First Knowledges: Law

As an outspoken supporter of the Yes case for the upcoming Voice referendum, Marcia Langton has copped a heap of abuse. At recent appearances, she looks exhausted, and fed up, as well she might. You get the impression that Marcia Langton doesn't suffer fools gladly, and that she comes across a lot of fools.

The latest installment of the First Knowledges series, Law: The Way of the Ancestors, is co-written by Langton and Aaron Corn, and it lays out in basic, approachable terms the foundations of traditional (and continuing) First Nations law. Obviously in a slim volume like this, the reader can be given only a simple understanding of an extremely complex body of knowledge, but Langton and Corn succeed in explaining some simple concepts and illustrating them clearly, often with the use of graphics and traditional design. Their explanation of Michael Nelson Jagamarra's beautiful mosaic in the forecourt of Parliament House, Possum and Wallaby Dreaming, is a particular delight.

The tracks of Possum and Wallaby slowly and humbly approach the meeting place, a great white-hot fire, around which radiate the ceremonial colours, each of which is associated with a different Warlpiri group, each of whom in turn is responsible for a particular group of ceremonies and ritual, all interdependent on the others. There are more layers of meaning and relationship which are too complex to repeat here and which leave me breathless with wonder and awe at the intricate web of story and tradition which bind communities together. 

The emphasis throughout is on the maintenance of balance and stability, never allowing one individual or group to become more powerful or dominant over the rest. Patterns of familial responsibility and marriage ties ensure that everyone has a deep stake in the preservation of land and lore. It's a system that worked brilliantly for over 60,000 years, yet was flexible enough to allow for adaptation and innovation -- until the catastrophe of invasion.

The First Knowledges series is such a fantastic introduction to First Nations ideas and practices, and I'm thrilled to see that the series, originally intended to comprise six volumes, has been extended to include further titles on Innovation, Medicine and Seasons. I can't wait to read them.


The Lamb Enters the Dreaming

I have taken a long time over reading Robert Kenny's award-winning The Lamb Enters the Dreaming, partly because the complexity of the subject matter required careful concentration, and partly because I wanted to savour it and let it sink in.

Kenny examines the story of Nathanael Pepper, one of the first Aboriginal converts to Christianity in the Western District of Victoria; but as well as thinking about the point of view of the missionaries and their joy at recruiting a local Australian (who seemed largely impervious to the message of Jesus), Kenny also looks at what might have been gained for Pepper himself, and how he might have found sense and meaning in integrating the Christian story with his own traditional culture and also the catastrophic impact of invasion.

One really interesting point that Kenny makes is that it was probably the animals that the invaders brought with them, rather than the humans, that were the most shocking intrusion into the Aboriginal cosmology. First Nations people were used to large two-legged beasts -- emus, kangaroos -- and suddenly these big, alien four-legged animals appeared from nowhere: cows, sheep, and most alarmingly, horses. How were they to make sense of these shocking new life-forms? Men on horseback must have seemed like some bizarre hybrid species. As Kenny says, it must have seemed as if the Martians had landed. And were the white humans there to serve the animals, or the other way round?

The Lamb Enters the Dreaming is deeply thought-provoking and fascinating stuff. Not light reading, but very rewarding.


Singing For Mrs Pettigrew

I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read much by Michael Morpurgo, except Private Peaceful and I think one other, whose name escapes me. He is much beloved by members of my book group -- indeed Singing For Mrs Pettigrew is a loan from Suzanne -- and they know what they're talking about. As a former UK Children's Laureate, he is well qualified to talk about writing, and this collection of stories and essays is lovely to look at and lovely to read.

Some of these stories are drawn from Morpurgo's own childhood, while others were inspired by war or nature. The stories are very moving and often sad, illuminated by the essays which speak simply and tenderly about the craft of story-telling, and poetry and belonging, about childhood and war and a sense of home.

Though this book is ostensibly for young readers, I think it might appeal more to people like me, who I have called elsewhere Adults Who Like Kids' Books. There is a beautiful sincerity and straightforwardness in Morpurgo's style which makes for meditative, surprisingly profound reading.


Strangers at the Farm School

Josephine Elder's Strangers at the Farm School was an op shop find, only two dollars! It was my first introduction to Josephine Elder (though Girls Gone By have published some titles of hers) and to the Farm School series, of which this is the third and final volume.

Published in 1940 but set in 1938, I found this book so interesting on a number of levels. Published in the middle of the war, there are a few pointed references to Hitler, but the focus is on a pair of young Jewish refugees who have been sent to England to escape growing persecution in Germany. The oppression is nicely judged -- not too horrific for young readers, but menacing nonetheless. Johanna and Hans have experienced bullying and exclusion at school, and their father has been imprisoned in a concentration camp. Though the siblings are described in the text as having dark colouring, the illustrator (or publisher?) has chosen to make them rather fair on the cover (probably not for any sinister reason, but maybe to provide a contrast with the better established characters also pictured).

The Farm School is an unconventional school but so successful that it's experiencing an influx of new students, some of whom have trouble adjusting to a school with few rules and lots of hard work on the farm. Annis, the newly elected School President, has to deal with some 'rowdy' boys as well as the traumatised refugees, and this leads to some interesting philosophical ruminations:

"... The bees are too unselfish. They've squashed themselves so much that they're just machines, they can never get any better or cleverer than they are...I don't want us to be selfish, but I do want us to be happy -- and if we're doing things we like doing as well as ever we can, we shall be happy and the school will be good... a state -- like I said -- would be -- almost heaven, I should think -- "

So the ideal is not Fascism, with all its rules imposed from above, nor Communism, with everyone equal but 'squashed,' but a self-regulated liberal society where everyone puts in necessary labour but also works hard to excel at their own particular gift. Heaven, indeed! The point is not laboured, but it's pretty clear.

Disappointingly, in an otherwise quite subtle book, though the Jewish refugees are treated with nothing but sympathy and understanding, the same is not true of the 'gippos' -- while it's admitted that gypsies 'don't kidnap children anymore,' (my emphasis) contact with them still demands a disinfectant bath afterwards. And there is a gratuitous reference to someone behaving like a 'black slave.' So while Elder was probably progressive for her time, it's a shame she didn't think it through just a shade further. Still, Strangers at the Farm School is definitely a cut above your average school story and I'm interested to read Elder's other works.


