Exciting News!


The January Stars has been shortlisted for the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Awards!

It's such a thrill and an honour, especially as the authors on the shortlist are some of the Australian authors I most admire: Jaclyn Moriarty! Meg McKinley! Danielle Binks! The only one I don't know is Remy Lai, but her book looks absolutely delightful.

What a lovely day!


Sons From Afar


This is my edition of the sixth Tillerman book by Cynthia Voigt, Sons From Afar. It's actually my least favourite of the covers I've seen.

I like the look of this one -- all the covers on this edition of the series are beautiful, a lovely clean design --  but the illustration doesn't bear a huge amount of relevance to the story.

This version captures the dark danger of the final section of the novel, where James and Sammy trawl the mean streets of Baltimore in search of their long-vanished father.

But I also really like this cover, because the faces of the two boys exactly match the image I have of them in my mind. Sons From Afar is a book about fathers, inheritance, masculinity and choices. Sammy and James are very different characters, each slightly envious of the other's gifts. James wishes he could be physically gifted, straightforward, courageous and popular like Sammy; Sammy wonders why James isn't happier with his brains and problem-solving skills. But together they make a great team, as they belatedly come to realise that their mysterious past is less important than the choices they make for the future.

Sons From Afar moves us forward in time a few years. Dicey is largely absent from this book, away at college; Maybeth is, as usual, a quiet, enigmatic background presence. I like James getting an office job with the two lady doctors (they are described as 'distant cousins' but surely they are a couple!) and Sammy's growing friendship with timid Robin. There is a lot of conflict in this novel, emotional, intellectual and physical, and a variety of ways of solving it, though (spoiler) some readers may be disappointed that Sammy and James don't find the answers they were looking for.


Come A Stranger


There are a couple of uncomfortable elements to Come A Stranger, the fifth book in Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman cycle. Firstly, it is the story of Mina Smiths, Dicey's African-American friend whose we've met in previous books; and Voigt is a white author. In the 1990s this would probably have been seen as a progressive story, but in these days of Own Voices it's a less easy read. Secondly, Mina develops a crush (though she, and interestingly her mother, too, describe it as true love) on a much older minister -- Tamer Shipp, who we met as a high school contemporary of Bullet Tillerman in The Runner). Luckily the relationship never edges into physical territory and by the end of the book has become no more than a fond memory. Still, for a while there the story seems to be heading into dangerous territory.

Mina is unusual in the Tillerman books in not being a loner; she is deeply embedded in an extensive, loving community of friends, family, church, dancing class and school. She only briefly pulls away from this supportive circle after attending an otherwise whites-only dance camp, from which she is painfully ejected in her second year after 'growing wrong.' As always in Voigt's novels, music is a source of joy, solace and connection, and by the end of the book Mina has turned away from dance (a solo activity) but kept up her involvement in the choir (a collective pursuit).

I really enjoyed Mina's story, and the different slant it provides on the other Tillerman characters. The meeting of Tamer Shipp and Bullet's mother, Gram, at the end, was particularly moving. But somehow the friendship between Mina and Dicey didn't quite take flight for me in this telling, it was hard to understand exactly why Mina would be drawn to Dicey. Though Dicey's courage and self-possession are shown to us, she still presents as being pretty hard work!

I'm not sure if Come A Stranger would be published today, and though I'm glad it exists, I'm also glad that there are more and more stories being told from within, rather than from outside non-white communities.


The Meeting of the Waters


This is the third time I've read Margaret Simons' account of the Hindmarsh Island affair, The Meeting of the Waters. It's a long and complicated story, and it all happened over twenty years ago -- I'm not sure if many people retain a clear memory of what went on. Essentially, developers were seeking to build a bridge between the South Australian town of Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island at the mouth of the Murray River, where they wanted to set up a marina. The local Aboriginal community (principally the older women) were dismayed at the idea of a bridge, because this trampled on the sacred nature of this particular site; however, the precise knowledge about the stories that made the site sacred were deeply secret. Eventually another group of women emerged who denied any knowledge of the sacred secrets. The original group were accused of fabricating 'secret women's business' (that's where the phrase came from!) and after much legal and political wrangling, the bridge was built.

There is so much meat in this story, which deals with the clash of two incompatible cultures, different kinds of power, respect and knowledge and pain.

... it is like an opera. There are so many voices, all singing their own songs with such conviction. the emotions are huge, the narrative grand, almost everyone is infected with a sense of wounded righteousness, and sometimes it seems like a thousand small tragedies harnessed together.

The case dragged on for years, through court cases, inquiries and a Royal Commission. It ripped a community apart, destroyed relationships and ruined careers. The phrase 'secret women's business' was used to discredit Indigenous heritage, despite the last inquiry finding that the stories were not invented. There was a fundamental conflict between a Western European culture that ostensibly values transparency, openness, an adversarial legal system where the strongest argument and the loudest voice often wins, and an Indigenous culture that prizes sacred knowledge by restricting who can know what, and keeping the most precious information secret. As Simons points out:

Information follows the lines of power. Aboriginal cultures make this explicit. Western European culture... likes to pretend that it isn't necessarily so.

It was difficult for politicians and judges to understand that the women were prepared to withdraw evidence and keep their knowledge secret, even at the cost of losing their case and the bridge going ahead. Protecting the sacred secrets was ultimately more important than protecting the country they were linked to. The women insisted that the part of the story they were prepared to share should be kept in a sealed envelope, to be read only by a few women if absolutely necessary. But a judge held that Australian law required that the relevant government minister himself must be able to read the material. (He could have appointed a woman to act for him for this purpose, but he refused to do so.) In desperation, the women gradually revealed more and more; but it was never enough.

There was no recognition of the fact that all Aboriginal women in the same community might not have access to the same level of knowledge. Indeed, most of the 'dissident' women didn't actually deny that such sacred knowledge existed, only that they didn't know about it, but such subtleties were lost in the media outcry about 'lies' and hysteria over land rights. Part of the sacredness of the area centred around the resemblance of the area of the river mouth to a woman's body. Some politicians scoffed at this notion: how could traditional Aboriginal people have seen this resemblance without access to an aerial view? This argument is plainly nonsense to anyone who has seen the map-like conception of country displayed in Aboriginal artworks.

You'd hope that our understanding has improved in the years that have passed since. When I was first researching for Crow Country, this book taught me a lot about how Indigenous cultures work, how they intersect and can fail to connect with white expectations, and the searing pain that this disconnect and misunderstanding can cause. It was the beginning of what has been a long and rewarding journey toward a deeper understanding.


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox


I acquired this book from my good friend Chris, and I almost laughed when I started reading it, because if you were writing a book calculated to appeal to Chris, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be that book. For a start, it's set in Scotland, Chris's ancestral home and a country where she lived for several years; and it's also concerned with madness, and the way notions of madness and hysteria have been used to oppress women, which is a topic which has fascinated her for decades.

Our contemporary protagonist, Iris, discovers to her dismay that she has a elderly relative whose existence she has never known about: Esme Lennox, her grandmother's sister, who has been held in a mental hospital for over sixty years, since she was just sixteen years old. Through Esme's memories and the dementia-affected musings of Iris's grandmother Kitty, we gradually learn the story of how Esme ended up in Cauldstone, uncovering some dark secrets along the way.

