6.7.20

Charlotte Sometimes


Charlotte Sometimes was a book that I admired as a young reader, but didn't return to very often - it was so eerie, so uncanny, that it disturbed me. With the benefit of age I admire it and enjoy it all the more. It is probably Penelope Farmer's best known work and inspired not one but two songs by The Cure ("Charlotte Sometimes" and "Splintered in her Head"; and also possibly the title of their next album, Disintegration?)

It was Penni Russon who enlightened me that Charlotte Sometimes is actually book three in a trilogy about Charlotte and her sister Emma, the first two being The Summer Birds and Emma in Winter. All three books share that dark, uncanny quality that makes Charlotte Sometimes such a haunting experience. (Thanks to Penni for lending them to me; I'm still on the hunt for copies of my own.)

In many ways this is a very bleak book. Set in boarding school, and later in grim lodgings, during winter, Charlotte swaps places with Clare in 1918. At first the girls change places every night, with no worse consequences than confusion over homework and bewilderment from Clare's sister; but then Charlotte finds herself in the wrong bed on the wrong night, with no way of getting home to her own time. 

There are some genuinely terrifying moments: when Charlotte fears she's swapped places with Agnes, the spinster daughter in their lodgings, even further back in time; when she's spent so long impersonating Clare that she begins to forget that she was ever Charlotte; the excursion to the shadowy sick bay. It's almost a horror story, truly creepy. It's a story about the slipperiness of identity -- who is Charlotte, what makes her Charlotte apart from people seeing her that way? The theme of identity and twinship is one that Farmer, herself a twin, has returned to repeatedly.

I've just learned that my 1985 copy is different from the original. The ending was changed by the author  and some material was removed. So now I'll need to find myself a 1969 edition too, because that would have been the one that I first read.

3.7.20

Jane Austen: A Life


Despite this very ugly cover, I picked up Jane Austen: A Life on impulse to fill out a Brotherhood Books order, as part of a Jane Austen binge I have going on, and I am SO glad I did. 

This is a superlative biography -- warm, sympathetic, acute and fascinating. I am sure that Jane herself could not have selected a better biographer than Claire Tomalin. She rounds out the crowded Austen family background, seeks her evidence with care and discrimination, and paints such a lively portrait of her subject that you almost forget how little she left behind for us to pore over.

I wasn't aware of the huge gap between Austen's first three novels and her last, and when I discovered why I was outraged and indignant. Austen's parents, apparently on a whim, decided to sell up the Steventon parsonage where the family had grown up and where Jane had a settled writing routine, and moved themselves (and Jane) to Bath, which she loathed. Ten years were lost while the Austens flitted about between rented lodgings and visits to family, with Jane unable to recapture the stability she needed for her work. It wasn't until after Mr Austen's death that a more permanent home was found for Jane, her mother and sister at Chawton, where (you can almost hear the sigh of relief) she was able to pick up her pen once more. 

It's infuriating to think how many novels we might have lost, thanks to the family's disregard for Jane's work, and bizarre to contemplate that, out of this large, colourful, active and largely successful family, it was Jane and her scribbles who have been remembered the longest, and don't seem likely to be forgotten any time soon.

29.6.20

The Owl Service


The Owl Service is a modern classic, first published the year after I was born. I remember seeing it on the classroom shelf at one of my primary schools, but I didn't pick it up; I had some confused idea that the owl service must involve a squadron of owls delivering messages, like the postal service, which didn't appeal to me particularly. I'd never come across the word 'service' to denote a set of plates.

The novel is a retelling of a Welsh myth, a love triangle centring on a woman made of flowers, made into an owl. The tragic triangle pattern has recurred in the valley in every generation since (I didn't realise until this re-reading how this idea had influenced my own book, Crow Country), but in this incarnation, it's also tangled in class and wealth (not the same thing) as well as culture. Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves in the grip of the myth as the book unfolds, with really creepy touches -- the scrabbling in the roof, the recurring noise of a motorbike, the smell of petrol, the disappearing paper owls, the shadowy figure in a photograph. It's brilliantly done, not a word wasted, with Garner beginning to hone his elliptical style. One character, Alison's mother, never actually appears on the page, though she hovers over the action throughout.