A Hunger of Thorns

Is there anything Lili Wilkinson can't do? A Hunger of Thorns is her 18th novel and it's quite a swerve from her recent, realistic books. A Hunger of Thorns is full-on fantasy, set in the world of Anglyon, which seems to combine elements of Australia (tea trees, onion weed) with a traditional Anglo-European landscape. And of course, this world contains magic -- a power that used to flow freely, controlled by witches, but which has now been taken over and regulated by big corporations and the state.

This world is broad and complex, and it took me a while to settle into the details, but once I did, the ride gathered pace and swept me effortlessly along. Lili can really write, and she combines fairy tales, traditional witch lore, botany (I know she is a keen gardener), adventure, a dark family backstory, same-sex romance and magic -- all with a wonderful feminist twist. The invention of 'mettle' which is the source of magic and a kind of vital life force, is a powerful and elegant device which retains some lovely mystery. There are elements of horror here, too, with the ragged, terrifying beast, the Tatterdemalion, and the cycle of ghastly death and choking rebirth forced on Ginger and Winnie. 

A Hunger of Thorns reads like the first book in a series -- a trilogy at least -- there are plenty of loose ends for our heroine Maude to pursue, not least the sinister magic corporation, Ilium. I have a feeling we are going to see a lot more of Ilium in the future. A Hunger of Thorns is a strong and satisfying fantasy, and I suspect the answer to my initial question is a resounding NO!


The Camelot Betrayal and The Excalibur Curse

The story that began in The Guinevere Deception continues in The Camelot Betrayal and concludes in The Excalibur Curse. Kiersten White is an experienced young adult author, and she hits every beat with precision. There is mystery, magic, stolen kisses, the old cuddling-in-a-cave-to-warm-up-after-almost-drowning scene, hair-raising escapes, and primarily a struggle for Guinevere to discover her true self. Is she really Merlin's daughter, as we were told in Book 1, or something far more complicated?

I did sometimes find myself reeling slightly between the Dark Queen, the various Ladies of the Lake, and Morgana -- it could be hard to separate them at times, though the focus on female power is welcome. Guinevere magically 'possessing' her nearest and dearest also became a little bewildering! It's refreshing to read a version of the Camelot story where Merlin is an out and out villain, and Guinevere is the centre of the story. Guinevere's sense of herself being in the wrong body will also surely resonate with some readers. I appreciated the way Mordred arranged for the magical women of Camelot to find a new home on an island, though it's not named as Avalon until the final volume. 

The story spanks along and there is plenty to reward readers familiar with the Arthur legends, though I think young readers who don't already know the myths will appreciate it as a female-centred fantasy tale. The ending was nicely optimistic, though perhaps a little ambiguous for those who do know how the three cornered relationship between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere traditionally ends! My one quibble is that, to me, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere felt 'told' rather than 'shown.' But maybe that's just me. This trilogy was a really enjoyable excursion on my Camelot adventures.


The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels is another twisty page-turner from Janice Hallett, the author of The Twyford Code. This time the story is told in emails, WhatsApp messages, and interview transcriptions as we follow Amanda, a true crime author who is researching her next book, on the so-called 'Alperton Angels' case from eighteen years before. Now 'the baby' at the centre of the case is about to become an adult and can tell their own story for the first time, there is a rush to track them down and secure exclusive access. But there is another writer on the trail, an old colleague of Amanda's, and there is a dark history between them...

I do enjoy Hallett's style. The trick of telling the story via emails and dialogue transcriptions might seem gimmicky at first, but it does push the story along at a tremendous pace and keeps it feeling fresh. There are lovely bits of humour, too, as when Amanda assures each of two documentary makers that their film was definitely the superior version. I did manage to pick some elements of the mystery in advance but the ending was a genuine shock. And there are some pertinent reflections here about belief, conspiracy theories, blind faith and superstition that feel very relevant in a world teeming with mis- and disinformation.

I suppose now I will have to seek out Hallett's first novel, The Appeal, and report back on that one, too.


The Queen Is Dead

Former journalist Stan Grant found himself at the centre of a storm of outrage exactly a year ago, when his panel on ABC discussing the future of the monarchy, colonisation and empire, which aired on the day of the Queen's funeral, stirred complaints from viewers who would have preferred to gossip about the frocks at the Abbey than think about any issues of substance. Full disclosure: I didn't watch the panel, but I'm also aware that every single commercial channel was also offering coverage of the funeral, so it's not as if affronted viewers had no choice but to tune in. Apparently the most common complaint was the timing of the discussion; many felt that the day of the funeral itself was not an appropriate time for airing such topics. Again, I disagree -- it could be argued that the death of one monarch and the accession of another is exactly the appropriate time to talk about what role the monarchy has played in Australia's past, and what role it should play in the future.

ANYWAY, The Queen Is Dead was written in the aftermath of this controversy, and it shows. Stan Grant is filled with rage and frustration. In the voice of an orator or a preacher, he expresses a burning energy of deep sadness and anger. He stresses that he is not talking about Queen Elizabeth as a person, as a beloved mother and grandmother -- he speaks of the White Queen, the symbolic role of head of state, the Crown, in whose name so much wrong was inflicted on the First Nations peoples of what became the Commonwealth of Australia.

The pages of The Queen Is Dead drip with pain and fury, but I couldn't stop turning the pages. Grant's story sweeps across the history of Whiteness, the crushing damage wreaked on Aboriginal people, and the personal story of his own family and his own life. Particularly in the context of the approaching referendum, this is such an urgent plea, a cry from the heart. I feel incredibly frustrated myself at the evident lack of understanding of Australia's history that I see and hear around me at the moment; I can only imagine how someone like Stan Grant must feel.




I can't quite remember how Rosamund Lupton's Afterwards came into the house -- I know that my mum read it, and she hasn't read a novel for ages, so it's been lurking at the bottom of my wardrobe for literally years. Maybe I picked it up from a street library? It was published in 2012, and it has an interesting premise, featuring two spirits hovering between life and death -- a mother and daughter, both victims of a horrific fire at a school. They hang around the hospital, eavesdropping on police interviews and bedside conversations, both determined to solve the mystery of who actually started the fire (their eight year old son/brother has been accused of arson). It creates a weird vibe as they talk back to their husband/father and other relatives, but of course they can't be heard... and time is running out to save their lives.

In some ways this is a fairly standard procedural mystery, mostly consisting of people talking in rooms, and disconnected memories of the fateful day. Gradually more backstory is revealed, initial impressions are overturned, prejudices are refuted and there are a few twists along the way. It's not exactly a happy ending, but it is a conclusive one. 

