motive for the murder, this was probably it.

I have to confess that I found Iphigenia in Forest Hills (a suburb of New York) as murky and baffling to read as the case seems to have been in real life. I gather that Malcom's point was to highlight the poor treatment of Borukhova by an unfeeling and dismissive justice system (don't get me started on the US legal system!), but at times I struggled to make out exactly what Malcolm was getting at. I think I may have been spoiled by Helen Garner's magnificent courtroom accounts, particularly This House of Grief, where Garner clearly sets out her own confusion (if she feels it) and often rage. There is no second guessing! In contrast, Janet Malcolm seems to tiptoe through her subject matter so discreetly that I couldn't figure out what she felt. Overall, I was quite disappointed in this book.

24.1.20

Comments

I'm very annoyed with Blogger at the moment. I've been aware for a little while that some visitors to this blog find it impossible to leave comments. Well, Blogger has taken that irritation to another level as I am now unable to leave comments ON MY OWN BLOG.

I'm trying to get to the bottom of this and hopefully fix it, but meanwhile, please be assured that even if I don't respond, I am reading and appreciating your comments. Please don't stop leaving them!

The Secret Place

This was my first taste of Irish author Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. The Secret Place is set in a girls' private school attended by Holly, the daughter of Frank Mackey from the Murder Squad, both of whom feature in an earlier book, Faithful Place (which I'm reading now). Holly and her friends are sixteen, and a year ago St Kilda's (!!) was rocked by the murder of a student from their brother school. Now someone is claiming, via a postcard on a noticeboard, that they know who killed him.

The structure of this novel is really gripping. One strand follows the long year leading up to and following the murder, the ebb and flow of teenage politics, tight friendship with its shared dreams and dares, the intense love that can bind adolescent girls together. There is even an unexpected magical element to this part of the story which really surprised me, but in the context of the story I totally bought it, though I can imagine other readers balking.

The second strand tracks the single, highly pressured day that Holly brings the postcard to detective Stephen Moran, during which ambitious Moran and beleaguered Murder Squad member Antoinette Conway visit the school, interrogate students, and try to piece together the still-unsolved mystery. I don't think I've ever come across parallel narratives used this way before, and it's so simple but so masterly in ratcheting up the tension as both storylines converge.

I'm extremely impressed by Tana French. This is not just a murder mystery, but a layered and achingly evocative exploration of female friendship, beautifully underlined by the two detectives: Conway feels not just friendless but trapped in a hostile (male) work environment, while Moran is friendly with everyone but close to no-one. Both of them, from different angles, envy, admire and mistrust the girls' bond of loyalty.

The Secret Place is an outstanding novel. I'm now onto my fourth Tana French novel, and they are all terrific, but this is my favourite so far.

22.1.20

Fangirl

I was excited to read Fangirl. I was definitely a fangirl in the making, but a solitary one. I wrote a version of what would now be called fanfic, though the term didn't exist when I was writing it, and I never shared what I wrote with anyone. In Rainbow Rowell's book, Cath writes fanfic about 'Simon Snow' (a thinly disguised Harry Potter figure, though I believe Rowell went on to write some actual Simon Snow novels -- how meta is that!). My own preferred universes were Doctor Who, Blake's 7, and All Creatures Great and Small; somehow I managed to create a mash-up universe that could contain all these worlds in a more or less coherent narrative!

However, Fangirl isn't really about fandom as such. As one Goodreads reviewer pointed out, what's missing from this story is the community of fandom -- something I never really experienced. That being said, I  could relate to Cath's painful social insecurity, her avoidance of interaction with her fellow students, taking refuge (and delicious delight) in the world of Simon Snow, partly in her own head, partly constructed by Gemma Leslie. Even Cath recognises that her immersion in Simon Snow's world is an addiction.

Meanwhile Cath's twin, Wren, has broken away from their previously shared obsession with Simon and his vampire nemesis, Baz, and has taken the path that I took myself when I started uni (college) -- boys and alcohol. I deliberately went cold turkey on my own private universe, one of the most painful decisions I've ever made. Wren goes off the rails, and is reined in my her concerned father (this never happened to me, though I went way further off the rails than Wren does).

