The Time of the Ghost

The Time of the Ghost is one of my favourite Diana Wynne Jones novels. It has a truly intriguing beginning -- we are inside the consciousness of a bodiless being, speeding along a country lane, knowing only that 'something has gone wrong, there's been an accident.' This ghostly being doesn't know who or where she is, and only gradually remembers details about her home and family; however, things remain fuzzy to the point where she is not sure until almost the end of the book which of the four Melford sisters she might be.

The plot is slightly tricky, involving swoops back and forth in time as well as the identity muddle, but as usual with Diana Wynne Jones the underlying concept is solid as a rock. Somehow these children have accidentally revived an ancient and bloodthirsty presence, they have pledged their lives to her in jest, but now Monigan has come to claim her due, and she is deadly serious. The struggles of the 'ghost' to understand what is happening parallels the gradual comprehension of the reader, and the agonising (and sometimes very funny) battle to communicate the situation to her oblivious siblings, is tremendously satisfying. And the stakes are as high as they could be.

Diana Wynne Jones often treads a fine line between confusing and cleverly twisty, which means that her books reward re-reading. I loved The Time of the Ghost even more the second time around.


Dark Quartet

When Dark Quartet came up on Brotherhood Books I was intrigued. I'd never come across this 1976 novelisation of the lives of the tortured Bronte siblings by the author of The L-Shaped Room and The Indian in the Cupboard. Dark Quartet follows the Bronte family from early childhood until (spoilers!) the death of Anne, which left Charlotte the only remaining child out of the original six. Banks continues the story of Charlotte's later life and literary success in the sequel, Path to the Silent Country.

I had some trouble initially immersing myself in this novel, which is written in a fairly high flown style and with some dialogue reproduced from letters and other original sources. But gradually I found myself carried away by the intensity of the story. I already knew the bare facts pretty well, but there was something compelling about living through it with them which made their awful history so much more vivid. The power of fiction, eh? Who knew?

Branwell in particular had always been a shadowy figure to me, much as in the famous portrait in which he painted out his own image. But Dark Quartet paints a stark picture of his disturbed and unhappy life, complete with what seems to be a gang rape by a gang of Irish labourers, and paedophile tendencies, as well as an ill-conceived passion for his married employer. I'm really not sure how much of this, if any, is based on fact, but whatever the case, for the first time I appreciated the central place that Branwell filled in the family, and the misery of his loss. It's easy to focus just on the three gifted sisters and forget about the equally creative (if possibly less talented) brother.

Dark Quartet definitely brought to dramatic life the family dynamics and the stuttering attempts of the sisters to gain employment. Literary success arrives only at the very end of this novel, and is immediately undercut by the heart-rending parade of deaths that left only Charlotte and her father alone at the parsonage. I've always been more of an Austen fan than a Bronte girl, and I prefer Charlotte to Emily, but Dark Quartet has left me with a deeper fascination for the whole family. Banks writes particularly well of the siblings' imaginary worlds, a difficult topic to handle; Dark Quartet is light on the details but emphasises the obsessive and addictive nature of their 'plays.'



I've developed a fascination with old Australian children's books that address the issue of Aboriginal people and their place in the nation. Unfortunately many of them take the attitude that First Nations people are facing an inevitable decline, tragic as that may be -- and extraordinarily, that is true even of Manganinnie, which was published as late as 1979. Bizarrely, it was translated into French and Japanese, and won the French children's book of the year in 1986. It was also made into a film, which to my astonishment was easily found on SBS (I watched a few minutes but the technicolour costumes gave me a headache).

I cannot imagine a contemporary child reading this book. On one level, it's quite a lovely story, following old Manganinnie as she moves through the year and the landscape, searching for her vanished
 people after the 'Black Drive' of 1830. Along the way, from loneliness and fear of all her knowledge being lost, she kidnaps a white toddler who stays with her for three years. There are some narrow escapes for the outlaw pair, and encounters with various animals, but on the whole it's quite an uneventful journey, lyrically described, but shot through with the sorrow and desolation of Manganinnie, alone in the wilderness and with the white settlers always drawing closer.

There is an air of tragic inevitability to Manganinnie's experience, and while she is sympathetically portrayed (by the white author) and many words of language are sprinkled through the narrative, there is never any doubt that these are the old woman's final days. I suspect this attitude still survives in pockets of this country; even though some people may draw the line at the physical extermination or dying out of First Nations people, they certainly see no place for their culture or beliefs in a modern Australia. For that reason, I'm glad that Manganinnie is no longer on the shelf of the op shop where some unsuspecting young person might actually read it.


The Bannerman Shortlist

Full disclosure: Colin Batrouney is a friend of a friend and we used to live in the same apartment block (I once suspected him of pinching my volumes of Mitford letters which mysteriously disappeared at that time -- if they did end up in your possession, Colin, I'll take them back, no questions asked...)

The Bannerman Shortlist has a cracker of a premise. Six novels are shortlisted for a prestigious prize, but the current heir to the Bannerman fortune has vanished without a trace (much like my Mitford books). While we follow the mystery of Gideon Bannerman's disappearance through the efforts of his lifelong best friend, and Chair of the prize, Tasha Moubray, we also meet each of the six short-listed authors and glimpse their works. So in a way this book is like one of those collections of linked short stories that I adore.

Batrouney has researched the behind the scenes machinations of awards committees, and as I suspected, the eventual winner ends up being a compromise when the prize givers are stubbornly split on the merits of other titles. However, who ends up winning isn't really the point, it's the diverting, moving, amusing and shocking journey along the way that makes this such a satisfying novel. One author, mired in grief, wants to withdraw from the list; a debut author is terrified; a popular author is distracted by a personal discovery that drives the possibility of winning (always remote) completely out of his head.

For me, The Bannerman Shortlist was marred only by a consistently eccentric use of commas, whether because of the author or an editor I'm not sure. But please don't let that quibble put you off. The Bannerman Shortlist is a terrific book.


Fighting on the Home Front

I picked up this large print edition from the library reject trolley for $1, and it's one of the best dollars I've spent. Kate Adie is a former chief news correspondent for the BBC and has spent a lot of time in war zones, so she really understands the gritty and gory detail of war. However, Fighting on the Home Front : The Legacy of Women in World War One spends more time back in the UK, examining the myriad contributions made by women in supporting the war effort, both directly and indirectly.