The first time I read this book as a teen, without the benefit of the internet, I found it hard to visualise the pattern on the plates which could be read as flowers or owls. Here is an image of the plate that inspired the story:

And here is an example of the paper model owls that Alison compulsively makes:

The book was adapted into a TV series (which I've not seen) a couple of years after publication, and apparently there were creepy incidents on set. The actor who played Gwyn was killed in a pub fight a few years later, and Alan Garner himself suffered a mental breakdown during the filming. 

The Owl Service is a spooky, disturbing story, a masterclass in spare, powerful writing. Genius.


25.6.20

The Flight of the Maidens


I can't believe I completely forgot to talk about Jane Gardam's 2000 novel, The Flight of the Maidens! What a dill. My system broke down because I put the book straight onto the shelf instead of next to my laptop for review.

I enjoyed this novel so much. It's set just after the war, and follows three clever young women who have just finished school and are about to set off to various universities. (Jane Gardam was this age when the war ended.) 

Una is headed for Cambridge, and unsure whether she should persist with her working-class boyfriend, Ray, the son of the local coal delivery woman. But (slight spoiler) Ray turns out to have hidden depths. The saga of Una and Ray attempting to consummate their relationship in a series of remote youth hostels, none of which turn out to be as deserted as they should be, is hilarious.

Hetty -- sorry, she's calling herself Hester now -- takes herself off to a B&B in the Lake District to catch up on her reading, horribly suspicious that she's won her place on the coat-tails of her condescending boyfriend. She's also trying to avoid her helicopter mother and damaged father, but she's soon plunged into a new milieu with its own pitfalls. Gardam's genius for eccentric characters is in full flight here.

And then there's Lieselotte, a Jewish refugee rescued by Kindertransport. She is whisked away, first to unknown sponsors in London, and then to an unsuspected relative in America. In many ways, Lieselotte's journey is the oddest of them all.

The three girls are only together at the very beginning and the very end of the novel, but their stories intertwine and resonate throughout the story. Jane Gardam is at her best writing about young women, with their inchoate passions, self-doubts and determination. The Flight of the Maidens was a highly entertaining, and at times poignant, ride.

22.6.20

Black Faces, White Faces


I'd almost forgotten picking up this (very) slim volume of short stories by Jane Gardam in a second hand bookshop in Ballarat last year -- or maybe it was the year before. It's a funny little book, and I'm not sure that it would be published today. 

Originally published in 1975, it's a format I really enjoy, a suite of interconnected short stories where characters wander in and out of each other's tales. It seems to have arisen from a trip by Gardam to Jamaica, and it won two fiction prizes. But though the writing is vintage Jane Gardam -- funny, sharp, eccentric and unsentimental, reading it was not an altogether comfortable experience. 

The title of the collection is Black Faces, White Faces, but the emphasis is definitely on the white faces and voices of a group of English tourists and the way they are affected by the exotic location of the West Indies. There is no story from the point of view of a Black character, and the very first story contains some offensive language. On the other hand, I wouldn't have loved it if Gardam had spoken in the voice of a Black character either, without doing a lot of work first. Perhaps that means that there is simply no longer a place for a collection like this, presumably inspired by a brief visit to an unfamiliar setting.

This is a slight book, in every sense. I'm not sorry to have read it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it again.

10.6.20

Thimble Summer

I bought Thimble Summer on the Kindle and it didn't have a cover image at all, so I've picked the one from the many editions this book that appealed to me most. However I'm not sure about the tagline, which reads: Do you believe in magic? Garnet finds a silver thimble in the creekbed at the start of the book, and good things do flow for the rest of the summer, but there's no real suggestion that magic is responsible. (So I guess the answer to the question is no.)