In the end, I was left slightly unsatisfied by Fangirl. Cath never resolves her issues with her absent mother, and she has a sweet, perfect boyfriend and a new best friend delivered into her lap by fate (college room-mate plus room-mate's ex). She never really engages with the implications of burying herself in Simon Snow's world, though by the end of the book she is beginning to write about other things, which is evolution of a kind, I guess.

I was left feeling that there is a more interesting book to be written about fandom, about living inside your own imagination, its costs and treasures. Hm, maybe I might have to write it myself...

20.1.20

Young Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu has been a bit of a slow burn since it was first published in 2014, but it's causing a fuss now among right-wing commentators, which is surely a sign that he's onto something. Something threatening to the status quo, something which makes the powerful people of this country uncomfortable.

In recent weeks there have been vicious attacks on the subject matter of Dark Emu, with claims that Pascoe has exaggerated or even fabricated the evidence he found through painstaking research into primary sources (there is a whole website dedicated to contradicting Dark Emu). More nastily, a campaign has begun which questions Bruce Pascoe's own Aboriginality and presumably, his right to even discuss this history -- not that a lack of Aboriginal heritage ever stops his right-wing critics from propounding their theories about Australian history.

In my view, anyone who pisses off Andrew Bolt must be doing something right, and I'm thrilled that the ABC is making a documentary series based on the book. For too long, the observations of the earliest colonial explorers have been ignored: their own eyewitness accounts of sophisticated Aboriginal land management, sowing and harvesting of crops, food storage, the building of permanent dwellings and aquaculture systems.

Young Dark Emu takes the substance of the original book and distils it down to the essentials, still including quotes from original sources and some great illustrations. It's aimed at young readers, but it's also a handy, short version of Bruce Pascoe's argument for people who can't be bothered reading a full length book. Maybe Andrew Bolt could take a look?

NB For an excellent précis of Dark Emu, please go to Verity Sparks.

13.1.20

Yellow Notebook

I would honestly read Helen Garner's shopping lists if she made them into a book, so naturally I gobbled up Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. The most exciting part of that title is Volume 1!! How many more juicy volumes can we expect, I wonder?

I kept a faithful diary all through my uni years but it gradually dropped away as I a) grew happier and b) had kids. Part of the thrill of reading Garner's diaries for this period was that during the mid-80s we were living in overlapping worlds: walking the same inner Melbourne streets, shopping at the same bookshops, even going to the same nightclubs (occasionally). It's hard to tell but perhaps we even lived near each other, or passed each other in the street.

It's weird reading someone else's diary, even when it's been carefully edited like this. Her closest associates are disguised but little snippets of celebrity-spotting peep through (she meets a young Noah Taylor in a nightclub). There are flashes of subjects that will later become central to her writing -- violent crime, spirituality, and of course the abiding interest in personal relationships. Garner's second marriage broke down during this period, and she had other relationships.

As usual, her writing sparkles, and it's hard to read her self-berating laments, when she sees herself as untalented, plain, unlovable. It's the stuff of most diaries, mine anyway, and in a way it's reassuring that even the most brilliant of people can be so besieged with self-doubt. Reading this book was like grazing on delicious appetisers -- not a solid meal, but nourishing all the same.

11.1.20

A Single Stone

I've been meaning to read Meg McKinley's A Single Stone for a long time. It won heaps of prizes -- the PM's Literary Award, an Aurealis Award, Queensland Literary award, and was shortlisted for even more.

This is the kind of fantasy novel I really like, and it's pitched at the same level that my books always seem to end up at: somewhere between YA and middle grade, upper primary/lower secondary sort of level. It won the PM's award for Young Adult Fiction, but I don't think it's quite full-blooded YA. Not that I'm complaining (I seem to be off YA lately).