Of course many women did their bit on the battlefield, as nurses, drivers, entertainers, and many more stepped into fill the vacancies left by male soldiers, working in ammunition factories as 'munitionettes,' building tanks, farming, making ropes and nets, or informally working (without pay!) knitting, organising, fund raising, even playing football. Apart from nursing and knitting, all these efforts were greeted with disquiet, anxiety, and outright hostility, along with many protests that this work would only be necessary 'for the duration.' Even when women proved that they were more than capable of operating heavy machinery, driving buses or running hospitals, there was no question that they would be expected (allowed?) to continue doing so after the war was over. 

Even the 'reward' for patriotic and humanitarian service, the granting of the vote, was a mixed gift. The vote was given to women over thirty-five, thus excluding the younger women who had carried out a lot of the actual work in factories etc for which women were supposedly being recognised. Kate Adie is an intelligent, humorous and wise companion on this fascinating journey, and along the way I met many other women whose stories should be more widely known, like Flora Sandes, who actually picked up a gun and fought with the Serbian troops, surgeon Elsie Inglis, and Mabel Stobart, who created all-women medical units who worked on the battle lines.

Definitely worth reading.


A Harp of Fishbones

In my youth I met a grand total of two authors -- but what a pair. One was the legendary Alan Garner (a select group of English students were driven into the city to attend a talk at the Little Bookroom, and my friend actually asked him a question (I was too shy); and the other was Joan Aiken, also at the Little Bookroom. I still treasure my signed copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which was one of the top ten formative books of my childhood. But even before I discovered Willoughby Chase, I had adored her short stories, especially the collections All You Ever Wanted and More Than You Asked For, which I borrowed repeatedly from the Mt Hagen library.

A Harp of Fishbones is another collection of short stories -- patchy, as collections are apt to be, but there are some gems here. My favourite tale was 'Mrs Nutti's Fireplace', which features repeat characters the Armitage family, a transposed room which overlooks a mysterious city, and a griffin's egg! How strange that you can go years without reading about a single griffin's egg, and then two books come along at once that revolve around them (see The Pinhoe Egg).

Most of these stories have a fairytale quality. 'Humblepuppy' stars a sweet, invisible ghost puppy (yes please) and 'The Dark Streets of Kimball's Green' is quite eerie. None of these stories quite matches my all-time favourite, 'A Room Full of Leaves', which elevates the idea of a family tree into a new dimension -- and is no relation to Kate Grenville's novel. I'm not sure I'll ever succeed in collecting all Joan Aiken's work, she was extremely prolific, but I'm happy to add A Harp of Fishbones to my shelves.


The Exiles in Love

Hilary McKay is a favourite current English children's writer. Recently I've loved her war novels, The Skylarks' War and The Swallows' Flight, and before that I fell in love with her series about the creative, chaotic Casson family. The Exiles are earlier books, centred on the four Conroy sisters. I already had The Exiles and The Exiles at Home, but spotting The Exiles in Love in the op shop was a surprise, I didn't know it existed.

The Exiles are less feverishly eccentric than the Casson family, but they are still delightfully unpredictable and often very funny. The Exiles in Love firmly wraps up their story in some obscure packaging that is revealed at the end to be the two oldest sisters reminiscing about the past at a wedding. Some readers feel that this third volume is the weakest of the trilogy, but I enjoyed the eruption of the 'family failing' (falling in love with unsuitable people), the impulsive trip to France that proves that even Big Grandma is not immune, charming Philippe (I almost fell in love with him myself), and the mysterious back story between Big Grandma and the Caradocs. 

I must confess I do find it tricky to tell the four sisters apart sometimes, I find it hard to see them clearly as individuals, but probably by the third novel McKay herself could see them so clearly that she didn't think to pop some hints into the text for the less attentive reader. I think reluctant upper primary readers would have a lot of fun hanging out with the Exiles.


From Here On, Monsters

From Here On, Monsters was a recommendation from someone in the Chat 10, Looks 3 Facebook group -- not recommended to me, but to another Chatter looking for books about translation. From Here On, Monsters is partly about translation, but it's also about so much more, and I'm astonished that I haven't heard of it since its publication in 2019.

From Here On, Monsters is a clever and unsettling novel. The narrator, Cameron, is working in a second hand bookshop in an anonymous city (which sounds very much like Melbourne) when she lands a weird job for a controversial artist doing 'words.' It transpires that Cameron is coming up with the kind of bureaucratic non-speak that we have all become very used to over the past few years, like referring to refugees as 'illicit maritime arrivals,' stripping them of their personhood. Although there is an edge of satire to this part of the story, we shouldn't forget that it probably is someone's actual job to come up with this bland, inhuman language, just as it was someone's job to come up with the cruel abomination of the robodebt scheme.

From Here On, Monsters also encompasses ideas about doubles and mirror images, translated texts, art and plaigarism, colonisation and invasion, the transmission of ideas, and the complicity of silence. It slides into the territory of magic realism with the presence of a ravening monster on the roof of Cameron's building, one which feeds on the homeless refugees sheltering there (an allegory for depressive suicide?), and at the end of the story, the project Cameron is working on ('Excising Our Hearts') becomes so successful that people, including Cameron herself, become literally unable to see the displaced people that they no longer possess words to describe.

This is a short but chilling read, drawing on elements of fantasy and 1984-style dystopian fiction to make a harrowing point about lack of compassion for asylum seekers. It reminded me a bit of Piranesi in its adventurous approach. Some readers have found the very end of the novel confusing (I would have appreciated a little more clarity, too) but don't let that put you off -- this is an extraordinary and thought-provoking novel, which I suspect will haunt me for a long time.


The Lost Library

Rebecca Stead is one of my favourite current children's authors. She combines clever, twisty plots with warm, vulnerable characters, and The Lost Library wraps these ingredients in an appealing package with the love of books, a gifted cat, some ghosts and family secrets. I don't know Wendy Mass but she and Stead evidently work beautifully together.

The Lost Library is a perfect Christmas book for primary aged lovers of books and mysteries. It's lovely to see the little street library, which became so crucial during lockdowns, playing a central role in the story. I especially loved the character of AL (the Assistant Librarian) even if she did seem to have wandered in from a book of a previous century (or two). And there is a nice dig at helicopter parenting! The Lost Library is a delight.


Stand Up and Speak Out Against Racism

The story of Yassmin Abdel-Magied's appalling treatment by Australian media is a cautionary tale about speaking out while being brown-skinned in this country. After what some might consider a pretty innocuous tweet on Anzac Day in 2017 ("Lest We Forget. Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine..."), this young former Australian of the Year was relentlessly trolled, hounded and received death threats, backed by the vocal disapproval of mainstream journalists and politicians. Abdel-Magied fled to London, where she has lived ever since. What a loss to Australian society, that this smart, arrticulate young woman doesn't feel welcome here anymore.

