Are You There, Buddha?

 Are You There, Buddha? by Pip Harry pays explicit homage to Judy Blume's puberty classic, Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. A fast-paced, funny and touching verse novel, it follows twelve year old Bee, who has just started high school and doesn't want any more big changes in her life, thank you very much. Her mother has decamped to India, and while Bee's stepmother is doing her best to fill that gap, Bee  is furiously resistant to Kath's help. Bee is also keenly aware that her period is about to start, and more dimly conscious that her best friend Leon is starting to view their friendship through a different sense.

Are You There, Buddha? is beautifully relatable, as Bee struggles to cling onto the certainties in her life (her dad, swimming, Leon, her school friends getting obsessed with clothes and kissing) even while the ground is shifting under her, including her own treacherous body. Ultimately Bee succeeds in finding her feet in a changing landscape and discovers that not everything about growing up is necessarily terrible. 

I liked the way Harry didn't deliver an easy, sugar-coated solution to Bee's troubled relationship with her mother, or to Leon's uncomfortable feelings; but she does offer some hope for the future with new friend Claire and swimming rival Laura, who has more serious problems at home to deal with. I think I would have found this a very reassuring read in my late primary years, when the future was a total mystery and there were so few maps available. We need more books like this!


One Hundred Years of Dirt


I'm familiar with Rick Morton's work from his pieces in The Monthly magazine and I've also heard him on the 7AM podcast. But I wasn't prepared for the sheer gut punch that is One Hundred Years of Dirt. Part personal memoir, part social analysis, Morton uses his own family's horrific experiences of addiction, violence, and poverty to explore Australia's inadequate response to these issues. A gay, working-class boy from the country, carrying a crippling weight of intergenerational trauma, Morton has struggled with mental illness and entrenched disadvantage, his mother still lives on a precarious income, and his siblings have battled to overcome their own issues, one successfully, one not. Morton is brutally frank in examining the myth that anyone can fight clear of social disadvantage if they work hard enough; well, no, it's not as simple as that.

This is a superb, clear-eyed and courageous story that deserves a wide readership. Though there are episodes of violence and suffering that are difficult to read, there is also humour and insight. This could have been an angry book, and it is sometimes angry, but it is overwhelmingly a call for greater compassion and understanding. If you haven't already, I urge you to read it.


Swallows and Amazons


One of the most exciting Christmas presents I ever received was when I was about eleven and I got a full set of the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome (except for Missee Lee, which I did manage to collect eventually and then kind of wished I hadn't). Already favourites, I then proceeded to read them all again multiple times, to the point where my copy of Swallows and Amazons (not even a particular fave) is almost falling apart. Discovered on an English holiday when I was eight, Ransome's books were a firm foundation of my childhood.

Though Swallows and Amazons is getting on for a hundred years old now, I still enjoyed most of this book. The sturdy, self-reliant children, dealing with the practical details of sailing and camping are wonderful role models, and they're not too perfect -- things do go wrong, and they make some dumb decisions (like sailing at night, a very tense chapter). And I especially love the way they effortlessly slip between reality and their imaginative world of pirates and explorers. 

But -- and it's a big but -- this time around I noticed how the children's constant references to 'natives' (ie adults) and 'savages' really grated on my nerves. I'm ashamed to say that this made no impression on me whatsoever as a child or teenage reader, and was only really brought to my attention by the estimable Michelle Cooper. Without having recently re-read the books at the time of her blog post, I suggested that someone might rewrite the novel to remove those references, because I only clearly remembered one scene where Titty (oh dear) and her mother talk about 'savages', but now I realise how thoroughly the 'native' conceit is woven through the texture of the whole book, and as Michelle correctly noted, it would be impossible to remove. It's such a shame, because the positive aspects of the book are so strong, and yet its whole fabric is stained by this dated element. I think, I hope, that the 'native' side of things tones down somewhat in later volumes? I'm going to reread the rest of the series and find out; except for Missee Lee, which is so blatantly racist that even infant me picked up on it, and I've only re-read it once.


