Lenny's Book of Everything


See all the medal stickers on the cover of Lenny's Book of Everything? This is one of the most awarded and shortlisted books I've ever seen! It also comes highly recommended by many readers whose opinion I value. 

I think I've found a new favourite author: Karen Foxlee is wonderful. She is Australian, but Lenny's Book is set in the US. Lenny is growing up in the 1970s in a small American town. Her father has disappeared and her mother is struggling to support Lenny and her little brother Davey. Except that Davey is not so little -- he has a rare form of gigantism, and he just won't stop growing. As Lenny and Davey collect each issue of their build-your-own encyclopaedia, Lenny falls in love with insects and Davey with birds of prey, and Lenny gradually begins to realise that their little family is under threat.

Poignant, gentle, thoughtful, beautifully written, and often wryly humorous, Lenny's Book of Everything belongs to a particular genre which I call Children's Book for Adults. I absolutely adored this novel but I'm not sure how many ten year olds would fall in love with it -- it's so sad! The author's note reveals that Foxlee has cared for a seriously ill relative, and the final chapters of Lenny's Book ache with that experience.

It also powerfully reminded me of growing up in the 1970s with my Hutchinson's New Twentieth Century Encyclopaedia as the fount (font? fount?) of all knowledge -- I must have read that single volume from cover to cover a dozen times. Until the dawn of the internet, so well into the 1990s, I also used it as my main reference for my weekly general knowledge crossword in The Age. Those were the days, when everything you would ever need to know could be contained within a single set of covers.

Lenny's Book of Everything was one of my favourite reads of 2021.


After Story

 Larissa Behrendt's After Story was one of the most purely enjoyable novels I read this year. It combines several of my favourite areas of interest: Indigenous narratives; landscape and architecture; troubled families; literature; feminism; Australian and English history... A rich soup of delightful stuff!

The premise of After Story is simple: mother and daughter Della and Jasmine take a tour of British literary sights -- the home of the Brontes, Oxford, Virginia Woolf's house etc, and they narrate their travels in alternate chapters, so we get to see the same events through different eyes (multiple viewpoints, another of my favourite things!) Della and Jasmine have a difficult relationship, forever shadowed by the death of Jasmine's sister as a child. Della doesn't know much about literature or history, but she knows about people, and grief, and love, and her reflections are a poignant and often humorous counterpoint to Jasmine's more academic thoughts about feminism, racism and the power of story. You don't need to have read the classic novels discussed here to appreciate this book, though it does add an extra layer of enjoyment if you have.

After Story was such a pleasurable reading experience, but it also incorporates some dark themes. Della is an alcoholic, battling the demons of her daughter's disappearance as well as her own childhood trauma. Jasmine has tried to distance herself from her home town, without realising that this has also distanced her from her family and her heritage. Watching mother and daughter achieve a tentative reconciliation and acceptance of each other's flaws is very moving. I'm giving this one to my mother-in-law for Christmas.


Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate


When I found about the existence of this book, I was filled with righteous indignation. Who were these people trying to tear down Bruce Pascoe's work? How dare they provide an excuse for gleeful racists to cry, see, I told you it was all rubbish?

But after reading Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, I've changed my mind. Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe are experts, academic anthropologists who know their subject inside out and have spent years researching and learning from First Nations people. It does seem that perhaps Bruce Pascoe has exaggerated, over-generalised and perhaps valorised a Western ideal of agricultural 'progress' at the expense of valuing the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as a rich, balanced and sustainable achievement in its own right.

Sutton and Walshe are at pains to point out that some of the facts Pascoe highlights as 'new discoveries' have been known in the field of anthropology for decades; however, I think they do underestimate how long it takes for this 'common knowledge' to filter through to the general public. I think they overestimate how much most of us learned about Indigenous culture at school. I don't think they realise the depth of ignorance of the ordinary, non-academic person, and they don't fully appreciate what I believe is the most important secret to Dark Emu's outstanding success: the hunger for more knowledge about, and appreciation for, the ancient traditions of Aboriginal Australia, not via academic textbooks or scholarly articles, but in a gripping, simple to understand narrative, which is what Dark Emu achieved.

It would be a wonderful outcome if Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? helps to continue the conversation about Australia's history and present that has been sparked by Dark Emu, and leads to a greater depth of knowledge and curiosity. It would be a shame if this careful, nuanced book becomes co-opted into the mindless shouting of the culture wars.


First Light

 First Light was Rebecca Stead's first novel. It's not as perfect as When You Reach Me but it's still pretty good. The book is told from two perspectives: Peter, who has travelled to Greenland with his scientist parents, and Thea, who lives in a mysterious community beneath the surface. Inevitably Peter and Thea's lives collide and intertwine.