One detail which put me off was the fact that there were two middle-aged mothers called Grace and Maisie, and two teenage daughters named Rowena and Jenny! To me, those names were the wrong way round generationally -- I went to school with Rowenas and Jennys (so many Jennys), while Maisie and Grace were both popular names for my daughters' cohort. A tiny quibble but an annoying one.



I heard about this novel on Radio National's Book Shelf when the author, Paul Daley, was a guest talking about someone else's book. But he was able to briefly mention Jesustown at the end of the show and I was immediately intrigued. Anything that explores the history of First Nations and white interaction on the Australian frontier is instantly interesting to me.

Jesustown is a fictionalised version of a part of Australian history. It's set in 'Arcadia,' which Daley has suggested could be anywhere 'above the Brisbane line.' Problematic Nathaniel Renmark, Renny, self-educated anthropologist, was the grandfather of popular historian Patrick, whose own life has spectacularly imploded. (I could certainly see shades of Patrick in a couple of broad-brush, 'story-ist' historians, but he is more extreme than any of them. I did find it hard to believe that any Australian historian, even one who's relocated to the UK, could find such a degree of popularity and notoriety that the tabloids would be obsessed with chasing him.) The story is mostly told by miserable, self-pitying Patrick, but we also hear Renny's voice through some audio cassettes, and it's via Renny's confessions that we learn the truth behind the legends of Jesustown.

Though the history of Jesustown is fictional, it draws on real events, like the Caledon Bay murders in the Northern Territory in the 1930s -- a story I'd never heard of before. Jesustown is also about generational trauma, not only in the First Nations community, but within Patrick's family, with military horror, trauma, brutality and parental neglect passing down through four generations. Hopefully Patrick has acquired enough insight by the end of the book to halt the process, but there is no easy redemption in this novel.


Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne: EDITED

I wish the word 'queer' would come back into fashion. It was such a handy, inclusive umbrella for all manner of sexualities and identities, without having to march through the seemingly endless parade of initials (which now admits defeat anyway, with a + tacked on the end to cover anyone who might have been forgotten). And it carried in its bones an implicit challenge, a bent agenda, to subvert whatever might be considered 'normal' or 'conventional.' Queer made room for everyone who felt themselves to be, for whatever reason, not quite straight.

I borrowed Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne for research purposes, but I found plenty of memories and some familiar faces as well as fascinating unknown stories inside. Secret Histories proceeds chronologically, offering stories from early Melbourne of cross-dressers, exclusive clubs, shadowy corners of parks and riverbanks, often only revealed in court records or tabloid newspaper stories. As the timeline moves into my own lifetime, I was reminded of particular nightclubs and bars, university societies, and advertising campaigns that featured in the landscape of my youth. 

I'm so happy that the archive material for a collection like this, for many years stashed in Graham Willett's garage, has found a proper home in the Victorian Pride Centre in St Kilda. The queer folk who
 stalk, sashay and march through these pages would be astonished at how far we've come, though however much territory is gained, it seems there is always a fresh battle to be fought.

EDIT to add: I was reading this book at exactly the time that the Four Corners program came out, questioning why not one AFL footballer has come out as gay in the whole recorded history of the game (except in AFLW, where it's not an issue at all). One of the final chapters was about the Pink Magpies, a Collingwood supporters' group which was mentioned during the show. It's so sad and disappointing that while the code as a whole and, it appears, individual clubs and players, are welcoming and accepting, it's the game's 'supporters' that seem to form the biggest obstacle to openess -- the internet trolls who don't need any more ammunition to make the players' lives a misery.)


The Joy of the Snow

I've been waiting ages for Girls Gone By to re-issue Elizabeth Goudge's autobiographical memoir, The Joy of the Snow, but it's taken so long, I got fed up and ordered it from World of Books. I knew that I'd read this book before, a long time ago -- maybe in high school? -- because I always remembered one section when Goudge singles out The Valley of Song as one of only three of her own books that she actually loves, even though as she admits it's a rather muddled and peculiar book. But the bit that stuck with me was when she says it was liked by a few children '(and how I adored those children).' I remember feeling so proud and special for being one of those select few, even though Goudge didn't know of my existence!

This is a quiet but lovely book which will mean a lot to Goudge fans but not much to anyone else, I fear. She writes beautifully about her childhood and youth, her parents, and particularly of the places she has lived, each of which has its own atmosphere and beauty and each of which she has used as settings for her novels. The power of Goudge's love of place and nature is deep and spiritual, and it's this that I most respond to as a reader, I think. She also writes very amusingly of how Green Dolphin Country unexpectedly won a major American prize (though she only received a small percentage of the money) and how this good fortune changed her life forever, much to the bemusement of her friends and neighbours. 

Goudge suffered all her life with anxiety and at times depression, and a modern reader wonders whether, with her extreme sensitivity and hatred of change, she may have been neuro-diverse? It was also interesting to read a chapter about ghosts and what Goudge calls 'ESP,' the very day after I'd been to see the play 2.22 A Ghost Story


Naked Ambition

Robert Gott's new novel, Naked Ambition, was just published this year, so I was quite surprised to find it in an op shop already -- maybe a book reviewer doing a clean-out? Their loss was my gain. Naked Ambition is a short novel with an entertainingly simple concept: Gregory is a young(ish) politician who has, against all common sense, commissioned a full frontal nude portrait of himself, to be entered in the Archibald Prize. All the women in his life -- his wife, his mother, his mother-in-law, his sister, his boss the Premier -- all think this is a terrible idea, for various different reasons, but Gregory insists on sticking to his plan. And then the portrait is stolen...

Naked Ambition unfolds almost like a play, with most of the characters assembled in one room and exchanging their views. There are really only a handful of scenes, so it wouldn't even be a very long play. I've enjoyed Robert Gott's previous work, his historical murder mysteries, also featuring self-centred, self-deluding men, and also his long-running cartoon series, The Adventures of Naked Man (what else!) It is funny to reflect on the disruptive effect of that simple thing, human nudity, and Naked Ambition neatly explores a variety of responses to Gregory's portrait. As usual with Gott's work, the women are far more intelligent and insightful than the men; but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll come out on top. Which is also like real life, unfortunately.


The Guinevere Deception

Back on the King Arthur bandwagon, and what a fabulous version Kiersten White's Camelot Rising trilogy seems to be! I actually started reading the third volume, The Excalibur Curse, first, but I was totally lost and decided I really had to go back to the beginning.