Stand Up and Speak Out Against Racism was published in the UK but it has clear relevance in Australia too, and Abdel-Magied is well qualified to discuss the topic. This book is aimed at younger readers, with many reassurances along the way -- yes, this stuff is difficult to talk about, yes, it's okay to feel overwhelmed. There are simple explanations of colonialism and power dynamics, and the insidious mechanisms of racism. Helpfully, there are practical tips and tricks for questioning that potentially racist uncle at a Christmas BBQ (why is that joke funny? Can you explain it to me? Why do you think that?) and supporting targets of public racist abuse (don't confront the abusers unless you feel safe to do so; instead, start talking to the targeted person).

This is a colourful, vibrantly illustrated and clear book on an uncomfortable subject. Though it's intended for kids, many adults would benefit from reading this, too.


The Pinhoe Egg

The final Chrestomanci book in my bundle, and one I hadn't read before. The Pinhoe Egg, like many Diana Wynne Jones books, builds slowly, as she carefully lays the foundation for the climax to come, each piece of the puzzle precisely placed for the later payoff.

It was nice to have a prominent female protagonist in Marianne, and I really adored Klartch, the baby griffin. Millie has quite a big role in this book as well, which for once sees Chrestomanci in his own backyard instead of roaming through the multiple worlds. The rival village families are all pretty nasty, though just how nasty isn't revealed until the end -- I was horrified that Gammer Norah was planning to release smallpox. And, as usual, there is a charismatic cat to reckon with: Nutcase can even walk through walls!

I wish Chrestomanci would come and sort out our world's problems with magic, he is such a wonderful character with his vague stare and incredible dressing-gowns. I have enjoyed visiting and revisiting his universe so much, I think I'll have to reread the rest of my Wynne Jones collection.


The Other End of the Leash

The Other End of the Leash was a street library find, written by Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviour specialist who owns four dogs and has worked with hundreds of others. She has some amazing insights about the clash between our human/primate ways of behaving, and the preferences of dogs/canids. For example, we humans love to interact face-to-face, and to embrace chest to chest. But for dogs, this is deeply uncomfortable -- their natural preference is for side-by-side company. It's true, if you leave it up to the dog, she will snuggle by your side, and they can find staring into their eyes confrontational, though we might experience this as loving. 

McConnell has similar tips to offer about behavioural training, emphasising dogs' preferred behaviour. For instance, if you want to persuade a dog to come to you, it's better (if counter-intuitive for a human) to turn away from the dog, which will encourage it to follow you; moving toward the dog, which most of us would do instinctively, will only encourage it to move away from you (dogs love chasing). We humans also insist on repeating ourselves; if Spot doesn't obey our command to 'sit,' we're likely to just keep saying 'sit, sit, sit' in a more agitated, louder voice, which the dog will just hear as the equivalent of excited barking.

However, I was just as interested in her stories about the differences in her own dogs' personalities and ways of relating to each other -- she owns three Border Collies, all of different temperaments, and a Great Pyrenees, a breed I hadn't come across before. McConnell writes movingly of the death of a previous dog, and the night-long vigil she and her other dogs held with the body. Each dog had a different reaction to the dead dog's body -- one ignored it completely, one sniffed it all over in utter confusion, one recoiled in seeming horror and distress. Absolutely fascinating.


The Tea Ladies

Hm, do I notice a slight resemblance between the covers of The Tea Ladies and The Thursday Murder Club? There seems to be an emerging style for warm-hearted, cosy mystery stories. The Tea Ladies also has a group of four ill-assorted colleagues who are trying to solve the mystery, though in this instance they are a club of tea ladies: shrewd, sensible Hazel, scatty Betty, unkempt Irene with her criminal connections, and prim, judgey Merl (who soon turns out to be untrustworthy).

I really enjoyed The Tea Ladies and I love the idea that tea ladies know their firms inside out, being privy to secrets behind all doors and on all floors. There is added interest in that the novel is set in Sydney in 1965, in Surry Hills rag trade district, just at the moment that Jean Shrimpton tears up the rule book by wearing a mini-dress to the stuffy Melbourne Cup. How will the traditional dress firms respond?

There is quite a bit going on here, with the missing lady, the murder, the fire, the lying husband, the circus, the night club owner, the dodgy account books, the fashion revolution and the Russians. But Hazel herself is hiding another secret that took me by surprise -- and I pride myself on being able to spot this particular issue from a mile away. It certainly helps to explain why someone as smart and savvy as Hazel has ended up as a tea lady (not that there's anything wrong with that). The Tea Ladies is a lot of fun, and I wonder if Amanda Hampson is brewing up a sequel? (See what I did there...)


Conrad's Fate

Conrad's Fate was new to me (published in 2005) and it was heaps of fun. It started a little slowly but as usual, when Chrestomanci appeared, the story immediately took off. Actually Chrestomanci is not yet Chrestomanci in this book, he is still plain Christopher Chant, aged fifteen, but he is as self-possessed, charming and inventive as ever. Searching for a runaway Millie, he finds himself in the same world, and vying for the same job, as hapless Conrad (a rare first person narrator), both serving as trainee footmen at a huge castle which is plagued by periodic shifts in reality. This might result in all the postboxes turning from red to blue, or different books appearing on a shelf, and is known as 'pulling the probabilities.' Inevitably, money is revealed to be the reason behind all this -- in some ways, all the worlds of Chrestomanci can be depressingly similar.

Weirdly, just as I was reading Conrad's Fate, I started watching a TV series (based on a novel) called Shining Girls, where reality undergoes unexpected sideways shifts in an almost identical way. It's really quite spooky.

I do find it slightly odd that Diana Wynne Jones so rarely creates female central protagonists; though she often has interesting female characters, they're not often in the hero's role. Not a complaint, just an observation.


Across the Barricades

So this was the missing volume in my Kevin and Sadie series -- I'd picked up The Twelfth Day of July from Brotherhood Books, and found volumes 3, 4 and 5 in a street library. But Across the Barricades is the crucial book, the linchpin on which the whole series turns. This is the book where Kevin and Sadie, three years on from The Twelfth Day of July, meet again and become a couple.

Now Kevin is eighteen going on nineteen, and Sadie (I think) is sixteen or seventeen. Their relationship is very innocent: they go for walks up the hill, they catch the bus to the seaside, and eventually they meet each other at Sadie's former teacher's house, where she has a job as a cleaner. But the opposition they face, as a Catholic boy and Protestant girl, is fierce. Kevin is beaten up, Sadie is the subject of cruel gossip, but in the end it's their friend Mr Blake who pays the highest price for their love.