I haven't read any of Maggie O'Farrell's fiction before but The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is well-crafted story-telling. I wasn't a massive fan of the subplot concerning Iris's step-brother Alex, which I felt didn't add much to the central story, but otherwise I really enjoyed this novel.


The Holiday Murders

Robert Gott's The Holiday Murders (together with The Autumn Murders, The Orchard Murders, The Port Fairy Murders) are a kind of parallel series to the comic Will Powers Fiascos. Also murder stories set in wartime Australia, the Murders series is much more serious and darker in tone.

We have a different set of protagonists: Inspector Titus Lambert, overlooked Constable Helen Lord and insecure detective Joe Sable. I appreciated the appalling parallels with the present day -- the rise of ugly fascism, the toxic masculinity of the disenfranchised, the simmering anti-Semitism, the atmosphere of crisis that serves to veil or to excuse actions that might be unforgivable in ordinary times.

Robert Gott is a terrific writer and he does a wonderful job of weaving in his period detail with the twists and turns of the mystery. However, in this book I found the sheer grisly cruelty of the murders themselves so horrific that I couldn't enjoy reading about them. I think I prefer my murders more on the cosy side! So I'm not sure, despite their strengths, that I'll be retuning to the rest of the series.


Position Doubtful

 What an incredible reading experience this was! Belinda Probert alerted me to Kim Mahood's Position Doubtful in her own book, Imaginative Possession, and I'm so glad I tracked it down. Probert's book was a  reflective musing on her experience of trying to belong in what she experienced as an alien landscape; Position Doubtful covers similar territory, but in a more rigorous fashion and from a different perspective.

Mahood grew up on a station in the remote Tanami desert; she is now an artist and poet who draws on her own memories, uneasy sense of place, and collaborations with Indigenous friends and fellow artists to inform her creative work. (Initially I thought Mahood sounded like a Middle Eastern name, but it's actually Irish in origin.) She is deeply reflective and analytical about her art and her relationships with her Aboriginal colleagues. She is particularly close to the older women of the communities of Balgo and Mulan, who share her memories of station days, and she is unsentimental about her ambiguous place in the towns. By virtue of her childhood, she has a skin name and thus a role in the complex genealogy of the local people, a trusted confidant and friend; but she is also a kartiya, a white fella, an outsider, a resource to be made use of. 

Mahood traces her own personal history and the troubled history of the region through map-making projects that involve the whole community, seeing the landscape from multiple points of view, overlaying stock routes and traditional Dreaming sites. She notes that navigation, memory and motion are all located in the same area of the brain:

It is common now to treat the journey as metaphor, but there was a time when the journey and the traveller and the story were the same thing... There was a time when we walked into consciousness through our journeys, when our awareness was brand new... Maybe this is how language began, as a journey and a poem.

Mahood notes a shifting relationship to country in some of the younger generation, partly as a result of mining royalties:

There is an underlying tension that attaches to "ownership," a term that seems to have displaced the older concept of custodianship. It would be interesting to trace that shift, to discover the point at which the subtleties of meaning were transferred from the emphasis on looking after and being responsible for country, to the more Western inflection of owning and gaining benefit from it.

There is so much food for thought in Mahood's account of her twenty-year plus experience of working and visiting these communities. Position Doubtful is highly recommended.


The Martian

Andy Weir's The Martian is not a book that I would have picked up ordinarily, but it was strongly recommended by the younger daughter, who requested it a while ago and then lent it to me. And then after I'd finished it, we watched the movie.

The Martian oddly reminded me of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books, which I adored as a child. There was a similar emphasis on describing practical problem-solving (which is what appealed to the YD), except that instead of pitching tents or catching fish, stranded astronaut Mark Watney has to figure out how to create water, grow food and communicate with Earth. There is a LOT of science, all of which is apparently accurate, especially in the early pages, but there is also a lot of drama. It reminds me of those writing exercises that demand you throw increasingly horrendous problems at your protagonist: just when you think Watney's going to be okay, he blows up some vital piece of equipment, or crashes his rover, or breaks his spacesuit.

The scenes on Mars are intercut with chapters set on Earth, as NASA discovers that Watney is still alive and then develops a rescue plan. The film version lost some of the detail of the problems Watney had to solve, but made up for it with the spectacular visuals of the surface of Mars (the movie was partly shot in Jordan) and gorgeous scenes on a very luxurious space station. As YD remarked, if she'd seen this when she was younger, it would definitely have made her want to be an astronaut.

I think there is a part of all of us that secretly wants to be an astronaut; however, reading The Martian convinced me that I wouldn't last a day! 


The Runner


With the fourth book of the Tillerman series, Cynthia Voigt moves us back one generation in time, to see the family that Dicey's mother came from, the family that dwindled until only Abigail, the children's grandmother, was left. The focus of The Runner is the children's uncle, Samuel, called Bullet, who is another of Voigt's self-contained, self-reliant characters. Bullet has walled himself off from everyone to protect himself from his father's anger and tyranny over the household -- what we'd now call coercive control. When his father orders him to cut his hair, Bullet responds by shaving it all off; his coldly furious father then decrees that he doesn't want to look at him until it grows. But Bullet is just as stubborn, and keeps his head shaved, despite having to cook and eat alone, and leave the room if his father enters it.

Bullet is a hard character to warm to, especially as he expresses some racist attitudes early in the novel. But he is superbly drawn and the reader can see exactly how he has ended up the way he has -- withholding connection from everyone, except to some degree his mother, and also his fisherman boss, Patrice, who has a painful history of his own. It's not until Bullet starts to think about other people, particularly Tamer Shipp, a Black fellow runner, that I really began to feel sympathy for him.

The descriptions of cross country running are fantastic -- I've never been a runner, I loathe running, even for the tram, but this novel made me appreciate the appeal. This is a sad book in so many ways. We already know from the earlier novels in the series that Bullet is doomed, but that knowledge doesn't make the ending any easier to read. This isn't my favourite Tillerman book, and it's probably the one I struggled with the most; I found it Jeff Greene far more sympathetic. But it does flesh out the back story of the troubled Tillerman clan, and for that alone, it's worth reading.


The Paper Garden

Molly Peacock's The Paper Garden is a biography of the remarkable Mary Delany, born in 1700, who at the age of 72 picked up scissors and paper and embarked on an extraordinary project, inventing a new kind of art form in the process. She made collages of flowers, mostly from paper, occasionally incorporating real botanical samples or touches of paint, and before her death in 1788, created almost a thousand of these 'mosaicks.'  

Just look at these amazing pictures!

Each tendril cut out by hand, from hand-dyed papers! Mrs Delany ordered her own pigments, dissected specimens to ensure the accuracy of her portraits, pasted them (probably with flour and water glue), brought them out to show King George III and Queen Charlotte, and they are still preserved to this day.

Molly Peacock's day job is as a poet, and she allows herself plenty of latitude in tracing Mrs Delany's life story in parallel with her own obsession with the collages and possible correspondences between each life stage and a flower portrait. This technique builds up layers of story and meaning in much the same way as Mrs Delany's creations. It was fascinating to learn about the skills that prepared Mary Delany for this superb body of work: gardening, shell craft, silhouettes, embroidery and fabric design, each of which contributed to her powers of observation and dexterity of hand.

