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.