A Pocketful of Happiness


I love Richard E. Grant, I would watch him in anything, and I loved his autobiographical film Wah-Wah and enjoyed his diaries about the making of the movie. A Pocketful of Happiness, despite the title, is a much sadder story, dealing with the illness and death of his wife of thirty-five years, speech and dialogue coach Joan Washington. The couple clearly had an unusual relationship in the showbiz world, faithful and devoted for decades despite the ten year difference in their ages (he is younger than she was).

Grant writes very movingly about Joan's diagnosis, his own fears and anguish, as well as Joan's own decline. He doesn't gloss over the practical and emotional difficulties of her last months and days; always sharp, she becomes irritable, demanding and irascible and even Grant, who clearly worships the ground she walks on, finds this very challenging and exhausting. They are wonderfully supported by their many friends (though Grant also points out, without naming them, that there were some 'friends' who fell by the wayside), and their grown up daughter Oilly and her partner are also an amazing source of strength. 

Interwoven with the sadness of Joan's illness are plenty of happy and funny memories of their time together, and lots of movie and celebrity anecdotes, which I suspect some people will primarily read the book for (like Grant's account of appearing in Star Wars and Loki, neither of which are of huge interest to me -- I was more interested in his role in Persuasion!) But for me, the diary of Joan's last days was extremely moving and in some ways reassuring. This is an experience that almost all of us will need to undergo at some point, and I welcome all the reports from the front line that I can get.


The Marriage Portrait

It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can be waiting for months for a single book to become available from the library; but then five arrive on the reserve shelf all at once. In such a case it's necessary to drop whatever books you might be in the middle of at the time and rush to finish the ones from the reserves, because there is a still a queue of dozens of eager readers waiting for their turn.

So I dashed through Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait, which I think I heard about on the ABC's Bookshelf program, which has alerted me to a great deal of new fiction lately. This is my fourth Maggie O'Farrell book and she has always come through with the goods; The Marriage Portrait was particularly anticipated after the recent success of Hamnet. I thoroughly enjoyed it -- the interleaving of Lucrezia's childhood and the early days of her marriage, with the tense sojourn in the hunting lodge during which she is convinced that her husband is going to murder her.

Some themes, such as male violence against women, are timeless, it seems, and O'Farrell does a marvellous job in planting the seeds of apprehension and then outright terror. The writing is lively and sensuous, wonderfully recreating the privileged, yet constrained, Renaissance world of the Medicis and Estes that captivated me in high school history lessons (we spent so long savouring the Renaissance that we hardly left any time for the Reformation). At least one critic has complained that teenage Lucrezia's growing sense of her own individuality is anachronistic, but I didn't find it jarring -- not compared with the teen-speak of The Other Merlin, at least! (And both books feature arranged marriages -- not too surprisingly, I guess.) 

Possibly I failed to do The Marriage Portrait full justice, because I sped through it so fast; but I found it a tasty and satisfying meal. I can't wait to see what O'Farrell tackles next.


The Other Merlin


I must confess I approached Robyn Schneider's The Other Merlin with a degree of trepidation. This is a book very much in the current YA mould -- sassy dialogue, intense romance, a dash of queer, misunderstood youth, a young woman exploring her power. The Other Merlin is set in a kind of medieval alternative England, a nation divided into small rival kingdoms including 'Camelot' as well as the more familiar Arthurian Lothian and others. In this version, Prince Arthur, conceived out of wedlock and thus an unwelcome heir, is a bookish, scholarly and compassionate boy who inexplicably secured the right to the throne after drawing the sword from the stone outside a pub; Lancelot is a handsome, athletic squire banished to the guards after a gay scandal; while this Merlin is actually the gifted daughter of the original court wizard, forced into disguise as her own twin brother.

Once I settled into the conventions of the sarky, sparky teen dialogue and the many anachronisms, I enjoyed The Other Merlin a lot. Schneider has been working on this world for a long time, and I appreciated the twists she's given to the conventional cast and plot. There are many familiar figures in slightly unexpected guises -- Guinevere doesn't want to marry Arthur any more than Arthur wants to marry her, Arthur and Emry Merlin feel an irresistible attraction to each other, Emry becomes trapped 'in the stone' when a portal opens to another, more magical world. It's pacy and engaging, though I'm not sure if readers who aren't already familiar with the legends will react. I did enjoy Emry working on special effects in a theatre, producing magical storms and pools of blood at will, and the hints that Arthur's strength will be his people skills rather than the way he handles a sword.

There are sequels to come...


Slow Horses


It's rare for me to read the book after watching the series, but in this case, I came across Slow Horses first on Apple TV and thought it was fantastic -- a dark, British spy thriller with a bunch of misfits headed by Gary Oldman, with Kristen Scott Thomas as the kind-of villain? Wow. But it's meant that I came to Mick Herron's book with a certain amount of foreknowledge and expectation.

Firstly, I have to say that the show is perfectly cast. I couldn't imagine anyone but Oldman as dishevelled, filthy Jackson Lamb, the apparently washed-up operative who still has tricks up his sleeve. The rest of the team are just as good. And the atmosphere of the books is beautifully captured -- grimy London streets, running around in the dark, the run down offices of Slough House itself, where the various 'slow horses' have been assigned to see out their days with tedious tasks, or, preferably, resign in sheer disgust. The characters are rich, the plot was satisfyingly twisty (in fact I think the script writers ratcheted up the tension a notch or two), there is enough gore to raise the stakes without being so cruel as to stop me reading (or watching), all leavened with a pinch of very British humour. Though I must say that the abduction of a nineteen year old aspiring stand-up comedian was a little close to the bone...!

There are about eight books in the series and I hope Apple adapts every single one of them and makes Mich Herron a rich man.


The Jane Austen Remedy

This book was an absolute treat! Ruth Wilson looks back over a long life (she is nearly 90) through the lens of re-reading each of Jane Austen's novels and shares her wisdom and insight, with delightful gentle humour, sharp judgment and thoughtful reflection. As she approached seventy, she realised that she needed to distance herself from her marriage and find her own space; she found herself a small cottage and a new life in the NSW Southern Highlands and reclaimed time and space for reading, thinking, gardening and friendship. It sounds idyllic in a way, and was also necessary for her mental health, but it was also painful (particularly for her family).