Mary Delany also left behind hundreds of letters, which provide an insight into her life story, two marriages, and close friendships, all in her own words.

The Paper Garden is a beautifully produced book, with lovely glossy reproductions of the 'mosaics', thick paper, and a chunky feel in the hand. Deeply satisfying!


The Serpent's Sting

The problem with reading books in a series like Robert Gott's William Power Fiascos out of order is that you leave yourself wide open to spoilers. The Serpent's Sting, being the fourth and final chapter of Will's adventures, unfortunately provided many hints of what happens in Book 3 (Amongst the Dead). I'll probably still read books 1 and 3 in the series at some point, because they are very entertaining.

The Serpent's Sting opens with Will back in Melbourne, for once enjoying some theatrical success, albeit playing a pantomime dame rather than the Shakespearean heroes he'd prefer. But Will is nothing if not pragmatic and he's willing to accept any notoriety rather than none. He's still entangled in military intelligence, knee deep in bodies, drug dealers, cross-dressers and mystery, this time with family complications thrown in for good measure.

Will is really an unpleasant human being: he's selfish, blinkered, and cynical. But for a brief adventure, he is remarkably good company.


A Million Wild Acres

I bought Eric Rolls' classic history of the NSW Pilliga Forest, A Million Wild Acres, after seeing it lauded in Wildwood by Roger Deakin -- the only chapter in the book devoted to an Australian author. A Million Wild Acres is certainly an impressive achievement: an exhaustive history of the area's exploration and settlement, forestry and agriculture, and detailed description of the local flora and fauna, the book runs to over 450 pages and I must admit it has taken me a long time to work my way through it.

This may have been partly because I don't know the Pilliga area at all and so found it difficult to picture the landscape Rolls describes in such loving and forensic detail. I did enjoy his respectful attention to the original First Nations inhabitants of the land, and the foreshadowing of Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe's later work in describing how this fertile territory resembled 'an English parkland' when first seen by explorers, ie lightly wooded, with low grass, for easy grazing and hunting of kangaroo and other game. It was the settlers who dramatically changed the character of the landscape by clearing the trees and then tearing up the fragile soil with the hard hoofs of cattle and sheep, which led to the scrub running wild and thick forest taking over.

First published in 1981, A Million Wild Acres is clearly a labour of love and must have taken decades of painstaking work to assemble. Rolls sets out the back and forth of land ownership over generations, recounts numerous anecdotes of bushrangers and wild cattlemen (including the tragic story of the Aboriginal outlaw Jimmy Governor -- the basis for Tom Kenneally's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith -- though Rolls describes Governor's life oddly as 'a sinister comedy'), and includes his own observations of flowering gums, bushfires, and wild creatures, birds and insects.

An admirable work, and I take my hat off to him, but I must admit I felt slightly exhausted by the end of it!


A Solitary Blue

A Solitary Blue, Book 3 in Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Saga, shifts the focus away from the Tillerman family and onto Dicey's friend/boyfriend Jeff Greene. All the Tillerman books seem to share a theme of loners learning to make connections, and Jeff is even more of a loner than Dicey -- she has her siblings, but he feels entirely alone. Abandoned by his mother, brought up by his loving but undemonstrative father, Jeff has learned to keep himself small and obedient out of fear that his father will abandon him too. When his mother reappears and turns the full beam of her charm and focussed attention on him, Jeff starts to believe he doesn't need his father after all. But beautiful Melody betrays him again, and Jeff has to learn to lean on the parent who has never let him down.

A Solitary Blue (the title refers to the heron who becomes Jeff's talisman) is painful to read, especially the early chapters. Jeff's wariness, his inner fears, his blossoming when he believes he is loved for the first time, and the agony of his mother's betrayal, are all exquisitely described. We've already met Jeff in Dicey's Song, where he seemed a self-contained but confident teenager; now we see how fragile that shell really is, and how close he comes to turning his back on Dicey when he suspects she might let him down too. 

Again, it's the power of music and the beauty of the wild Chesapeake Bay that begins Jeff's healing, and it's connecting with the Tillerman family that continues it. This is a delicate, piercing portrait of childhood pain and the damage it leaves behind.


A Thing of Blood


An impulse buy from Brotherhood Books, Robert Gott's A Thing of Blood turned out to not quite what I was expecting -- it's much funnier than I thought it would be, and not the kind of book I would normally pick up, which goes to show that impulse buys can be a good thing.

A Thing of Blood is the second 'William Power Fiasco', but I didn't feel I needed to have read the first volume to appreciate this novel. The element that most appealed to me was the setting: wartime Melbourne, 1942, a world of blackouts and austerity, American soldiers flooding the streets and a bohemian underlife. It's also a city riven by sectarian hostilities, Catholic v Protestant, a division that has now completely disappeared. 

The second most appealing element was our narrator, Will Power, described on the back cover as 'the fatally over-confident hero.' As my own protagonists are usually have to fight to overcome crippling anxiety and self-doubt, it was quite refreshing to spend time with Will, an actor with no self-doubt whatsoever, despite other people telling him frequently how much he overestimates his own abilities.

The third element I enjoyed was Will's jaded, cynical, but enjoyably florid style of narration.

A chipped mug was placed before me containing a liquid that was wine only if that term is expanded to include sump oil. I took a small sip, and felt that if I had any more my teeth would dissolve.

There is a very high body count, lots of abducted and murdered ladies, and a lot of violence (most of it directed against Will himself). I loved that the action was centred around the streets of Parkville and North Carlton, an area with which I am very familiar. In fact I enjoyed Will's company so much (I definitely would not enjoy it in real life) that I immediately reserved the rest of Robert Gott's books from the library.


Imaginative Possession

 I bought Imaginative Possession: Learning to live in the Antipodes after hearing Belinda Probert speak on the radio. As an immigrant from England, she found adjusting to the shape and meaning of the Australian landscape a difficult leap; not just the heat and the bright light, the wide horizons, but the look of the trees, the sound of the birds and the shape of the hills and fields. Eventually she bought a country property in the Victorian Otways, to create a garden as a way of making herself more at home, and she admits the this was not a wholly successful experiment.

The project of Imaginative Possession caught my attention because it raises some of the same issues I was grappling with in Crow Country -- how can strangers to this land, especially those of us brought up on European stories, myths and meanings, adjust ourselves to and learn to love this very different place, without trying to apply the more familiar language of the Northern Hemisphere that has shaped out imaginations? The obvious answer is to ask the original inhabitants, but this is a route that European immigrants have been sadly reluctant to adopt. At last we are learning to listen and to see with the eyes of those who know this place so much more intimately than we do.

Imaginative Possession is filled with enticing titbits of information. Australian birds tend to screech and squawk rather than sing, because birds (not bees) are the main pollinators in our flowering forests, and have evolved to scare off rivals to the blossom harvest. The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti owned a pair of wombats and mourned them when they died.

Probert (like me) is the kind of person who tends to turn to books for enlightenment, and she quotes many other writers in her quest. Some I was familiar with: Billy Griffiths, Bruce Pascoe, Bill Gammage, Judith Brett. Others, like Kim Mahood, I don't know, but I'm looking forward to discovering. Part memoir, part rumination, Imaginative Possession perhaps ends up raising more fruitful questions than it answers.


