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.