The Psychic Tests


I enjoyed The Psychic Tests so much! Gary Nunn began this exploration of the appeal of psychics, fortune tellers, astrologers, mediums, clairvoyants etc, firmly on the strictly rational, scientific, it's-all-a-load-of-nonsense side of the fence; in fact he embarked on the project partly to debunk his sister's addiction to visiting psychics. However, partway through the book, he discovers that his sister has abandoned her obsession (well, almost) and feels slightly ashamed of her former preoccupation, while Gary himself has begun to see some value in it.

This is a thoroughly engaging trip through the history and pseudo-science of mediumship of all types -- the sincere, the openly fraudulent, the mysterious, the fun and the solemn. Nunn begins to feel sympathy for those, like his sister, who use psychics to help them work through deep grief or psychological confusion, though he doesn't have much time for the supposed 'clairvoyants' who pronounce on crimes, like one who told a mother of a missing child to give up hope. Alas, the mother died of grief and the child was eventually rescued from her abductor. Unforgivable.

The Psychic Tests finishes with Nunn converting to the enemy camp (not really) and learning how to read tarot cards himself. This is hands-down the best account of what it feels like to read tarots that I have ever read. Nunn is upfront with his 'clients' that he claims no supernatural powers, and is merely regurgitating what he's read about the meaning of the cards; nevertheless, he describes the seductive power and playful fun of interpreting a tarot reading; the eagerness of his subjects, leaning bright-eyed over the cards; the subtle art of favouring one interpretation or another; the delight of the rich symbolism of the cards themselves. The Psychic Tests was worth reading for this section alone. Lots of fun.


The Novel Project


The Novel Project: a step-by-step guide to your novel, memoir or biography comes from a well-credentialled author: Graeme Simsion has written multiple novels, non-fiction and screenplays, both solo and with his partner in life and writing, Anne Buist, so he knows this caper inside out. In particular, his Rosie trilogy has been massively successful. The Novel Project had a waiting list at the library as long as my arm, so I wasn't the only one seeking wisdom at the feet of the master.

I must admit, part of my motivation in borrowing The Novel Project was to reassure myself that I was doing some things right -- after ten novels published, and number eleven coming out next year, you'd hope I'd have some clue. And I did find reassurance here that my methods are mostly sound. But I also found the other thing I was looking for, which was some fresh ideas to shake up my usual routine. 

Simsion has a lot to say about structure, but before planning out an outline (a step I usually take a smidgeon too early, I think now), he recommends building up a bucket of story 'beats' -- scenes or steps that either develop character or take the story forward. He also recommends writing each beat on a separate card, so the whole lot can be laid out, shuffled, recombined and stared at as a whole. I took to this idea with glee and soon had my rug covered with cards. I actually found this process incredibly helpful, to see at a glance where the shape of my work-in-progress was too top-heavy; to mash together 'beats' that weren't contributing to the story's forward momentum but added colour and quirk, with 'beats' that were a little dull but necessary to the plot; to re-balance the four acts that Simsion recommends into a more smoother and more satisfying structure. This was actually also a lot of fun and I think I've emerged with a stronger prospective novel (I should add that I've struggled a lot with the structure of this particular WIP and I'm currently up to my seventh draft).

The Novel Project is packed with sensible, straightforward and reality-tested advice from someone who really knows what he's talking about. I took heaps of notes, and I think I'll definitely go back to the card process again. I won't follow all Simsion's advice -- I don't think I'll ever be someone who seeks out beta readers, I'm way too insecure and suggestible -- but this is one of the best and most helpful How To Write guides I've come across.




I've decided to gradually re-read all the books in Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons series, which I adored as a child. Swallowdale is the second volume, and not a book I returned to often, so most of the story felt fresh. It's so good (mostly!) -- the mystery of the missing Amazons; the heartbreak of sinking Swallow; the excitement of discovering the hidden valley; the crushing weight of the Great Aunt who makes adventures almost impossible, even for the adults; the thrilling trek up the mountain; Susan's panic when the younger Swallows don't return... It's a terrific adventure.