Around the World in Eighty Days


Michael Palin's first foray into global travel, Around the World in 80 Days, was a massive and unexpected hit. Palin wasn't even the first choice to make the BBC program, but it was such a ratings smash, and the accompanying book such a huge bestseller, than it led to a veritable franchise of other travels: Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Sahara, Himalayas, Brazil, Hemingway and more.

However, for this trip, in 1989, Palin was a travel novice and he describes the inconveniences and discomforts of this race against time with the same good humour as he reports the delights and surprises. Most of the time is spent on cargo ships and trains, pretty the only way to move around the globe if airline travel is outlawed. His fictional predecessor Phileas Fogg had a plethora of passenger ships to choose from in every port, but Palin and his Passepartout (the small film crew) have to anxiously coordinate the arrival and departure of various container vessels to keep their schedule.

Where Palin really excels is in his natural warmth and interest in the people he meets along the way, always eager for a conversation and a new experience (though he does get tired and cranky, too). It's so funny to read about his time in Tokyo, where he describes such exotica as sushi trains, pod hotels and karaoke as big novelties! Palin writes with wit and ease, always with an eye to any possible humour, which makes him an ideal travelling companion.

It's no big spoiler to reveal that he and Passepartout made it back to the steps of the Reform Club just before their deadline -- but the club wouldn't let them in!


Real Life


Annoyingly, I can't remember where I saw the recommendation for Brandon Taylor's Real Life, so I'm not sure why I was expecting something quite different. I thought I was going to read a gritty urban drama, but instead I found myself reading a campus novel, more like Sally Rooney or Diana Reid. However as Real Life progressed, issues of race and class came bubbling to the surface and indeed there were episodes of shocking violence.

Real Life follows a weekend in the life of Wallace, who like Taylor himself, works in the science department of a middle-sized university, where he is the only Black in his research section and the only Black in his group of friends. Wallace is uncertain of his academic vocation, finding himself constantly, subtly undermined by his colleagues and his supervisor, uncertain of his place the friendship group and uncertain of his place in the world. Escaping from his home turns out  to be not enough. (In 'real' real life, Taylor quit his science post to write this novel.)

Real Life reminded me of being in my early twenties, with days spent moving in a shifting pack of friends, from 'dinner thing' to brunch to work, to afternoon at the beach, from one friend's house to another, in a marsh of gossip and crushes and in-jokes, laughter and tension and secrets kept and told. For Wallace, these activities are always conducted, even among his closest friends, against a background hum of racism or at least race awareness. This is a novel of hurt young men who seem to feel compelled to hurt each other, bonded in mutual misery, and it's written with the miserable cynicism of youth that feels everything is hopeless and will never get better.

I hope Brandon Taylor's life has improved since he wrote this impressive debut novel and I'm interested to see what he does next.


Snow in the Maze


Snow in the Maze is such a weird little book.  It looks like antique fiction but it was only published in 1979, so not all that old. I couldn't resist it when it turned up on Brotherhood Books, it looked like my cup of tea and the cover was so appealing. However, it started out as a mother-daughter conflict story -- sixteen year old Rosa has been painted in a series of celebrated portraits by her artist mother, and is thoroughly sick of being known as Rosa from the cards, calendars etc. It was quite hard to barrack for Rosa initially as she kept moaning on about how hard it was to be so beautiful and famous!

Then the story took a left turn by becoming the tale of 18th century brother and sister, careless Vialis and mean Cytherea, and their oppressed little orphan cousin Hebe, recounted by guardian of Briarcourt House, the mysterious Jackman. Then it took another turn and became a spooky time slip story, which is frankly, what I'd been expecting in the first place.

I've never read any other Barbara Freeman novels but from the blurb on the back cover it sounds as if they all quite similar in flavour -- gentle ghosts and time slips -- which is right up my alley. I can't say I fell in love with Snow in the Maze but if I come across any more Freemans I will probably surrender.




