Freedom Ride


Sue Lawson's Freedom Ride somehow slipped by me when it was first published -- oh, wait, it was 2015, I did have a lot going on that year... This was another book recommended by a school librarian, one she believed every student should read. I would add that every Australian adult should read it, too. Freedom Ride focuses on a shameful part of our recent history that some people would prefer remained forgotten or swept beneath the rug.

Despite the title, Freedom Ride is centred less on the 1960s freedom rides themselves than on one of the country towns they visited. The very first chapter is confronting for a modern reader, as an Aboriginal women is kept waiting in a grocery store until all the white customers are served -- and almost worse, when one white man insists on her being served before him, another customer is loudly affronted. The battle lines are clearly drawn along racial lines, and teenage Robbie has to examine his own attitudes when he befriends caravan park owner Barry, who has returned from London with a more enlightened philosophy.

There is another drama playing out in Robbie's family, when he discovers that his horrible father and grandmother have to been lying to him for most of his life, but the racial politics is revolting. There are 'colour bars' in place in the local shops, the theatre, the swimming pool -- it's pretty much apartheid. The indigenous population are relegated to neglected shanty towns on the fringes of (fictional) Walgaree, and then blamed for their own disadvantage. So when Barry hires Aboriginal boy Micky as well as Robbie to help out in the caravan park, all hell breaks loose.

Freedom Ride is involving and engaging, but in another way, it's hard to read. It's set in the year before I was born, before the referendum that gave Aboriginal people citizenship. It still shocks me that this happened within my own lifetime, and that we still have so very far to go.


A City of Bells


A City of Bells was one of the four Elizabeth Goudge novels I pounced on in a second hand bookshop with a cry of delight a few weeks ago -- all Coronet editions from the 1970s, all with terrible covers. You would think from this image that it's a time travel story, as the woman is all decked out in Edwardian gear but the man is pure 1970s Mills & Boon. Presumably they are supposed to be Felicity and Jocelyn, though neither of them appear as described in the book: Felicity is supposed to have short golden hair, for one thing (admittedly quite unusual in Edwardian England, but whatever...)

 As I began re-reading A City of Bells, it seemed more and more familiar. I think this was a novel that I read many times in high school, and it was comfort reading even then. The scenes in peaceful Torminster, Jocelyn's bookshop, and the characters of the children, were especially vivid -- the parts in London and the theatre, and the transformation of Ferranti's poem into a play, all seem a bit contrived to me now. Goudge is pretty hopeless at romantic/sexual love, and she can be sentimental. But City of Bells is an early work, so I'm prepared to forgive its flaws! And I love pale, sensitive Henrietta, and her adopted brother, the boisterous Hugh Anthony, and the saintly figure of Grandfather, the Canon. (One day I must sit down and work out all the gradations of the Anglican offices, because it's all very confusing.)

A lovely, nostalgic trip down a very English memory lane.




I seem to be reading a lot of books about violence against women at the moment -- maybe there are just a lot more of them coming out at the moment. I raced through Ellis Gunn's account of her experience of being stalked -- it's extremely pacy and readable. Rattled is perhaps less scholarly than some books on this subject, but gripping in its use of anecdote and almost poetic summaries at the end of each chapter which really drive the reality of women's experience home.

Some might say Gunn was 'lucky' in that her stalker ('The Man') never physically attacked her, and eventually gave up his pursuit, but his stalking shattered her life for many months, making her terrified to leave her house, terrified to stay home alone, terrified to visit her usual haunts, terrified to travel anywhere new. But perhaps even more confronting than her account of the ordeal The Man inflicted on her is Gunn's almost casual recounting of other incidents in her life when she encountered or witnessed male violence: from an abusive marriage to seeing an elderly man on a train trying to persuade a young lone backpacker to come and stay at his house. Haven't all our lives been filled with incidents like these? Haven't we all, even if we haven't experienced violence ourselves, at least felt the feather's touch of the 'lucky escape,' or shuddered at a friend's story? And yet for so long we've shrugged off this behaviour as being just the way the world is. Perhaps things are finally shifting -- but alas, experience teaches us that any ground gained will probably be followed by an even worse backlash. 