I enjoyed many aspects of this novel -- the frozen world of the Greenland ice, the mystery of Peter's mother's depression, the beautiful clever dogs, the strong women of Thea's family, the gifts of ear-adept and eye-adept. But I did have a major problem, which was that I had a lot of trouble, particularly early on, in visualising Thea's 'cold world.' It wasn't clear to me for far too long (I'm sure this was my fault, not Stead's) that she and her community lived in a world carved under the ice. For a while I thought they lived on another planet, or in a parallel reality, and it wasn't until much more of the society's backstory emerged that I understood how they had come to live under Greenland's surface.

You can see in this book some of Rebecca Stead's great strengths beginning to flower -- complex, intertwining plot lines, sympathetic young characters, and a fully realised fantasy world. I've seen First Light described as science fiction but I think I would class it as fantasy -- it certainly had much more of a 'fantasy in the real world' feeling to me, though its underlying climate change message is more pertinent than ever. It was also fun to discover a blurb from my old mate Kirsty Murray on the cover!


Love and Virtue


I heard about Love & Virtue on Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales' Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast which I listen to sometimes, and even before Annabel Crabb started raving about Diana Reid being the new Sally Rooney, my attention was caught by the fact that the novel is set in an Australian residential college. I have to admit that my first reaction was annoyance, because I've been working on a novel set in a residential college myself! Ain't it always the way?? But in the end it's been a positive thing, because reading Reid's novel has pushed me to take my own WIP in a different, and stronger, direction.

Helen Garner has described Love & Virtue as 'an absolute cracker' and I can only agree. I read it greedily, with recognition (even though my own college experience was 30 years ago and Reid is only 25!) admiration and dismay (at the subject matter, not the writing). Not much has changed in colleges, it seems, except that students today are more aware that the behaviour they encounter, and participate in, is not good! This is a work of fiction, but firmly grounded in personal experience.

First year Michaela ticks off all the usual uni boxes: making new friends, meeting boys, feeling out of her depth in lectures, falling in love. But each of these events has a twist to it which leaves Michaela wiser, sadder and more vulnerable than when she arrived. Reid skewers campus culture and sexual politics with wit, elegance and real feeling. This is a terrific, timely, and extremely readable novel.


A Stitch in Time


I think I must have picked up almost all of Penelope Lively's children's books over the years, starting with my all-time favourite, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, when I was about nine. So I'm not sure how 1976 Whitbread Award winner A Stitch in Time has eluded me for so long. I thought I must have read it at some point, but I couldn't remember any of the details of the book this time round, so maybe I hadn't!

It's pitched as a time slip story, but it isn't really. Solitary Maria comes to Lyme Regis (having recently watched Ammonite, I could picture this very clearly) on holiday with her parents, and becomes intrigued by a former Victorian-era inhabitant of their house, a young girl called Harriet, who seems have mysteriously disappeared before reaching adulthood. The creak of a lost swing, the bark of an invisible dog, a shadowy face glimpsed in a window, all provide clues into the past; but in the end, it's the present that Maria is able to fully enter, making connections with the boy next door and his family tribe, and making friends with her own mother.

A Stitch in Time is a very gently paced book, more of a meditation on the links between past and present than a true time slip novel. There's not much in the way of incident, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, the hints of humour and shy Maria gradually coming out of her shell. This is a sweet, quiet, comforting book.


The Chosen

To my delight, I discovered my old copy of Chaim Potok's The Chosen on my book shelf, inscribed with my name and Year 12 class number. I don't think I'd picked it up since doing HSC many years ago. Looking for an image to include with this post, I came across a very recent article written by the director of the film version, celebrating the movie's 40th anniversary. Synchronicity! I've never seen the film, I hope I can find it somewhere.

Typically for Chaim Potok's novels, the story is slow-paced, but dense with detail and atmosphere. This was my first introduction to the world of Hasidic Judaism and on my first reading, much of Danny's world was a mystery to me -- the patriarchal community (women barely appear in the novel), the centrality of Torah, the almost mystical reverence for the rebbe, Danny's father. The book centres on the friendship between two boys: brilliant Hasidic Danny, destined to follow his father as leader of the community, but drawn to secular studies; and Reuven, observant but not extreme, who is ironically called to become a rabbi himself. The four way relationship between the two sons and the two fathers structures the novel.

The Chosen is set during and after the Second World War and it was odd to read of the death of President Roosevelt one day and the next day, see the same event portrayed on Band of Brothers (which my husband has been re-watching). It's really strange how often these threads of connection arise with my reading! I don't remember being struck by the almost complete absence of women in the book on first reading, even though I was at an all girls school, but it was glaring to me this time around. Now I want to revisit Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev, which I don't remember much about except that I found it moving, strange and intriguing.