Dicey's Song


Cynthia Voigt's second Tillerman novel, Dicey's Song, picks up where Homecoming finished, with the four Tillerman children making a home with their irascible grandmother. It's not easy for any of them: Sammy soon starts fighting again, Maybeth falls behind at school, and prickly Dicey is misunderstood. But gradually they begin to make connections in the community and Crisfield begins to feel like home, a solid foundation, which is something they need when bad news about their absent mother arrives.

The theme of Dicey's Song is about reaching out, and holding on. And it's not just the children, particularly Dicey, who needs to learn that lesson, but their grandmother too, who has seen her whole family disappear. Though Dicey's Song is less eventful than the adventure quest of Homecoming, it's still highly engaging. Voigt has a gift for describing the small incidents of everyday life in a way that makes them fascinating and totally involving; whenever I put down Dicey's Song, I couldn't wait to pick  it up again.

I loved that Dicey hates home economics, wishing she could do mechanical drawing (a 'boys' subject) instead - she already knows how to feed a family of four on twenty dollars, she spent all summer managing with less; but her teacher marks her down. The last section of the novel, where Dicey and Gram visit Liza in hospital, is almost unbearably moving, without ever being sentimental. I'm already halfway through book three, and I'm looking forward to revisiting the rest of the series.




If Kate Mildenhall's 2016 novel Skylarking hadn't already been on my radar, I would have been seduced by this beautiful, understated cover. I think Skylarking was written as a young adult novel but it works equally well as an adult book.

Based on a true story, Skylarking tells a story of friendship, adolescence, intense attachment and ultimately tragedy between two teenage girls, Kate and Harriet, both daughters of keepers at a remote lighthouse in the 1880s. Harriet is a little older than Kate, a little less bold, a little more beautiful. But the girls' close bond is disrupted by the arrival of a man into their tight, isolated community.

Skylarking reflects on womanhood, growing up, and growing away, with a strong distinctive voice from the narrator Kate. It's a bit of a slow burn, but the final chapters of the book are particularly sensitively written, with a tantalising glimpse of Kate's later life. I have also heard great things about Kate Mildenhall's new novel, The Mother Fault, so I'm off to find that one!


Crow Country Audiobook!!

 Great news! After many, many requests, Crow Country is finally available on audiobook! 

It's published by Voices of Today, read by Elizabeth Chambers and should start appearing on various platforms shortly (it's already on Kobo, more to follow...)

After my own daughter's struggles with literacy, I know how important audiobooks are for some students, and for general readers, too, so I'm absolutely delighted that Crow Country will be available on audio. Elizabeth has done a wonderful job with the recording, and I'm so grateful to Sarah Bacaller for making this project possible.

It's great to have something to be happy about!


The Vetting of Wisdom

 Full disclosure: I was a student at PLC during the events discussed in this book. Joan Montgomery was my headmistress; she left the school the year after I did. Kim Rubenstein, the author of The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and the Fight for PLC, is also a former student. She was my school captain in 1982, a couple of years older than me.

The Vetting of Wisdom is an unashamedly partial account of the furore that enveloped the school in the 1980s, after PLC was awarded to the Continuing Presbyterian church (after the split in the Presbyterians that followed the formation of the Uniting Church) and a campaign began to oust Joan Montgomery as Head. Despite the support of staff, parents, students, Old Collegians and the educational establishment as a whole, a stubborn rump of Continuing Presbyterian men were determined to get rid of 'Monty' and ultimately succeeded.

I was absolutely riveted by this book. It's astonishing to me how little I knew about the controversy that unfolded while I was a student at the school. My parents weren't involved in school affairs and Miss Montgomery and the staff succeeded in shielding the students from the fuss to a remarkable degree. I was aware that Joan Montgomery was going to leave at the end of 1985, but I didn't understand why. I was vaguely outraged when it was announced that she was to be replaced by a man, and not even an Australian man, but did I realise why it was happening? I don't think I did. I certainly didn't appreciate the degree to which a stacked School Council had been hijacked by conservative, narrowly religious forces hostile to the ideals that Joan Montgomery represented -- a liberal, expansive, humane education for young women, equal in quality to that available to boys. These men wanted to see a more 'Bible-centred' approach to education, and they were deeply agitated about courses like Liberal Studies or Human Relations (the course I did in Year 10). They wanted to send representatives to sit in on the Human Relations classes -- I can only imagine the chilling effect that observers would have had on classes about sex and relationships filled with 16 year old girls who were all embarrassed enough as it was! Luckily that idea was scotched.

'Monty' was a wonderful principal. She's been described as 'a woman who embodies an exceptional combination of intelligence, perception, energy, loyalty and common sense.' I would add compassion, dignity and humour to that list. We all revered Miss Montgomery -- we respected her more than the Queen, and she moved through the school with an air of unassailable grace and serenity. But at the same time, she was never intimidating. If she spoke to you, you'd be awed but not overwhelmed. She turned up at my last school reunion to our absolute delight, and she is still going strong at 97. What an incredible waste of talent, and what a terrible shame for the young women of PLC, that she was forced to retire at the young age of 60, instead of having her term extended at least until she was 65.

I accept that for someone who doesn't know the setting or the characters involved, this book's detailed account of school meetings and political intrigue might be drier reading than it was for me, but I found it utterly compelling, outrageous and shocking. To see this remarkable educator torn down, despite a massive outcry of protest, is thoroughly dispiriting. It's almost a 'Me Too' story, albeit without the sexual element, but it is still an account of a gifted, respected women brought down by a conspiracy of men, and there's no other way to spin it.

What a waste. The deepest irony of all is that the Presbyterians were convinced that Joan Montgomery was neglecting the religious education of the girls under her care. In fact, her thoughtful addresses at daily assemblies sank deep, certainly into my consciousness, and probably did more to awaken my spirituality than any other influence in my life. We were encouraged to question, to doubt, to think for ourselves, to pray, to reflect, to sing, to be grateful, to consider how we could help others. It might have taken years for that gentle encouragement to bear fruit, but I know that ultimately it did.




As I passed my bookshelf the other day, Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman series caught my eye. It's been a few years since I read those, I thought, might be time for another look. When I consulted my reading diary, I was amazed to see that it's been TEN YEARS since I read Homecoming! Definitely time for a re-read.

I was introduced to Homecoming through the Convent book group I used to attend, and what a wonderful gift it was. Re-reading this book I marvelled all over again at Voigt's skill, her descriptive power, the easy readability, the depth of characterisation and the wholly engaging story of this family in trouble.

This cover makes Homecoming look like a horror story, and in a way it begins like that -- four children, aged 13, 10, 9 and 6, are waiting in a car for their mother to return from the shop. But she never comes back. It's up to the eldest girl, Dicey, to lead her siblings on a long journey cross-country to a relative they've never met in search of a new home. Dicey is an extraordinary character, and the novel hinges on her courage, resilience, practical good sense, and fierce protectiveness. She makes mistakes -- what thirteen year old wouldn't? But she is far more resourceful that I would be in a similar predicament, and I'm forty years older than Dicey. I love and admire her as much as any fictional character I've met.