Watch this space.


Our Crooked Hearts

I hadn't heard of Melissa Albert before, but she clearly knows her stuff: Our Crooked Hearts is an accomplished, assured young adult fantasy which is also a mother-daughter relationship drama. As cleverly structured as a whodunnit, Our Crooked Hearts switches between 'right now,' from the daughter's point of view, and 'back then' where we hear the story of her mother's experiments in magic in her own teenage years. Naturally, something dangerous from that past has returned, but the turns of the plot and the discovery of secrets were satisfyingly twisty and kept me hooked right up to the end.

I particularly enjoyed the mother-daughter dynamic, which started out all grumpy-daughter-complains-that-her-mum-doesn't-understand-her, but ended up being really painful and poignant as the reasons behind that estrangement were gradually revealed and resolved. The magic was thoroughly grounded and -- I want to say realistic? Sometimes magic in fantasy can be a bit wifty-wafty, but this felt gritty and edgy. The supportive men characters were another unexpected bonus in a book dominated by women's power, and women's friendship.

Our Crooked Hearts is a really terrific read.


Bedtime Story


There was a massive reserve queue for Chloe Hooper's Bedtime Story -- I think I was about 38th in line (there are 27 waiting now). This is why we need PLR and ELR, people... So when I finally got my mitts on it, I probably raced through it more quickly than it deserves, conscious of all those future readers breathing impatiently down my neck.

This is a book to be savoured and treasured. Beautifully produced, with abstract illustrations by Anna Walker, Bedtime Story is a memoir about one family, struck by the lightning bolt of a cancer diagnosis, and Hooper's desperate flailing to find the right way to tell her young children: the perfect picture book, the perfect children's novel, the perfect words. Of course there are no perfect words (though she gratefully admits that some come close) and the search through children's literature becomes a framing device through which to explore the impact that this devastating news has on the entire family, and the different ways they find to cope and keep on going.

I had forgotten that Chloe Hooper was married to the incomparable Don Watson; when I realised who her husband was, it sent me, heart in mouth, to search the internet for updates on his health. Some sections of this book might be too harrowing for some, but it is a gorgeously written, thoughtful meditation on mortality, crisis, childhood, love and family which richly deserves its long reserve queue.


The Premonitions Bureau


How could I resist? Sam Knight's The Premonitions Bureau is right up my alley. It's partly about 1960s psychiatrist John Barker, who was intrigued by phenomena like telepathy and (of course) premonitions, which he thought might have a scientific explanation; and partly about the loose organisation he set up (just one admin assistant) to collect those premonitions. Barker's interest was sparked after the horrific disaster at Aberfan in Wales in 1966 (featured on The Crown) when mine tailings slipped and buried a school full of children. After the event, a number of people reported prophetic dreams -- one little girl who was killed in the disaster had told her mother about a disturbing dream she'd had which seemed to predict what was about to happen.

Of course it's easy for an element of hindsight to creep in to these kinds of 'prophecies' (and there is a discussion of this in the book) but there really did seem to be at least a couple of people who could genuinely sense the approach of disaster -- plane crashes, shipwrecks, even the death of Barker himself. But the Bureau never attained the kind of official, scientific status that Barker sought, and he himself seems to have been a troubled man. The description of the asylum where he worked is truly horrific, and it's hard to grasp that these institutions existed during my lifetime.

A fascinating, creepy and thought-provoking book, like a really long, gripping weekend magazine article. Great stuff.




Abomination was recommended to me by a school librarian while I was doing a school visit, and given my recent dip into Orthodox Judaism, Chaim Potok, Israeli drama series etc, I thought I'd give it a go. It was interesting to read a novel set in the same culture, but in my own city -- I know most of the streets the characters inhabit, the city landmarks, the cafes, a parallel world to my own.

Probably inspired by the case of child abuser Malka Leifer, the book opens with a protest against a sex offender who was smuggled out of Melbourne and protected by Israeli authorities (in this instance, a male teacher), which reunites old school friends Ezra and Yonatan after twenty years. Yonatan has remained Orthodox, married, expecting a child, now himself a rabbi and teacher at the same school; Ezra, whose parents pulled him from the school after the scandal, is living a secular life, but lost and unhappy. Both young men find themselves questioning their choices and their current situations, and their reunion acts as a catalyst for some difficult decisions for each of them.