Thimble Summer was Elizabeth Enright's first book, after she'd already embarked on a career as an illustrator, and she immediately won the Newbury Medal. Talk about starting on a high. Thimble Summer shares many of the characteristics of Enright's later work -- the episodic storylines, the small, undramatic events, a rural setting, stories about the past. I would say the defining feature of Enright's novels is a gentle charm. About the most exciting thing that happens is that Garnet and her friend Citronella get locked in the library -- they don't even stay there all night!

Interestingly, just like in Then There Were Five, a stray boy appears and joins the family. This time it's Eric, who has travelled across country and experienced much hardship before he finds refuge on Garnet's farm. Although Thimble Summer won the Newbury, I don't think it's Enright's best work, but the seeds of her future books are discernible here.

7.6.20

Daydreaming and Fantasy

I ordered this 1975 psychology textbook from AbeBooks at vast expense -- well, a lot more than I usually pay to feed my book habit! -- but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. It was a very earnest discussion of the benefits of fantasising and daydreaming.

Jerome Singer reminds me of those people who argue in favour of the arts or healthcare in terms of their economic benefit, rather than their intrinsic worth. He was very keen to point out that daydreaming about possible futures can help the daydreamers turn those futures into reality; that imagination and creativity can lead to invention and innovation (and economic benefit, presumably); that fantasising can help develop empathy and compassion, and often hardcore daydreamers spin their fantasy habits into an artistic or literary career. Well, that's all great, but it came across a little too try-hard for me.

My favourite section of Daydreaming and Fantasy was where Singer discussed his own daydreaming habits -- putting himself to sleep at night with imagined baseball games, spinning elaborate childhood stories where he became a senator and a famous singer. I wanted more of this stuff, and less of the experiments on distractibility!

My reading of Daydreaming and Fantasy coincided with a family obsession with Bluey, and reinforced the importance of play and imagination games in early childhood. Bluey is all about the benefits of pretending -- imagination, negotiation, processing troubling events, trying on activities and feelings, and most of all, fun. Unfortunately Daydreaming and Fantasy mostly neglected the enormous enjoyment that imagining can provide.

2.6.20

Re-reading: Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two

It's not very often I acquire a whole series all in the same edition: the Melendy books are an exception in my collection, thanks to the fact that I bought all four at a library book sale. I don't mind these covers, except for Spiderweb for Two, where Randy looks as if she could be Oliver's mother, she's so unnaturally mature (be grateful the resolution on this image is so bad).

Daughter (15) was taken aback by the title of Then There Were Five, suspecting a murder mystery. On the contrary, this is the book where the Melendy acquire, rather than losing, an extra member -- orphan Mark joins their family after his evil cousin Oren sets their farmhouse on fire and perishes in the flames. Apart from this grisly and dramatic episode, the bulk of the book is very gentle -- the kids build a swimming hole, meet colourful local characters, decide to can and preserve all the garden produce on their own, collect caterpillars, hold a fair. The book ends with the unanimous decision to adopt Mark, who gets to sleep in the cupola (lucky Mark).

Spiderweb for Two must have been my favourite book of the quartet when I was young, because I remembered quite a bit of it. Randy and Oliver, the two youngest Melendys, are left behind when the elder siblings go off to boarding school. But to stop them from being bored and lonely, the rest of the family devises a treasure hunt, with clues in enigmatic poetry. Randy and Oliver have to puzzle out fourteen clues in all before the final triumphant unveiling, which take them all over the countryside, into cemeteries and cellars, into butcher's shops and up trees, with plenty of mishaps and misunderstandings along the way. This is an elegant and fun book, with many digressions into the past, which I'm realising were a feature of all Enright's work.

I think the aspect that really distinguishes the Melendy books is that they are truly about a whole family. They aren't based on one sibling, with the others making cameo appearances; everyone shares the story equally. They aren't books aimed at either boys or girls; anyone could enjoy them. It's sad that this strikes me as being such a rarity.