White's premise in The Guinevere Deception is genius: the real Princess Guinevere is dead, and in her place, Merlin sends his own daughter (we don't learn her original name, at least not in this book) to protect Arthur from magical attack. Merlin himself has been banished from Camelot, and all use of magic has been outlawed there, rather against Arthur's own wishes. So our Guinevere is immediately in danger on two fronts -- her identity as Merlin's daughter must be kept secret, and also the fact that she is using her own magic to guard Arthur. She is also terrified of water -- why, exactly, we're not sure yet. 

I love the fact that Guinevere's magic uses knots, and later we discover another feminine version of magic using sewing -- a clever, almost invisible, female form of enchantment. In this version, Lancelot, the Queen's champion, also holds a secret, which is a nice surprise. I also enjoyed the twist that because Arthur and Guinevere's marriage is a sham, there is no sex and therefore no heirs will be produced -- a very good explanation for their traditional lack of offspring.

Naturally The Guinevere Deception ends on a cliffhanger, and I'm looking forward to part 2, The Camelot Betrayal.


The Twyford Code

Janice Hallett's second novel, The Twyford Code, was a recommendation from Angourie Rice on the ABC's Book Shelf radio show -- she described it as a young adult novel, but I don't think it is, and my library certainly shelves it in adult mysteries. It is, however, a huge amount of fun and a really original concept, wrapping mysteries within mysteries in an intriguing and engaging way.

Hallett's previous novel, The Appeal, was written in text messages, documents and emails; The Twyford Code presents us with the transcriptions of 200 audio files, recorded by recently released ex-convict Steven Smith on his son's old phone. The transcriptions aren't perfect; Bournemouth becomes 'bore mouth', Miss Iles becomes missiles, must've is 'mustard' -- this adds a quirky character to Steven's narration, as he recounts both his own personal history as a member of a crime gang, and embarks on the unravelling of an elaborate mystery: the Twyford Code of the title. Edith Twyford is a thinly disguised version of Enid Blyton -- an unfashionable author, reviled for her sexism and racism, but someone who apparently planted clues in her 'Secret Six' books which are reputed to lead to hidden treasure.

The combination of mystery, Enid Blyton and literary puzzles was irresistible to me and I was richly rewarded by this clever, layered and thoroughly enjoyable novel. I might have to check out The Appeal now, if it's as good as this one I won't regret it.


A Life in Frocks


Another unofficial borrowing from the Westgarth Blue Cross library! In A Life In Frocks, Kelly Doust has produced a charming personal memoir, tracing the course of her life through the clothes she's worn and loved (not all frocks). Obviously Doust takes fashion much more seriously than I do; I'd be hard pressed to remember most of the clothes I've worn over the years and (despite what my husband thinks) I don't buy many new ones. I used to buy a lot of my clothes from op shops but as I grow older, it's harder to find clothes that appeal. Doust does the same, but she has the advantage of being able to sew, so she can alter her retro and vintage finds to suit her better. (Learning to sew is one of those life skills that I've been vowing to acquire for a long time, but never seem to find the time to actually do.)

A Life In Frocks, with its pretty pink cover, is not trying to be anything more than it is -- a gentle, sometimes moving, sometimes amusing memoir that might nudge the reader into reminiscing about their own wardrobe.


The Ghost Theatre

The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman (brother of Richard) is a dazzling novel and an extraordinary read. Set in Elizabethan England, and in the world of theatre no less, it manages to only mention Shakespeare once: but if Shakespeare lived in this world, it's no wonder his plays were so richly imaginative. 

The universe of The Ghost Theatre is so teeming, sensuous and strange, it reads like a fantasy world. 'Flapper' Shay is an Aviscultan, a fringe religious sect who worship birds and see prophecy in the murmurations of starlings. 'Lord' Nonesuch is witty, daring and brittle. Together, they create the Ghost Theatre, an outlaw, dangerous theatre of the streets. But enemies abound and all is not as it seems...

A boyish girl and a feminine boy find love and comfort in each other's arms, but Shay and Nonesuch are carrying such burdens of betrayal, deprivation and desperation that a happy ending seems impossible. But the minor characters are just as vivid and memorable: from Devana the falcon to Evans the entrepreneur with his glass-walled palace, from Queen Elizabeth herself with her painted face and ruthlessness to sweet, gifted Trussell -- it's a cast to conjure magic with. The Ghost Theatre might not be historically accurate but it's a story to set your imagination on fire. Highly recommended.


Firewatcher: Brimstone

The first in a trilogy, Kelly Gardiner's Firewatcher: Brimstone weaves together not one but two exciting historical events in a neat time slip structure. When Christopher Larkham finds a mysterious ring on the banks of the Thames in the London Blitz, it seems to give him the power to travel back three hundred years to the Great Fire of London in 1666. Kit darts back and forth between two cities in fiery extremis, using his knowledge of the past to combat the slow-moving but catastrophic seventeenth century blaze -- but he also has to contend with the sinister Brother Blowbladder and his evil plans.

There is plenty of action in this fast-paced adventure, and the other volumes in the Firewatcher series take Kit further back in time, to Saxon Lundenwic and Roman Londinium. I love the concept of getting two historical timelines in a single book, and the idea of linking fires from different eras. An engaging story for younger readers.



Anna Funder's Wifedom is an extraordinary book. (Thank you to Chris for lending it to me so I didn't have to sit in the library queue for months -- currently 102 reserves!) It's doing several things at once: telling the story of George Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a fascinating woman in her own right; examining the way that she has been erased from Orwell's history, both by Orwell himself and by subsequent biographers; and a reflection on the largely invisible work that most women do, whether it's supporting and encouraging an artist, or the simple and unsung caring work that seems inevitably to fall to women's lot (childcare, elders, spouses, siblings...)

I was very cross when I read a review of Wifedom in The Saturday Paper, that seemed to be berating Funder for failing to acknowledge sufficiently Orwell's genius. Well, Funder does acknowledge the value of Orwell's work, not just once but many times through the book; but on re-reading the review, it dawned on me that the reviewer seemed to under a fundamental misapprehension. He (yes, it was a he) seemed to think this was another biography of Orwell, this one focusing on what a bastard he was to his wife, and pleading for greater 'balance' by asking the author to admit that he wrote amazing books as well as being a bastard. Well, no. This is a book about Eileen, not George -- that's actually the whole point.

Quite apart from being a skilful, witty writer herself, and improving the quality of Orwell's writing (all his biographers admit his prose style improved markedly after his marriage), quite apart from creating the peaceful, organised domestic environment that he required to work, Eileen was the real performer when the duo travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War. Though Orwell was terrified at the time, and for the rest of his life, that Stalinists were going to assassinate him, it's far more likely that they were targeting Eileen, who actually worked in the POUM office and would have possessed far more valuable information than George, who did little more than get himself wounded.