I really enjoyed the way Ezra and Yonatan's parallel lives intersected and bounced off each other, and Ashley Goldberg has done a terrific job in posing tough questions about faith, friendship, community, loyalty, tradition and doubt. In a book which centres on questions of masculinity, I was pleased that Ezra and Yoni's partners got some time on the page -- I would have been interested to read more from their points of view.


The Detective's Guide to New York City


Fans of The Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel won't be disappointed with the sequel, The Detective's Guide to New York City. This time Pepper finds herself reunited with her old friends from the voyage of the previous book, but their new adventure takes place on dry land, in 1920s New York.

Once again, observant Pepper, her bold friend Norah, sweet Sol and new acquaintance shy, artistic Elliott find themselves caught up in a mystery, this time centred on a case of poisoning in the restaurant where Sol works. Nicki Greenberg has a wonderful time whisking her cast from high society soirees to Broadway theatres to seedy New York slums and everywhere in between, as Pepper also struggles to resolve her feelings about her father's new girlfriend... 

The mystery is satisfying, the scenery is colourful and the characters sympathetically drawn. I particularly enjoyed the episode where the children climb up inside the Statue of Liberty, just as the children did in recent read, PL Traver's I Go By Sea (albeit about fifteen years earlier). That book's account of the sights of New York in the 1940s made it a lovely, coincidental companion piece to The Detective's Guide.

I wonder where Pepper will end up next? I suspect Elliott has been introduced to be her new sidekick, because she can't come zipping across the Atlantic to Norah and Sol for every adventure -- I'm predicting she and Elliott might find themselves in an English country house during the Captain and Emmaline's honeymoon for the next installment!


Eggshell Skull


Eggshell Skull, Bri Lee's 2019 debut memoir, is really, really, really good. It's brilliant and clear and terrifying on a number of levels. It draws back the veil on what happens in the world of law courts, judges and lawyers and associates, a world we think we know through courtroom drama, but actually have no idea about (and this book made me profoundly thankful that I shied away from a law career). It demonstrates, in a deeply depressing but ultimately not surprising way, how common is the scourge of domestic violence, violence (almost always) against women and children, in our society, and how difficult it is to fight with the blunt tools of the legal system. And it is also a painfully personal account of Bri Lee's own experience of child sexual abuse and her determination to bring her abuser to justice.

Also, it's as grippingly readable as any thriller. I'm sorry I read Bri Lee's How To Be Smart first, because this book throws quite a bit of light on Lee's past and her issues, which makes more sense of some of aspects of the later book.

Enraging, emotional, highly recommended.


A God In Ruins


I absolutely adored Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, to which A God in Ruins is the companion volume. Life After Life set out an array of possible lives (and deaths) for Ursula Todd; A Life in Ruins centres on Ursula's brother, Teddy, and while the structure of this novel is different from Life After Life, it still features Atkinson's inventive agility in mixing up time frames, dodging back and forth between possibilities and ingenious cross referencing.

Ursula's life (lives) ended up revolving around the central experience of the London Blitz; Teddy's life similarly pivots on the bombing campaign against Germany. He is a fighter pilot in a Halifax, and the bombing sequences in this book are so harrowing and vivid -- Atkinson has clearly done a lot of research, and uses it supremely well. Ironically, the section that I couldn't bear to read properly and had to skim was nothing to do with the war, but concerned a character with a brain tumour -- having lost a friend in the same way, I simply couldn't bring myself to relive that experience.

I greatly admire Kate Atkinson as a writer, and I've loved the Jackson Brodie series, but Life After Life and A God In Ruins are her masterpieces.


Persian Gold


I couldn't find an image of Persian Gold, or any information about the series that it came from, Long Ago Children Books, which has titles (in the back of the book) from a stellar list of authors, including Kevin Crossley-Holland, Penelope Farmer, Leon Garfield, Penelope Lively, Geoffrey Trease, Elfrida Vipont and many others, including several more by Jill Paton Walsh. I would kill to have a complete series of these books, which were published by Heinemann in the 1970s (but perhaps not released in Australia?)

