Arthur: The Always King


Another sumptuously beautiful book. Arthur: the Always King is a straight recounting of the Arthur legends, in Kevin Crossley-Holland's perfectly judged, gently poetic prose. Chris Riddell's glorious illustrations make the stories catch fire.

This is a big, heavy, satisfying book to pore over; it would made a great read-aloud. There is plenty of gore, with beheadings, ogres and knightly duels, but there is also lots of romance, including the great central three-cornered tragedy which is explained simply but powerfully. And of course there is also magic, and a sprinkling of humour. Something for everyone! Which is probably why these tales have retained their attraction for so many centuries, and inspired so many authors and artists to come up with their own variations.

Arthur: the Always King is a perfect introduction to the old stories, a wonderful foundation to build upon.




Another novel with a long queue of eager readers waiting for it at the library. And what a beautiful novel! It probably helps if you like cricket, particularly test cricket, but I do, so I don't know how well Willowman would work for someone who isn't interested in the game (though one reviewer on the ABC did say she wasn't into cricket at all, and she still loved it).

When my (then-future) husband and I worked at the record company, we distinguished ourselves by playing Ashes commentary on the radio rather than blasting the latest hits. I developed a romantic attachment to cricket as a teenager; my school didn't offer it as a sport as such, but a few of us used to take bat and ball up to the top field and muck around. Needless to say I had no skill at all, but I've always loved the way the long drama of the game unfolds; the individual duels between batter and bowler within the team battle; the leisurely pace that enables you to read a book while you're watching; the aesthetic appeal of white on green. I suspect Inga Simpson comes from a similar place of sentimental loyalty to the idea of the game; it's telling that she sets her story in the early 2000s, just before the current domination of the shortest form of the game, 20-20 (which I personally loathe).

Willowman tells a cricket story from both sides of the fence, from the point of view of an up and coming young batsman (sorry, batter) and from a devoted fan of the game, a lapsed musician and bat-maker. Their narratives intertwine, amplifying and reflecting each other. Women, so often obscured or omitted in a sport-centred story, also play an important part in the novel -- Olivia Harrow, Todd's sister, is just as accomplished a player as her brother, but faces a harder road as a woman player; Todd's partner rides the rollercoaster of selection and injury with him, as well as pursuing her own career goals; the bat-maker's daughter escapes a violent marriage and helps her father revive the family business by specialising in making bats for women. The novel features some real past players in cameo roles, but 'current' players are all fictional, allowing Simpson to include an openly gay member of the Australian team, something we have yet to see in reality.

Willowman is a beautifully written love letter to the most poetic of sports. Simpson acknowledges that the game is always evolving, but there is still a nostalgic feel to this book -- I hope Willowman doesn't prove to be an elegy.


The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling

What a lovely book! I was late to the party on The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling, but I'm so glad I made the effort to catch up with it. It's a love story, and a story about mental illness, and a story about growing up between two cultures; a story about family, and work, and anxiety. Anna is the eldest child, torn between being a surrogate parent to her siblings while her mum is 'in bed' and her father is busy running the family restaurant, and trying to keep up at school. It was refreshing to read a young adult novel where the solution isn't an escape into academia -- instead Anna finds her greatest strength in helping her father in the family business.

Wait Chim has written a beautiful, warm and engaging family story, shot through with moments of genuine fear, helplessness and fury. Living with a family member who is suffering from mental illness is no joke, and I appreciate that Chim has resisted the temptation for a simple happy ending. The road to recovery can be long and complicated and Chim doesn't shy away from that reality, but she also shows how families and friends can pull together to support each other, as well as the person with the illness. This is a book about feeling responsibility and overcoming shame as much as anything else, and I loved it.