But Funder's most outstanding achievement in Wifedom is to show the sleights of hand, the judicious use of the passive voice ('passports were obtained...dalliances occurred...') to blur or erase Eileen's positive actions, and to do the same for Orwell's less admirable ones. If nothing else, it seems that Eileen had a huge part in creating Animal Farm, a work markedly unlike any other Orwell ever wrote, and for that alone, we have much to thank her.


I Have Some Questions For You


I enjoyed this novel SO MUCH. My interest was initially piqued by some Facebook discussion of the fact that one of the characters in I Have Some Questions For You shares a name with a prominent character in Antonia Forest's Marlow series: the murder victim is called Thalia Keith. Now, Thalia Keith is not a common name, and frankly I don't believe Rebecca Makkai when she claims that it's a complete coincidence; however, it seems that some characters were named by winners of a fundraising auction, so I'm guessing that's how Tim Keith weaseled her way into a starring role in this book.

However, I Have Some Questions For You, with or without Thalia Keith, is a brilliantly satisfying read. It skilfully combines dual timelines -- the present, in which alumna Bodie Kane returns to Granby school to take a podcasting course; and the past, in which she remembers the murder of a classmate in the 1990s. There is a lot going on in this novel, quite apart from the murder mystery. Makkai interweaves issues of cancel culture, sexual and racial politics, class, memory (not just for the facts of the fateful night or the months that led up to it, but the past students' memories of their own identities -- was Bodie a cool, even 'scary' Goth, or an awkward misfit? Was golden girl Beth Docherty effortlessly popular, or mired in misery? Was music teacher Denny Bloch (the 'you' of the title) an inspiring teacher, or a sexual abuser, or worse?)

I galloped through this thick book at top speed; luckily, I had a busy week, or I would have just sat down and devoured it from beginning to end. Makkai resists the temptation for easy solutions to the moral and ethical questions she poses here, and her prose is gorgeous. I hate to compare novels (at least in terms of quality), but I couldn't help contrasting Makkai's book with another adult novel I read recently (a very successful one) and the difference is chalk and cheese. I Have Some Questions For You is lots of fun, but it's also grown-up literature.


There's A Good Girl


I had a feeling I'd read Marianne Grabrucker's There's A Good Girl before and parts of it were definitely familiar, but it must have been thirty years ago, and having had two daughters in the interim, it certainly bore a revist. Subtitled Gender Stereotypes in the First Three Years of Life: A Diary, this memoir really covers about two years of Grabrucker's daughter's life, from the time she starts speaking until she starts pre-school and Grabrucker returns to full time work after Anneli turns three.

Although the diary was mostly written in 1983/4, and some observations have dated, it's horrifying to see how many still feel relevant forty years later. Perhaps Anneli's grandmothers might not be so keen to encourage her to play with dolls (or perhaps they would!), and perhaps the mothers of the little boys that Anneli plays with might not stress so hard the need for boys to not cry; and parents of both sexes might be less relaxed about the violence that the little boys mete out on the girls, and might not insist that the children have to 'work out their squabbles for themselves.'

In daily entries, Grabrucker observes and records the hundred little nudges that small children experience, pushing them toward inflexible gender roles: the advertising billboards that show naked women and powerful men; the fathers who fix things around the house; the urge to dress up little girls and tell them how pretty they look; the little boys who get away with snatching toys and how the girls are told to 'hold on more tightly next time.' Even for progressive, feminist German parents in the 1980s, who are convinced that they're bringing up boys and girls the same, and who are well aware of stereotypes, time and again they fall into the trap.

This is a slim book but it packs a punch far more powerful than its size suggests. Well worth reading, or re-reading, even now.



Clair-de-Lune was a fortuitous op shop find, because this is a book I've been meaning to read for a long time. I became Facebook friends with Cassandra Golds after meeting her once years ago, I adored The Museum of Mary Child, but Clair-de-Lune was written in 2004. Golds and I seem to have had quite similar tastes in childhood reading (ballet books, Narnia, the incomparable Nicholas Stuart Gray) and Clair-de-Lune combines the most magical elements of my favourite books into one irresistible package.

It's a fabulous story -- by which I mean, it's like a fable. Small, silent Clair-de-Lune lives in a tall old building filled with mysterious inhabitants in a city that seems quite like Paris. She lives with her grandmother in genteel poverty, just like Sylvia and her great-aunt in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, except that Clair-de-Lune's grandmother is mean, unlike Sylvia's gentle aunt. Two of the most mysterious inhabitants are the kind monk, Brother Inchmahone (yes, there is a whole monastery secreted in the building, behind a stone door) and the chatty, excitable mouse Bonaventure, whose dream it is to start a ballet school for mice. (Shades of Narnia's gallant Reepicheep!)

To say more would be to spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Clair-de-Lune, most unexpectedly, made me cry. I'm a jaded old reader these days and I can't remember the last time I cried at a book, but Clair-de-Lune did it. This book is a gorgeous treasure, old-fashioned in the best possible way.


Davita's Harp

What a miserable-looking girl! There are more appealing covers for this novel out there, but this is the one I picked up from Brotherhood Books in the middle of my Chaim Potok binge last year. Maybe I'd overdone it because I started reading Davita's Harp months ago and then abruptly gave up -- I couldn't handle yet another story of a morose child in dismal 1930s New York, struggling to understand the threatening rules of the adult world. So Davita's Harp has sat sadly on my reading pile with a bookmark near the start, until I relented and picked it up again.

Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood back then, maybe I had spent too long in Potok's world and needed a break, but this time around I quickly became absorbed in Davita's world and this novel might even have become my favourite of Potok's works. For one thing, it actually features a girl as the main character -- the only one of Potok's novels to do so. It also approaches his usual material -- orthodox Jewish community, politics, not fitting in, parents and children -- from a different angle. This time, the family are outside the Jewish community: Davita's Jewish mother has renounced her faith, driven to rebellion by an abusive, sexist father, and married a non-Jewish man, Davita's father. The usual central relationship in Potok's novels is between father and son; this time, it's mother and daughter. It's almost as if Potok challenged himself to break all his own rules! And instead of the central character chafing against the strict demands of Hasidic Judaism, this time Davita finds herself drawn toward the comfort of ritual and community, and gradually coming to embrace her Jewish identity, while still clashing with its misogynistic assumptions and injustices.