The other characters are just as vivid -- smart, thoughtful James, gentle Maybeth (is she slow, or just shy?) and energetic Sammy. We also meet twittery Cousin Eunice, kind college students Windy and Stewart, and eventually the children's prickly, eccentric grandmother Gram. I love the way that Voigt shows that there's more than one way of facing the world, more than one set of valuable gifts. James is academic, full of ideas. Maybeth is musical and intuitive. Sammy is stubborn, which is another word for determined. The portrait of the children's mother is a spare but deeply moving picture of depressive illness. Homecoming is sometimes a painful book to read; it doesn't spare its characters, and it doesn't offer easy solutions. But wow, it packs a powerful punch, and Dicey is a person you'll wish you could have as a friend.


The Python Years

 I am such a sucker for a diary! Michael Palin's The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 is more than 700 pages long, yet it flew by (I had to ration myself to reading one month at a time). Palin writes well, as you'd expect from a writer of Monty Python and the classic Ripping Yarns. He is an acute and sympathetic observer, an insightful listener, and a reflective person (though his moments of reflection never drag down his impressive energy level). And of course during this decade he began to mix in a star-studded milieu, as Monty Python went from weird unknowns to cult obsession to international fame.

It was fascinating to read about the irritations and power struggles within the group of six Pythons, each of them hugely talented and each wanting to express their creativity in individual ways, yet also conjuring such rich comedic magic as a group. The diaries chart the making of the original Monty Python series, as well as the films Holy Grail and ending with the explosively controversial Life of Brian, which was never a mere parody of Jesus, but had sharp points to make about organised religion and the abuse of power.

Michael Palin has always been seen as the 'nice' Python (he shares a lament at one point with Tim Brooke-Taylor, who was likewise seen as the 'nice' one of the Goodies) but he is not shy about standing up against censorship or protecting the Pythons' creative integrity. It's amusing to eavesdrop on John Cleese's money moans (which don't seem to have changed in 50 years) or meet Lorne Michaels, the American TV comedy super-producer (we have been watching 30 Rock lately, which is one of his babies). There is a sad sub-plot as Palin's father declines from Parkinson's disease, and lovely vignettes of his children as they grow up.

One aspect which is highly annoying is Palin's seemingly inexhaustible energy. He sits down to write a novel or a play and a few entries later, it's finished! (Mind you we haven't seen them actually published or performed yet.) Still, I envy him his productive output.

I enjoyed The Python Years so much, I think I might have to invest in the later volumes.


Nowhere Boys

 Full disclosure: Elise McCredie and I were good friends at college back in the dim and distant past, and I've followed her career as a filmmaker and screenwriter with intense interest and pride. I knew that she was one of the writers of the hugely popular Nowhere Boys television series (as well as Stateless, Sunshine (which I really loved), Ride Like a Girl and more) but I didn't know that she'd written the novelisation of the first series as well.

It's great! It sent me searching iView to watch the TV version (annoyingly I could only find the fourth series and the movie -- my own fault though for not watching it earlier). Nowhere Boys is a terrific concept where four teenagers tumble magically into a parallel world where they have never existed, and have to work out a way home. The book is very well-written: four boys are distinct and lively characters, their dilemma is poignant and painful, but also often funny, there is plenty of action and the details of the magic make sense and don't weigh down the story. And it ends with a hint that there is more adventure to follow (as we know, because there were three more series).

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Nowhere Boys and if it does pop up on a streaming service somewhere, I am definitely watching it.


Crusoe's Daughter

 Jane Gardam has become one of my reliable authors -- she has written lots of books, I have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to get when I crack one open, and I can be confident that I'll enjoy the ride. (Side note: I wonder if early Kate Atkinson was influenced by Jane Gardam?)

I hadn't come across Crusoe's Daughter (1986) before, but it's vintage Gardam. Ostensibly it's the story of Polly Flint's life, but about three quarters of the book deals with her childhood and youth; Gardam especially excels at depicting awkward, eccentric teenage girls, surrounding them with even more eccentric, sometimes grotesque characters (most often forceful women and timorous men), and throwing in a massive twist at the end of the book. 

Polly moves to the Yellow House by the sea, surrounded by marsh, to live with her aunts when she is four years old, and remains there for the next eighty years while wars rage and the town grows up around the house, swallowing the marsh, and the outside world advances and recedes like the tide. Polly is also obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, and there are many parallels between Polly's isolated life in the yellow house and Crusoe's stay on his desert island. Polly is another character who is involved with/obsessed by a fictional character (the inevitable irony being that she is fictional, too).

Mind you, I just asked my 17 year old if she knew anything about Robinson Crusoe, and she said she's never heard of him, so perhaps Polly's confident prediction that his fame would live forever might be misplaced?




Smoky-House is definitely a minor Elizabeth Goudge, but for a long time it was the only book of hers that I actually owned -- I think I received it as a Christmas present when I was about nine. Unlike Linnets and Valerians or The Little White Horse, my real favourites, I haven't reread Smoky-House for decades, but I was surprised when I pulled it from the shelf to see how well-thumbed it was -- lots of page corners have been nibbled, which is a sure sign that I read it many times.

I'd forgotten most of the plot, which involves smuggling and the assistance of the Good People, but there were a couple of unexpected details which had stayed vivid in my mind. One was the plain second daughter Genefer (I'd never seen it spelled like that before) and her dresses of soft pale butterfly orange and blue; the other was the angels who stand round the bedposts of the children and watch over them as they sleep.

Four posts to my bed,
Four angels round my head.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Bless the bed I lie upon.

For several years I used to pray this at bedtime, and imagine my own watchful angels. This little prayer caught my fancy, but there is a LOT of poetry in this book, which I could do without. There are the usual wise, resourceful animals, courageous children (including the compulsory naughty youngest), a vigorous Squire to marry the sweet eldest daughter Jessamine (that's her on the cover) and various magical beings. There is also the figure of the bitter Fiddler, who is very similar to the character of Sebastian Weber in The Heart of the Family, though the Fiddler finds his redemption far more easily than poor Sebastian. 

Not one of Goudge's best, but I'm still fond of it -- and just look at that pretty 1970s cover!


The Labyrinth & One Whole and Perfect Day


At first glance, these two novels, which I read simultaneously, may seem very different. One Whole and Perfect Day is a young adult book published fifteen years ago; The Labyrinth is an adult literary novel which has just won this year's Miles Franklin Award. But as I read them together, I found more and more common elements.

Both are written by Australian women authors, born only a few years apart (I have just discovered that Judith Clarke sadly died last year). Both books are set in New South Wales -- Perfect Day in Sydney and Katoomba, The Labyrinth partly in Sydney and partly in the fictional coastal town of Garra Nalla. Both books centre on women, one a teenager, one at the other end of life, who are both struggling with family history and stumbling toward making sense of their lives. Though they are written in very different styles, I found the books chimed together in their compassionate approach to human frailty, forgiveness, and the drive to create (in Lily's case, a party to bring her fractured family together; in the case of Erica, to build a labyrinth).

One Whole and Perfect Day is naturally lighter in tone, and skips between a large cast of characters before wrapping up with a neat and satisfying ending. The Labyrinth is more sombre, a reflective and character-driven novel rather a story-centred one. Lohrey has said she was interested in the efforts that humans make to fulfil their spiritual needs, even after religion has lost its force -- for Erica, the creation of the labyrinth becomes a spiritual quest which draws in her neighbours and begins to resolve her difficult past.

I enjoyed immersing myself in these very different but overlapping worlds, created by two wonderful Australian women authors who both deserve your attention. (And thanks to Chris and Pam for lending me The Labyrinth.)