This is a very unsentimental book, in fact no one does use the word love. Deaths  and injuries mostly happen off screen. The most romantic line we get is when Sadie and Kevin admit they 'feel right' together. Knowing the difficulties they will face in the future, and the troubles they are leaving behind, it really is miraculous that they stick together, but the reader never doubts their loyalty to each other. In the later books, the Troubles are mostly far away, but this book brings them to shocking life. No wonder they decided to run away. 

I'm really happy to have collected the whole set, though I'm not sure the later books, when Kevin and Sadie are married with kids, even count as young adult! But these two always seem older than their years. Even at the start of Across the Barricades, they are both out of school and working for their living. At first I wondered if contemporary young people could relate to this world -- but then, they are well aware of conflict elsewhere. Recast Kevin and Sadie as an Israeli and a Palestinian, and it would be the same story today.



I bought Quicksands in the first flush of my Sybille Bedford infatuation, after devouring Jigsaw, her semi-autobiographical novel about her childhood and youth mostly in the south of France. Well, Quicksands is described as 'A Memoir' and it covers a lot of the same material, except this time (written twenty years later) using real names. It's interesting that she describes her writing method as pretty much just typing whatever's in her head (her eyesight is very poor) without planning or revision, because it certainly does read that way, as if she's sitting in the room with you talking, remembering, digressing, going off on tangents, sometimes repeating herself.

Jigsaw stops in about 1930 and Quicksands does cover some of her life after that date -- living in a weird shed-like apartment on top of a commercial building in Rome, various literary anecdotes (many of them about people I don't know) -- and of particular interest is the story of her marriage of convenience, which secured her British citizenship just before the outbreak of World War II. As a German-born half-Jew living precariously in France, her position was very vulnerable, until Maria Huxley (Aldous's wife) had the brainwave of marrying her to 'one of our bugger friends.' However, the whole plan almost fell apart when the registrar suspected it was a sham relationship, and a lot of frantic scurrying about was required before they managed to pull it off.

For me, Quicksands was worth reading for that section alone but it was probably a mistake to read it so hot on the heels of Jigsaw. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose Jigsaw, which has the structure and rhythms of a novel. It was interesting to contrast the two versions, though, and see where she trimmed and bent the facts to suit her form. She really had a most fascinating life and I'd love to have more of the gaps filled in (who was 'my painter friend?') but I guess I'll never know.


Mixed Magics

A slight entry in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Mixed Magics consists of four stories featuring the great enchanter to greater or lesser degree, published in 2000 to celebrate the reissue of the Chrestomanci series. 
I wasn't a massive fan of the first story, 'Warlock at the Wheel', a laboured comic tale of the Willing Warlock and his escapades in a world very similar to our own. The second novella, 'Stealer of Souls,' starring Eric Chant and Tonino Montana from The Magicians of Caprona, is much better, and takes up about half the volume. 

'Carol Oneir's One Hundredth Dream' was fun, though I was slightly sad that Christopher Chant as Chrestomanci had evidently almost completely forgotten Oneir, his only childhood friend at boarding school. Surely you don't forget the boy who takes one of your nine lives by whacking you with a cricket bat. 'The Sage of Theare' barely features Chrestomanci at all and was one of those logic puzzle stories that Diana Wynne Jones obviously enjoyed constructing, but which I personally find a little contrived and confusing for true pleasure (I'm thinking of Hexwood, which muddled the heck out of me).

Mixed Magics is nice to have, but not essential.


North Woods

Daniel Mason's novel North Woods was a recommendation from a guest on the ABC's Radio National Book Shelf show, and a very enjoyable read it was, too. As someone who has recently published a novel featuring several time-slip journeys within one house, a grown-up novel tracing the history of a single house over centuries was extremely appealing. 

I think North Woods was described as a 'polyphonic' novel; another very appealing genre. It's almost like a collection of short stories, in different voices and styles, chronologically following the building, extension, and slow ruin of a house in the remote woods of Massachusetts, beginning with a runaway pair of Puritan lovers and ending far into our future when the yellow house has disintegrated and burned to ashes. There are clever threads that resurface through the story, as bodies and lost letters are rediscovered and ghosts of past characters haunt the current inhabitants. It's never cutesy, though, don't imagine a literary version of Ghosts; in fact at times it's quite eerie and even edging into horror. The woods themselves are a constant vivid presence, which followed on very neatly from my reading of Braiding Sweetgrass.

Long ago I read Daniel Mason's first book, The Piano Tuner, for my then book group; it was a massive success, and notable for being written while Mason was still a medical student. I remember thinking it was all right, but it didn't blow me away (I was probably jealous, being then unpublished myself). North Woods is an entertaining, assured and accomplished novel which was hugely fun to read and was probably also a lot of fun to write.


Braiding Sweetgrass

What an extraordinary, beautiful, enlightening book. I'm so grateful for the recommendation from my book group friend Cathy. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American botanist and writer who braids these three strands into a generous, glorious whole. I'm really struck by the parallels between Native American spirituality, and First Nations Australian philosophy -- it shouldn't be surprising that first peoples share a similar attitude to caring for and gratitude toward the environment. Braiding Sweetgrass also emphasises an idea that I saw recently expressed in The Monthly magazine, that while it's tempting to think that 'wilderness' should be untouched by human involvement and left strictly alone, in fact these 'wild' areas thrive with judicious human management -- selective harvesting, selective burning actually helps the environment to flourish, and this light-handed tending is precisely where first peoples have thousands of years of experience.

Kimmerer is expert at explaining the science behind how plants work; her writing is never dry or difficult, and she marries the science with traditional stories and anecdotes from her own teaching and personal life to spark up her narrative. It's really a collection of discrete essays that build to a compelling whole. It's easy to despair at the state of our world and the terror of climate change, but Kimmerer holds onto hope, despite her clear-eyed recognition of the damage we have done. And her writing is just exquisite -- right up there with Robert McFarlane and Helen McDonald, my two favourite nature writers.

Braiding Sweetgrass is definitely one of my books of the year.


The Last Devil To Die

Months ago I read somewhere that the fourth volume in Richard Osman's Thursday Murder Club series would be the last. However, an afterword to The Last Devil To Die assures me that there will be more mysteries for the club to solve in the future; Osman is going to write some different books for a while, but the gang from Coopers Chase will return. Phew!