28.5.20

Nine Days


Gee, this is a terrific book! Nine Days is an adult novel, but it would work equally well as a YA title. It tells nine interconnected stories, over four generations of a single Richmond family. The story swoops back and forth in time, from the 1930s to the present day; we get hints of what's to come, and sometimes misdirections. Most of the nine narrators are young, but not all of them.

Toni Jordan has achieved the difficult feat of giving each of her nine characters a distinct voice; sometimes in these kinds of collections, all the chapters end up sounding quite similar, but Jordan has avoided this trap. The book was inspired by the wartime photo shown on the cover, a soldier and his girl kissing goodbye, and Jordan has woven a moving, sometimes tragic (but also often funny) story around the pair.

Nine Days is a deceptively ambitious project that absolutely works. Skilful and satisfying, the nine individual stories click together into a perfectly shaped whole.

21.5.20

Gods and Angels

I feel as if I've been immersed in Irish literature lately -- what with Tana French and Sally Rooney -- and David Park adds a masculine perspective. Gods & Angels is a collection of short stories which was lent to me by my friend Suzanne (we have very similar literary tastes!)

Gods & Angels took me a long time to read. In some ways it was a very sad volume. Many of the stories deal with loneliness and isolation, which have an extra resonance at this time. There is also a wry humour and some touching moments. One long story deals with a tentative relationship between an elderly widower and a young single mum, its ebbs and flows of trust and betrayal, comfort and reserve. I particularly enjoyed Man Overboard, in which a group of men attempt, in their own clumsy but sincere way, to support their depressed friend. In Heatwave, the balance of power in a marriage shifts during a disastrous excursion to the beach. In the gentle and bittersweet Gecko, a teacher takes his wife of twenty five years to see the Northern Lights.

Perhaps the most moving story is the last of the book, Crossing the River, in which the ferryman conveys his mother across the river of death. Dedicated to Isabel Park, this is obviously Park's tribute to his own mother. The writing is dark and lyrical, but ultimately comforting.

12.5.20

Al Capone Does My Shirts

I really enjoyed this book! Set in 1935, Al Capone Does My Shirts follows twelve year old Moose Flanagan, who moves to the prison island of Alcatraz when his father takes a new job as guard and electrician. It's a demanding job, but the family needs the money to pay for Moose's sister to attend a special school on the mainland. Natalie is "ten" and has been "ten" for several years; she has autism, though Moose never uses the word and has probably never heard it. But when Nat's school rejects her, the family must make other plans for her future.

The relationship between Moose and Nat is beautifully drawn -- his love for her and the close bond between them, his occasional embarrassment and exasperation with her behaviour, all have the ring of truth, and indeed author Gennifer Choldenko's own sister has severe autism. Moose's quiet connection with his father and his problematic relationship with his mother are also skilfully explored.

The history and the setting are fascinating. The children who live on the island are understandably intrigued by the glamour of Al Capone and the other dangerous prisoners with whom they share the rock. Capone himself ends up playing a very significant, albeit off-screen, role in Moose's story.

Al Capone Does My Shirts (in the prison laundry) is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful and touching read.

7.5.20

The Winter Book UPDATE

A Winter Book was obviously put together as a companion volume to Tove Jansson's classic The Summer Book. And it worked, because that was why I bought it. But it's a very different kettle of fish.

Tove Jansson is best known (certainly outside her native Finland) for her Moomin books -- strange, melancholy stories shot through with longing for travel and longing for home. I owned and loved several of them as a child and they always made me feel enjoyably sad. I came to The Summer Book as an adult. It's a series of vignettes, set on a summer island, centred on the relationship between an old woman and her grandchild. It's beautiful and strange and wise, with the same enjoyable sadness and mood of nameless nostalgia and yearning as the Moomin stories.

