Red Shift


I thought I'd written about Red Shift recently; when I checked, it turns out it was five years ago!  Ah me, how time does fly and double back on itself, which is one of the themes of the book.

Again I was struck by the fact that this novel is not a children's book, maybe not even YA. Not only is the style opaque and challenging, the events are violent and bloody, though because of the oblique style, they are not graphic. And again I noticed links of dialogue and description between the three interwoven story strands that I hadn't noticed before. 

This is such a slender book, but it's so packed with layers and echoes. I noticed quite a few similarities between modern Tom and the Colin of Boneland, their wordplay, their wariness, their interest in stars. Red Shift marked a decisive turn in Garner's writing, away from overt magic and toward resonance through time. I wouldn't say that it's a book I love, exactly -- it's too frightening and lonely for that -- but I do admire it perhaps more than any other.


The Year The Maps Changed

This is such a lovely book! Danielle Binks' debut is an accomplished middle grade novel set in Sorrento (a town I know well) on the Mornington Peninsula in 1999, the year that Kosovan refugees were brought to the old quarantine station at Portsea for 'safe haven,' told through the eyes of eleven year old Fred.

The obvious reference for the maps changing thus applies to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the terrible conflict in Kosovo. But it also applies in a deeply personal way for Fred herself. Her mother has died and her step-father Luka, a policeman, has re-partnered with Anika, bringing Fred an unexpected younger brother in the form of ten year old Sam. And then Luka and Anika announce that they are having a baby. Where does that leave Fred? Is she still part of their family?

The arrival of the refugees unsettles the whole town, even though they are kept far down the road at Portsea, but as Fred finds herself drawn to the strangers, she finds herself reassessing what really matters.

This is a beautiful story about belonging and welcome, about fear and suspicion, and ultimately about the elastic bonds of family and love. The Year the Maps Changed has had rave reviews everywhere, and deservedly so. This is a terrific book.


Let's Talk About Harry


I don't really have anything new to add to this story. I was a huge fan of Harry Potter. The success of the books was probably responsible for my own fantasy books being published; certainly there was more cash for my publishers, both in Australia and the US, to risk on a new author. My US editor, the incomparable Cheryl Klein, was the continuity editor for the series, and that gave me a one-degree-of-separation thrill. So I owe quite a bit to Harry.

I'm also grateful to Harry for another reason. Because I loved the old-fashioned magical universe and Rowling's intricate and often funny world-building, I shared the books with my daughters. They adored them. I read the entire series to them both, not just once but multiple times; they were one literary taste that we all shared. Both girls also played the Stephen Fry audiobooks to lull them to sleep, many times over many years. And of course we watched the movies. 

This deep familiarity meant that when my dyslexic daughter, at the age of twelve, finally picked up a book and began to read independently for the first time, the book that did the trick was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Because she knew the story so well, the words came more easily. Seven years later, she has read Anna Karenina and The Lord of the Rings and she is almost as addicted to books as I am, though she still has to work much harder at reading than I do.

I thought that JK Rowling had achieved a remarkable feat. She had created this rich, complex universe which had captured the imagination of countless children; she had got kids reading! I saw the midnight queues, I went to the parody musical, I saw the joy and delight, and it was good. I knew there were problems -- if Dumbledore was gay, why wasn't he gay in the books? What about the house-elves? But I shrugged them away. But now it seems that those problems were a sign of an underlying conservatism that has now exploded in a different forum.

The depth of my delight in the stories is mirrored in my disappointment and sadness that that magical world, which seemed to have a place for everyone, has been spoiled by Rowling's own poisonous beliefs. Trans kids are hurting. This matters. Can we still love the books, while ignoring or condemning their author's opinions? I wish with all my heart we could. But in these days, when Rowling herself seems hellbent on spreading her views as widely as possible, any trans fan of the books can easily find out what the author really thinks of them. The betrayal is real.

I'm not sure there is any way back now. I will remember Harry Potter fondly, for the special place he occupied in my family's history. But I can't imagine ever reading the books again.


Are We Nearly There Yet?


Ben Hatch's 2011 bestseller, Are We Nearly There Yet? arrived in a mystery box of books that Elder Daughter and I treated ourselves to earlier in lockdown. When I chose it from the box, I thought it might be a mildly diverting companion to Bill Bryson's Road to Little Dribbling, another amusing travelogue of Great Britain. But it proved to be much better than that.

Hatch's account of travelling round the UK with his wife and two kids (both under four) researching a family-friendly guidebook is definitely amusing. The usual tribulations of parenting young kids (lost toys, food meltdowns, poo and vomit) are added to a punishing timetable that can require up to four or five 'attractions' per day. Add to that some darker episodes, including a serious car accident, inexplicable pain and hospitalisation (Ben has a kidney stone), and raking over the marital coals as their travels lead them down memory lane to the sites of childhood holidays, first houses and first jobs.

But the real gravitas of this book is provided by the illness and death of Ben's father which unfolds over the months of their trip. Sir David Hatch joined the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as comic luminaries like John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden, but he diverted into producing, becoming a BBC bigwig. Young Ben rebelled against his larger-than-life father, and his reflections on this rebellion and their ultimate gradual understanding (not explicit, because they are English, after all) is the most moving strand of this story.

Ben Hatch has also written several novels, one of which was published this year. With his impeccable comic timing, ear for dialogue and acute observational skills on display in this memoir, I'm interested to see what he's come up with.


The Road to Little Dribbling


I was quite startled to realise, when I went looking, how many books by Bill Bryson are lined up on my shelves. There are his many travel memoirs, like this one, and Down Under, his book about Australia; his popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything; his wonderful history of domestic life in the West, At Home, and I'm sure there are others tucked away that I didn't spot. I've certainly read more of his books than I actually own, and there are plenty I haven't read yet, like his new history of the human body, which sounds like fun.

Bill Bryson is an utterly reliable literary companion. He is the genial, charming, slightly grumpy uncle (he has grown grumpier with age, I find) who is always ready to whip out a fascinating fact or a bizarre anecdote as you stroll around together. It's easy to dip in and out of his books; they are always interesting, never demanding, invariably good fun, sometimes poignant, sometimes cross.

The Road to Little Dribbling is a kind of sequel to Notes From a Small Island in which Bryson wanders around his adopted home of Great Britain, often delighted by what he observes but occasionally annoyed -- mostly by what he sees as people taking for granted the things that delight him and thus paving the way for their destruction. He adores the English countryside and hates seeing it despoiled by litter or unsightly development. He loves the fact that national parks are places where people live, not areas of wilderness specially cordoned off (I hadn't realised this either and I've always been somewhat bemused by UK real estate listings headed 'Houses in National Parks.')

Of course, this veneer of relaxed charm belies the huge effort that goes on beneath the surface of the writing -- the extensive research, the search for the precise phrase that brings a smile, the actual hoofing it around the country and actually visiting these places. Bryson makes it all look so easy, but to produce book after book of such reliable enjoyment is very hard work. Respect, Bill.