That news is a huge relief because it would make me very sad to think that we'd seen the last of our crime-busting geriatric foursome and their friends. The plot of The Last Devil To Die revolves around a big bag of heroin and a mysterious ugly box, but it almost doesn't matter what criminal shenanigans are going on, because the true heart of the story lies with Stephen, in the relentless grip of dementia, and the friendship between his ruthlessly efficient ex-spy wife, Elizabeth; shrewd, chatty Joyce; kind, insightful Ibrahim; and gruff ex-union boss Ron. I would happily read a book about these four going to the supermarket, I just enjoy their company so much.

I laughed, I cried, and I can't wait for the next one.


Consent Laid Bare

Hot off the presses, Consent Laid Bare feels so timely after a horrific couple of weeks that saw five women in ten days murdered by a male partner or ex-partner. But let's be honest, these statistics are always horrific, and they never seem to go down. It's six years since a dear friend of mine was murdered by her boyfriend, which sends every nerve jangling when I hear about another domestic violence incident -- and it feels like my nerves are jangled every single week, sometimes every day.

But to be clear, Chanel Contos' campaign (I always find myself calling her Chantal, apologies Chanel) is not against DV as such, but rather against sexual assault, and particularly that murky area of what she calls 'entitled, opportunistic rape,' where a male uses social pressure or emotional manipulation or an unspoken discomfort to pressure a woman into sex. I found out some shocking truths about the sex lives of the young by reading this book -- God, I'm so thankful that I didn't come of age in the time of social media and camera phones -- but it's equally shocking how little has changed in the last couple of generations. Some of Contos' arguments are Feminism 101; it's hard to believe that we still have to argue this stuff! But of course to Contos' peers, this is all fresh information, because those battles still haven't been won.

Two metaphors I loved: that being a woman in the world is like being a cyclist on the road. Technically you're subject to the same rules as cars, but if something goes wrong, the damage will fall much harder on the cyclist, and everyone will tell you, well, you should have been more careful, because in reality, the roads we ride on favour the cars (ie the men). Second, Contos caught herself cooing over a cute dog she met in the street, and reflected that the way some men regard hot women in public is much the same as they way she might greet a puppy -- she feels free to give them unsolicited compliments, even to touch them without permission, because as far as she's concerned, they exist just to brighten up her day. Hmm! I might think twice before I pounce on the next sweet puppy I see out and about...

Consent Laid Bare is an accessible, fierce and energetic call to arms -- or at least a call to awareness. The final chapter is addressed specifically to men, young and old, asking them to regard the women they encounter as fellow humans. It seems such a small thing to expect, and yet still, here we are. Consent Laid Bare is not explicitly aimed at young adults, but wow, they should definitely read it.


Witch Week

The journey through the Chronicles of Chrestomanci continues. I don't have any memory of reading Witch Week before, and it's possible I might have started it but not continued, because honestly I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy it for the first few chapters. It really only picked up about two thirds of the way through when Chrestomanci appeared. 

Witch Week is set in a world very similar to our own, but where witches are outlawed and burned on 'bone-fires' when they're discovered -- unfortunately it seems that witches are extremely common. The school where the action takes place is so very unpleasant, and the atmosphere of threat is so strong, that I was on edge for a long way into the book, and it took me a while to warm to the characters. I think this is a book I'd enjoy much more on re-reading, and now I know that it ends well I won't be afraid to revisit it in the future (strangely, Book Grocer sent me an ad for Charmed Life today! Do they know what I've been reading? But then they should be aware that I've already bought it.)

The premise for Witch Week is strong, but the actual mechanics of the set-up felt a bit -- vague? Not as firmly conceived as I've come to expect from Diana Wynne Jones. Also, according to the internet, I'm not the first person to think that David Tennant would make a perfect Chrestomanci, which is chastening, but hey, great minds think alike and all that.


The Bookbinder of Jericho

Like everyone else, I loved The Dictionary of Lost Words, and I joined the long queue of eager readers waiting to take Pip Williams' companion novel, The Bookbinder of Jericho, out of the library. I enjoyed it even more than the first book; definitely worth the wait.

Peggy works in the bindery, the workshop where books like the dictionary are physically sorted, bound and sewn together. She and her twin, Maude, have just lost their mother, so they're living in their canal boat home alone. Calliope is lined with flawed and rejected products of the bindery, so Peggy is well-read, and longs to be a scholar; but Maude needs her. Then the war comes and turns everything upside down.

The weight of Peggy's responsibility for her sister hit me hard, and her tentative relationship with the wounded Belgian soldier, Bastiaan, was very touching. Again, Williams highlights the way that women's sacrifice is taken for granted -- there are no fancy memorials to the women who died caring for the sick during the Spanish flu epidemic that took twice as many lives as the war itself.

The Bookbinder of Jericho is another steady, thoughtful, deeply satisfying novel that wears its historic detail lightly. Dare I hope that Pip Williams is working on a third Oxford volume about women and words and resistance?


The Magicians of Caprona

I'm not sure whether I like this cover of The Magicians of Caprona or not -- it's a little misleading, since the elephant only appears very briefly in the story, and I'm inclined to think that the griffins should have been more prominent. The original cover looks very familiar, so I think I might have read it when it first came out in 1980 or shortly thereafter.

No one could accuse this cover of being too exciting, but I like the medieval feel and the Italian atmosphere which is one of the greatest pleasures of the book. It's a shame the all-important angel is hidden by the title! Also the figure on the left is supposed to be Chrestomanci and he doesn't look nearly charismatic enough.

The feuding Italian families has an obvious source in the story of Romeo and Juliet, and this book even includes a pair of star-crossed lovers to make it even clearer. However there were elements that I didn't enjoy quite so much, namely the Punch and Judy theme -- I'm not a huge fan of puppets and the violence inherent in the traditional Punch and Judy story troubles me, though Diana Wynne Jones uses the device cleverly. (This reminds me, I don't think Gwendolen getting spanked in Charmed Life has aged too well, either.) But the puppet stuff doesn't spoil a hugely satisfying story, even though the solution to the problem of the missing spell words is perhaps a little simple -- would they really have overlooked the answer for two hundred years? I do love Angelica and Tonino working together, and of course the cat Benvenuto steals every scene he appears in. I'm noticing how much Diana Wynne Jones loves her magical cats. No wonder my friend Judy, noted cat-lover, is such a DWJ fan.