A Winter Book is a selection of pieces from throughout Jansson's life, many taken from the memoir of her childhood, Sculptor's Daughter. I think I enjoyed these pieces the most, especially the story about the little girl who throws her torch onto an iceberg so it can drift away, lit with a greenish glow. A couple of chapters of  letters sent and received were poignant and sometimes very funny.

But there were two stories that made me feel deeply anxious! One was set on a cruise ship (which I think was enough in the current climate to trigger unease). The other long story was called The Squirrel, and it was about a woman living alone on an island who develops an uneasy relationship with a squirrel who turns up there. I can't describe how anxiety-provoking I found this story. Perhaps the theme of solitude, the protagonist's attempts at self-discipline (she's a writer) and her eventual retreat into depression were just too close to the bone at the moment. Anyway.

The Moomin stories are often held up as simple, sweet, charming tales; you can buy loads of Moomin merchandise for kids. But there is a vein of darkness (Finnish noir?) in Jansson's work that surfaces quite plainly in this volume. If you're only after Moomin sweetness, don't look for it here.

UPDATE: By chance I just saw this article in The Guardian by Tom Holland about Mooninland Midwinter, which has both haunted and comforted him since childhood, and which he finds particularly pertinent in this time of lockdown -- Moomintroll wakes up in the midst of hibernation and finds his world changed and cold and frightening. I don't remember reading this one as a child but  it does sound scary in the same way that A Winter Book is sometimes scary.

4.5.20

Depends What You Mean By Extremist

I vividly remember when John Safran burst onto Australian TV screens twenty years ago with Race Around the World. He streaked through the streets of Jerusalem wearing only a St Kilda beanie and scarf. He's been shocking, provoking, asking awkward questions and popping up in strange places ever since.

Depends What You Mean By Extremist begins with Safran poking around in his area of special interest -- political extremism. We quickly discover that nothing in this murky world is straightforward or predictable. Safran hangs out with ethnically white fanatical converts to Islam (one was later arrested for attempting to join ISIS), brown-skinned activists against multi-culturalism (yes, I said against), supporters of Pauline Hanson who are married to Asian immigrants (despite her notorious opposition to Asian immigration), socialist and anarchists who get into punches at supposedly peaceful protests (but it's okay because it's 'non-structural violence.') Race, religion and ideology are hopelessly tangled, and Safran is gleefully romping in the middle of it, growing a beard and pulling on disguises, buddying up and needling almost in the same breath.

I think he gets away with it because he's so non-threatening. Slim and weedy (despite all those workouts at the Jewish gym where the trainer is trying to recruit troops for Israel), he has a distinctive lisp which makes him seem immediately harmless. He doesn't take himself or any of his subjects too seriously and he has a keen eye and ear for absurdity.

But by the end of the book, he admits that the topic has got out of hand. He begins his journey with  a weird community rally and ends it with the election of Donald Trump. Extremism has gone mainstream.

Two things stood out especially clearly. Firstly, Safran's observation that most of the organisers of Reclaim Australia and the like are really out for political power and are just using the muddled prejudices of ordinary people to hoist themselves to a seat at the table.

 Secondly, when dealing with religious extremists (a different kettle of fish altogether), 'It's hard to cut a deal with people who think that what they're doing will bring on the Messiah.' Something I sometimes wonder about our own proudly pentecostal Prime Minister...

1.5.20

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

This is the book that inspired last year's addictive Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I adore Marie Kondo and I was so excited when her book turned up on Brotherhood Books -- I'd been waiting to nab it for ages. After watching the show, I was inspired to reorganise my drawers and discard lots of clothes. This is stage one in the Marie Kondo de-cluttering process. Then I managed to clean out the kitchen cupboards. But alas, I got stuck after that.

Marie Kondo comes across on TV as a sweet, quirky, almost elfin presence -- kneeling to commune with the house before she begins the tidying process, thanking each article of clothing for its service before she discards it, squealing with delight and clapping her hands in her swirly skirt and neat blazer. But under this dainty persona lies a will of steel and a ruthless determination.