I read all of John Wyndham's books in high school, but haven't returned to them since. My memory of 1968's Chocky, his last published novel, was that it was very creepy, but I didn't find it frightening this time round at all. Perhaps my memory was clouded by the fact that I tried to write my own version of a Chocky story, which my mother read and worried that I'd developed schizophrenia!

Chocky is the story of 12 year old Matthew (narrated by his concerned father) who seems to have an invisible friend (always a fascination of mine); however 'Chocky' seems to have access to knowledge and abilities that Matthew himself doesn't possess. The family doctor is no help, a psych consultant brushes off their anxieties, Matthew's mother is in denial, but gradually his father becomes convinced that Chocky is real. But exactly who or what are they?

You read John Wyndham for the ideas and the plot rather than for character development, but I had forgotten how thin his characters are. I'd also forgotten the strand of casual misogyny that runs through this novel. Much like Nevil Shute's On the Beach, of similar vintage, women exist in this world purely as anxious mothers, whose 'irrational' fears need to be soothed by their calm, sensible husbands. Some prescient predictions by Chocky, though; if only we'd listened...


A Natural History of Ghosts

I heard Roger Clarke speaking on a podcast and immediately ordered his book, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. It arrived just in time for Halloween -- perfect timing!

The back cover poses these questions: What explains spectral sightings? Why do we fear the supernatural? Why are some people or cultures more likely to experience hauntings than others? And what proof is there?

All fascinating and intriguing questions, which unfortunately Clarke doesn't explicitly address until the final chapter. The bulk of the book deals with historic cases of ghost sightings -- particularly stories which took on a life of their own (if you'll pardon the pun). So we learn about Hinton Ampner, a Tudor house that suffered from an eighteenth century haunting so severe that it became impossible for anyone to live there; the house was eventually demolished. There is the hysteria around the ghost of Cock Lane,  later proved to be a fraud; a cursed submarine of WWI, Victorian seances, fake clairvoyants and earnest investigations.

Clarke grew up in a haunted house and has devoted much of his life to trying to see a ghost; he examines the historical evidence with admirable objectivity, though he is clearly a believer. His attitude is that while fraud exists, it doesn't mean that ghosts don't also exist; even if a medium has indulged in fakery, that doesn't mean that they haven't also experienced genuine psychic phenomena.

In a basic sense, ghosts exist because people constantly report that they see them. This is not a book about whether ghosts exist or not. This is a book about what we see when we see a ghost, and the stories  that we tell each other about them.

I must admit I find this attitude a reasonable one. I've never seen a ghost either, and I probably wouldn't like it if I did, but my mother-in-law has seen one, and my daughter, as a small child, claimed to have seen an unexplained figure in our kitchen. The final chapter of A Natural History of Ghosts was the most satisfying for me, as Clarke traces the changing history of ghost sightings, from an ancient Roman tale of a ghostly apparition, wrapped in a white burial shroud and shaking chains from wrists and ankles (the absolute original cliche of a moaning phantom!), to monks and nuns dispossessed by Henry VIII's seizure of church property, through to modern era photos and spooky sound recordings (the YouTube series Unsolved Supernatural has some delicious examples of the latter). 

I can't explain what ghost experiences might be, but I'm not game to insist that everyone who has seen or heard or felt a ghost is a liar. Maybe one day we will find out for sure.


The Giant Under the Snow

I learned about John Gordon and The Giant Under the Snow through a Facebook group about Alan Garner, and I'm amazed that I had never heard of this book or this author before, because it is very much my cup of tea. First published in 1968, The Giant Under the Snow follows three children who discover a huge mysterious figure in the woods, with an ageless guardian figure called Elizabeth Goodenough who watches over him. Soon the three friends, Bill, Arf and Jonk (short for Jonquil, which I adore!) are being pursued by a sinister warlord and a terrifying black dog, along with the creepy faceless 'leathermen.'

The Giant Under the Snow is light on plot (it's basically a chase story) but thick on atmosphere. Elizabeth gives the children small backpacks which enable them to fly, and the flying scenes are detailed and evocative, as the three learn to control their new gift and fly over the darkened snowy landscape by night. It reminded me of Penelope Farmer's The Summer Birds, published a few years earlier, and also Alan Garner's Elidor (1965), where the children also become guardians of precious relics. Giant and Elidor both feature the half-demolished streetscapes of slum clearances, a spooky setting for a world between myth and the everyday.