Charmed Life

As noted previously, I've bought all the Chrestomanci books on my Kindle, so I don't get the benefit of this excellent cover. I had quite strong memories of Charmed Life, the first of Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci books. I remembered fiendish, selfish Gwendolen, and her helpless (until the end) brother, Cat, though I'd forgotten the details of the awful magical tricks that Gwendolen played. Having just read The Lives of Christopher Chant, I was familiar with the Castle, Chrestomanci himself and his lovely wife Millie, though there was a slight pang in meeting them again suddenly grown up.

Chrestomanci himself is a delicious character, everything a powerful enchanter ought to be -- tall, devastating, charismatic and rather terrifying at first, and owning an amazing array of luxurious dressing-gowns and elegant suits -- the dressing-gowns and suits had also made a lasting impression. I might have been confused by the structure of this universe and the series of alternate worlds if I'd read this book first. The Lives of Christopher Chant explains it all more clearly. 

Now that I think about it, Chrestomanci has shades of Dr Who, especially as played by David Tennant -- ooh, I'd love to see a TV adaptation of these books with Tennant in the title role. Come on, someone, make it happen!


The Joy Thief

One of my children has been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and I'm fairly sure that my father also has it -- or more likely, after reading The Joy Thief, he seems to have the subtly different Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Anyway, this is all new territory so I thought I'd better start educating myself. Luckily for me, Penny Moodie's book has just come out. (How weird is this? I heard Penny discussing her book and OCD on the ABC radio's Conversations show just after I started reading The Joy Thief, and the guest on the very next day was Pip Williams, whose book The Bookbinder of Jericho I'm also reading! Spooky, eh?)

OCD sucks. We're used to thinking of it in movie cliches of endless hand-washing or counting, but it's probably more accurate to focus on the unwanted, obtrusive and distressing thoughts that spark off the protective rituals. Thoughts that go round and round, thoughts that don't go away, thoughts about forbidden desires or bizarre urges, thoughts about danger and harm striking loved ones (this one I can relate to). The only thing that seems to temporarily quiet the obsessive thoughts is performing the compulsions -- and the compulsions can also be thoughts. But the catch is, the more you perform the compulsions, the more you 'feed the lion' and the stronger the unwanted thoughts become.

Moodie is a strong advocate for ERP therapy (Exposure and Response Prevention), which essentially means sitting with the uncomfortable thoughts and not performing the soothing compulsive actions, until the brain is gradually retrained to tolerate the thoughts. The important thing to remember for a carer or support person is not to offer reassurance, because that is also feeding the lion -- a difficult thing to resist, because of course your first impulse when you see someone you love hurting is to try to reassure them.

I feel sure there is a long road ahead but The Joy Thief is a terrific insight and a great place to start.


The Lives of Christopher Chant

Being unwell entitles one to comfort reading, right? In the past I've turned to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Antonia Forest for convalescent nourishment, but this time I fancied a bit of Diana Wynne Jones. I should revisit her work more often: God, she's good! The Lives of Christopher Chant is chronologically the first, but in publication terms the second, volume of the Chrestomanci series, outlining how Christopher Chant first became the heir to the title. 

Diana Wynne Jones is a master. Her writing juggles complex magical concepts and multiple worlds with deceptive ease, and if this book was any more tightly plotted, it would implode. Christopher is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist, but the rest of the cast are wonderful, particularly the living Goddess of Asheth and her incredible Temple cats. But the novel is so engaging, so witty and so clever, the reader doesn't realise how much she's packed in until you try to explain what's going on.

I enjoyed this book so much I went back to my bookshelf for more Chrestomanci and realised to my horror that I didn't actually possess any more (I have about eight Diana Wynne Jones books, mostly picked up in library book sales -- shame, Darebin libraries, shame! -- but no more Chrestomancis). So I've treated myself to a Kindle bundle of the whole lot and I'm looking forward to six more volumes of pure delight.


Rise of the Rocket Girls

Nathalia Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls was a loan from my younger daughter, who is a bit obsessed with the space race. This is a corner of history that I know almost nothing about (except through her!) and this book gives a fascinating glimpse into a bygone world. I didn't know that before microprocessors, humans doing the complicated maths required to calculate rocket and satellite trajectories were known as 'computers.' And at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, all the computers were women.

A couple of remarkable women at JPL made it a policy to hire only women as computers (nearly all the engineers were men) and they created a harmonious, relatively family-friendly workplace that was fun and exciting. Of course as time went on, the electronic computers replaced the humans. It strikes me that it seems to be mostly women's jobs that are eliminated by the march of technology -- switchboard operators, typists, computers. Is this because the women's work was seen as expendable, or because women were shunted into the boring, repetitive work that was easy for machines to pick up? I suppose robots have also replaced mostly men on the factory floor, so perhaps it's not a gender issue!

E and I are going to watch Hidden Figures soon, which tells the same story from a different angle. I'm looking forward to it.


A Proper Place and Hostages To Fortune

I've really enjoyed my time with Kevin and Sadie. Joan Lingard has created such an appealing young couple ; they are realistically impatient and frustrated with each other at times, but they always manage to come back together. They are a good team -- Kevin, steady and reliable, Sadie, bubbly and cheerful. I genuinely found myself admiring the way that Sadie makes an effort to make new friends wherever they go and embed their little family into the community.

A Proper Place opens with the couple (plus new baby Brendan) living in a couple of run-down rooms in Liverpool, before Kevin lands a job on a farm and they all move to the country. Hostages to Fortune finds him, alas, losing that job and the couple take to a camper van (I'd never heard one referred to as a 'caravette' before!) and picking up work where they can, before finding a prospect of a home where they might be able to settle down for good. While Kevin and Sadie's relationship is strong, it's sorely tested at  times by the difference in their religion, something they've managed to dodge until now, and especially by their families. Sadie's mum barges in to visit from time to time, much to Kevin's discomfort, while Kevin's mother has gone downhill rapidly since his father's death (it seems as if she's succumbing to dementia) and troublesome siblings turn up on Kevin's doorstep for him to deal with. His mother never brings herself to even acknowledge his marriage, and can't understand why he can't just come home to help her.

I think my favourite part was when new hippie friends Matt and Angelica suggest that Kevin's wayward sister 'just needs love,' which a modern reading of the text definitely supports, but which just bewilders Kevin and Sadie! Hostages to Fortune left some loose ends (particularly regarding that difficult sister) and I wonder if Lingard ever intended to continue Kevin and Sadie's story -- by this time, though, they were probably getting too old to justify being in YA novels, even under the imprint of Puffin Plus.