The world-building in this book is very accomplished. Generations ago, a remnant population was trapped by a landslide inside a valley, and believing that the rest of their society was destroyed, they've lived in the valley ever since. They depend for heat and energy on burning a stone called mica, which can only be obtained by creeping deep into the fissures of the mountain. This responsibility falls on young girls, but as the supply of readily available mica is used up, the Mothers need girls who are smaller and thinner and more flexible every year. Jena is the leader of the line, but when she begins to question the assumptions of her small world, she might bring everything tumbling down.

A Single Stone reminded me a little of Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, with its subterranean young girls and buried secrets, and the isolated valley ruled by women inevitably reminded me of Calwyn's home, Antaris, in my own The Singer of All Songs. I'm not a fan of caves and the idea of being trapped inside rock gives me the heebie jeebies, so I'm not sure that the world of A Single Stone is one I'd particularly want to live in myself! But it makes a cracking idea for a fantasy.

8.1.20

The Overstory

I borrowed Richard Power's Booker Prize short-listed doorstop, The Overstory, because someone on Facebook said it provoked more discussion in her book group than any other novel this year. It's a mighty fat book, the kind of thick adult novel that has made me quail in recent years. But I took a deep breath and dived in.

The Overstory is about trees. It follows nine characters whose stories intersect and overlap, nine people whose lives have all at some point revolved around trees. As I read I couldn't help marvelling at the incredible piece of engineering that is a tree: a elegant machine for converting carbon to oxygen, knitting together earth and air, communicating mysteriously with its fellows, providing shelter and food for countless other organisms, animals, insects and birds, infinitely adaptable, patiently extending roots and twigs, growing imperceptibly out and upward, too slowly for us to notice.

Some of the characters in The Overstory become environmental activists. Apparently this part of the book is based on real-life campaigns in the Pacific North-West of the US. They risk their lives to save the ancient trees. There are also artists, a computer game developer, a lawyer, an engineer who becomes a therapist, a scientist, who all see the trees from slightly different angles.

I've always been more of a tree person than a sea person. My family home is in the foothills of the Dandenongs, and its windows gaze out at a tree-blanketed slope. Even now as I sit in my inner-suburban living-room, I'm looking out at the dozen or so trees in our backyard and the swaying screen of leaves that soars high above the local rooftops.

Today, as I hear the clamour for more clear-felling to protect human property from bushfires, my heart sinks. Surely, if anything can save us from our doom, it will be the trees? One couple in The Overstory decide to let their garden go wild. All they have to do is... nothing. And inexorably, nature takes over. That gave me hope.

3.1.20

Reading Roundup 2019

I'm so far behind on my book responses, I almost forgot that it was time for the annual reading roundup. In 2019 I read 92 books -- slightly more than last year.

Kids' books: 39
Adult: 53
This is about the same proportion as last year, and most of my memorable reads were in the adult category. Towards the end of the year I had a Noel Streatfeild comfort binge. Actually there are a lot of books on my shelves begging for a re-read: Alan Garner, Lucy Boston, E Nesbit, more Streatfeilds. Hm, I can feel a nostalgic 2020 coming on!


Female authors: 63
Male authors: 26
Mixed authorship: 3
Practically all the fiction I read this year was by women. I discovered Mary Wesley, Jane Harper and Tana French, and caught up with some Kate Atkinson titles I hadn't read before. Should I make an effort to read more books by men?

... Nah, I don't think so.

Fiction: 63
Non-fiction: 29
I read heaps of fiction at the start of this year, but non-fiction made a bit of a comeback towards the end. Exactly the same proportion of women authors as fiction titles, weirdly. It's just a coincidence.

Secondhand books: 40 (down 5)
Borrowed from library: 24 (up 13)
Bought new (includes gifts): 14 (up 5)
Borrowed from friends: 9 (up 5)
Re-read: 4 (down 9)
Kindle: 2 (down 5)
The library had a resurgence this year, though I still bought (and read) mostly secondhand. I managed to make a dent in my immense to-be-read stash, and I'm (mostly) resisting the temptation to load up at Brotherhood Books. Particularly later in the year, I have rediscovered the amazing resource that is the local library and I've been going crazy reserving far more books than I can read!
BTW, e-books are so over.