There are two parts to the Marie Kondo process. The Netflix series focused primarily on the first part: throwing stuff out. But the second part is just as important: finding a home for everything. This is the part we have trouble with at our house. I'm pretty good with my own personal possessions but there are lots of things in our house that 'float' -- just looking around me now I can see remote controls, magazines, jigsaws, notebooks, textas which are picked up and put down randomly as required. This is the very definition of clutter!

Then there are the contents of laundry and hall cupboards which might be cleaned out periodically and reorganised (my other half is very keen on this activity, which we call 'shifting deckchairs'), but not really in a systematic way. So we end up with three lots of extension cords, two boxes of batteries, several rag bags etcetera. One area I can't agree with Kondo is books: she says get rid of them all! (Okay, almost all.) But my books spark so much joy that I'm going to break that rule.

You could summarise Marie Kondo's philosophy very simply as 'when in doubt throw it out.' This works well unless you start to get squeamish about landfill, but the real point is not to keep acquiring stuff you don't need (because you probably already have it but don't realise it, because it's lost in the back of a cupboard somewhere), and to truly care for the things you do have. I think I'm inspired to have my life changed again!

29.4.20

Broken Harbour

I was actually looking on my Kindle for Tana French's Into the Woods after watching Dublin Murders on SBS (and feeling quite frustrated by the ending, by the way) but then I saw that number 4 in the series, Broken Harbour, was available for a ridiculously low price, so I couldn't resist buying that instead.

I was very surprised to find that our narrator this time was Scorcher Kennedy, a character I had paid absolutely no attention to up till now -- an old school, unimaginative detective who sees the world in black and white. Despite his own troubled family history (mother suicided, sister has severe mental illness), he believes that basically you bring your fate on yourself -- murder victims, he tells us and his newbie partner Rick, are mostly asking for it. Hm... let's say we don't really warm to Scorcher.

At first glance, this horrible family murder scene looks like a bog standard domestic abuse situation. But Scorcher doesn't want to believe that dad Pat Spain, trying so hard to do everything right, could have been responsible. So he starts looking for other explanations.

Broken Harbour, set in the wake of the crash of the Irish boom, felt eerily apt. People suddenly out of work, struggling financially, the promise of prosperity betrayed. The Spain family, trapped in their house (from shame not quarantine, though), going slowly nuts... it all felt uncomfortably close to home.

One of the complications Scorcher and Rick discover is that Pat was obsessed with an animal he kept hearing in the roof -- a mink, a rat, a wolverine? He has set up monitors and traps, haunted internet chat rooms, stayed up all night on guard. I swear it is pure coincidence that it was this week that a possum has chosen to expire in MY roof! It took us several days to figure out that was where the hideous stench must be coming from... and now the possum guy has to open up the roof to extract it, but he can't do that until the rain clears... So we are stuck in lockdown with the delightful aroma of rotting brush tail. Ah, quarantine!

26.4.20

Re-reading: The Saturdays and The Four Story Mistake

Years ago I picked up all four of Elizabeth Enright's Melendy family books at the library book sale, but I don't think I re-read them at the time. The editions I read originally were hardback copies from the Mt Hagen library, and I remember being enchanted by these first two books in particular -- I'm looking forward to re-visiting And Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two, which I don't recall much about at all. Someone got adopted? And in Spiderweb, the older kids make a treasure hunt for the younger ones. I think that was fun.

The Melendy family are almost too good to be true. They get along so well together, they have small adventures, but there are no wrenching dramas. Mona wants to be an actress, she is given a part in a radio serial, but she gets into terrible trouble when she cuts her hair and has her nails painted red without permission. Rush plays piano and builds stuff, Randy draws and dances, Oliver (much younger than the others) enjoys his food and looks forward to tomorrow.