The Good Parents

Another novel that's been lurking in my wardrobe pile for a shamefully long time. I bought The Good Parents on the strength of loving Gilgamesh (though I can't now remember much about that first book!), and Joan London's writing is so quietly beautiful.

The Good Parents is not exactly an eventful book, in fact it's quite static, written in small vignettes that focus on each character in turn, which has the effect of making them all seem isolated in their own separate world. When eighteen year old Maya vanishes, her parents Jacob and Toni at first wait passively for her to return, then each find their own way of dealing with her disappearance. Gradually we learn about Jacob and Toni's own youthful pasts, the baggage of their histories that they carry with them, the ways they've tried to escape. This novel is all about attempts to escape -- from parents, from expectations, from responsibilities.

Reading The Good Parents is quite a meditative experience, like sipping a flavourful soup -- you want to hold each mouthful for a while before you swallow it. (Forgive my strained metaphor, I'm blaming Covid brain...) There's not much plot, is what I'm trying to say, but the beauty and gentle strength of the writing makes up for it.


The Best We Can Do

The attentive reader of this blog will notice that I'm getting through a lot of books at the moment. There's a reason for that: I have bloody Covid, so I'm spending all my time lying on the couch reading. Ah well, silver lining to every cloud etc.

The Best We Can Do is such an odd little book. I bought it in my recent rush of infatuation with Sybille Bedford, and while her voice is still there, it's much more muted than it was in Jigsaw (which was published just after this book). The Best We Can Do is pretty much straight reportage of a trial that was a cause celebre in 1957, a very rare trial of a medical professional, a doctor who was accused of giving one of his patients, a rich old lady, an overdose of opiates to hasten her death. Much turns on nuances here -- did she die by overdose of morphine, or from natural causes after a stroke? Was the overdose given deliberately, accidentally on purpose, from compassion for her suffering, or in cold calculation with a legacy in mind? Dr Adams chose not to testify, and this case became important in establishing a precedent that such silence should not be held against the accused.

I must say I wasn't very impressed with the look of Dr Adams, he looks like a smug toad to me, judging from the photo on the cover. Sybille Bedford was convinced of his innocence, but according to Wikipedia it's pretty much accepted now that he was not just a murderer but a serial killer, 'hastening' the deaths of many rich old ladies and accumulating many handy legacies from their estates. Though true crime already existed as a genre in the 1950s, apparently Bedford was the first writer to see the potential for drama in an account of the trial alone -- we experience it just as any observer in the court might, or like a member of the jury, with Bedford's help to imagine tones of voice, ripples of consternation, satisfied smiles. 

From Jigsaw, I went into this book already knowing of Bedford's fascination with the justice system, and her personal experience of morphine addiction (via her mother). Neither of these are explicitly mentioned in The Best We Can Do but for me, they cast a shadow on every page.



Borderland is the kind of book I've very excited about, and I'd love to see many more of them. Graham Akhurst's debut YA novel is the story of Jono, a young First Nations man who is not connected to his Country or his tribe -- educated at a prestigious, mostly white, private school and now attending an Aboriginal performing arts college, Jono isn't sure where he belongs. Constantly swooped by magpies and haunted by a mysterious dog-headed figure from the darkness, Jono finds himself out in the desert and events begin to escalate.

Borderland is politically aware, spiritual, a little bit romantic, a family drama, and a coming of age story. As a fantasy writer, I was most interested in the skilful way that Akhurst has woven strands of authentic cultural material with imagined lore to create a gripping, multi-dimensional young adult story. It's described as gothic horror -- I'm not sure how accurate that label is, but there are certainly some very creepy moments!

Young Australian readers of every background need and deserve more novels like this, that help us all to understand the spiritual connection to Country and give us a deeper appreciation of First Nations experience.


The Round House

It sometimes happens that I'll buy a book but I don't get around to reading it until weeks or even months later. This was the case with Louise Erdrich's The Round House which as been sitting at the bottom of my wardrobe for ages -- I actually thought it was a YA book until I pulled it out and realised it was an adult novel.

I guess the spur for finally reading The Round House was that I've been watching a terrific crime series on SBS called Dark Winds, which is also set on a Native American reservation, in this case Navajo, while The Round House is set on Chippewa land. This has sparked a hitherto dormant interest in Native American culture, and I guess I'm intrigued to see if there are any parallels between Australia's First Nations peoples and the indigenous population of a different country. Certainly the history of dispossession, attempted genocide and oppression is similar, but so is the toughness and the survival of culture and spiritual beliefs and ceremony.

The Round House is such a fantastic, powerful novel, narrated from the point of view of 13 year old Joe (coincidentally also the name of the main character in Dark Winds), whose mother is brutally attacked in the first few pages of the book. This event is the catalyst for Joe's coming of age, his learning about the history of his community, and his realisation of the double standards of white and Indian justice (another recurring theme in Dark Winds). This is a beautifully written and moving story, sometimes funny, often dark, and I'm so glad that I finally picked it up off the bottom of the wardrobe.


QAnon and On

Van Badham's timely and horrifying book is subtitled A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults (at nearly 500 pages, it's not that short, actually, though it is extremely readable). To research QAnon and On, Badham did a deep dive into the dark corners of the internet, and she's painstakingly traced the shadowy origins and bewildering proliferation of online conspiracy theories. I was vaguely aware of something called Pizzagate, Gamergate and that Q was some kind of (probably imaginary) evil mastermind who whipped his followers into frenzies, but seeing the detailed timeline spelled out clearly was indeed shocking and disturbing. 

Perhaps the culmination of conspiracy thinking was the January 6th assault on the White House during which several police and protesters died. It's hard to unpack exactly how much Trump was responding to online calls for action from the likes of Q, and how much he was encouraging them -- perhaps it doesn't matter, because the end result is a tangle of hydra-headed and self-reinforcing spiral of lies and panic. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect is how quickly someone can be sucked into the quicksand of delusional belief, and how eager they can be to act on it: Badham outlines some tragic cases. There was the man who turned up at an innocent but demonised pizza restaurant, heavily armed and ready to rescue the children he was convinced were being held captive there. There was the woman who marched on the Capitol to support Trump and ended by losing her life.

Badham's advice for those who have lost loved ones down internet rabbit holes is to not break contact with them, however tempting that might seem, but to remain connected and gently remind them that there is a world beyond the closed universe of conspiracy message boards. One might even call it the real world.


The Bad Quarto

I treated myself to the final Imogen Quy mystery by Jill Paton Walsh, The Bad Quarto, published in 2007. Imogen is, as usual, warm and restful company, though I found this time that the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall rather haphazardly around her and only fit together satisfactorily at the very end.

