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.