Things Fall Apart

Both my daughters had to study Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart at school so it was lying around the house in an end-of-year pile and I thought I may as well read it. I haven't read much African literature, though I didn't realise it was first published in 1958!

It's pretty short, which is probably one reason why it's popular as a school text, and it was definitely interesting to read a book set in such a different culture, pre-colonial Nigeria. The younger daughter helpfully informed me that Achebe was keen to replicate the rhythms and tropes of traditional story-telling in his novel, which was a good thing to keep in mind. However, I wasn't completely satisfied with the reading experience: events occurred, one thing happened after another, but it wasn't until the very end of the novel that those events cohered into something like a story.

I'm not sorry I read Things Fall Apart but I might try a different Achebe novel next time.


Bye Beautiful


I am reading so much this summer, I'm having trouble keeping up! Julia Lawrinson's Bye, Beautiful was published in 2006, but because it's set in the 1960s, it hasn't dated at all; in some ways, it's more relevant than ever.

Bye, Beautiful transported me to rural Western Australia, a time of sewing your own clothes, shiny new decimal currency, cubes of cheese and pickled onions in a Tupperware wheel -- some echoes of my own 1970s childhood. It's also a time and place of overt, unapologetic racism, shocking to a modern reader, and almost equally shocking misogyny and assumptions about a young woman's path in life. Sandy's sister Marianne is only just seventeen, yet she's engaged and expecting to get married as soon as she finishes school!

Thirteen Sandy herself feels ordinary and dull compared with pretty, vivacious Marianne; she nurses her secrets closely, and she knows that as the new copper's daughter, she will be held to a higher standard than her peers. As the stories and personalities of the new town gradually unfold themselves, I found myself absorbed in this family's troubled relationships, and ached for poor Sandy as she finds herself trapped between impossible loyalties.

I really enjoyed this thoughtful, moving book and I'll be keeping an eye out for Julia Lawrinson's other novels. (Full disclosure: I went to dinner with her once, years ago, and she was lovely.)


I Am, I Am, I Am

 I Am, I Am, I Am is such a fascinating concept for a memoir: Maggie O'Farrell takes seventeen episodes from her life, seventeen 'brushes with death,' and weaves around each of them mediations on male violence,  adolescent risk-taking, parental love, travel, fate and chance, health and illness, caring, home and family, decision making, and many other topics. Her life-threatening events vary from an unwitting encounter with a serial killer to a childhood rush across a busy street, a very serious bout of meningitis to a bumpy plane ride, and includes no less than three incidents of near-drownings.

Inevitably the reader instantly begins to think back over their own near-misses. In my case they would probably include a drunken swim across the Yarra River, a dumb decision to get in a car with someone who certainly shouldn't have been driving, and abdominal adhesions that required urgent surgery. Some things beyond my control, but definitely some stupid decisions in there too.

The most moving chapter of I Am, I Am, I Am talked about O'Farrell's history of multiple miscarriages. It's not often a book makes me cry, but this chapter was so poignant and sad and beautiful; it's worth getting hold of this memoir for that chapter alone.

In the midst of a pandemic (no, it's not over yet, people), reading about the fragility and sheer chanciness of life was more painfully relevant than ever. It was also the second book in a week of reading to discuss procipioception ie the awareness of the body's position in space, a sense impaired in O'Farrell as a legacy of her childhood meningitis, and which contributed to at least one near-drowning. (The Science of Yoga also talked about procipioception -- which is excruciatingly hard to spell, by the way.) A really thought-provoking and insightful book.


The Science of Yoga


I snapped up William J Broad's The Science of Yoga when it appeared on Brotherhood Books. 2022 marks the fourth year -- possibly even the fifth? -- that I have done a yoga session every morning; I think I've only missed two days due to sickness. I'm well aware of the benefits that regular yoga has brought to me: I am SO much more flexible, aware of my body, some long-standing aches and stiffness have been ironed out, and my mental health has improved. As soon as I sit down on my mat in front of the big window and start the rounds of slow breathing before I begin the exercises, I feel calm descend. So I was intrigued to read Broad's account of the changing claims for yoga as it's spread through the western world.

For a while there was a wild assertion that yoga was the only form of exercise that a healthy person would ever need -- despite the fact that while yoga excels at slowing and calming, it's not that great at raising your heart rate (unless you deliberately plunge into energetic repetitions of the Sun Salutation). Reminders not to push too hard, not to contort too forcefully, made more sense as I read about cases of stroke and injury -- no wonder instructions for headstands and shoulder stands don't appear in newer textbooks! 

On the other hand, benefits for mental health, gentle physical healing, creativity and apparently sex lives are starting to be better documented. Yoga is fantastic at doing what it does; the danger lies when we try to co-opt it into fields where it doesn't belong.