My copy of The Four Story Mistake (which to my Australian eyes should really be Four Storey Mistake) has the library sticker right over the cupola. I always loved the cupola, but I've never been sure how to pronounce it. Couple-a? Cup-ole-a? Coop-ola? If anyone knows, please enlighten me! (Google has just informed me that it should be cue-pella, which I never even thought of. Oh well.)

Having recently re-read the Gone-Away Lake books, Enright's fascination with the past has leapt out these pages too: there is the mysterious sealed room the children discover in their new house in the country, and the story old Mrs Oliphant tells about having her portrait painted as a child in The Saturdays. Not surprisingly, it's these stories that have stayed with me most vividly, while the everyday adventures of Rush finding a stray dog and Randy riding her bike into the back of a bus have faded from my mind.

Of course, all the Melendy stories are historical stories now. They were first published nearly eighty years ago. But I wish I'd thought to read them to my girls; they are such fresh, natural stories, it's been a delight to rediscover them.

24.4.20

H is for Hawk

I read H is for Hawk a few years ago on the Kindle but I loved it so much that when it appeared on Brotherhood Books I snapped it up. It certainly bears re-reading; a beautifully written, deeply felt meditation on many things -- wildness and grief, TH White, the history of falconry, the lust of the hunt, depression and obsession.

The aspect that seemed particularly apt to me at the moment, in this time of isolation, was the contrary pull of the solitary, and community. McDonald loses herself in identification with her goshawk, Mabel, but the more closely she sees the world through Mabel's eyes, the more she risks losing touch with what makes her human. In the end, it's connection with people that pulls Helen back from the brink of depression and grief.

Is it perverse that some of us have embraced this enforced isolation, and are even becoming fearful of the time when it will come to an end? Someone on social media yesterday said that she would prefer to stay 'cocooned away from the world.' I must admit I know how she feels, and it's quite a dangerous feeling.

Though H is for Hawk is a dark book in places, it's ultimately a moving and uplifting reading experience. Highly recommended.

22.4.20

How to Make a Movie in 12 Days

This is such a good book! It was a really enjoyable, satisfying read, with some quirky touches that set it apart. How to Make a Movie in 12 Days opens just after the death of eleven year old Hayley's beloved grandmother, who had helped her to write and plan her very own movie. Hayley decides to use the use the last couple of weeks of the holidays to make those plans into reality, by shooting Rosebud, a horror story about a vengeful rosebush, in Grandma's honour. But it seems that someone is sabotaging the shoot...

Fiona Hardy has skilfully woven together a story about friendships, trust, grief and film shoots. I loved the inserts like the filming schedule, the list of sabotage suspects, and especially the film appreciation course at the end of the book, complete with fun activities and an age-appropriate introduction to film criticism.

Bonus points for making Hayley a heroine who openly states that she has no interest in romance. It's increasingly hard to find protagonists who don't sneak in a little romantic interest on the side, even in middle grade fiction, and as a parent of a child who steadfastly resisted romance in all her reading, it's lovely to have a really solid option out there.

Thoroughly satisfying. This is Fiona Hardy's debut, and she is one to watch.

20.4.20

Part of the Furniture

I've had a break from Mary Wesley for a while after a huge binge last year; I was starting to find her novels a little repetitive. But perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder, or the brain less critical, because I very much enjoyed Part of the Furniture. I think I prefer Wesley's wartime novels to the contemporary stories -- the wild coincidences and twists of fate seem to make more sense in that topsy-turvy setting (not unlike the emergency in which we now find ourselves, come to think of it).

Seventeen year old Juno has just farewelled her childhood companions, Francis and Jonty, who are off to war, but when she's trapped in an air raid she takes shelter in the house of a stranger, Evelyn. But in the morning Evelyn has died, leaving Juno with a letter of introduction to his father in the country. (All this happens in the first chapter, so no spoilers.) With nowhere else to go, Juno takes refuge with Evelyn's father and embeds herself at the farm. But her last encounter with Francis and Jonty has consequences.