As Wilson reflects on Austen's life as well as her own history, we see the parallels in family, love, work, reading, and friendships, as well as more unexpected connections, for example in theatre, education and public speaking. I love books about reading and this one is exceptional, as Wilson, even after eighty odd years of reading Jane Austen's novels, discovers new ideas and interpretations. The books ends with a wonderful 'prescription' recommending the ideal ages and intervals for optimal reading and re-reading.

The Jane Austen Remedy is at once an enjoyable memoir and a wonderful examination of Jane Auten's novels. Slight spoiler: Wilson ended up moving into an apartment just upstairs from her husband's, back in Sydney, and describes them as LATs (Living Together Apart). I'm sure Jane Austen would have loved it.


The Seeing Stone


I picked up the whole series of Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur books in the library book sale about ten years ago, and it was such a joy to revisit the first volume as part of my King Arthur Grand Tour 2023. In 100 short chapters -- sometimes only a page or two -- Crossley-Holland vividly conjures up two parallel worlds in The Seeing Stone: the medieval universe of aspiring squire Arthur, secure in the community of his father's castle and the surrounding lands; and the world he can see in the black mirror of a magical stone, the world of myth and legend, the legends of his namesake, King Arthur.

While there are elements that push the envelope of credulity (young Arthur writes reams of personal diary on what must surely be precious parchment!) I really appreciate the way Crossley-Holland succeeds in giving us a glimpse of the different philosophy of life in the year 1200 -- the absolute centrality of religious belief, the conviction that each person is born into a certain social station and has to stick to it (no helping Gatty with farmwork), the shocking harshness of life (Lankin's hand cut off for stealing, rapes, murders and teen pregnancies, the close presence of death) and also its communal joy and security (wassail at Christmas, the overwhelming beauty of nature).

I'm looking forward to reacquainting myself with the two Arthurs, inside and outside the stone. I hope young people are reading these books, because they are gorgeous jewels of writing and story and history, but even if they aren't, at least I am!


Thrones, Dominations

Thrones, Dominations was the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel that Dorothy L. Sayers began writing, but it left unfinished at her death. Twenty years later, Jill Paton Walsh took on the task of completing it, and then went on to write several extra Wimsey novels. I've already devoured those later books, but Thrones, Dominations wasn't available from the library at the time and I've only just remembered to catch up with it.

The cover blurbs all use the word 'seamless' and they're right. It's possible that Jill Paton Walsh wrote more enjoyable Wimsey novels than Sayers herself -- I've certainly loved reading them almost as much (though I must admit their plots haven't stuck in my head like the originals). Thrones, Dominations picks up immediately after the events of Busman's Honeymoon and thankfully omits much of the elaborately literary love-talk that marred that novel for me. Thrones, Dominations is apparently one third Sayers and two thirds Walsh, but I couldn't tell you at what point Sayers gave up and Walsh took over. It's a lively, entertaining mystery, with nicely judged foreshadowing of the looming war (it's set in 1936) and abdication. Harriet also does her bit for modern feminism in completely plausible and very satisfying ways -- she certainly doesn't suffer from becoming a married woman, and it's lovely to see a true partnership of equals on the page.


Wild Things


A very long reserve queue for this book at the local library, and deservedly so. Sally Rippin is well known as a children's and YA author, and I think might be the best-selling female writer for kids in the country. In latter years she has concentrated on lively, engaging books for early readers, which have been wildly successful.

Wild Things is a very different kind of book -- both a very personal memoir of her youngest son's struggles with literacy, and a survey of the educational research and resources available in this country to help (or hinder) people in a similar situation. Not surprisingly, this is a subject very close to my heart, as my elder daughter (a couple of years older than Sally's son, in this book called 'Sam') has gone through a very similar battle with dyslexia and is still, in her third year at university, fighting to access the support she needs. Like Sally, we suffered through nightly conflicts over reading, tried various tutoring and home-based reading programs (none of which really worked), and dealt with mental health issues, including (but not limited to) severe anxiety, panic attacks, depression and low self-esteem. It seems that 'Sam' might have settled on an alternative education pathway now, but reading about his self-blaming shame and his parents' guilt was really harrowing.

At the foundation of all this suffering lies an education system that is STILL not responsive to the best research, which shows that explicit, thorough phonics instruction in the first years of school is essential to give every child the best chance of mastering literacy skills. 'Whole reading,' which basically expects children to absorb reading and writing skills through osmosis. For some kids, that's enough; for others, it simply doesn't make sense. Reading is learning a code -- from letter symbols to sounds, more or less -- which it seems absurd to expect little kids to just pick up 'naturally.' It ain't natural!

In the end (as I'm sure I've already told you more than once) what worked for my daughter was a combination of LOTS of exposure to books in the form of reading aloud and audiobooks, and becoming so familiar with the Harry Potter books that when she grabbed a volume at the age of about eleven, she was able to decode it on her own. She's always been academically ambitious for herself, and she's doing really well at university, but she still finds reading exhausting, and listening to lectures exhausting -- what works for her is watching online, where she can stop the recording and take notes at her own pace (thank God for Covid lockdowns and online learning). But it's all very hard work for her, and it always will be. It would be great if she could actually get the note-taker that the university support office promised her last year, but it looks like it's not going to happen. I hope she's going to be okay, and I hope 'Sam' will be okay, and I hope all the kids who are still being let down by our educators and politicians and the inadequate teacher training and inadequate classroom resources, will all be okay.

EDIT to add that Sally Rippin was also a Third Culture Kid, and discusses her sense of not-belonging in a way that other TCKs will find very recognisable.



I surprised myself a few years ago by absolutely loving the Mindhunter Netflix series, which was (very loosely) based on this book by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. I'm not usually a fan of the gory and gruesome, and though I love a murder mystery, I'm definitely drawn to the cosy end of the spectrum. But Mindhunter fascinated me, not just with its pitch perfect 70s setting, but with its psychological depth. 