Australian: 39
UK: 30
US: 18
New Zealand: 1
Ireland: 3
India: 1
Wow, I did not expect that -- Australian books are comfortably in the majority this year. I didn't consciously seek out local books, but I'm happy that it's turned out that way. Little bit of an Irish blip happening, too! As I was tallying up the totals, I realised that I'd read a lot of books by Australian women this year. So hooray to that.

Notable books in 2019
Johann Hari's Lost Connections made me see depression and anxiety in a new way, as a social problem as much as an individual one.
Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk reinforced my disillusionment with western society. There has to be a better way. Humans are not designed to live like this, no wonder we are all so miserable. Plus, we are destroying our home.
On a similar theme, Richard Power's The Overstory is a big fat novel, the kind I thought I couldn't be arsed reading any more. But it was an absorbing account of the relationship between people and trees. God, trees are amazing.

In other fiction, I was impressed by Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends. I can't wait to see what she does next. Eva Hornung's haunting Dog Boy stayed with me long after I'd finished reading. I was thrilled to discover the murder mysteries of Tana French and local author Jane Harper.

Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do was a harrowing exploration of domestic abuse and masculinity.

And finally, Jane Sullivan's Storytime was pure pleasure. Thank God for books.

Domestic Soldiers

Domestic Soldiers is another book created out of the raw material of the Mass-Observation project. I've read a few of these now and they are never less than interesting; however, Domestic Soldiers is one of the less successful offerings.

Mass-Observation was a British social research study which ran from the 1930s to 1961, when it was discontinued. About 500 volunteers kept diaries, replied to questionnaires, and recorded the opinions and behaviour of their fellow citizens. The archive formed by this mass of material is a treasure trove for historians.

Domestic Soldiers is loosely focused on the feelings, thoughts and experiences of six 'ordinary' women in wartime. Spread all over the country, their experience of war was hugely variable. One was a sheltered middle-class wife who grumbled at the inconvenience of rationing and incompetent servants; another suffered the full brunt of the Blitz. One sought emotional relief in flirting with service-men; another was painfully loyal to her repressed, controlling husband, but found a new lease of life and confidence in running a canteen and the local Red Cross shop.

Ultimately, I wanted more of the diaries and fewer general descriptions of what was going on in the war at the time. This is actually not a bad potted history of WWII, if that's what you're after, but the sheer amount of war reportage ended up squeezing out the women's words, which was a shame. One of this book's subjects, Nella Last, was a prolific MO correspondent and she has a couple of books of her own: Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace. I've read the latter and found it riveting. There were glimpses of Nella in Domestic Soldiers but I would have liked more.

1.1.20

Sand Talk (again)

The first day of a new year, the start of a new decade, and yet things feel sober, even frightening. The country is on fire; the planet is burning.

Re-reading Sand Talk confirmed for me: we are not meant to be living like this. 'Western civilisation' is built on a mirage, a concept of constant growth and expansion which is literally unsustainable. The things we have decided are important, the standards by which we measure success and survival (profit, consumption, economic growth), are killing us, and the precious, fragile world we live on. What would happen if we re-framed our ideas of what matters, to prioritise custodianship over exploitation, enough over more, connection over domination?

I don't know if it's even possible. Perhaps we are racing unstoppably toward our doom, the way so many past civilisations have collapsed, mutated, vanished. But there are small things I can do. They might just be gestures, flailing my arms before I topple into the maw of the apocalypse, but I'm going to do them anyway. Eating less meat. Trying to walk instead of drive everywhere. Buying less crap. We've installed a massive solar array on our roof; we might buy a battery next. We'll try to take care of the wild birds and creatures that live in our garden. I'll try to stay hopeful, try to look for ways to make things better, not worse.

Happy 2020, everyone. And if anyone wants to borrow Sand Talk, I'll lend it to you.