BUT I'm newly conscious of the thread running through the whole story of "natives" (adults) and "savages" (the charcoal burners). Just as I was thinking, well, it's toned down a bit in this book, there appears one horrific chapter where Titty makes a voodoo model of the Great Aunt out of candle grease. It's a really well-written episode, with Titty's eager delight in the magic ritual, then her horror when the model slips into the fire, and her on-going guilty terror that she might have done some real harm to the old lady. Ultimately Titty regrets her foray into 'Negro witchcraft' -- and the reader does too. It's such a shame, because there is so much else that has held up so well -- I suspect this is going to be a running theme. But I wouldn't feel comfortable handing this book to a modern child, even though the realistic, independent adventures and the heady mix of imagination and reality are so superbly handled. I think Swallowdale is actually better than Swallows and Amazons -- but not yet good enough for a contemporary reader.


The Dreaming Path


I can't remember how I heard about this book (I suspect it was mentioned on the radio) but it's a dream come true -- a combination of two of my favourite subjects, self help and Indigenous thinking! Written by Paul Callaghan with substantial input from Uncle Paul Gordon, The Dreaming Path places its main emphasis on two areas, connecting with country and focusing on strengthening relationships, two of the foundations of traditional Aboriginal society. The Dreaming Path also highlights the importance of story in finding structure and meaning in life, and encourages us to discover our own story.

It's refreshing, after being brought up with a lightly Christian emphasis on sin and guilt, to read that we are all 'born into love and surrounded by love.' The two Pauls encourage us to go out into nature, to stand barefoot on the ground and feel a connection to the place where we live; they also share the healing power of walking country. It occurred to me that my morning bike rides around my neighbourhood, begun during lockdown, and the neighbourhood walks that many of us undertook when we were restricted to a 5 km radius from our homes, are versions of this slow, healing local travel.

Uncle Paul Gordon's introduction brought a lump to my throat:

In our stories, everything started from Country and our people went out throughout the world, and over time their skin changed, language changed, Lore was forgotten. 

In 1788, some of the forgotten children came back.

Now, children, you are home... It is time for you to learn what you have lost.

The Dreaming Path succeeds on both fronts. It's filled with practical, sensible advice for people feeling lost or overwhelmed -- slow down, draw strength from Country, lean on others for help. But it also serves as a wonderful introduction to Indigenous narrative and philosophy: the interconnectedness of all people, land, nature and story; the security of belonging in a web of family and society, and the strength that comes from clear reciprocal responsibilities as well as rights. Well worth reading.


Puff Piece


Reading a book by John Safran is a singular experience. He has a distinctive voice and an individual approach, always immersing himself in his subject matter. He must be very charming in real life, because he seems to make friends with people on all sides of whatever controversy he's currently exploring. In Puff Piece, he takes on Big Tobacco -- specifically, Philip Morris, vaping and e-cigarettes. Safran dances back and forth in the grey areas of hypocrisy, ambiguity and self-interest, including his own. He's not afraid to tease out his own conflicted viewpoints -- everything is complicated!

Philip Morris haven't surfed out the global opposition to cigarette smoking without being slippery customers; Safran is especially intrigued by the way they've co-opted language to their own ends. They have invented a device they call the 'IQOS' -- sometimes they are at pains to distinguish this from a vaping device, but at other times, they are happy to conflate the two. The nicotine delivery device that is used with the IQOS is called a 'Heat Stick' -- definitely NOT a cigarette, they assure us, because it's 'heated' rather than 'burned.' And yet it looks like a cigarette and serves the same purpose as a cigarette ie getting nicotine into your body. Ah, doesn't it produce smoke, just like a cigarette? No, no, that's not smoke, it's 'vapour.' And so it goes. It really does make your head spin.

John Safran draws some interesting parallels between Philip Morris redefining a cigarette as a 'Heat Stick' and lethal tar as 'Nicotine Free Dry Particulate Matter' when in a different context he finds Jewish people being redefined as 'white people' and thereby disqualified from commenting on matters of racial discrimination -- an ironic decision for someone whose parents survived the Holocaust. It's not a shock that Safran is a little sensitive on these subjects.

I was dismayed, but not really surprised, to discover the extent of Philip Morris's duplicity. Corporations really will stop at nothing in the pursuit of profit. At least it makes a great topic for a book, and Safran is always entertaining company on the journey.