A Glasshouse of Stars

Shirley Marr's A Glasshouse of Stars was my other Christmas present to myself, and it was absolutely enchanting, a magical urban story to accompany the outback magic of Dragon Skin. Set in Perth, it follows Meixing's arrival in a new country from a small island (Marr came to the mainland from Christmas Island in the 1980s) and her family's swift plunge into strangeness and tragedy.

Meixing's uncle's house, nicknamed Big Scary, is a character in its own right, shrinking and expanding as required, sometimes comforting, sometimes frightening. A Glasshouse of Stars made a wonderful companion read with A Spool of Blue Thread, which also explored an atmospheric house that shapes a family history, and the ghosts that whisper through its walls.

This book is unusual in that it uses the second person pronoun throughout.

You stare long and hard at the blue colouring pencil. Seizing and gripping it as if you had to hold on for dear life, you draw an endless field of blue flowers and an endless blue sky and a girl who is completely blue. You collapse all of this into the little pages you have cut from one sheet of white paper. The wall behind you creaks and moans, and you put a hand behind you and touch Big Scary. You feel a warmth against you and turn to see a pink glow that just as soon disappears when you pull away, You look at the adults, but they don't seem to notice.

Initially I thought I might find this jarring but I soon relaxed into it, and this strangeness lends a distinctive otherness to the text that cleverly mirrors Meixing's dislocation. Another sweet treasure of a book for middle grade readers.


A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler is such a reliable novelist, you always know you're going to get at the very least, a good solid satisfying read and at best, much more than that.  A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the Booker Prize so I'm not sure why I allowed it to languish at the bottom of my wardrobe in the 'to be read eventually' pile for such a long time.

As usual we are plunged instantly into the heart of a family, their small triumphs, their hidden rivalries, their in-jokes, their heartbreaks, their myths and mysteries. There are 'two stories' the Whitshanks tell about themselves: one concerning their house, originally built for someone else, but always coveted by its builder, Junior Whitshank, and eventually acquired by him. The other story centres on (mostly absent) aunt Merrick, who schemed and plotted until she ended up with her best friend's fiancé. But both stories, seemingly about the triumph of persistence, are perhaps ultimately about disappointment, because neither the longed-for house nor the longed-for husband really live up to expectations.

The Whitshanks' story dips and swoops, looping back in time to reveal surprising secrets, dropping hints and ending with a parade of ghosts hung from the long verandah, all the ghosts that have haunted the generations who have inhabited this house. Some critics accuse Tyler of working on a small canvas (they said they same about Jane Austen), and say her novels are slow and uneventful. Those things might be true, but I sank into this novel as if into a comfortable bed on a winter's night. A Spool of Blue Thread was an utterly pleasurable read.


Dragon Skin


I think I may have a new favourite author. I adored Lenny's Book of Everything, but Karen Foxlee's latest middle grade novel, Dragon Skin, is even better. It doesn't hurt that it comes in this gorgeous hardcover package, either, with soft illustrations and silvery inlay. This is a book to treasure and to share.

When Pip finds a tiny baby dragon by the creek, her whole world changes. She discovers that caring for a dragon is a job that can't be done by one person, and she finds some unlikely helpers to assist her, including, in a way, her recently-lost best friend, Mika. Pip is deep in grief, and trapped in fear of her mother's abusive boyfriend, and though Little Fella can't come charging in to rescue her, breathing fire and slashing his talons, he does end up saving her as much as she has saved him.

This is such a beautiful, poignant story, often sad but also luminous with joy. I loved Little Fella, who is like a super-charged puppy, bumbling around and butting Pip with his head when he wants attention, crawling into her arms for comfort, calling out at inconvenient moments when he's hungry. Memories of Mika are interwoven with the present, so that we feel his loss as much as Pip does.

Lenny's Book of Everything was set in the US but Dragon Skin sees Foxlee return to the Mt Isa landscape of her own childhood, a place of mines and dry heat, dirt and galahs, waterholes and Weetbix. Is it too early to declare book of the year?


How to End a Story

 I have loved receiving Helen Garner's three volumes of diaries for three successive Christmases (all Covid Christmases, I think!) This final volume covers only four years, but they were intense and painful years as Garner struggles with the end of her marriage to 'V.'

It was interesting to read How to End a Story in conjunction with According to Mark, because they both dealt with issues of the recording of a life, journals, biography, silences and secrets and the reconstruction of the past. 'V' feels revulsion at the idea of Garner's diaries and the possibility that his words and actions might be pored over by future, public readers -- exactly as has ended up happening in reality. And yet Garner cannot stop writing her diary -- it's fundamental to the way she experiences and processes her own life, and it is vital creative work in itself. It's no wonder V is so hostile to the notion of his behaviour being recorded, because he really does act like a total dick at times (though Garner fairly tries to lay the blame for the marriage breakdown on both of them, it seems pretty clear that it was mostly his fault).