John Douglas was one of the first FBI agents to help develop the 'dark art' of psychological profiling, using the behaviour of serial murderers to pin down their identity. From the nature of the attack ('blitz', carefully planned, opportunistic), the kind of victim chosen, the treatment of the body, the scene of the crime -- all these elements provide clues about the kind of person they are dealing with. But the profilers also work out the best approach to interviewing their suspects, and the best way to trap them. Though the accounts of the murders themselves are horrifying, the care and dedication of the FBI agents is truly impressive, and eventually overcame the resistence of old-school law enforcement to this 'voodoo' approach. It still stuns me that police departments in the US are so parochial and compartmentalised, making the sharing of information across county or state lines so difficult!

This edition of Mindhunter comes with a new introduction, written twenty years after the book's first publication, in which Douglas admits some of the mistakes they made and developments in their thinking. Such honesty is refreshing, and I can understand why an author like Ellie Marney has used this as one of her primary research sources in writing her own terrific thrillers.


The Last Enchantment

The Last Enchantment is described on the cover as 'the third in the magical Merlin Trilogy,' but in fact there is a fourth volume dealing with the final days of Camelot called The Wicked Day. I'm in two minds about whether to read that one, because to my mind, The Last Enchantment rounds out Merlin's story perfectly, and I'm not sure if I want to plunge into the tragedy of Camelot's end.

Through these three books, I have loved the way that Mary Stewart has reinterpreted parts of Merlin and Arthur's legends  in a more realistic way, while not discounting completely the role of magic or supernatural powers -- for example, Merlin's bout of madness is caused by poison, and his 'magical' raising of Stonehenge is actually due to his skills as an engineer. The Last Enchantment starts rather slowly, and there is a lot of travelling -- I could have done with more magic and fewer road trips! But once Merlin settles down near Camelot, oddly, that is where the story truly came to life, with his late-life falling in love and his accidental walling-up in his own tomb while still alive. This part of the book was especially vivid and harrowing.

I have very enjoyed discovering Mary Stewart's classic version of Merlin's life, and I'm hunting down other twists on the legends of Camelot. The problem might be that there are just too many of them! I'm already revisiting Kevin Crossley-Holland's rich and poetic trilogy, and I have a YA version waiting, with a long list of others to follow. So perhaps if King Arthur is not your cup of tea, you might want to skip my blog this year!


Third Culture Kids

 I bought this book some time ago and it's languished at the bottom of my wardrobe until Penelope Lively's Oleander, Jacaranda prompted me to dig it out. Third Culture Kids describes children who have grown up in a country which is not the same as their 'home' culture -- the most common examples are probably children of military families, missionary kids, children of diplomats or international businesspeople. Sometimes they spend their childhoods in one country, sometimes they move around and have trouble putting down roots anywhere. Penelope Lively, growing up in Egypt where her father worked for a British bank, was a classic example, and I also put myself in this category, having spent most of my primary school years in PNG where my father had moved to work as a pilot.

It's interesting that when I discussed this with my mother, she was slightly sceptical, pointing out that we moved in almost exclusively Australian expat circles during our stay. Where was the culture clash? But I maintain that while she and Dad might not have experienced much of a cultural disconnect, there was definitely one for my sister and me. As Pollock and Van Reken discuss, young children are still figuring out the rules of their culture. In my case, there was one set of rules for expats and different rules for the 'locals' -- of course I was confused. And I definitely had trouble readjusting when we returned to Australia, mixing with kids who had lived in the same house in the same suburb all their lives, who had never visited a Highland village or seen warriors in traditional dress walking through the market, never used a light plane for everyday transport, never gone to a cinema where it was unquestioned that white people sat upstairs in comfortable seats while people with black skin sat downstairs on wooden benches.

But for my Australian classmates, I was weird because I hadn't seen TV for five years, didn't understand what clothes were in fashion, had never heard of swap cards or the Bay City Rollers or the Nutbush. For my parents, they had been away for a while and then returned home. For me, 'home' was less familiar than the country I'd left behind.

It's likely that since this book was first written in the 1990s, third culture kids have become more common, and Ruth Van Reken recognises that similar cultural uncertainty can be felt by 'cross cultural kids' like children of immigrants with a foot in both worlds, or being educated in a school of a different religion or culture. It might seem like a problem of privilege, and in many ways it is, and there are certainly advantages to growing up in a different country. I'm very grateful for my experience, but that period of adjustment was hard, and I'm relieved to know that I wasn't alone.


Wormwood Mire and Wakestone Hall


I read the first book in Judith Rossell's charming trilogy, Withering-by-Sea, when it first came out in 2014, but it's taken me a while to catch up with the further adventures of Stella Montgomery. I found Wormwood Mire in a street library, and then borrowed the final volume, Wakestone Hall, from the 'real' library. (At a school I visited this week, one student nominated Wormwood Mire as their 'desert island' book, so they are obviously well-loved.)

These books are beautifully produced, with delightful illustrations by Rossell herself. (Why don't kids' books have illustrations anymore? They can add so much to the reading experience! I know why, it's money.) Additionally, the hardbacks have ribbon bookmarks, and the text is produced in coloured ink -- Withering-by-Sea in blue, Wormwood Mire in green, and Wakestone Hall in purple. The whole package is a sensory pleasure to read.

A few years ago, there seemed to be a rash of books by Australian authors about magical young girls, set in Victorian England. I'm thinking of Susan Green's Verity Sparks, Jen Storer's Tensy Farlow, Karen Foxlee's A Most Magical Girl, and there may have been others. Stella Montgomery, who can fade into invisibility at will, fits neatly into this category, and each book in the series reveals a little more about her heritage until at the end of Wakestone Hall, she is fully reunited with her family (though I was a little sorry not to see more the gloriously hideous trio of aunts who made Stella's life a misery in Withering-by-Sea). I'm not sure if this was intentional, but each book in the trilogy follows a similar pattern, with Stella encountering some kind of fair or circus and becoming entangled with a villain as well as allies. I especially loved the mysterious book of silhouettes kept by the headmistress of Wakestone Hall, which enforces a chilling obedience on the girls in her charge.

These books are thoroughly delightful and wrapped up Stella's story in a very satisfying way.