One thing I struggled with was that I didn't have a clear picture of Evelyn's age. He is described as having almost-white hair, and he is obviously ill and frail, which led me to imagine him as quite old - but then his father turns out to be only in his fifties! This confused me for ages (Robert married very young but I still had trouble with the maths). I love the way that Wesley plunges the reader into the action from the very first page. There are several familiar Wesley themes in this book: the upheaval of war, an idyllic country refuge, pregnancy and social disapproval, quite a lot of sex, an age disparity. Juno is appealing in her self-sufficiency and reserve, though at times she seemed a lot more mature than seventeen. The whole plot is terribly unlikely, but it was a romp that I was in the mood for.

14.4.20

The January Stars

I suppose it's about time I talked about MY book: The January Stars.

The plot of The January Stars is quite simple. While their parents and brother are away dealing with a family emergency, Clancy and Tash accidentally kidnap their grandfather from his aged care facility, and take him on a road trip to find him somewhere better to live. Along the way, Clancy becomes convinced that the spirit of their grandmother is guiding them, and the adventure ends up drawing together a family that has drifted apart.

The genesis of the story was my own father's stroke, five years ago, which left him paralysed on the right side and living with aphasia, which means, in his case, that he can read and understand speech, but can't speak (apart from a handful of involuntary words) or write. So he is in very much the same situation as Pa -- except that he is much better off than Pa, as he still has my mum.

The single hardest aspect of the COVID-19 emergency for my family has been that Dad's home has a strict ban on all visitors. Usually my parents spend every day together, either at Bill's home or at our place. Now their only real contact is a nightly FaceTime call, which is a lot better than nothing, but still not enough.

So while in one way it has been absolutely terrible timing to have a new book out, in some ways it's a perfect book for the weird and stressful times in which we find ourselves. It's about pulling together (and pushing -- wheelchair joke there); it's about family and taking care of elderly, vulnerable relatives; it's about community; and it's about travel, which is something we're not allowed to do at the moment.

I've been getting some lovely feedback about The January Stars already. If the virus hadn't happened, I would have had a launch this weekend. I'm really hoping that when this is all over, I can still have that launch, and that my Mum and Dad can both be there. Fingers crossed.

8.4.20

The Voice That Thunders

What a pleasure and a privilege to revisit this book of essays and speeches by Alan Garner. Not surprisingly, he returns repeatedly to the same themes from slightly different angles: the strength and centrality of myth and story-telling; his personal experience of being torn between his own place and people, and the world of the academy, and his long battle to reconcile those two aspects of himself; his harrowing experience of mental illness and eventual bipolar diagnosis.

Sometimes he is angry. There is a ferocious chapter on the deadening effect of studying books in schools (gulp) wherein he quotes some truly dreadful letters he's been sent by students and teachers. But he also shares some uplifting correspondence, particularly from young readers, and emphasises that this private communication, between writer and reader, is the whole point and purpose of his work.

Sometimes he is sad. His account of his battles with mental illness is difficult to read.

There are gems of insight scattered all through this book. What about this:

A more general aspect of English is that vowels may be seen to represent emotion and consonants to represent thought. We are able to communicate our feelings in speech without consonants, and to understand a written statement when the vowels are omitted. The head defines the heart, and together they make the word.

Garner writes movingly and illuminatingly about the background to his work -- the Welsh myths behind The Owl Service (next on my re-read list), and the story of William Buckley, which inspired Strandloper. Garner is a brilliant man, learned in languages, archaeology, geology, layers of history and legend, psychology and philosophy, and his fiction concentrates all this learning into rich, distilled story, which nourishes and repays repeated reading.

Alan Garner, as I've said before, is the writer I admire above all others. We are so fortunate to be able to glimpse inside his mind and share his hard-won wisdom in The Voice That Thunders.

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.