Garner's diaries and Lively's novel also share the theme of how to 'manage' male writers. In Garner's case, everything has to be sacrificed to V's novel (which does end up being very successful): 

What his novel cost. No piano. No holidays. No weekends. No outings. We sold my car. No river, no sea, no garden. No dog. No outdoor clothesline. No singing, no dancing, no swimming. No children, no noise, no fresh air. No sunlight, no wide-open windows.

Slowly, agonisingly, Garner extricates herself -- she goes into therapy, she rents herself a studio with a view of the harbour (you can actually check it out on Domain if you're interested!). She keeps pressing V to tell the truth and while he never admits having an affair, he does leave intimate letters lying around where it's easy for Garner to find them, so again, she is forced to do the emotional work of confronting him. This book made me so angry at times that it took my breath away, but it's saved from being purely painful by Garner's ever-luminous, hard, spare, precise writing.

And I was so pleased to hear her on the radio a couple of days ago, saying that she'd read and loved Larissa Behrendt's Afterstory, which she described as having a such a sweetness to it -- totally agree!


According to Mark


I really love Penelope Lively's books for children but I'm less keen on her adult fiction. According to Mark seemed like a pretty minor novel to me and I was surprised to learn that it was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize (Lively won the Booker three years later with Moon Tiger). It reminded me strongly of A. S. Byatt's blockbuster Possession which appeared a few years later and tackled head-on topics that According to Mark brushes past more lightly -- the relationship between biographer and subject, the dance between biography, fiction and truth, the gaps in the record of a life, which might be deliberate or accidental.

According to Mark does deal with a literary mystery similar to the one central to Possession, but it's principally the story of the biographer Mark and his mid-life crisis infatuation with the grand-daughter of his subject. Carrie's reluctance to plunge into an affair -- she goes along with Mark out of politeness more than anything -- makes uncomfortable reading in a post-Me Too world, though it's played for comedy here. By three quarters of the way through I was becoming impatient for the revelation of the secret life of Gilbert Strong which Possession had conditioned me to expect, and its final arrival was a satisfying relief.

According to Mark is a pleasant, diverting novel but for my money, it doesn't compare to The Ghost of Thomas Kempe!


The Edge of Thirteen

I've always felt a particular fondness for Nova Weetman's middle grade novels about Clem Timmins because my lovely, horribly missed friend Sandra Eterovic provided the cover illustrations for the first two books.

The Edge of Thirteen takes Clem to the very brink of young adulthood. Her friends are suddenly interested in boys, wearing bras, getting their periods. Clem wants everything to stay the same but it's all changing. The Edge of Thirteen beautifully captures that subtle peer pressure and desire to fit in, even if it means doing things you're not sure you want to do (like taking selfies, kissing, or even talking about kissing) and how devastating it feels when it all goes wrong. 

I could totally relate to this novel, even though I didn't really experience the same pressure until I was a good five years older than Clem! This is a great story for anyone who is twelve or thirteen, knows someone who is twelve or thirteen, or has been twelve or thirteen themselves once upon a time.



The Signature of All Things

Unfortunately this was another much-lauded novel that, for me, failed to live up to high expectations (see Where the Crawdads Sing, below). I've seen many glowing recommendations for Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things and it has over 100,000 reviews on Goodreads (crikey) so I'm clearly in a minority here, but I wasn't as enthralled as I wanted to be.

There were plenty of reasons to expect good things. I've read most of Elizabeth Gilbert's non-fiction and find her an engaging writer. I love history and historical fiction; I like plants, and I was primed to discover more about eighteenth century botany after being bewitched by The Paper Garden. A plain, scholarly heroine always appeals, as does the fact that most of the story takes place either in Alma's childhood or after her middle age -- entirely skipping over the youthful, fertile years which are usually the focus of fiction about women. 

I must say that the final third of the novel (contrary to normal practice!) fairly sang -- once the story shifted to Tahiti I found myself gripped much more tightly by the story. But the first third was a bit of a drag. The backstory of Alma's father went on too long for me, and it wasn't till Alma met the ethereal Ambrose, about halfway through, that the gears of the plot began to move. I can see why other readers have been captivated by this novel, but I just couldn't quite shift myself onto its wavelength.


The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst

 Jaclyn Moriarty is one of the authors I admire most, so it was an enormous thrill to meet her in Sydney, and a gorgeous surprise to receive a copy of her short-listed book, The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst, in my goody-bag (yes, we all got goody bags AS WELL). I started reading it immediately and it is as thoroughly delightful as every other Jaclyn Moriarty book I have ever read.

Moriarty has a distinctive gift for combining sparkling, funny prose with deviously clever plotting -- I don't know how she keeps the threads straight, but she always manages to tie up multiple complex storylines and fiendish clues in a beautifully satisfying package by the last page. The Stolen Prince is a misleading title which has very little to do with the mysteries confronting Esther Mettlestone-Staranise when she returns to boarding school: Ogres, Shadow Mages, Spellbinders, the disappearance of her two best friends, the arrival of mysterious new girls who are not what they seem...