A Time of Gifts

 I had never read Patrick Leigh Fermor's classics of travel writing, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Written when Fermor was in his sixties, the memoirs describe a journey he took in 1933/4 when he was just 18, when he decided to walk from the Hook of Holland all the way to Constantinople. This first volume ends when he reaches Budapest.

It took me a little while to settle into Fermor's flowery style:

Massed shadows, tilting down from the sierras, filled the bottom of the canyon. Here the Danube followed a winding corridor which expanded without warning to giant circular ballrooms and closed again just as abruptly; and for leagues on end this widening and shrinking ravine was empty of all but a cottage and a barn or two and a scattering of lonely towers and hermitages, all crumbling to fragments. They broke through the forest mass, disintegrating on vertiginous spikes of rock high overhead...

His evocative narrative takes us into a vanished world of clogs and swastikas (the Nazis had just taken power in Germany). I especially enjoyed Fermor's encounters with strangers and new friends, all vividly described, and the landscape and nature writing is beautiful -- surely Fermor created the template for literary travellers everywhere? I was less enthralled by long passages on obscure middle European history (something I know zero about, and alas was not inspired to explore further) and some of the raptures on architecture made my eyes glaze over.

It was astonishing to reflect that Fermor was only eighteen when he undertook this massive trek across Europe, and his confident, unconscious privilege glows from every page. He's prepared to rough it along the way, sleeping in barns and woods when the weather permits; but he's equally welcome as a guest in shabby schlosses, where threadbare nobles pour him brandy and expound on medieval history. He never seems to feel himself in danger, and while he is certainly grateful for the hospitality he finds almost everywhere, he also takes it for granted that he should be sheltered and fed. He only starts to wonder where he might sleep once darkness falls; as a slightly older female backpacker in Europe fifty years later, I was fretting about the next night's bed as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning. And while his pockets are also often close to empty, he is secure in the knowledge that there will be money waiting for him down the road. He sees and sympathises with the poverty around him, but he is just a visitor in the world of hunger and cold.

I wonder how the same journey might have been experienced by a woman, or indeed anyone but a young, healthy, middle class white man? Still, I'm glad Fermor could share his long, colourful walk with the rest of us.


The Mitford Murders


Of course I couldn't resist buying Jessica Fellowes' The Mitford Murders. I love me a between-the-wars murder mystery, and the addition of the Mitford family was an extra layer of jam on top. Fellowes is the niece of Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, and she has also written the book companions to the series, so I felt she would be familiar with the period and probably benefit from her uncle's researches. Also, I found the midnight-and-gold cover of this edition very appealing. So I plunged in with high hopes.

I don't feel too bad saying this as The Mitford Murders is set to include six volumes (one for each sister, five down, one to go) and there are murmurs of a TV series, but I finished the novel feeling rather more ambivalent than when I began. It took me a long time to finish (the chapters are very short and I was interspersing with other books), and on the whole I enjoyed the experience. There was one of those serendipitous cross-over moments when I was also reading So You've Been Publicly Shamed and Max Mosley popped up (son of Diana Mitford), and there was another reference to the artists' colony at St Ives (how did I survive so long without knowing about it?)

The central protagonist of The Mitford Murders is the fictional Louisa Cannon, who comes to work as a nurserymaid for the Mitfords and becomes chummy with eldest daughter Nancy. Louisa and her admirer Guy begin investigating the death of a former nurse on a train -- based on a real unsolved murder case. But the Mitford family are of course real people, and so was Florence Shore, the murder victim. In the end I felt quite queasy about this uncomfortable blend of history and fiction, especially when the murder case is 'solved.' I spotted the central twist a long way ahead, and there were a couple of niggles with the writing that bothered me ('face like a punctured beach ball' leapt out at me, in a novel set in 1920, when beach balls weren't invented till 1938 -- yes, I did look it up, but it just felt wrong when I read it and it pulled me out of the story.)

So while I wish Jessica Fellowes well, and good on her for obviously striking a chord with lots of readers (and publishers!), I don't think I will be checking out any more Mitford Murders. Maisie Dobbs covers much of the same ground and perhaps with more integrity.


The Family at Misrule

 I didn't realise until recently that there were sequels to Seven Little Australians. My grandparents sent me a TV tie-in copy to PNG in the 1970s which I still have (very tattered now, see below) and the death of Judy made a huge impression on me -- it's one of the most moving scenes in Australian literature. I never saw the TV series but I wonder how they handled it.

So The Family at Misrule was completely new to me. At first I was a little confused, as the action picks up five years after the end of the first book, and all the youngest members of the household are now known by different names! The General has become Peter, Baby is now called Poppet and there is a new baby called Essie (bringing the total rather heartlessly back to seven). Again each member of the tribe gets into some scrape or other, some of them pretty serious -- someone runs away and is effectively missing for months, someone else narrowly avoids an unsuitable marriage. It's usually loving, sensible Meg to the rescue.

I was a little taken aback by one quite snobbish episode where impressionable Nell is steered away from a nouveau-riche, vulgar set of new neighbours -- it was quite jarring to read (on top of the almost-unsuitable marriage with a different neighbour!) how improper the association was considered to be, on not massively persuasive grounds... Honestly I couldn't see why Nell couldn't play tennis with them occasionally and it might have averted the later disaster. 

Because of course there is a later disaster, involving a contagious disease. It was quite harrowing to read this part of the book -- the anxious checking each member of the family for symptoms, Pip scrubbing himself in the river in an attempt to cleanse himself of germs, the hit and miss ordeal of waiting to see who will 'pull through' or when the fever will 'break.' Vaccination, people! Remember how bloody lucky we are that we don't have to routinely go through this torment and the loss of children.

And I did miss Judy, who was always the most appealing member of the bunch.


Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Let me start with a gripe -- the official title of this book is Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. But the comma is nowhere to be seen, either on the front cover or the spine, nor even on the frontispiece, which replicates the front cover. I DON'T LIKE IT.

I did, however, very much enjoy the book itself. Academic Helen Kelly launches into a brisk, confident set of arguments which I didn't always agree with, but certainly provided much food for thought. She contends that far from being an author of genteel, well-mannered romantic comedies, Austen was a sharp, astute and sometimes controversial writer about important social and political issues. According to Kelly, the delay between the novels' composition and their eventual publication means that much of their pointed contemporary references were lost -- and two hundred years later, we modern readers definitely don't understand the context and clues that her first readers might have picked up.

Kelly convincingly argues that Mansfield Park is indeed all about slavery (despite some readers claiming that Austen totally ignored the issue) and particularly the hypocrisy of the church in owning slaves overseas; that Pride and Prejudice is quietly radical in its rejection of automatic class superiority; that Sense and Sensibility takes a hard look at money; while Emma carries a barely concealed subtext about the land enclosures of the time and the very real consequences for the poor (Kelly argues that this makes Mr Knightley a disturbing villain rather than a hero).

I don't know enough about Austen scholarship to judge all of Kelly's claims, and sometimes she does seem to draw very big conclusions from rather flimsy evidence, but it has certainly made me consider Austen's novels with a fresh eye.

PS I had just started reading this book when I realised that the TV that happened to be on in the background was showing a documentary about Winchester Cathedral -- Jane's burial place. Serendipity!