I found the background of Communist party activism and the Spanish Civil War fascinating, and it was timely in that I also recently watched Oppenheimer and began reading Anna Funder's book Wifedom about Eileen Blair, George Orwell's wife, and her involvement in Spain. It's so weird how these things seem to converge, time and again, without any conscious effort on my part!


After the Lights Go Out

I'm a big fan of Lili Wilkinson, both as a person and as a writer (full disclosure: she lives a couple of streets away from me), but I think After the Lights Go Out might be her best novel yet. Lately I've read a few slightly underwhelming kids and YA books, but ATLGO is bloody near perfect. It's solidly constructed, tightly plotted, and smoothly written. It combines drama, romance, fraught family relationships and dystopian catastrophe with hope, kindness and compassion. Even though I'm not a massive fan of apocalyptic stories, I was carried along on the ride on the strength of the characters, and especially the appeal of the capable yet vulnerable protagonist, Pru. The scenario, which Wilkinson admits probably takes some scientific license, feels plausible yet horrifying, and its consequences unfold naturally but not predictably.

Pru's father is a doomsday prepper, and when his dire predictions seem to have come true, his daughters' first reaction is to groan that he will feel so smug. And yet his training proves to have been life-saving... up to a point. It's ironic that when this book was published in 2018, the real global catastrophe was still a couple of years away, and it took a very different form -- a pandemic rather than a massive electronics-frying electromagnetic pulse. And yet the same questions raised by ATLGO were so relevant to all of us -- how to strike a balance between protecting ourselves and helping others; what risks were worth taking; how much could we rely on outside agencies, and how much did we have to take care of ourselves; the ever-tilting seesaw between community and family and self-interest.

After the Lights Go Out is a fantastic read and it's restored my faith in young adult fiction! I note it was shortlisted for plenty of awards but annoyingly didn't actually win any. Grr.


Growing In To Autism

I've read a few of these 'lived experience' memoirs of autism now, and I found Growing In To Autism particularly engaging and relatable. Sandra Thom-Jones is a Melbourne academic, mother of two sons with autism, and someone who discovered her own diagnosis as an adult. Thom-Jones talks of 'growing in' to autism, as opposed to 'growing out' of it, and she often argues against attempts to 'train' children and young people out of their autistic comfort zone, for example, discomfort with eye contact or hand-shaking. Why don't we instead just teach everyone that some people aren't comfortable with eye contact, and work on that, rather than imposing the burden on the people with autism to change themselves?

The book is structured in a very readable way, with short chapters each focusing on a different aspect of Thom-Jones' personal experience: love of routine; food issues; facial recognition (or lack thereof!); special interests; sensory sensitivity. She begins each chapter with a personal anecdote, often quite funny, before leading into a general discussion of each issue. I must admit I found many of these aspects and habits very relatable -- if not for myself, then for one or both of my children. One of my daughters has been pressing for a diagnosis lately, and while I'm still not sure whether her wish is justified, Growing In To Autism may have nudged me closer toward following through.


The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart and Evie and Rhino

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart and Evie and Rhino: two books with more in common than meets the eye (though even the covers are quite similar, now that I look at them side by side), though the first is an adult novel and the second is middle grade. For a start, they each feature one of my daughters' names! They are both written by an Australian woman author. They both feature a selectively mute little girl who lives by the sea, has lost both parents and is in the care of a grandparent. They are both beautifully presented, with lovely illustrations, though one is filled with pictures of wildflowers and the other stars a little girl and a rhino. And they have both been very successful in their own genre: The Lost Flowers has been made into an Amazon miniseries, while Evie and Rhino has been shortlisted for the CBCA awards.

I have yet to see the Amazon version of The Lost Flowers, but I can clearly see what attracted the producers to the project. The book is filled with beautiful and striking imagery -- a house in flames, a craters filled with desert pea flowers, a rushing river, names carved in a river red gum -- and themes tailor -made for television audiences, particularly the horror of domestic violence, dark family secrets, and the phenomenal endurance of women. In Holly Ringland's debut novel, she has taken care to include First Nations lore and multi-national stories, which round out a powerful story. (The Lost Flowers also ties in beautifully with much of what I read in First Knowledges: Plants, like the use of certain plants to make adhesives, or for healing.)

Evie and Rhino is also a striking story, one based partly on a true incident in the nineteenth century where a ship carrying animals destined for the Melbourne zoo was wrecked on the Victorian coast. In real life, the rhino on board died soon after the wreck, but in Neridah McMullin's story, he survives and befriends young Evie and her household, who are soon drawn into a conspiracy to save the gentle giant.  It's a sweet tale about unlikely friendship, kindness and courage.


The Daughter of Time

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) is probably her best-known and most re-printed novel, and it's the book that pretty much single-handedly kicked off the movement to rehabilitate King Richard III. The novel has a cool and original structure, with our detective being bed-bound in hospital with a broken leg, and sending off various minions to do his research and discuss the results. Alan Grant seems to stay in hospital for WEEKS, so in that respect the book definitely shows its age! 

I've read The Daughter of Time a couple of times before, and I still find Tey's arguments pretty persuasive. In the middle of reading it, I (obviously) did some googling, and also listened to a The Rest is History podcast on the topic. Dominic and Tom were fairly scathing about the idea that Richard couldn't have murdered the princes because he was a good administrator and has 'a nice face' -- which is basically the foundation of Tey's argument; their view was that he probably did do it, but he kind of had to, given his circumstances. They didn't examine the version of history that Tey presents, which was disappointing, and I still don't know how accurate her facts are -- things like the timing of the rumour surfacing, why Richard wasn't accused immediately by Henry VII after the defeat at Bosworth, which I find more persuasive than the 'nice face' angle. I'd love to know if this is the accepted timeline or if more scholarship has emerged since Tey wrote her novel. Having read a few Josephine Tey novels in a row, it's clear that she's a big believer that faces are the key to personality, a belief that her detective Alan Grant shares, and I view that I cannot endorse.

So I wouldn't say I'm a hundred percent Ricardian, but I'm open to arguments either way!


Plants: Past, Present and Future

Plants: Past, Present and Future is the most recent publication in the First Knowledges series, this one by Zena Cumpston, Michael-Shawn Fletcher and Lesley Head. I am a big fan of this series, which presents short, manageable texts on various subjects, by First Nations experts. They're like tasters on the First Nations knowledge of astronomy, design, management of Country -- perfect for the layperson. They are often quite political, but appropriately so. For example, Plants is vocal on the topic of 'bush foods' and the way they are being appropriated by non-Indigenous businesses, sprinkled on top of 'normal food' like a garnish (sometimes literally), rather than being seen for what they truly are, nutritious and complete diets in their own right.