I'd seen a huge buzz around this novel online, and having had a couple of positive Maggie O'Farrell reading experiences, I thought this was worth a library punt (mind you, online buzz let me down with Where the Crawdads Sing). Anyway, a story about Shakespeare is always appealing, right?

Well, Hamnet is wonderful. I didn't think think I was going to like it much at first -- I think I was too anxious about the fate of Hamnet himself (spoiler, if there's anyone who doesn't know about Shakespeare's family -- he dies). But by about a fifth of the way through, I was completely hooked. The story weaves back and forth between the present (illness in the house) and the past (the courtship of Agnes and her un-named younger suitor -- spoiler: it's William Shakespeare) to tell the story of their family life, his departure for London, and the unfolding of their grief.

The part I liked best about this novel was the rich, intriguing characterisation of Shakespeare's wife, usually known as Anne, but named as Agnes in her father's will and called Agnes here. William's wife, about whom almost nothing is known, has been given a bad rap by most literary historians, who have conjectured that she was such a shrew that Shakespeare had to flee to London, that because she was older than him, she must have trapped him into marriage, that he hated her so much he left her their 'second best bed' in his will. But this Agnes is confident, charismatic, knowledgeable about herbs and healing, serene and strong, a most appealing woman. She's also a little bit psychic and can see that her husband is destined for great things. Their love is tender and definitely mutual, though grief pulls them apart. This version of events is just as likely as the bad spin Anne/Agnes has received down he centuries, and I like this much better!

Hamnet is a beautiful, sad and restorative novel, and this time it deserved all the fuss.


Travelling to Work

Travelling to Work is the final published volume of Michael Palin's diaries, and covers the decade from 1988 to 1998, when he was mostly occupied in making travel programs, carving out a niche for himself as a warm, friendly, spontaneous companion on various journeys around the world. The first, almost by accident, was Around the World in Eighty Days, and the massive popularity of this show inspired many sequels: Pole to Pole, Full Circle (around the Pacific Rim) and later, after these diaries are finished, journey through the Sahara and to the Himalayas. 

A little frustratingly, and ironically, these diaries say almost nothing about these travels, as Palin has written and published separate companion volumes for each of them (which I'm also going to read). But it means that Travelling to Work is in fact a chronicle of non-travelling work: acting in various films, some hugely successful (A Fish Called Wanda) and some not so much (his role in You've Got Mail ended up on the cutting room floor!), writing novels, managing property, sitting on boards, giving and receiving awards.

As Palin grows more rich and famous, his life more comfortable, his diaries become less interesting. He meets more celebrities, and mixes in more rarified circles (there are several encounters with royals), and though he never loses his genuine interest in other people and his unaffected charm, his life does become less relatable. But having said that, is is reassuring to learn that even for Michael Palin, things do go wrong: projects fall through, cherished ideas are received with indifference or harsh criticism, months of work are wasted. But he never loses his innate optimism and joy in life, which is ultimately why these diaries are such a pleasure to read.


Op Shoppery


One of my great pleasures is to fossick in a second hand book shop or one of the local op shops in the hope of unearthing unexpected treasures. But the op shops have been closed for a long time and it must be two years since I was able to rummage freely. Last week I ventured into our local Helping Hands Mission shop and scanned the shelves, and came up with a couple of books by favourite authors that I'd never heard of before, let alone seen, let alone read.

Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden is one of my all-time beloved favourite children's books, but this short story collection, What the Neighbours Did and Other Stories is more in the vein of A Dog So Small or Minnow on the Say: slight, domestic stories about fishing and dogs and cutting down trees. I must admit I was surprised to discover that there were several editions, though some of the stories have a great deal of quiet charm. I particularly enjoyed Still Jim and Silent Jim about a sneaky outing of a grandfather in a wheelchair and his grandson -- shades of The January Stars!