This is Going to Hurt


Someone on my blog recommended Adam Kay's bestselling memoir, This Is Going To Hurt, and it certainly rang a bell, but it wasn't until after I'd finished reading it that my younger daughter reminded me that she had found the adaptation on Apple TV and suggested that we watch it together... Whoops. (Also I have a big soft spot for Ben Wishaw, so that's a bonus.) I'm pleased to see that Adam Kay, who is now a script writer and editor rather than a junior doctor, has adapted his own book, because there are moments in this memoir that it would be sad to lose.

This Is Going To Hurt is very funny, but often in a horrific kind of way, as any book set in a hospital and dealing with life and death is going to be. There is a gallows humour here, but also compassion and kindness; though Kay is self-deprecating about his skills, I wouldn't mind having him in charge of my care. One constant theme is the poor pay and conditions under which health workers in the British NHS are expected to labour, a situation which was appallingly highlighted during the Covid pandemic which arrived long after Kay quit, and is no doubt echoed here in Australia, too. Petty restrictions such as removing a bed from the staff room, so the doctors are prevented from snatching a few minutes sleep, seem so heartless and cruel -- and yet the staff soldier on with their literally life-giving work. I know I'd rather have a doctor on duty who'd had a full night's sleep, instead of working back to back shifts so the system can prove some point about toughness. The book ends with a really tragic incident which was the catalyst for Kay leaving the profession, and it's a testament to him and his colleagues that these events are so mercifully rare.

And now I'll have to watch the show.


A Wind Is Blowing


I ordered the final volume in Monica Edwards' Romney Marsh series, A Wind Is Blowing, ages ago -- so long ago that I accidentally ordered it twice! (Send me a message if you're interested in taking my spare copy...) I absolutely adored the first two books in the series when I was growing up in PNG; Wish For a Pony and especially The Summer of the Great Secret totally captured my imagination. Something about the combination of close female friendship, Tamzin's warm Vicarage home, the ponies and the beach, along with the quirky presence of hard-bitten Jim Decks... I'm not sure exactly where the magic lay but for years I lived inside those books. It came as a disconcerting shock when I discovered that there were later books featuring Tamzin and Rissa 'grown up.' Fifteen seemed very old to eleven year old me, and I was dismayed by the appearance of boys in the form of Rissa's cousin Roger and dashing Meryon Fairbrass. Boys -- yuck, no thank you. So I deliberately didn't read any later volumes, and now they are very hard to find.

Anyway, so -- A Wind is Blowing. These days I can bring myself to read books about teenage romance without shuddering in automatic disgust, so I can handle the gradually blooming relationship between Tamzin and Meryon which is at the heart of this book. Ponies and boats barely feature in this story, which is a more sober and dramatic tale. Meryon is blinded by ammonia while trying to help stop a bank robbery, and most of the book centres on his struggle to achieve independence, even training his own makeshift guide dog (Meg is gorgeous), and pushing Tamzin's help away. A process that would no doubt take months or even years in real life is compressed into a single summer, and the resolution is also swift. The trip to Barcelona is, I think, the first time the characters have travelled out of England (I think in one crossover book, Tamzin might visit Punchbowl Farm), which is perhaps symbolic of the broadening out of their world as they approach adulthood. I'm happy to leave Tamzin and Meryon there... Though now I would love to know what comes in between!


What I Read on My Holiday

Dear reader, I had a holiday. First time since 2016. And I gloried in READING for a whole week (as well as swimming and walking along beaches and through rainforest, eating yummy food and spending quality time with my mates and my husband (and dealing remotely with various disasters unfolding at home, but that's enough of that!)). I read beside the pool, I read beside the sea, I read on the deck of the rainforest retreat, I read in an air conditioned room we dubbed 'the Singapore Sling Room' for its cane furniture. And I also read on the plane and in the airport.