Elsewhere Girls


An Australian middle grade, body-swap, time slip novel -- could there be a book more solidly up my alley? Penned by two of our most accomplished authors in Nova Weetman and Emily Gale, and written in alternate voices, Elsewhere Girls centres on 21st century Cat and early 1900s Fan, who have mysteriously swapped times and bodies while swimming in Sydney's Wylie's Baths. 'Fan' happens to be Fanny Durack, destined to become Australia's first female Olympic gold medallist in swimming, and a fierce fighter for the rights of women to compete on a par with men. Cat is also a swimmer, but a little less committed than Fan.

There is a lot of fun to be had with the girls' bafflement with the times where they've landed, adjusting to their new families, new expectations, strange technology (or lack thereof), weird clothes and all the rest. But there is a deeper level to Elsewhere Girls as both girls gain a fresh perspective on their own circumstances and each decides what she really wants.

This book must have been so much fun to write. It's probably the first time I've encountered a book set (partly) during the pandemic, though there is only one fleeting reference to 'the virus'. It must have been difficult to decide how much to acknowledge recent history and it's hard to believe that Fan could have escaped hearing about Covid altogether. Luckily Fan never masters the internet enough, or is too modest, to think of googling herself! Likewise, Cat decides not to tell her new family about the approaching war, so both girls remain in a domestic bubble largely untouched by world history (I can absolutely understand the authors' decision to take this approach -- letting in global concerns would have made this a very different kind of book).

Elsewhere Girls is a super, always engaging, thoughtful, funny and sweet novel, and I loved it.


So You've Been Publicly Shamed

Six years after its first publication, Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed remains an important book. Ronson was moved to write about the phenomenon of Twitter pile-ons, like that faced by Justine Sacco, who made a joke in very poor taste about AIDS and Africa before boarding a plane, only to turn on her phone on arrival and discover that she was the world's most hated woman and that she'd lost her job. Years later she was still suffering the fallout from a thoughtless, stupid (and yes, offensive) tweet. Is shame something that we feel, or something that others can impose on us? What about when that shame is disproportionate to the offence? 

Generally I'm not one for joining in pile-ons, though I'm pretty sure I may have added my pebble to the heap a couple of times (though probably only for Donald Trump, who seems to be essentially unshameable). As Ronson points out, the reason why 'public shaming' was abandoned as a legal punishment (think being put in stocks) not because it was ineffective, but because it was too cruel.

Ronson interviews many people on both sides of the shaming divide, including a psychologist who believes that all violence stems from an experience of shame or humiliation. That gave me pause for thought. Ronson didn't link this idea specifically with domestic violence, but it certainly chimed with what Jess Hill said in Look What You Made Me Do

Weird link alert: I'm also reading The Mitford Murders, a novel by Jessica Fellowes featuring the Mitford family, and one of Ronson's interviewees happened to be Max Mosley, son of Diana Mitford, who was subject to an attempted shaming over a 'Nazi sex dungeon' -- oddly enough, the shaming didn't work and he continued his life with almost no consequences.* Ronson initially wonders whether this was because Mosley himself refused to feel ashamed, but later decides it was because of the nature of the scandal -- no one cares about consensual adult sexual activities these days, however kinky. Racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, will however, bring down the full weight of public judgment.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed is full of interesting and pertinent ideas in a world where social media has claimed the power of the mob. It's also highly readable, funny and sometimes sad.

*Edited to add: I didn't realise when I wrote this post that Max Mosley had recently died. Another coincidence.


From Spare Oom to War Drobe


 My Kindle is building up quite a collection of books about Narnia that I was too impatient to order in physical form -- Planet Narnia, The Magician's Book, and now From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish.

Langrish, herself a children's author, revisits the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time since childhood, bringing her own fond memories, but alert for newly adult awareness of Lewis's prejudices, and armed with an impressive scholarly background that can trace Lewis's literary and philosophical influences with convincing accuracy, from Edmund Spenser to E. Nesbit. She discusses each book in turn, remembering the emotional impact of each, but doesn't let Lewis off the hook. 

Interestingly, she acquits Lewis of charges of sexism, citing the strong, capable and intelligent female characters who lead most of the adventures (I agree), but she comes down hard on the 'Susan problem.' However, there is abundant evidence of lazy and inexcusable racism, and some muddled thinking around religion, along with the uplifting and magical passages that made Langrish (and me) fall in love with Narnia in the first place, especially the luminous imagery of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful and affectionate journey through Narnia.


World's End in Winter

 I like Monica Dickens' work but I didn't read her children's books when I was young, I was more of a Monica Edwards fan. However, in 1976 I did receive a Follyfoot annual, replete with colour photos lifted from the TV show, so I knew that existed (no TV in PNG and I'm not even sure if Follyfoot was screened in Australia).

World's End in Winter is book three in the World's End series and I struggled a little in the beginning; Dickens can be an elliptical writer and she didn't drop many clues. For example, it took me a few pages to work out that John, Peter and Oliver are all horses, not children, and that Lester belonged to a different family. Gradually it became clear that World's End is a ramshackle household of four children, well-meaning but rather ineffectual parents, a kind of foster teen and a host of animals -- dogs, horses, cats. I can see that this would appeal strongly to a certain kind of child but I was not that child. When I was ten, I preferred animals neatly sequestered in stables and outside, not roaming around everywhere.

The plot focus of World's End in Winter lies with a child outside the family altogether -- nine year old Priscilla, confined to a wheelchair since a horse-riding accident two years before, and whose family seems to have given up on her rehabilitation. With encouragement from the World's End children, Priscilla learns to ride again and almost unwittingly regains her mobility. (Dickens dedicates the book to Riding for the Disabled.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Priscilla's horrible competitive parents who refuse to believe she can be helped; the high comedy episode when Priscilla nearly drowns when her wheelchair goes into the swimming pool (that sounds awful but it is very funny); and the underlying anxiety about scraping together enough money to keep this chaotic household functioning. Neighbours are kind, children are resourceful, the animals are all characters in their own right, and issues of life and death and responsibility are faced squarely. But I'm still not sure that World's End is a place I would like to live in.


Madame de Pompadour

 I was very excited to discover a first edition of Nancy Mitford's life of Madame de Pompadour (minus this lovely cover, unfortunately) on the shelves of Footscray Savers recently -- published in 1954, purchased by one Dorothy Cassells, according to the flyleaf, at the Austral Book Shop in Collins St, Melbourne. A little morsel of history.

My knowledge of Madame de Pompadour was confined entirely to the Doctor Who episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, so you can imagine I learned a great deal from this sparkling biography. Despite being a big fan of her novels, I haven't read any of Nancy Mitford's biographies of famous figures from history (the Sun King, Frederick the Great etc). I'm not sure how rigorous Mitford's research might have been by modern standards, though I know she did work hard on these books and she certainly seems very familiar with the people and places she discusses. She has a lovely gossipy tone which makes the book extremely readable, almost as if she were personally acquainted with all the characters involved, and she has no scruples about passing judgement on them, labelling this statesman an incompetent fool, and that lady of the court a silly little miss who should have known better.