I was even more surprised to learn that Monica Dickens' The Messenger is just book one in a series of four which brilliantly marry magic, time slip and horses! The Messenger is Rose, who is sent back in time by a great grey magical horse to solve a mystery and defeat the fear and anger in the past with an act of love. I so enjoyed the structure of this book, which sees Rose going further back each time until she uncovers the original crime that has scarred this particular house and made it an unhappy place; it's not a million miles away from the time-slip book that I'm working on myself at the moment. 

I can't believe I've never come across these books before; I only know Monica Dickens from her realist adult fiction and her horsey-animal books, like the World's End series. But The Messenger was published in 1985, so I was too old. I found one online reviewer who said she was absolutely obsessed with these books, and I can understand why -- it's an irresistible combination! But on the other hand, another reviewer said she was confused by the jumps back and forward in time, which I could also understand. I definitely need to seek out the other three volumes in this series: I'm hooked!


The Reluctant Psychic


So I've been indulging my woo-woo streak a bit lately -- I've got completely sucked into a podcast called Uncanny, which is basically people telling stories about their paranormal experiences, living in haunted houses etc, which I find absolutely compelling! I'm also an occasional tarot card reader and I like to keep an open mind (hopefully not so open that my brains fall out).

Thus I found hard to resist The Reluctant Psychic, a memoir by Suzan Saxman with the help of ghost writer (ha ha) Perdita Finn. It's hard to know how much salt to take with this book, but Saxman's anecdotes about 'seeing' hidden information about people who consult her certainly sound convincing. There is a spooky narrative threaded through about her obsession with troubled English actor Jack Wild, with whom she felt a mysterious bond; and it turns out (spoiler alert) that it's just possible they were half-siblings. Saxman's timelines are fuzzy at times and she can be vague on some details, while being super precise on others.

The stream of people seeking help and enlightenment from her weirdly echoed the stream of people seeking help from Agnes, the protagonist in Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, which I was reading at the same time. And there was one observation that rang strangely true: Saxman surmises that Marion Zimmer Bradley 'channelled' her most successful novel, The Mists of Avalon; and I have to agree with Saxman that nothing else Bradley ever wrote matched that novel for emotional heft, convincing detail or quality of writing. Strange but true.

I'm calling this book non-fiction, but who knows!


Country: Future Fire, Future Farming


Another volume in this important series of First Knowledges, which includes books on design, astronomy, plants and songlines. Country: Future Fire, Future Farming is written two of the most prominent voices on pre-settler land use in Australia, Bruce Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) and Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu). While these two venerable experts take slightly different views of Indigenous land management, they are united in their insistence that we must look to the Aboriginal past to better manage our future.

Bruce Pascoe uses his chapters partly as a rebuttal to Keryn Walsh and Peter Sutton's Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? which I discussed a while ago, coming back to his conviction that pre-colonisation Aboriginal peoples were on the road to agriculture. It's inspiring to read his account of farming native fruits, grains and greens on his own land, and to wonder why we aren't making better use of the plants and animals that evolved here, rather than insisting on importing foreign foods and wasting resources on trying to make them grow. 

But the most urgent argument the book presents centres on the use of fire to manage country. Pre-1788 people skilfully and constantly used cool, controlled fire to precisely and deliberately manage different types of landscape and vegetation, never allowing the tremendous build-up of material that has lead to repeated catastrophic bushfires that we have experienced over and over since colonisation. Before 1788, people balanced fire-tolerant, fire-sensitive and fire-dependent vegetation, encouraging new growth for animal and human food, and leaving patches unburnt to shelter animals. We must recover and re-learn such detailed and sophisticated local knowledge that kept the land in balance for tens of thousands of years. It's almost unbelievable, and so tragic, that in a mere 250 years we Europeans have managed to stuff things up so thoroughly and disastrously.

Country: Future Fire, Future Farming is an urgent and essential book, not just for understanding our past, but for planning any kind of sustainable future.


The Thuggery Affair


The Thuggery Affair is a deeply odd book, one I didn't read until I was well and truly an adult. It's not a favourite among Antonia Forest fans, largely because it doesn't feature our usual protagonist Nicola at all, but it does have some moments of superb writing and moments of high, cinematic drama, despite its flaws.