This engaging novel is enhanced with charming illustrations by Kelly Canby -- I wish more children's books these days were illustrated, the distinctive pictures in my childhood favourites have stuck with me for decades and it's a shame that modern kids are missing out. Not in this case, though!


2021 Reading Round-up


Okay, time for my annual cursory analysis of my reading habits, and my annual attempt to remember how to make pie charts. I must confess that in 2021, all my virtuous resolutions went out the window. I made no attempt to explore more diverse authors or try different genres -- my only aim was to read for pleasure and comfort. So I have a feeling my existing biases will be even more on display in this report!

As I have done for the past couple of years, most of the time I have been reading three books simultaneously: one kids/YA title, one adult fiction and one non-fiction book. I find this keeps me from getting bogged down, and also throws up interesting and unexpected resonances between quite dissimilar books. I read a total of 91 books in 2021.

With a reading regime like the one outlined above, you'd expect a ratio of about two thirds fiction to one third non-fiction, and that's roughly how it panned out. A little less non-fiction because some of my non-fiction choices were heavy going and took longer to read.

Slightly more than a third of the books I read were children's literature or young adult, probably because they tend to be shorter and quicker to read, so I could get through more of them. Huzzah!

Ha ha ha, I hardly read ANY books by men this year! It was 81% women authors to 19% men! (I didn't read any books by non-binary authors.) And the male side of the ledger was dominated by Michael Palin, whose diaries I became addicted to. Dearie me. Sorry, fellas.

A sad lack of diversity in the nationalities of my authors, as I suspected. Lots of local authors, but mostly old favourites from the UK -- I do find British authors more soothing than anyone else. The US wedge is made up mostly of Cynthia Voigt, whose Tillerman series I re-read with great pleasure, and otherwise mostly by books that I didn't enjoy much, frankly (sorry to my Yankee friends). One single Irish entry, which was the new Tana French mystery. 

Only 7% of my books were gifted or bought new. 41% were purchased secondhand (thank you Brotherhood Books, mostly). 20% were reread from my own shelves. 17% were borrowed from the library. 10% were bought on the Kindle, and the remaining 5% were borrowed from friends or family.

Notable books of 2021

Old favourites: I binged on the uplifting, comforting books of Elizabeth Goudge, and the delightful, haunting Green Knowe books of Lucy M. Boston, as well as Cynthia Voigt. New authors: I discovered the accomplished, beautiful work of Jill Paton Walsh (though I still need to track down Goldengrove), and the lively, wicked, wartime mysteries of Robert Gott.

In non-fiction, Kim Mahood's Position Doubtful and Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? by Keryn Walshe and Peter Sutton gave me much to think about and shook up my perceptions of Aboriginal Australia. Helen Garner's second volume of diaries, One Day I'll Remember This, was a greedy pleasure and a brilliant set-up for the third and final volume. 

In fiction, Leanne Hall's extraordinary The Gaps was the best young adult novel I read last year, and Diana Reid's Love and Virtue was cool and devastating.

Wishing everyone a happy reading year for 2022!


What I Read On My Holiday


I had to go to Sydney for a few days before Christmas (spoiler: I didn't win the award, but I had a lovely time and met some authors I hugely admire, so it felt like a win regardless). As I was in the middle of reading three books, naturally I decided to bring two new books with me for the trip. One I expected to enjoy, and didn't; the other I was uncertain about, and I loved it.

Where the Crawdads Sing had been highly recommended on social media: book of the year, top read, loved it etc etc. While I certainly enjoyed aspects of this novel -- it's highly atmospheric, with an unusual swampland setting, a central murder mystery, and an appealingly independent heroine -- ultimately the implausibility of the story, the stilted dialogue and mostly flat characters gradually began to annoy me and by the end I was actively hating it (this novel has been massively successful so I don't feel bad for adding my two cents of dislike to the shedloads of praise it's received). I just couldn't buy that an abandoned child with no schooling whatsoever could end up writing botanical textbooks and speaking more like a 'southern lady' than her hick neighbours thanks to occasionally hanging out with a nice boy...

On the other hand, Australian YA author Krystal Sutherland's House of Hollow was recommended by a single reviewer (albeit someone whose opinion I trust completely: hello, Sue), and while it's a genre that I am wary of, ie horror, I was utterly captivated. This was a thoroughly creepy, beautiful and elegant story that I devoured avidly. The three mysterious sisters with their shared childhood trauma, their damaged parents, the glamorous London setting and the weird otherworld to which they seem to be connected, all bewitched me. 

I bought one of these books and borrowed the second from the library -- how I wish I'd done it the other way around!