The First Astronomers

I was so excited to get my hands on this beautiful and enlightening book. I was lucky enough to get help from Duane Haumacher when I was looking for some Indigenous star lore for The January Stars, and he promptly supplied the perfect information. Duane is a practising astro-physicist, but The First Astronomers was written in collaboration with First Nations elders and knowledge holders, and all proceeds from the book are going toward Indigenous science education programs.

The First Astronomers is divided into chapters dealing with the nearest star (ie the sun), the twinkling stars, the variable stars, the navigation stars etc, and combines Indigenous stories with Western scientific observation and theory to show just how well First Peoples understood and used the movements of the stars to predict the seasons, weather and navigation. It's absolutely fascinating, and shows just how sophisticated Indigenous scientific knowledge was and is. Of course when you are living in deep synchronicity with the natural world, intimate observation and memory is essential.

There is also a deep spiritual dimension to this knowledge, and Duane tells a wonderful anecdote about one night observing a couple of meteors flash across the sky. The Indigenous guides he was with made a brief observation that in their tradition, meteors signify death in the community, then continued with their discussion. The next morning when Duane arrived for a scheduled information session, he was told it had been cancelled because two elders had died the previous night... He says the hairs stood up on the back of his neck.

I couldn't hope to ever master the degree of traditional knowledge shown by Duane's informers in this book, but I especially enjoyed the way that narrative and story-telling so elegantly and engagingly encode this information. Only the most simple level of these sacred stories is shared here, but it's still enough to hint at the incredible depth of traditional learning that was dismissed and ridiculed for so long.


Huda and Me


H. Hayek's debut middle grade novel, Huda and Me, has earned some award short-listings lately, and rightfully so. It's another tale about sibling adventure (close to my heart after The January Stars!), this time centred on protective older brother Akeal and cheeky little sister Huda, who run away to find their parents in Lebanon when their minder, 'Aunty' Amel abuses her baby-sitting power and turns the whole family's life to misery. (Coincidentally, H. Hayek is herself named Huda, and is also the second-youngest of seven siblings. Hm...! The seven children in the story and their parents are also named after Hayek's real-life family members.)

The action switches between the peril of the aeroplane trip itself, and the back story of horrible Aunty Amel which has led them to this desperate solution. It's a simple story, but filled with warmth, family support, and lovely detail of Muslim Lebanese domestic life. Akeal frequently sends up prayers, Huda has a nasty moment when a fellow passenger tries to rip off her hijab, and when the children reach Beirut, they see sobering war damage in the streets, so it's not all sunshine and flowers. 

This is a gorgeous tale of adventure and courage, never really frightening, but exciting enough to appeal to younger readers. Funny, sweet and pacy, Huda and Me deserves all the praise it's earned so far.


Brick Lane


Just when I think I'm starting to catch up on my blog, I go to the library and discover there are SEVEN reserved books waiting for me. Am I up to the challenge? My mother pointed out that I don't have to read them all -- but that's irrelevant, because I WANT to!

Monica Ali's debut novel, Brick Lane, is one of those modern classics (at nearly 20 years old!) that has been on my radar for a longtime, but which I'd never got around to reading. Hearing an ABC radio book club episode where they discussed it prompted me to pluck it from the library.

I can understand why Brick Lane caused such a stir at the time -- it was shortlisted for the Booker, and has remained a reader favourite. It's a rich, sprawling novel that takes us inside the Bangladeshi community in London, around the area of the titular street, and follows Nazneen, brought over as practically a child bride at 18 for pompous Chanu. Nazneen's origin story is that when she was born she was 'left to her Fate' and at the beginning of the novel she is quite passive, accepting whatever decisions others make on her behalf. But as the story progresses, her life marked with horrible tragedy, she begins to take control and make decisions of her own.

Ali is known for intertwining politics with the personal stories of her characters, and we see this with Brick Lane, which incorporates the 9/11 attacks and London race riots. I was really touched by the relationship between Nazneen and Chanu, where a complex tenderness grows between them, even as Nazneen seems to be turning her back on their marriage. The final resolution was maybe a little too neat, given the deftly drawn complications that have come before, but hey, I'm not going to complain about a (more or less) happy ending.