This re-read was prompted by a read-through by the most excellent Ann Philips on the Antonia Forest Facebook group, and as usual it was hugely enjoyable. It is so much fun to read a book collectively, different people pointing out things you've never noticed before, drawing links and highlighting references that have passed you by. I always enjoy The Thuggery Affair because, though Nicola is missing, her twin Lawrie, my favourite character, is very much part of the action, and I enjoy seeing Lawrie in action and also glimpsing inside her head. Probably the main reason why Thuggery isn't as loved as Forest's other books is because the gang of youths, the 'thugs' of the title, speak in a heightened, elaborate slang, which can be fun to decode, but is also a bit of a drag on the action.

'Suppose I switch this ring to a flutter that's an also-ran, then it's the also-ran's ring I hand Maudie. 'N if I tell Maudie this was a flutter as was strictly the clipped-wing-world-without-end, due to be culled -- you reading me? So Maudie's the squarest. Maudie digs the integrity racket like she's crazy for it. If Maudie's told he's a clipped-wing, Maudie won't claim.'

Oh, did I mention that the gang is smuggling drugs via pigeons? (Apparently this isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.) All the action takes place over a single twenty-four day, something that didn't register with me until my second reading, and some chapters read like breathless, Technicolour film scenes. I would actually love to see this as a movie... But a movie of an overlooked, obscure 1960s young adult crime thriller? That's never going to happen.



I heard Lisa Genova speaking on the radio about memory and forgetting, I can't remember (ha!) which programme it was on now, but I do know I was in the car. But I was so interested I made a point of checking for her book and reserving it at the library.

Neuroscientist Lisa Genova is perhaps best known for writing the novel, Still Alice, which became the basis of an Oscar-winning film starring Julianne Moore. Genova said that after the success of the film, she was so often asked questions about Alzheimers, memory loss and how memory works, that she decided to write a book to address all those issues.

Remember is an engaging, easy to read guide to memory. Clearly written for an American audience, it opens by asking the reading to picture a US penny, something I'm obviously incapable of (mind you, thanks to the pandemic I struggle to remember what Australian coins look like, too). Genova's point is that we don't remember what we don't need to remember, like things we see and do every day. She has several reassuring points to make about the particular difficulty of remembering people's names (nothing to hook the memory to) and how poor humans are at remembering things prospectively, ie things we have to do in the future. She is not at all worried about the use of lists and reminders to assist us. This was an interesting, informative read about a subject that is relevant to us all.

My only niggle was the total American-centricity of the examples Genova uses -- not just the coin, but things like picturing your last Thanksgiving dinner, or George Washington being the first president. This tactic would work perfectly on her lecture circuit but it doesn't translate so well for an international audience.


Such A Fun Age

 Kiley Reid's debut novel, Such A Fun Age, caused a big stir when it was released a couple of years ago, and rightly so. It's a rich, funny, excruciating stew of contemporary issues around race, class, money, age and gender with clashes on every level of privilege. It's American, but it almost has the feel of an English novel of manners where embarrassment and the avoidance of embarrassment drives the action -- maybe that 's why I enjoyed it so much!

Our protagonist is Emira, who at twenty six is working as a babysitter for a white family and still trying to figure out what she really wants to do with her life. Called in for a late night emergency, she is almost arrested in a neighbourhood grocery store for kidnapping three year old Briar, and the novel follows the events that spiral from this incident, riffing off the guilt of Alex, her self-deluding employer; the creepy fascination of Kelley, the white man who films the episode and who has a long-distant and unpleasant link to Alix's past; Emira's friends, who urge her to get a better job.

The disparate voices in this multi-threaded story are perfectly captured, including that of toddler Briar. It's really difficult to portray very young children (who aren't your own!) both truthfully and interestingly, but Reid manages it beautifully, and we can see why Emira is so reluctant to sever their connection. Such a Fun Age is a lively, entertaining novel that throws a bomb on almost every page, a savage but also tender satire.