Oleander, Jacaranda


A few years ago, I was browsing on Brotherhood Books when I saw Penelope Lively's childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda come up on the Recent Additions page. But by the time I'd clicked on it, it had already disappeared into someone else's cart. Ever since, I'd regarded Oleander, Jacaranda as The One That Got Away...

So you can imagine the glee (and speed) with which I pounced on this copy when it showed up. Written in 1994, this slim volume collects Lively's memories of growing up in the 1930s and 40s in colonial Egypt (though it was, strictly speaking, a Protectorate, hence appearing in the atlas with ambiguous pink stripes rather than the solid pink that denoted a full imperial possession). But this is an unusually reflective memoir, braiding together Lively's vivid but partial memories of the time with her later ruminations on what was probably actually happening -- for example, the episode when she ran into General de Gaulle in an embassy bathroom during a time when history insists that he wasn't there. She also includes musings on the nature of memory itself, stages of childhood development, the way particular memories have come to carry more symbolic weight than others, and an account of a much later visit to Egypt, in the 1980s, and the remains she discovered there.

I have some fellow feeling for Lively, as someone who also spent those formative childhood years in a very different country, unsure of her identity between two cultures, and in the sticky position of belonging to the colonial power, but as a child, in a helpless and dependent way. More of this later, as Oleander, Jacaranda sent me scurrying to dig out a book I've been hoarding for quite a while...


False Value

It's been a long time since I last read any of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series -- I think the last one was Lies Sleeping, which I got as soon as it came out, and that was more than four years ago! Consequently my grasp on the series continuity has become rather hazy -- which I gather from reading other reviews of False Value, might actually be an advantage. I haven't kept up with all the novellas and graphic novels either, so there is a lot missing from my understanding of the universe -- again, possibly a good thing!

I delayed reading False Value for so long partly because I was put off by seeing some less than enthusiastic reviews, suggesting that Aaronovitch had become distracted from the main story arc by all the side projects, and that he might have lost control of his own creation. However, I must say that I enjoyed False Value. Coincidentally, it was set in the kind of tech milieu that I recently dipped a toe into with Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and Silicon Valley -- probably not very accurate portraits of the world of tech entrepreneurs, but what would I know? There are also many, many references to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- and weirdly, purely by coincidence, my daughter suggested that we watch the 1981 TV version together at exactly the time I was reading False Value, which meant I picked up far more of the jokes than I would have otherwise (Bambleweeny, the doors saying thank you, Vogons, and literally countless others -- I'm fairly sure the tech billionaire was made an Australian purely so he could use the phrase 'dingo's kidneys.').

Since I couldn't remember very clearly what was happening plot-wise, hiccups in continuity didn't bother me the way they bothered some other readers, and anyway, False Value seems to mark the beginning of a new plot arc. Taking it page by page, I had a great time. I think I'm back on baord.


Drawn From Memory/Drawn From Life

 I can't claim any credit for finding this absolutely delightful volume, which daughter number two discovered in an op shop. She read it first and said, with total accuracy, 'I think this is your kind of book, Mum.'

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life are the autobiographical accounts of the childhood and youth of Ernest Shepard, best known as the illustrator of A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books (before the infernal Disney Corp got their hands on them and ruined them forever). These two charming books, collected in one volume, are Shepard's memories, illustrated throughout with his own pictures (including some he drew as a child, which are astoundingly good).

The first book covers a year or so of Shepard's childhood when he was about seven or eight, and the second book picks up about a year later and carries us on through his schooling, adolescence, years as an art student, and eventual marriage when he was 24. Between the two volumes lies the death of his mother, which he describes briefly in an introduction to book 2, and says it was years before the cloud of sorrow lifted. Otherwise, he doesn't dwell on her illness or loss at all, a sharp contrast to a modern misery memoir which would have talked of nothing but!

This quiet, domestic account of an Edwardian childhood brought me immense joy, though I was very sad about his mother, and also shocked to learn that his father died at the age of 56, which seems extremely young (the three children were all grown up by this time). Shepard's wife, "Pie" (Florence Chaplin), who by his account was the more talented artist of the pair, seems to have vanished from the historical record almost without a trace -- there is a lovely account of her painting a huge mural for the nurses' dining hall at St Guys Hospital, which it's a pity to have lost. This is the world of Edith Nesbit's books and it was gorgeous to see it from another angle.

Coincidentally, while my daughter was reading this, we happened to watch the film Goodbye Christopher Robin on TV, in which the character of adult Ernest Shepard makes a cameo appearance!


Gravity is the Thing

I am a big fan of Jaclyn Moriarty (disclosure: I met her about a year ago and was mute with fan-girlishness) and her very distinctive voice. It seemed a little odd at first to encounter that familiar voice in the unfamiliar context of a strictly adult novel, and it took me a couple of chapters to settle in for the ride, but once I was comfortable, what a ride it is! The trademark Jaclyn Moriarty impishness, wit and adroit plot twists are all in play, in Gravity Is The Thing, in a story that begins with an unlikely flying course and ends by being about a broken marriage, a lost brother, a beloved son (Oscar is one of the most gorgeously captured small children I have ever read) and ultimately, the power of friendship and acceptance.

There is no magic in this novel, but it's still magical. It's clever, but it's not just clever, it's touching and funny and sad. It's an exploration of unresolved grief in the form of Abigail's missing brother Robert, and a heartbreaking portrait of a marriage. It's beautiful and engaging, and it's absolutely worth pushing past the strangeness of the first couple of chapters, I promise you.


Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow


I haven't bought a book on my Kindle for so long that... I can no longer buy books on my Kindle! (But it's okay, I can buy them through my phone and they download to the Kindle -- phew!) But I was driven to it in this instance after another glowing book group recommendation (thanks, Pam); I tried to reserve it at the library but found myself at the back of a queue of 89. Clearly this book is doing something very right.

Well, Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is terrific. I have read her early novel Elsewhere, which had a killer premise and was also very successful. T&T&T is more realist but it also took me into a world I know absolutely nothing about -- the world of gaming (a place I know only hazily through watching Silicon Valley and Mythic Quest). But you don't need to know anything about playing or creating online games to appreciate this story of long and complicated friendship and love -- not romantic love -- between Sadie and Sam. It perfectly captures the particular joy of creative collaboration.