I quickly whipped through the three books I'd brought with me. First up was Merlin's Harp by anne Eliot Compton, a King Arthur tale from the refreshing point of view of Fey woman Nivienne, whose life intersects with Arthur's at crucial moments. Like The Mists of Avalon, this novel puts women's experience front and centre, with the added twist of Nivienne's Fey powers giving her extra insight -- she can see auras, and scry the future in water and flame. At times there were odd repetitions that gave the feeling that the story had been written over a long period of time and the author had lost track of the joins, but this was a fresh and lyrical take on the Arthur story that I very much enjoyed.

Next I finished Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, by American surgeon Atul Gawande. This is his first book, though I read Being Mortal first. Complications is more of a collection of essays on various medical topics -- weight, nausea, mistakes, mysterious cures -- and Gawande takes us behind the Staff Only doors to witness the pressure, the care, the ambition, the stress and the glories of a doctor's daily routine. Gawande's clear, calm, engaging voice makes him an ideal companion through this difficult terrain, and I hope he keeps on writing.

My third book was a re-read of an old favourite that I found in a street library but weirdly didn't own already: Dorothy L. Sayers' Clouds of Witness. This is a relatively early Lord Peter Wimsey novel, about his brother being accused of murder, set before Peter meets Harriet, but it was hugely fun to read. It was odd to reflect that it's almost exactly a hundred years old, and that Wimsey flying back across the Atlantic with vital evidence was a feat of death-defying courage, not a routine commute!

Time for a visit to a secondhand bookshop (luckily Cairns has several), where I picked up the haul you can see in the photo above. I rapidly finished off Personality Plus for Couples by Florence Littaeur and spent the next couple of days telling my holiday companions whether they were Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Melancholy or Choleric. Littaeur's books are very heavy on Jesus, and God's plan (which seems to be that all couples should stay together no matter what, which I cannot endorse) but if you can get past that, I actually think the personality stuff is spot on!

Next was the second of Jill Paton Walsh's Imogen Quy (rhymes with why) mysteries, A Piece of Justice. I settled happily into this Cambridge-set cosy mystery, centred on a residential college in the 1990s and featuring quilting, which was a nice feminist twist! I immediately bought the first volume in the four book series, The Wyndham Case, on my Kindle, and read almost all of it on the plane on the way home (sob). Another good thing about Imogen Quy books is that they are nice and short. I can definitely see why Jill Paton Walsh was the right person to take up Dorothy L. Sayers' mantle and finish Peter and Harriet's story.

Finally I hoed into Kevin Crossley-Holland's retelling of Norse legends with Norse Myths: Gods of the Vikings. I don't know much about the Norse gods and I've only watched one Thor movie, but Crossley-Holland's versions are wonderfully resonant, well researched and conjure up an entire vanished world. Each myth comes with a detailed note explaining which sources the author drew upon, and how he sees the myths fitting together (they are often wildly contradictory). I can see now why Thor, Odin and Loki made such appealing characters for blockbusters -- there is a lot to work with!

And thus I returned home, having read seven books in six days. Perfect!


The Talking Cure

 The Talking Cure, co-written by Australian therapists Gillian Straker and Jacqui Winship, is an unusual concept. Rather than writing about actual case studies, the authors have merged their experiences to describe fictional case studies which nevertheless are representative of common presenting problems (let's face it, many 'true' case studies are often fictionalised anyway, for privacy if nothing else). So we meet the mother of a defiant teen, a person who allows others to take over her life, someone else who can't bear to be wrong, and perhaps most painfully, the parent of a self-harming child, among several others.

The Talking Cure thus combines the immediacy and fascination of 'real life' with generally applicable observations and suggestions that are helpful for the ordinary reader. I actually found this book very absorbing and packed with helpful insight and advice, outlining common psychological principles in a very accessible way. Each chapter ends with a checklist so you can diagnose yourself (come on, admit it, you know you'd be doing that anyway) and some useful broad advice about how to help yourself, before you seek out professional assistance. There's nothing horribly confronting here, mostly problems of inter-personal relationships, and it steers clear of very difficult situations like domestic abuse or violence. I really enjoyed it and the concept worked very effectively. I'm filing it as non-fiction, though I'm not quite sure whether it meets the criteria or not!