From my background of utter ignorance, I can't judge how accurate her analysis might be, but it has certainly given me a sense of the period and the people (though the chapters about wars struggled to hold my interest), and I loved all the little details about hidden staircases, the inside jokes and quarrels and extravagant gifts and building projects, and the insanely complex etiquette of the royal court. And The Girl in the Fireplace does seem to have got some details right -- there were no clockwork assassins, but it really did pour with rain on the day Reinette's body left Versailles for the last time.


The Heart of the Family


I had to cave and buy the final installment of Elizabeth Goudge's Eliot Family chronicles on the Kindle, though I hope to pick up The Heart of the Family in material form somewhere, somehow, one day. Perhaps even more than the previous two volumes, The Heart of the Family lacks what you might call a plot -- it consists almost entirely of conversations, some in rooms, many in the woods between the two households of the Herb of Grace and Damerosehay. It's almost like reading a book of sermons as various pairs of characters ruminate on pain and sin, death and love, divine grace, guilt and prayer and penance.

The war is over, and Lucilla, the queen of the family, has abdicated her royal seat at Damerosehay to the family of her beloved grandson David. However David is wracked with self-torture at his recent narrowly-avoided infidelity; his newly acquired secretary Sebastian Weber is carrying wounds of his own, having lost his own family in the war, and hating David for his blessings. The eventual reconciliation between these two men forms the core of the story, but there are ancillary family dramas as Lucilla, at 91, meditates on death, other grandchildren fall in love or decide careers, and another baby is on the way. 

As Susan Green recently remarked, Elizabeth Goudge is not a sentimental writer. Despite the apparent extreme smallness of her canvas, she doesn't spare her characters torment, cruelty or harrowing self-reproach; but she always offers them some redemption. There are huge themes here, but there is also humour, delight and beauty, and as always a keen and appreciative eye for small children and dogs, which helps to leaven the weight of the deeper reflections. This is probably not my favourite Eliot story, maybe I read it too fast for the philosophy to sink in properly, and I should probably return to it when I need to.


The Winds of Heaven

Judith Clarke's The Winds of Heaven was lent to me by my friend Suzanne (thank you, Suzanne!) We have very similar taste in books and I really loved this novel. 

Mostly set in the Australia of the 1950s and early 1960s, The Winds of Heaven traces the story of two cousins, Clementine and Fan (Francesca) who are separated by distance but linked by an unbreakable bond. Clementine, bolstered by loving, supportive parents, is a clever girl who powers through school and ends up at university, but Fan is hobbled by poverty and rural isolation, a cruel mother, and difficulty reading and writing, though she is just as clever as Clementine. The two girls' paths diverge, they lose touch, but they never forget each other.

This is a moving, poignant story. For me, it also contained one of those serendipitous moments that really make you wonder if there is a higher power, a reading god if you will, guiding you from one book to the next... Fan is haunted by a poem by Henry Vaughan which begins, They are all gone into the world of light, which is a line of poetry that I've used for years in writing workshops without ever knowing the rest of the poem. And then the very same day I came across the phrase the world of light again in Elizabeth Goudge's The Heart of the Family.

Fan and Clementine's lives are filled with criss-crossing memories, dreams, and images of each other just like this, often in each other's thoughts though seldom physically together. I think I'll be remembering this book for a long time.


The Essex Serpent

I think The Essex Serpent is the only example of me seeking out and reading a book purely as a result of reading a Twitter rant from the author (Sarah Perry). I stumbled across an impassioned thread by Perry about women and science and the nineteenth century and how critics had scoffed that her novel was implausible... that was enough for me to track down The Essex Serpent (and just check out that gorgeous cover).

Apparently this novel is to be made into a TV adaptation, starring Claire Danes (who, I'm sorry, is too delicate to be forthright, tramping Cora Seaborne, but hey) and that's something to look forward to. Cora is newly widowed, with an eccentric young son, when she relocates to a village in Essex and befriends the family of the local vicar, Will Ransome. The lives of the two households and Cora's London friends (including gifted surgeon Luke Garrett) intertwine and become uneasily influenced by the legend/rumour of the 'Essex serpent,' a Loch Ness monster-style beast which may or may not be lurking off the coast, a long-lost dinosaur or a manifestation of half-formed fears and desires.

The Essex Serpent was certainly an atmospheric, haunting read, and a perfect candidate for TV, with its rich cast of characters and multitude of ideas. I was particularly touched by the portrait of tubercular Stella Ransome, with her collection of blue objects and her otherworldly euphoria. And if the casting of the series doesn't match my own personal imaginings, that just makes it more interesting.



Watching the English


Published in 2004, anthropologist Kate Fox's tongue in cheek book, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour was an entertaining and enlightening read. My father is English, so I'm not sure if some of these 'rules' were passed to me genetically or through upbringing, but a lot of this book rang very true. I think some of these social rules have been transmitted to Australian society, but other aspects seem to apply specifically to the English (as distinct from the Scots, Welsh etc). 

Fox theorises that much of what she terms the English 'social dis-ease' (her central defining characteristic of the English) derives from living on a crowded island. An obsession with privacy, rigid rules of fairness and courtesy (an overuse of please, thank you and sorry; a notorious obsession with queueing), a preference for understatement and modesty, all might plausibly spring from a need to protect oneself from the proximity of others. (Indeed, Fox sees interesting parallels with Japanese society, also a crowded island.)

This is something that probably hasn't travelled to Australia -- with plenty of room to spread out, Australians can afford to be more friendly (not a universal rule, I am well aware, and one mostly applied to 'people like us.') But an emphasis on humour, which Fox sees as a distinctively English way of being in the world, I think has travelled down under -- self mockery, taking the piss, irony, wordplay, all seem just as characteristically Australian as characteristically English.

Some aspects seem more uniquely English, such as a preoccupation with class markers (not defined by money or occupation, but by language, taste and attitudes), and a tendency to 'Eeyorishness' (as indicated by the phrases 'Typical!' and 'Should have known...'). But the typically English social awkwardness and discomfort with expressing emotions publicly, certainly seems to have been passed down through my family. Typical. Should have known.


The Gaps


Reading Leanne Hall's superb young adult novel, The Gaps, was a multi-layered experience for me. Set in a girls' private school, Balmoral, The Gaps explores the effect of the abduction of one of the students, Yin Marshall, on two of her classmates, popular Natalia (who used to be Yin's best friend) and newcomer Chloe.

The Gaps is sensitive and nuanced, tracing the ripples of Yin's abduction on the school community, the survivor guilt, the pain of uncertainty, the prurient horror, and the trauma of loss. Hall is especially good at sketching in the wider social background through which these teenage girls move -- the white noise of stranger danger, unsolicited male attention, body policing, social media pressure, advertising. Chloe and Natalia are two very different characters but their responses to Yin's disappearance are truthful and powerful. 

The extra layers for me came from the fact that Leanne Hall and I went to the same school (a few years apart), and the geography of 'Balmoral' was intimately familiar to me -- the quadrangle, the walkways, the bathrooms near the science labs, the Great Hall. (In fact, my house was called Balmoral...) And our school did experience a tragic abduction some years after my time. Even though I'd left the school and didn't know anyone involved, I did feel a particular stab of horror and protectiveness around that event  just because we'd worn the same school uniform. 

Maybe that awareness gave The Gaps an added depth for me, but even without that shared background, this is a very accomplished, layered and heartfelt novel, perfectly pitched and perfectly timed. Highly recommended.