I can't remember the last time a book made me cry, but there was one chapter of T&T&T that had me weeping, possibly because it reminded me of my friend Sandra. It was beautiful and so unbearably moving, it was worth buying that book for that chapter alone. But this novel is funny and sad and fascinating, and I predict that all those 89 people in the queue will judge it's worth the wait.

Unexpected links: T&T&T and Silence of the Girls both contain references to the Greek hero Hector; T&T&T and Gravity is the Thing (more later) both contain references to Magic Eye puzzles.


The Silence of the Girls

 I was moved and enthralled by Pat Barker's World War I Regeneration trilogy in the 1990s but I haven't read much of her other work. When The Silence of the Girls was recommended by a friend, I wasn't even aware that it was about the Trojan War, but it's made a salutary contrast with The Song of Achilles, which I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Song of Achilles is a young person's novel -- bright and vivid, sexy and immersive. The Silence of the Girls is the work of a much older woman (Barker is nearly 80): a grim and bitter story, a sadder, deeper, crueller book than the other. There is some magic here, and divine trickery, but on the whole the story is far grittier, not holding back on the gore and agony of warfare. 

The Silence of the Girls told from the point of view of Briseis, a princess of Troy, who is captured and enslaved by the soldiers of the Greek camp and ends up as Achilles prize. In The Song of Achilles, she becomes a close friend of Patroclus, but never intrudes on the romance between the two male warriors; in The Silence of the Girls, she also has a loving friendship with Patroclus, but a more complicated relationship with Achilles, who uses her for sex and apparently a kind of mother substitute (Achilles in Barker's version is less straighforwardly homosexual than in Miller's novel). Though it's ostensibly the women's story, we also see a lot of the men, and the price for their posturing and pride is always paid by the women they treat as less than fully human.

I'm really glad I read this book, which sobered me up after the heady, romantic delights of Song of Achilles. There's very little glory in The Silence of the Girls, and it proves that whichever century you're writing about, war is equally dreadful, for fighters and civilians alike.


White Beech


Another book about trees. I hadn't heard anything about this book but when I saw it on Brotherhood Books (last year, before the Great Warehouse Flood), I pounced on White Beech, Germaine Greer's account of rehabilitating a patch of rainforest on the NSW/Queensland border.

I really enjoyed some parts of White Beech, as when Greer writes about her long search for a patch of land (initially she intended to buy a piece of desert) to protect and revive -- not just put a fence around it, but remove weed species and allow native plants and wildlife to reclaim the place, and also searching out the likely original species and replanting them herself. She wasn't looking for rainforest, and almost walked away, but an encounter with a little bird changed her mind. Greer has this streak of spiritual openness which is surprising in someone who presents as so hard-headed! I also loved her other encounters with animals and birds on the land and in her house (she describes antechius flattening themselves until they are like 'a credit card with a leg at each corner'), and her determination to restore this small patch of the planet to the way it was before white settlers trampled all over it, poisoned it, cut down the trees, filled it with weeds and feral beasts, and generally ruined it.

However, Greer has taken it upon herself to educate herself extensively about Australia botany. Which is great, but she insists on sharing every shred of detail she's learned with us, the readers, and we are not all necessarily as fascinated by the ins and outs of botanical history and the minute differences between different genera, species, pentioles and venation, as she is... I must admit I skimmed some of these pages, and they could have been edited quite severely without harming the book. Greer is very confident that she knows better than everyone else about pretty much everything, but my confidence in her expertise wavered when she corrected our mistaken belief that Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was a male -- something that I'm sure no-one ever believed, except possibly Greer herself.


A Most Magical Girl


I have absolutely adored Karen Foxlee's latest books, Dragonskin and Lenny's Book of Everything. A Most Magical Girl is an earlier book, from 2016, and it's a more old-fashioned story than those other novels -- it's set in Victorian London, among witches and sorcerers and trolls, and involves a sinister contraption that extracts sadness from objects (tears of grief on a handkerchief, a dead baby's shoes) to create dark magic. It's inventive and lyrical, as you'd expect from Foxlee; though she's not quite at the peak of her powers here, it's interesting to see her style in evolution.

The trio of unlikely allies, sheltered but gifted Annabel, wild Kitty and the kind troll Hafwen, are a lot of fun together as they follow their quest through the netherworld of Under London. I loved the map that appears on Annabel's skin, the gate of bones, and many other touches that lift this above a standard fantasy. A Most Magical Girl is a lovely, most magical tale.


The Hollow Hills


The Hollow Hills is the middle volume of Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, and like a lot of second volumes it's a bit saggy -- it suffers from being neither at the exciting beginning of the story nor the important ending. The Hollow Hills covers the years between baby Arthur's conception at Tintagel, and his acclamation as the young king of Britain at the age of fourteen. This is the ground covered by TH White's classic (and one of my childhood favourites) The Sword in the Stone, where young Arthur is educated by Merlin, often in funny and surprising ways, to prepare him for his destined kingship. I can understand Stewart wanting to steer clear of this territory, but it's a shame that we see so little detail of their student-teacher relationship. It is however a lovely touch that bastard Arthur believes that Merlin might be his father -- that was very poignant, and plausible, too.

There is much less overt magic in Stewart's version of Merlin. He is brilliantly intelligent, a shrewd reader of men and psychology, educated and wise (though in these books he is not very old). He has 'power' -- mostly prophecy, but he can perform sorcery when necessary, but his powers are not as great as he lets people assume. In The Hollow Hills, the famed sword Caliburn is not plucked out from the stone as happens in the traditional legend, but is discovered by Arthur in a cave (where Merlin has hidden it) and there is a bit of showmanship, orchestrated by Merlin, to win over the doubting warriors. But Arthur has already proved himself on the battlefield, as well as being acknowledged by Uther, so there is less dependence on the magic or trickery to raise him to his throne.

However, a lot of this book is taken up with political jostling and ambushes in forests, neither of which I'm especially interested in, and I felt the story was dragging in the middle somewhat. But I'm looking forward to The Last Enchantment, and toying with the idea of reading some more Arthur versions this year. Does anyone have a favourite to recommend?