On the Blue Train


I've always been fascinated by the real life mystery of Agatha Christie's life -- her eleven day disappearance in 1926, just after her husband told her that he had fallen in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. Eventually Agatha was tracked down at a hotel in the spa town of Harrogate, having 'lost her memory,' though it seems pretty clear with hindsight that she'd fled to lick her wounds, hoping that her husband would pursue her. Instead, her vanishing set off a country-wide search, a pond near her abandoned car was dredged for her body, and the whole event spiralled embarrassingly out of control. Even Dr Who spun a very enjoyable story around Agatha's strange disappearance!

Kristell Thornell has taken this episode and spun a personal drama from it, centred on Agatha herself (using the name Teresa Neele) and a fellow guest at her hotel, Harry McKenna, who is nursing his own story of grief and guilt. On the Blue Train refers to the book Agatha was struggling to write at the time, but Thornell uses the image of the train as an effective metaphor, as Agatha muses on the idea of shifting from compartment to compartment, sitting with different companions,and playing with different identities.

On the Blue Train moves at a dreamy pace, chugging leisurely along and enjoying the scenery. There is a mystery of sorts about the fate of Harry's wife but this is not a mystery story or a thriller, so much as a psychological exploration of identity, betrayal, guilt and shame, lies and masks and degrees of trust. An interesting diversion.


Theatre Shoes (Curtain Up)


This is one of my favourite Noel Streatfeild books but oddly, I don't own a copy of it. I know it better under the title Curtain Up, but it was rebranded by Puffin to make a series along with Ballet Shoes, Tennis Shoes, and Circus Shoes (aka The Circus is Coming). Theatre Shoes is a lovely fat chunky story about three siblings which in many ways explicitly mirrors the story of the Fossil sisters in Ballet Shoes. Sorrel, Mark and Holly are sponsored by the Fossils and exchange letters with them -- I think this might be the first time that the Fossils reappear in the Streatfeild universe, but it certainly isn't the last, and I remember what a thrill I had every time the grown up Fossils popped into another book.

Theatre Shoes is packed with wonderful, colourful characters -- the children's eccentric grande dame grandmother, cheeky Cockney Alice, solid Hannah (the motherly caretaker figure) and marvellous showbiz aunts and uncles. The wartime setting adds poignancy, and grandmother's house made a vivid impression on me -- once opulent, but now shabby and almost empty as Alice has gradually and secretly sold off the furniture to make ends meet. To this day I have a penchant for big old houses with an air of shabby, faded grandeur.

I also retain a great fondness for the name Sorrel, and I strongly related to her anxious personality and her unlikely but fierce love of acting. I borrowed this copy from the library but I really must get a copy of my own, under whichever title I can find it!


Lessons in Chemistry


I'd seen a lot of rave reviews of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, so my expectations were high when I finally seized it from the reservations shelf at the library. Even one of my friends, a bio-medicine academic, told me that she loved it and thought it was all too accurate.

Well, I liked it but I didn't fall in love -- this book's message is far from subtle and it ticks every single box of male discrimination, pig-headedness, harassment and abuse. I take my hat off to Garmus for managing to write a comedy about sexual discrimination (the book is pretty funny) -- no mean feat! But as I read, I found myself wincing at its obviousness in parts. Once I decided to treat it as a fairy tale, I relaxed and enjoyed it much more. It also seemed to be inspired somewhat by the story of Julia Child, as our heroine ends up hosting an improbably successful cooking show in the early days of television. There were some wildly unlikely plot turns, some people adore the character of the super-intelligent dog, and I must admit I did enjoy the idea of a TV cook becoming a feminist inspiration and a huge success because she takes women's intelligence seriously.

I think I'll give it three stars out of five -- maybe the sciencey flavour of the story just didn't push my buttons!