I did enjoy the Night Climbers of Cambridge -- apparently a real thing -- a secret society of daredevils who reminded me of the Cave Clan here in Melbourne, but devoted to scaling towers and rooftops rather than tunnels and drains. The element of expert medical evidence, declaimed so confidently in court, resonated spookily with another book I've been reading, Sybille Bedford's The Best We Can Do, her groundbreaking account of a trial for murder of a doctor in the 1950s, which relied heavily on... expert medical evidence, though the three experts all disagreed with each other. This story hinges on a performance of the so-called 'Bad Quarto' of Hamlet -- a much shorter version of the famous play than we are used to, which was intriguing.

I was happy to leave Imogen at the end of her latest adventure, apparently secure in her job of college nurse, safe in her little house with lodgers Fran and Josh upstairs for company. She is an unusual model of self-sufficient, busy and contented womanhood -- never pining for sex or romance, or feeling herself incomplete without a partner, but keeping herself happily occupied with friendships, acts of kindness and mysteries to piece together. A modern Miss Marple, perhaps, who can pride herself on a useful career rather than needing to busy herself with village gossip! I'll miss her.


Into Exile

A few months ago I read The Twelfth of July, the first volume in Joan Lingard's Kevin and Sadie series, about a pair of star-crossed lovers in Belfast during the Troubles. And then the other day I was walking past a street library and saw volumes 3, 4 and 5 just sitting there. It was like a sign...

So now I've read volume 3, Into Exile, which sees Sadie (17) and Kevin (19) married (!!!) and living in London. Obviously I've missed the events of volume 2 which have seen them fall in love, against the opposition of both families, and run away together (references in Into Exile hint at the cost of this decision). Published in 1973, it's an extraordinary time capsule: Sadie is working in a department store, spending most of her days bored and idle behind the counter; Kevin gets a job in a radio repair shop (radios barely exist anymore, let alone repair shops). I loved the portrait of multi-cultural London, with families from India, Pakistan and the West Indies jostling in the couple's lodging house. They don't have a telephone in their single rented room. When Kevin is called back to Belfast, they can only communicate by letter or telegram; there's no chance of a chat to smooth over misunderstandings. And they are so young! And so isolated, far from home and family.

At the end of the book they are reunited in Ireland, and Kevin has made the agonising choice between the needs of his family, and his commitment to his young wife. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Kevin and Sadie.


The Things That Matter Most

I heard Gabbie Stroud talking on the radio about her new book, The Things That Matter Most, but I must have only been half-listening because I didn't pick up that it's fiction, not non-fiction. Stroud is an ex-teacher and has already written a couple of non-fiction books on the subject, so perhaps that's where my confusion arose.

This is a terrific, lively, easy to engage with novel which starkly dramatises the issues teachers face --overwhelmed with box-ticking, pointless admin and besieged by demanding parents and media, as well as their own personal dramas, they find themselves with less and less time to really connect with the students themselves. As one small family falls through the cracks, each staff member at the primary school sees part of the picture, a couple of little clues, but because there is no space or time to put it all together, the result is a tragedy.

Teachers have a really tough time, and they shoulder the blame and responsibility for a lot of social problems that really shouldn't need to be their core business. They work bloody hard and they don't get paid nearly enough. The system is cracking under the weight. In the course of my working life, I see a lot of very well-resourced schools, with amazing staff and wonderful facilities, but I'm well aware that there are also amazing staff in schools with leaking classrooms and outdated computers. It's not good enough. All our children deserve the very best -- thank God that teachers do the incredible work that they do, but we need to reward them properly.


The Country Child

I knew that Alison Uttley was probably best known in her lifetime for her books for young children, including The Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig -- I haven't read any of those. The only book of Uttley's I know really well is A Traveller in Time, for older children, which absolutely enchanted me at the age of about ten. Published in 1939, it's about teenager Penelope who finds herself time-slipping to Elizabethan times and becoming involved with the Babington family in a (real) plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots. This was perhaps my first exposure to time slip and I was utterly bewitched. Alas, when I revisited A Traveller in Time as an adult, I was disappointed -- the magic had evaporated and I found the story laboured and dull.

However, I retain enough residual affection for my childhood reading experience to pounce on the semi-autobiographical The Country Child (1931) when I saw it at the op shop. It's still in print, which surprised me, because there's no plot here at all and it seems like the kind of book that would appeal more to an adult audience than to a contemporary child, an adult audience who enjoys lyrical nature writing with a dose of rural history thrown in. Young Susan communes with the trees and the kitchen furniture, she accidentally invites fifty girls home for tea, she observes the rituals of harvest and spring and Christmas with the (adult) household of the isolated farm. I found I had to treat it like a meditation and relax into the lack of incident before I could completely enjoy it.

I also hadn't realised what a tragic life Uttley had. Her husband died by suicide a year before this book was written (partly as an act of solace, perhaps) and her adult son also killed himself, after Uttley's own death. I read one article that subtly blamed Uttley for both these deaths, suggesting that she was 'jealous' and 'bitter' and 'difficult to live with,' using quotes from her diary to support this view, which seems a little unfair to me. If you can't pour out your bitterness into your private journal, then nowhere is safe! Perhaps I'll have to read her diaries and make up my own mind.



For some reason, it's taken me ages to get around to reading Michelle Obama's autobiography, Becoming; it's been sitting on my To Read pile for about a year. And then when I did start it, I took my time over finishing it, reading a couple of other books in between. This is not because it was hard going: it's totally engaging, warm and energetic -- much as I imagine the former First Lady herself might be.

After the orange fool who succeeded the Obamas in the White House (and horrifically, looks like getting back in there for a second term), it was so heartening to read about a pair of highly intelligent, compassionate and determined people who are driven by the desire to achieve good things for society -- to build stuff, instead of tearing it down or making money for themselves. Michelle grew up in the South Side of Chicago, in a declining neighbourhood; but her family always encouraged her education and she ended up at Harvard before working as a lawyer, which is where she met Barack. Of course these two are massively high achievers, but they also come across as normal people, people you could imagine having dinner with. I could never imagine having dinner with the Narcissist-in-Chief.

I say this book was heartening, but it was also so depressing to think that the reaction of America to Obama's two terms was to elect someone so utterly different in every way, someone so intent on undermining everything that the Obamas had worked for. In the last few pages of the book, Michelle describes looking around at Trump's inauguration ceremony and seeing a sea of pale, male faces -- a contrast to the 'vibrant diversity' of her husband's two inaugurations, and a sign of things to come.