I've read and enjoyed Monica Dux's weekend columns in The Age, so I fished out Lapsed from a street library expecting a 'chatty memoir' -- a genre I greatly enjoy. And while Lapsed did begin in this vein, cheerfully recounting Dux's star turn as Jesus in the school nativity play and regaling us with the eccentricities of her pious aunts, Lapsed soon became something much darker, at once more personal and more general, to reflect on the gifts and the damage inflicted by the institution of the Catholic Church.

Dux presents her research on the church objectively, but she also makes her material strike deeper by relating it to the effects on her own family. For example, her older brother was adopted -- the adoption arranged by a Catholic priest and a Catholic doctor, from a Catholic maternity home which produced babies for 'worthy' families by taking infants from unmarried women. Her brother has struggled with the legacy of his adoption all his life. Her younger brother is gay, and the Church's rejection of his sexuality caused horrible problems with his mother. Dux's father was not Catholic; he had his own reasons for disliking the church, which Dux doesn't find out until late in his life. Even the comic pious aunts reveal a story of damage at the hands of the church and its expectations of women. Examples pile up until Dux's loss of faith is totally predictable; yet she still considers herself a 'cultural Catholic' and admits that she misses some aspects of her upbringing.

It was extraordinary timing that I was in the middle of this book when news broke that Cardinal George Pell had died. For the next few days, the airwaves and news feeds were filled with discussions about Pell's alleged guilt and complicity in child abuse, countered with vigorous claims of his greatness and even sainthood. It seems clear that at the very least Pell was aware of the abuse perpetrated by priests under his control and failed to act to protect vulnerable children. It's hard to defend any institution that has caused such pain to so many, and Lapsed only reinforces the many flaws of the church. Despite many laughs along the way, I closed this book with a heavy heart.


Head First


As frequently happens these days, I was alerted to this book by Susan Green and immediately ordered it in at the library. Head First is subtitled A Psychiatrist's Stories of Mind and Body, which is a very accurate description. Having worked for years as a physician in hospitals before becoming a psychiatrist, Alistair Santhouse is in a good position to assess how mind and body intertwine. I was struck by his observation that we often seek medical explanations of physical -- I was going to say symptoms, but that in itself implies a larger Something Wrong -- sensations might be a better word, perhaps? when sometimes there is no physical explanation, or the true culprit is a state of mind rather than a disease. 

Santhouse's account of the spiral of ever more tests and scans producing diminishing returns, perhaps ruling out one explanation, but not settling on a definite cause, reminded me of Atal Gawande's Being Mortal, where he described how treatments can also spiral endlessly while producing less benefit each time. It seems it's easy to become trapped in the medical cycle, whether at the stage of diagnosis or treatment, but so difficult to extract oneself.

Santhouse's stories of individual patients are fascinating and often moving, and they don't all have happy endings. He is especially insightful when he criticises the shortcomings of the hospital system -- overworked staff, a loss of team spirit, a lack of care and empathy for staff that trickles down to patients. There is even a final chapter reflecting on Covid. A thoughtful, wise and intriguing read.


Three Thin Books

I'm going to talk about these three books together because I read them all at the same time, they are all very short, and weirdly, they ended up sharing some of the same themes.

Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall by Gabrielle Carey is a meditation on reading, focusing on the intimate relationship between reader and writer. It turns out that Ivan Southall, though he was an inspiration to many young readers and made a point of replying thoughtfully to every piece of fan mail he received, was a bit of a prick to his own family and children and not really a very nice human being. Carey, who adored his books as a child, wrestles with this contradiction and finds her attitude to his work tainted by what she learns about his life -- with fresh eyes, she sees misogyny in his female characters, clunky writing, and simplistic, bullying adult characters, although Southall surely gained his insight into the demands of traditional masculinity and feelings of abandonment from his own sad life history. Ultimately Carey wonders if the intense and intimate relationship between writer and reader can become a substitute for messier real-life relationships -- she's convinced that Southall found solace in writing to and for his young readers, and she also suspects that she herself retreated into books as an escape from reality. I'm not sure how much I agree with this thesis, though there may be some truth in it.

In Sister of the Angels, a Christmas fable by Elizabeth Goudge, featuring the same cast of characters as City of Bells and Henrietta's House, a similar question is raised: who is the 'real' person, the artist who creates wonderful images, or the flawed human being who has sinned? I'm not sure this question even makes any sense, what does 'real' mean anyway, and perhaps we have to accept that humans can be both creators of great art and despicable people at the same time? But because this is Goudge, this is a story of redemption, repentance and rebirth into a new life through the power of creation, which might work for the character of Nicolas Broadbent the artist, but perhaps it's too late for Ivan Southall.

Finally, the adult novel Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, which my husband picked up for me in a street library because we'd watched the recent movie adaptation -- I have to say the book was better than the film! Honestly it did seem to me like a very male idea to invent this 1920s maidservant wandering naked around the empty mansion (while we watch her) -- it didn't sound particularly comfortable to me! But the crossover point with the other two books was the the maidservant character, Jane, who later becomes a writer, falls in love with the works of Joseph Conrad in the same way that Gabrielle Carey fell in love with Ivan Southall's book, and so we came full circle. Mothering Sunday is also an exploration of the intersection of fiction and reality, and the invention and re-invention of the self.

I suppose the more I read, the more likely it is that I'll pick out points of similarity, but I really wasn't expecting these three very different books to each approach this topic from differing angles. Synchronicity!


It Sounded Better in My Head & Unnecessary Drama


Oh, my God, these books are SO GOOD! I read Unnecessary Drama first -- correction, I gulped down Unnecessary Drama like a cool glass of homemade lemonade on a hot day: tangy, refreshing, familiar and delicious -- familiar in the best way, in that it reminded me of the way my own family and friends speak and act, and it's set in Melbourne, so very much in my own backyard. 

Then I read It Sounded Better in My Head, which won the Text Prize, and that was just as good. Nina Kenwood is a youngish writer (she's just had her first baby) and her own adolescence is not too far behind her. Both these books are set in what we briefly called the New Adult window -- young adults who are post-school but not yet completely grown up (if anyone ever is) -- just starting uni, moving out of home, navigating their first serious relationships, beginning to separate from their families. 