There are various chapters on different native plants -- spinifex, quandong, yams -- but I think my favourite section was 'Abundance' by Zena Cumpston, in which she forensically examines a photo of three people camped on Country, taken in the late nineteenth century, and picks out all the different plant-based items visible in the picture. There are nets made from bulrush fibre, digging sticks, coolamons, thatch on the hut, a grindstone, spears and boomerangs, bunches of leaves used as medicine, and more. This photograph illustrates with immediate clarity and force the degree of reliance of traditional peoples on plants; what it doesn't show is the reverse relationship, the degree to which First Nations peoples managed and curated Country to ensure that the plants and animals thrived and flourished, with the careful use of fire and practices like replacing yam-tops so the tuber would regrow. As Cumpston reminds us, Country is still here, even when it's hidden under urban sprawl, and we can still learn to care for and respond to it, even in our cities and suburbs.

I'm looking forward to reading the next volume in the series, Law, co-written by the formidable Marcia Langton, and I hope there will be many more volumes to come.


Summer Skin

Another book about college life -- pertinent to my current WIP. It was interesting to read a contemporary novel in this setting -- it seems somethings haven't changed much, despite all the lip service paid to issues of consent and respect. Kirsty Eagar's Summer Skin is primarily a love story, and a very sexy one. Our protagonists are nineteen, and each has some experience under their belts (so to speak), so it's not a first-love, discovery novel; but Jess and Mitch are still very young and relatively inexperienced, and they are each carrying a bit of personal baggage.

Summer Skin is smart and feminist, but I have to admit that I didn't initially find the troubled Mitch a particularly appealing personality. He kept on acting like a dick well past the point where I suspect in real life, Jess would have given him the flick. But of course he proves to be worth the hard work in the end. I enjoyed the Brisbane setting, which makes a change from the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, and the steamy Queensland summer is almost a character in its own right.

My library copy of Summer Skin has obviously been well-read, and there are many rave reviews on Goodreads, so it's good to know that this mature, explicit book has found its audience.


How To Be Both

I haven't read any Ali Smith books before. I thought perhaps I had, but now I suspect I was mixing her up with Monica Ali. And when I heard about the split structure of How To Be Both, I thought it sounded a bit gimmicky -- one half written from the point of view of a fourteenth century fresco painter, the other from the perspective of a newly grieving contemporary teenager, but with the two sections printed in one order in some copies, and the other way around in others. But what do I know? How To Be Both is sensational.

At first I thought I was going to struggle with this novel, because it's written with eccentric punctuation, no speech marks, and the first few pages (of my copy, at least) were more akin to poetry than prose, and I do historically find poetry Quite Hard Work. But the rhythm of the novel soon swept me away. It's about art, and history, and observing; it's about love, and loss, and memory; it's about women, and perception, and friendship; it's about family, and words, and pictures; it's about money, and fame, and reputation. And true to the promise of the premise, the two stories, while separate, reflect and resonate upon each other in unexpected and lovely ways. It wasn't a hard read at all, and I adored it. No wonder it won all the prizes. And now I have to read all the other Ali Smith novels I can find.


Sweater Quest

I picked up Adrienne Martini's memoir, Sweater Quest, from the seconds trolley at the library -- for a dollar, it was worth a punt! Though I must say that the subtitle, My Year of Knitting Dangerously, is a bit of an overstatement. My daughter asked me what it was about and I had to answer, 'well, it's about a woman knitting a jumper,' and honestly, it isn't much more than that. But I enjoyed this book a lot, and it did spur me to pick my own neglected knitting project again, so I'm calling it a win (and I suspect Martini would, too).

The jumper (eventually cardigan) that Martini spends her year trying to complete is no ordinary sweater. It's a Fair Isle pattern by notoriously prickly Scottish knitting designer, Alice Starmore. There is a lengthy account of the whole Starmore story (which I was unaware of), chronicling the designer's feud with various wool manufacturers and her fierce, and litigious, protection of her designs. And yet those designs are so complex, so colourful and original, they remain irresisiable, even though Martini herself admits that having knitted the damn garment, she will probably never wear it. See below for an image of the finished article:

I mean, it is pretty gorgeous, as an object, but I probably wouldn't actually wear it either. Anyway, Martini travels the country chatting to various knitting experts and community figures about crafts, women's work, creativity, life and connection, the role of internet knitting blogs and how-to videos in fostering a new wave of knitters, and lovey stories about the way the skill has been passed down, often from older relatives, so it becomes a family memory.

I don't think my grandmother was a knitter, but my mum certainly was. She made countless lovely little cardigans, hats, jumpers and bootees for my babies, until sadly it turned out neither of them could bear the feel of wool against their skin (we've kept them all, though). She taught me how to knit and she's still the one I run to when I get into a tangle, though she claims to have forgotten everything. Just recently I rescued her own knitting bag from storage at our own home, and who knows, maybe I'll end up knitting a pattern from her collection one day.


Drop Dead Healthy

I've developed a real fondness for A.J. Jacobs and his quixotic quests to know everything, live biblically, and solve every puzzle (though I haven't read that one yet). Drop Dead Healthy (2012) covers two years of Jacobs' life during which he strives to become the healthiest man alive, one body part at a time -- so we get chapters devoted to the ears, the nose, the lungs, the heart, the stomach, the back etc.

Jacobs is always entertaining company, and I enjoyed his attempts at bodily self-improvement. He changes his diet, starts eating with a small plate and little fork, starts working on a homemade treadmill desk (this habit seems to stick, and he becomes quite evangelical about it), takes part in a triathlon, and takes advice from a whole battalion of experts. In a handy appendix, he lists the ten best pieces of advice he received (shop at the edges of the supermarket; don't eat white food; eat protein for breakfast), and there's another appendix with tips for guerilla exercise (always take the stairs; literally run your errands). In fact, you could probably just read the appendices if you want health advice; but the point is to go on the journey with A.J. and his long-suffering family. I'm not the first to observe that his wife Julie deserves a medal.

There are a couple of sobering notes among the jollity. Jacobs loses his beloved grandfather and aunt during the project; ironically, his aunt is completely health-obsessed, compulsively avoiding toxins and consuming organic everything, and yet she succumbs to a particularly nasty cancer. No matter what precautions you take, something is going to get you in the end. Perhaps the trick is just to be as healthy and happy as you can before you get there.