This book slots in very comfortably with other 1960s authors like Penelope Lively who were also exploring deep history and myth. Gordon also wrote The House on the Brink which also deals with an Arthurian figure, so I'm intrigued to track that one down, too.


Three Women

 An unusual book for me, in that it is very adult! Lisa Taddeo's Three Women caused quite a stir when it was published a couple of years ago, for its frank and explicit exploration of female desire through the life stories of three women -- one who has sex with other men for her husband's pleasure, one who is having an affair with a married man, and one young woman who was abused by her high school teacher. Taddeo spent eight years working with the women, so these portraits are extremely intimate, sometimes sad, sometimes shocking.

The story I found most gripping was (perhaps not surprisingly) the high school student, Maggie, who ended up suing her teacher -- you can find pictures of the court case online -- after he was awarded Teacher of the Year in North Dakota. The gradually unfolding story of his grooming her, her growing crush on him, the abuse (which she experiences at the time as a love affair), and then her sense of betrayal, is incredibly poignant and painful. 

At the beginning of this book I wasn't sure if it was going to be my cup of tea, but by the end I was totally involved, and bitterly sad for Maggie. All three women are straight, cis, able and white; it would be interesting to hear similar stories from diverse points of view.

Occasionally the writing strives little too hard to be interesting, as when 'the wild black water [of a secret waterfall] rushes... like a vibrant truffle.' Sometimes less is more!


Seventeen Against the Dealer

 Seventeen Against the Dealer, the final Tillerman book, is not an easy read. It's great to bring the focus back to Dicey, now in her early twenties and embarking on her big dream, a boat-building business. But Dicey, always so resourceful and self-sufficient, is still young and raw; it's painful to read about one thing after another going wrong, as she loses her precious tool collection (uninsured), agrees to take on work she can't yet manage, and trusts people who don't deserve it. Dicey's way has always been to barrel on, to work hard, tackle the problem in front of her, and then work harder; but she needs to learn that that isn't the only, or even the best way, to handle life. Perhaps the most painful lesson of all, which we see unfolding before she does, is that she almost loses faithful Jeff by taking his loyalty for granted. And in neglecting her family, she almost loses Gram, too.

This is a satisfying conclusion to Cynthia Voigt's masterful Tillerman series, though I still think Homecoming is my favourite of them all. This last book is about taking chances, and making the most of the chances you're given, and also about picking yourself up again if those gambles don't pay off. Seventeen Against the Dealer also prompted me to cook jumbalaya, which was delicious! I'm looking forward to revisiting the Tillermans again in another ten years.


Books That Saved My Life

 I've always enjoyed Michael McGirr's book reviews in The Age, and also Bypass: The Story of a Road, a gentle road trip. He is a humane, compassionate and thoughtful commentator, a man of faith who teaches English at a boys' private school (lucky boys).

In Books That Saved My Life, McGirr reflects on forty books, in short chapters of a few pages each, that have touched or inspired him over a lifetime of reading, some fiction, some poetry, some memoir, some non-fiction. He interweaves his observations with some biographical information about each author and some personal anecdotes about the place of each book in his life, how he discovered it, or the person who introduced him to it. It's like reading a bunch of pithy newspaper columns, perfectly weighted and structured, or taking recommendations from a trusted and well-read friend.

There are lots of books here that I'd never heard of, as well as plenty of old friends, who I enjoyed viewing in a fresh light, from Harry Potter to Jane Austen to Heart of Darkness (blerch) -- plenty of female authors, too. If you were embarking on a serious reading program, you could do worse than take Michael McGirr as your guide.


In the Beginning


A proper grown up literary novel, the first one I've read for a long time. I read quite a few of Chaim Potok's novels in high school and was fascinated by the glimpses into a different cultural world, the world of Orthodox Judaism, that they showed to me; that fascination has never left me, as my recent television adventures with Unorthodox, Shtisel and Unchained have proved. But I haven't read In the Beginning before.

In the Beginning is an adult novel, but for most of its length David Lurie is a child or an adolescent, growing up in the Bronx during the Depression and the Second World War. We see through his eyes the hostility of the goyim, the oppression of history, and he is particularly haunted by his father's past, fighting in Poland. David is a sickly, gifted child, perpetually anxious, dreading 'accidents', and aspiring to a courage he is sure that he lacks. But in the end, the courage he finds is not physical bravery but a more demanding intellectual strength which will rip him away from the security of his tight community and family.

In the Beginning is a slow burn of a novel. Small incident piles upon incident, there is a growing sense of dread, although the violence and horror all occurs either in the past or many miles away in Nazi Germany. And I'm still fascinated that there is a world so utterly foreign to me, the world of Torah scholarship, which is so burningly important to many people and about which I know absolutely nothing.


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.