Both these books are very sweet and funny and poignant. Kenwood does self-deprecation extremely well, her characters are smart and insecure and self-aware. What's not to love?? These are books that i wish I'd written myself and I can't wait for more.



Niki Savva's Bulldozed, about the fall of the Morrison government and the Labor party's win at the last federal election, was a Christmas treat for myself -- a chance to indulge my ScoMo outrage all over again. It's almost unbelievable to look back now at what Savva, a veteran Canberra journalist, calls 'the worst prime minister I have ever seen,' and marvel that he ever got into power in the first place. I know that for me, the experience of the pandemic meant that I paid more attention to government than ever before -- Dan Andrew's daily press conferences, Scott Morrison's claim that getting hold of vaccines wasn't 'a race' (which it totally was), the whole whirlwind of the JobKeeper program (which my husband was involved in, so I was regularly eavesdropping on work Zoom meetings about it)... a lot of that seems like a dream now, a nightmare that we woke from in May when we found ourselves with actual adults in charge.

Reading Bulldozed I found myself shaking my head -- the moment when Morrison crash-tackled a little boy in a rugby game, 'I don't hold a hose,' the secret trip to Hawaii as bushfires raged, the seamy links to Hillsong, the lies, the storm of bullshit and obfuscation, the refusal to act, the refusal to take responsibility for anything -- I can't say I exactly enjoyed Bulldozed but it was certainly a relief to reflect that it's all over now. Definitely worth reminding ourselves that we must never let it happen again. 

There are also some heartening portraits of Anthony Albanese and his team, who, unlike the last lot, all seem to be decent and intelligent who genuinely want to make the world a better place. They won't be perfect, and they've already done some things I don't agree with, but gee, they are coming off a very low base.


The Things They Carried

Again, lots of different editions of this book, which I gather is a curriculum text, but unfortunately not the cover I have, so I'll make do with this one. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried was a recommendation (and loan) from my younger daughter, who discovered the author via some Vietnam War episodes he write for one of her favourite TV shows. It's a short, but sophisticated and challenging book, a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War and its aftermath (from the American point of view). 

O'Brien briefly served in Vietnam and it's clearly an experience that has haunted him ever since; at one point in these stories he reflects that he's been able to use his writing to process his memories, a technique that's not been available to all his fellow soldiers. These linked stories feature the same cast of characters, including a version of O'Brien himself, and some of the same events, which he circles back around to view from different angles, changing some details, admitting inventing some elements and disguising others, so that the book itself parallels the confused, searing, obsessive experience of the vet's own painful memories, as well as a meditation of writing itself. How much is pure autobiography, how much is imagination? We can't know for sure.

The Things They Carried veers (again, like the experience of fighting the war itself, I suspect) between gallows humour, slapstick, poignant emotion and ghastly imagery (there is one story in particular I wish I hadn't read). But as a way of bearing witness to the unspeakable horrors, the bonds and deep emotions of war, The Things They Carried is probably as close as most of us are going to get.


The Crystal Cave

Looking for a cover image for this post, I saw many, many editions of this book. And rightly so, because The Crystal Cave is a very accomplished and absorbing and beautifully written version of the legend of King Arthur, this time told from the viewpoint of the sorcerer Merlin.

I fell in love with the Arthur story at first through the novels of TH White, then through Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (though that particular novel has been ruined for me after learning about Bradley's disturbing personal history). But Mary Stewart's trilogy, published in the 1970s, has become a classic re-telling. Stewart's Merlin does have magical powers, especially the power of prophecy, but his magic is exaggerated by the population, who fear and revere him. I must admit that the battle scenes and sword fights, of which there are quite a few, were not so interesting to me as the personal relationships and the growth of Merlin's legend. (In this telling, Merlin does raise the stones of Stonehenge, but with sound engineering rather than pure magic.)

The Crystal Cave ends just where the Arthur legend really begins, with King Uther sneaking into Tintagel to meet Igraine, disguised as her husband (with Merlin's help), and the conception of the child who will become King Arthur. I've now embarked on the next volume, The Hollow Hills, which picks up exactly where The Crystal Cave finishes, and I'm looking forward to finishing the rest of the trilogy.


The Killing Code

Making a valiant attempt to keep pace with my reading here -- damn the holidays with extra reading time...

So. A gang of brave, smart young women working together to solve murders? Set in the US equivalent of Bletchley Park? During the Second World War? With gorgeous, loving described outfits? Written by Ellie Marney, Australian YA crime queen? YES PLEASE.

The Killing Code lived up to all my expectations. One thing I really like about Marney's books is that, although she doesn't shy away from the horrific nature of the crimes she describes, she doesn't linger graphically on the injuries inflicted, but leaves them to the reader's imagination. So you're not left with horrible mental pictures haunting you. I appreciate that. I do not like crime-porn, or whatever the term is, and gruesome descriptions have put me off other crime novels in the past.

The setting was evocative, with just enough detail to give us a vivid picture of what code breaking must have really been like. Race relations of the time are also faced squarely, with the inclusion of clever, resourceful Violet, who really shouldn't be segregated in a separate hut with the other Black girls. Ooh, I nearly forgot, there is a smouldering lesbian romance here, too, as an extra bonus. And the clothes... I wanted to own them all.

The Killing Code was a super read. But I've come to expect nothing less from Ellie Marney.


This Much is True

Just look at that gorgeous face: twinkly, cheeky, filled with character and verve. And that is just what this autobiography is like, too -- imagine having Miriam sit beside you on the couch and tell stories about her long, fascinating life. But not just stories about famous people, some lovely, some absolute shits (as Miriam herself would say without hesitation), but very personal, reflective details about her life, her family and her experiences. 

As we all know by now, Miriam (I feel I have to call her that, rather than Margolyes) is not afraid of a swear word or two, and these are sprinkled liberally throughout This Much is True, and a number of the anecdotes are frankly sexual, so prudish readers should beware. Having said that, my 86 year old mother and 80 year old mother-in-law both wolfed this book down with enormous relish, so make of that what you will.