I found this very slim little book during a very successful excursion to City Basement Books in Flinders St a week ago, which also netted FOUR Elizabeth Goudge paperbacks (I audibly gasped when I saw them!) and some other treasures. Persian Gold is very short, not more than a short story really (I polished it off on the tram ride home), but it's a vivid, moving adventure set in ancient Greece which would definitely have captured my imagination if I'd read it as a seven or eight year old. The other titles seem to range randomly over recorded history so I guess the authors were given fairly free rein to choose their favourite period. The illustrations by David Smee are great, too.

I'm curious if anyone has ever come across other titles from this series and if so, what they thought of them?


Memory Craft


There was a long wait for Memory Craft at the local library; evidently I was not the only person intrigued by Lynne Kelly's The Memory Code or Songlines (co-written with Margo Neale) and motivated to learn more. Memory Craft is an account of Kelly's own explorations in the world of memory training and expansion, where she herself has adopted various techniques and reports on their success.

By far the most fundamental and flexible method she uses is that of loci, otherwise known as the memory palace. This can take the form of physically walking your neighbourhood or your own house, or creating an imaginary 'memory palace.' Each location is linked with something to be remembered -- Kelly has created a history trail which takes her around the block. She also uses cards, portable memory boards, knotted khipu strings, painted and carved posts, beads, body parts, mandalas, and especially invented characters, which she calls rapscallions, to stare in wild invented vignettes and stories which cement facts in memory. One creation I found especially appealing is the idea of a 'winter count' -- an annual symbol to mark your year, which spirals out in a growing design. Kelly's detailed and explicit account of how she uses these techniques is surprisingly fascinating!

Kelly says that one effect she hadn't anticipated was the degree to which all her various memory techniques and the body of knowledge she's amassed all interact and enrich each other, and wonders if this approximates what it might have been like to live in a traditional, oral-based, pre-literate society, filled with story, myth, observations of the natural world, history and spirituality. She has certainly put in a lot of work to achieve that reward, and I definitely admire her, but I'm not sure if I'm prepared to take on that amount of effort! Maybe one day.


Great Northern?


The final book in the Swallows and Amazons series, and a journey over familiar territory that has been mostly highly enjoyable and occasionally disappointing. Great Northern? is an old favourite and I enjoyed this re-read a lot. It was startling to realise that the Sea Bear has been sailing The Minch, as described so beautifully by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, and visiting Scottish islands, as featured in Ben Fogle's Scotland's Sacred Islands, which I've been watching on SBS, and has helped me visualise the terrain beautifully.

I love the focus on anxious Dick and the horror of his discovery that the man he thinks is a fellow bird-watcher is actually a dangerous, greedy egg-collector, and the gleeful determination of the whole crew to thwart him at all costs. I love Titty and Dorothea hanging out together, I love Roger being 'the Sleeping Beauty'. And finally, finally, Titty says something I've waited twelve books to hear:

'... Roger is so awfully cheeky and after all we are on someone else's land.'

'Explorers always are,' said Titty, 'except the ones that go into the Arctic and places like that, and even bits of the Arctic belong to Eskimos and Lapps.'

Yay! A late recognition of colonialism!

It's struck me that Peggy is the character who probably gets the least development of everyone (apart from valiantly trying to take Nancy's place in Winter Holiday). All we really know about her is that she's Susan's sous-chef, she's frightened of thunderstorms, and she's deft with her hands (in this book she makes netting, in Missee Lee she makes paper boxes). But a quick search has revealed quite a body of fan fiction devoted to Peggy Blackett, which I might check out; I'd love to know what became of Peggy.

So farewell to Swallows and Amazons, for now. I will definitely revisit Winter Holiday, We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea, The Picts and the Martyrs, The Big Six and Great Northern? again, and I definitely won't be re-reading Secret Water or Missee Lee. But overall, the world of Arthur Ransome has been a comforting place to visit.