Murder Must Advertise


I am losing my mind -- or it's true that e-books don't stick in the memory like physical books! Because it wasn't till I'd bought and re-read this copy of Murder Must Advertise that I discovered that I'd bought it on the Kindle and read it about five years ago. For proof, see here. And I still couldn't really remember who dunnit! So maybe my mind is going, after all.

Murder Must Advertise is one of my favourite Sayers novels. I enjoy the breezy, gossipy workplace setting, with people darting in and out of each other's offices and perching on desks chatting (certainly that was very like my last job), and all the fascinating period minutiae of preparing ads in the 1930s. Sayers was ahead of her time in bemoaning the commercialisation and shallow greed of modern society; the sentiment of those rants hasn't dated at all, though the content of the ads might have (it's all "Whifflets" and "Crunchlets" for Pym's Publicity!) 

Also, there's the superb cricket match at the end of the novel, one of the best in fiction, and pertinent to the plot, too. As I lay in bed listening to Ben Stokes cut loose on the final day of the Second Ashes Test last night, I couldn't help but be reminded of Lord Peter with his blood up, cutting and driving all over the ground. (That stopped me minding so much about the runs Stokes was accumulating -- and then we won anyway, so that was okay.) There's no Harriet, so that's a bummer, but I can overlook that just this once.

The only aspect that is, as the kids say, cringe, is Wimsey leaping around in a harlequin costume. Yeah, no thanks. I prefer his disguise as mild-mannered copy-writer, Death Bredon.


The Colour of Magic

Terry Pratchett is an absolute legend (or was -- he left us in 2015). He left a legacy of dozens of hugely popular books, notably the 40-odd volume Discworld series, of which The Colour of Magic is the first volume. My main exposure to Pratchett's work has been watching the gorgeous Good Omens, a collaboration with Neil Gaiman, which I must admit I mainly watched for David Tennant and Michael Sheen. However, there's been so much love for Discworld and Pratchett that I thought I should dive in -- after all, if I ended up loving it, there were 39 more books to discover.

Okay, well, I didn't fall in love. Maybe the very first novel in the series wasn't, paradoxically, the best place to start. The Colour of Magic was certainly inventive and moderately amusing, but it seemed a little like, as the kids say, 2 dollar shop Douglas Adams. There was also a striking lack of female characters. It all seemed quite blokey? Not in an objectionable way, but I just didn't feel I was quite on the same wavelength.

So, I admire Terry Pratchett, I mourn Terry Pratchett, and I still love Good Omens, but maybe Discworld isn't quite for me.


The Franchise Affair

I nicked -- ahem, borrowed -- The Franchise Affair from the aged care library, too. This edition is from 1971, so the book was already over twenty years old when this came out. In many ways, The Franchise Affair is the most antiquated of Josephine Tey's novels (the ones I've read, anyway). 

The Franchise Affair has a great premise -- a fifteen year old girl, missing for a month, reappears and claims to have been kidnapped and held captive by a pair of women who live in a big old isolated house. She describes the interior, the furniture, the women themselves, and their car, without an error (well, maybe with one error...) -- and yet the women, an eccentric mother and daughter, insist on their innocence. Who is telling the truth?

We are very quickly led to believe the two women over the girl; the tension of the plot resides in whether the public and the legal system will uncover the truth and exonerate the Sharpes. It's very odd, and uncomfortable, with a modern sensibility, to read the venom heaped by our detecting hero, solicitor Robert, on the head of young Betty Kane. She is painted as a complete villain, a scarlet lying Jezebel who well deserved the beating she received before her reappearance. But I can't forget that she's only a child, and I don't find it so easy to write her off as irredeemably wicked. It seems she was just born that way, as her adoptive mother is presented with huge sympathy. It's weird to read a book that does contain a range of complex, interesting female characters right alongside a set of one-dimensional stereotypes: a doting maiden aunt, a nurturing mother-figure, a hard-boiled 'modern' woman, and of course, Betty herself, apparently destined for a career in prostitution.

As in Miss Pym Disposes, solving the mystery isn't really the central point here. It's more about (ironically) combating first impressions and digging under pat assumptions. If the author had followed her characters' example more closely, The Franchise Affair would be a better book.


Debts of Dishonour

Debts of Dishonour, the third Imogen Quy mystery, was part of my haul from the Cairns secondhand bookshop, but I've only just got around to reading it. Published in 2006, and centred on quite modern-seeming, if vague, financial misdealings as well as murder, Debts of Dishonour nevertheless retains an old-fashioned, cosy, Golden Age feel. Again our setting is St Agatha's College, which despite facing financial ruin, apparently doesn't even consider laying off its full-time nurse!

I read Debts of Dishonour concurrently with Miss Pym Disposes and The Franchise Affair, and this made me wonder whether Jill Paton Walsh owes a debt of her own to Josephine Tey. Even the name of her amateur sleuth almost rhymes with the name of the older author, and despite being written decades later than Tey's most successful books, Jill Paton Walsh's mysteries do echo their settings and some of their attitudes (like robust impatience with social deprivation as an explanation for criminal behaviour!)

Sometimes the dialogue is a little on the clunky side, and the universal trust and affection inspired apparently instantly by Imogen Quy almost strains credulity, but Debts of Dishonour was a very pleasurable and undemanding read.


The Young Detectives

More antique fiction, another ugly cover. The Young Detectives was first published in 1934 and this Puffin edition dates from 1975, so it was fairly antique even then. However, this book has enjoyed a long and popular life, with many readers reminiscing about their love for the story as children. 

I don't think it has aged well! The dialogue is stilted, the characters are thin (it seems the family were based on the author's own children, who share their names) and the action is predictable. There is a horribly complicated plot device involving doors that open and shut when a window is open or closed, which I struggled to follow, but results in people being trapped on one or other side of the secret passageway. The upper class children, whose family have rented the huge old seaside house and brought their servants along to wait on them, are very bossy to the mere fishermen and police they interact with, which really grates on a modern reader. Fro some reason, the way the mother addresses the oldest boy as 'my son' also irritated me. There are smugglers and caves and a wrecked ship and accomplished amateur theatricals, and luckily 'Daddy' (who is absent in America for most of the book) appears at an opportune moment to beat up one of the bad guys.

I didn't have much patience for The Young Detectives, especially compared with almost contemporaneous adventures like Swallows and Amazons. However, I can see that it might have been influential on later, better written stories of children's adventure.