Miriam, despite being, as she says, a short fat lesbian, has rarely been out of acting work, and became globally famous as a result of playing Professor Sprout in a couple of Harry Potter films. She began her career in the Cambridge Footlights, where the male members of the troupe treated her appallingly (the only one to apologise in later years was Tim Brooke-Taylor -- I always liked him the best). And I feel proud that this forthright, endlessly curious and adventurous woman has chosen Australia as her home. We are lucky indeed to have her.


The Bullet That Missed


The measure of the popularity of Richard Osman's absolutely delightful Thursday Murder Club series can be clearly seen in the ridiculous reserve list that's built up at my local library. I thought I was hard done by when I joined the list at no. 57 -- today I see that there are still 68 people waiting to read The Bullet That Missed (so I'd better hurry up and return it).

Still, it was worth the wait. The third volume in the series lives up to all my eager expectations. The plotting is as tight, the humour just as witty, the characters are all as lively and wonderful company as ever. I'm particularly fond of Elizabeth, with her mysterious dark past and her determination to keep her husband Stephen (slowly succumbing to dementia) with her for as long as she can. Flirtatious, shrewd Joyce is loads of fun too. Scholarly Ibrahim and ex-union leader Ron took more of a back seat in this novel -- I've started hearing Ron's voice as that of Alistair Campbell from The Rest Is Politics podcast, I'm not sure how either of them would feel about that!

As the kids say, no notes! I could honestly read twenty volumes of The Thursday Murder Club with total joy, but alas, apparently there is only one more volume to come. I will mourn them all and if there isn't a happy ending I will be extremely cross. If anyone dies, I will be very cross indeed.


A City Out of Sight

I felt a shot of excitement when I spotted Ivan Southall's A City Out of Sight in the secondhand book shop -- To the Wild Sky: Book Two. I didn't even know there was a Book Two! 'The long-awaited continuation' said the cover blurb -- A City Out of Sight was published in 1984, sixteen years after the first book. Sixteen years is a long time to leave six young castaways languishing on a beach beside a crashed plane and a dead pilot; I couldn't wait to see what happened next.

Unfortunately, A City Out of Sight is... not very good. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character -- born-to-rule Gerald, secretly Aboriginal Carol, sensitive Colin, domestic Jan -- but they all share a similarly agitated, almost hysterical stream-of-consciousness style. The action takes place over a day or two, but there is a coda that suggests that the six young people make an implausibly terrific success of their dilemma.

I couldn't quite suspend my disbelief in the narrative of this story. Southall's most gripping books rely on their realism, even when their protagonists find themselves in the most extreme circumstances -- fire, flood, plane crash -- but A City Out of Sight stretched the extremes to breaking point, and the characters unfortunately began to seem like caricatures rather than the nuanced personalities of the earlier books.

In writing this post, I discovered a book by Gabrielle Carey called Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall -- intriguing! I think I'll have to track that one down.


Reading Round Up 2022


I made more time for reading in 2022 -- yes, amazingly, it seems I can squeeze even more reading into my life than I already was. Extraordinary. I read 150 books last year, and the breakdown is as follows:

Male v female authors

One again, women authors greatly outnumber men, though not by such a huge margin as in the past. This has to be put down to unconscious bias, I don't knowingly favour female authors when I'm looking for books but somehow I seem to lean that way. I didn't read any books by non-binary authors this year.

Adult vs kids/YA

I think the proportion of children's and young adult books versus books written for adults was almost exactly the same last year as it was for 2021!

Fiction v non-fiction

A bit more non-fiction in 2022, making an exact 60/40 split. Some of the best books I read last year were non-fiction, and in general, my new library habit meant I could get hold of books I was eager to read much more easily. Hooray for libraries!

Book source

Woah!! The library is back, baby! More than half the books I read in 2022 came from good old Darebin Libraries. My second hand book addiction is still alive and well, but some of the titles I read last year came from my (still enormous) lockdown stash, which I'm trying valiantly to make a dent in. Fifteen books were re-reads from my own shelves (mostly Arthur Ransome), seven were bought new and eight were borrowed from friends or family. For the first time in several years, I didn't read a single book on the Kindle. Death of the e-book? We shall see...


In the past, fully half the books I read have come from British authors. In 2022, there was a huge lift in Australian authors; they came neck and neck with the Brits. Oddly, the percentage of US authors remained about the same. And last year, when I gave up consciously trying to read authors from non-Anglophone countries, I clocked up m best ever total (still not very impressive, though): one each from France, China, New Zealand (whoops, they are Anglophone, aren't they), Finland and Nigeria.

Notable reads of 2022

My favourite children's book of last year was Karen Foxlee's Dragonskin, and I also greatly enjoyed re-reading all Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series. I seemed to read a lot of English middle grade books about World War II, by Hilary McKay, Jill Paton Walsh, Jamila Gavin and Lucy Strange -- some better than others. I also loved Fiona Wood's How To Spell Catastrophe.

Fiction highlights included Richard Osman's Thursday Murder Club series -- what a delight! Apparently there will be only one more book to follow, which is very sad. I read more Elizabeth Goudge novels, though they weren't as good, on the whole, as last year's crop. I loved Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles and Alan Garner's strange, elliptical Treacle Walker. The ever-reliable Ellie Marney supplied two rippers in None Shall Sleep and The Killing Code

Non-fiction by Australian women was very strong: Bri Lee's Eggshell Skull, Ellis Gunn's Rattled, Chloe Hooper's Bedtime Story and Sarah Krasnostein's The Believer were particular standouts. However, my absolute favourite was Tabitha Carvan's This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch which was funny and wise and totally enjoyable. Honourable non-fiction mentions go to all the books about writing that I read last year -- some helped, some didn't -- and a pair of laugh-out-loud memoirs: This Much is True by Miriam Margolyes, smutty, gutsy and hilarious, and My Year of Living Biblically, a surprisingly philosophical journey by AJ Jacobs.

Oh crikey, what a lot of highlights... But I did read an awful lot of books. Looking forward to sharing a new year just as full of reading -- oh, and did I mention I have a new book coming out soon, too?