The Jammer


There was a time when I wondered if roller derby might the sport for my elder child; she already loved rollerblading, and I thought the rough and tumble and speed of derby might appeal to her. Also, there is a roller derby venue a couple of blocks from our house. Unfortunately, on her second visit, there was a horrific crash where another new recruit broke her ankle -- that was it for my girl.

Nova Weetman is one of our most reliable authors for young people; you know that you're going to get a well-crafted, relatable story with sympathetic characters and realistic problems. The Jammer centres on Fred, whose mother has just died. Her dad has brought her to Melbourne, to meet the people her mum was close to; talking about her and sharing memories is the way he deals with his own grief. But Fred just wants to shut out everything that reminds her of her mother, and that includes roller derby. 

Weetman does a fantastic job of conveying the rush and thrill of this chaotic, fast-paced sport, and the supportive, diverse community that has formed around it. There was an extra treat for me in that the book is set in my own home suburb of Preston -- because of the real roller derby venue, I wonder? I did have a little trouble mapping the geography of the book onto my own familiar streets, but hey, we have to permit some artistic licence, don't we? Weetman has experienced her own deeply personal grief recently, and I know that The Jammer will help plenty of people going through their own pain.


Birds of a Feather

I read the first Maisie Dobbs book by Jacqueline Winspear quite a while ago, but then got stuck when the second book in the series wasn't available at the library. But then, fortuitously, I discovered a large print edition of Birds of a Feather in the residents' library at my father's aged care home and (forgive me) I borrowed it from there.

I really want to love these books -- there is so much in their favour. The figure of a female detective in post-Great War England, marooned in spinsterhood as so many capable women were after the war; the well-researched twenties setting; issues of class and gender; gorgeous clothes -- and the plots are clever and well constructed. And yet there is something stopping me from completely falling in love, and I think it's the quality of the writing. It's just a bit clunky! The dialogue is stiff and unnatural, the transitions are clumsy, the descriptions are a little cliched. It obviously hasn't proved a barrier to many other readers, there are seventeen or eighteen books in the series now and they are clearly hugely successful. It's not that they're hard to read, and in some ways they are a perfect easy, cosy mystery treat. But the writing style keeps tripping me up. When I finished Birds of a Feather I decided, no more Maisie Dobbs for me. But now I'm thinking, maybe I'll just try one more... they're like a box of chocolates!


Late Bloomer

There was a very, very long queue waiting for this book at the library -- lots of people keen to understand How an Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life. Late Bloomer by Melbourne writer Clem Bastow is a very personal account of her childhood and youth, and how being diagnosed with autism at the age of almost forty made sense of so much in her experience. Bastow was always a 'quirky' kid who was blessed with supportive and flexible parents who accommodated her preferences and never tried to shame her into behaving 'properly.' However, Bastow is critical of a school system that failed to follow up on her difficulties, which might have led to an earlier diagnosis and more help.

Interestingly, Bastow feel that the greatest benefit of diagnosis for her has been greater self-understanding -- oh, this habit is not because I'm weird or broken or a failure, it's because I'm Autistic. As the mother of a child who suspects themselves of Autism, but has struggled to see the point of an expensive diagnosis, I've found this a persuasive argument. Certainly some elements of Bastow's story struck a chord -- her insistence on eating the same meal every day, for example -- though there were also many aspects that didn't. Of course, as Bastow points out, if you've met one Autistic person, you've met one Autistic person: you can't generalise (Bastow prefers identity-first language rather than person-first).

Late Bloomer also raised some doubts in my mind about the benefits of very early intervention, which seems designed to train a young child out of their Autistic traits (like stimming) which are regarded as socially undesirable; apparently there are young Autistic people now expressing just how painful this process was for them. It was interesting to note that gender dysphoria is more common among Autistic people -- more research required.

Late Bloomer is a thoroughly engaging, often funny and sometimes disturbing story of one person's journey to identity.


The Starlings


Vivienne Kelly's novel The Starlings comes with a sticker proclaiming, Guaranteed Great Read or Your Money Back -- you'd have to be pretty confident to make a claim like that, but in this case it's justified. I so enjoyed this book, which I borrowed from the library because of a stray reference to King Arthur.

The Starlings is narrated by eight year old Nicky, struggling to understand the currents of adult emotion swirling about him, as his grandfather forms a new relationship with beautiful nurse Rose, his sister disappears on mysterious midnight excursions, his father seems only to care about Hawthorn's fortunes in the AFL, and his mother is living in a world of her own. The Starlings is often very funny, as Nicky forms his own interpretations of events and translates the dramas he dimly perceives into the plays he enacts with the Heroes of the Cosmos figurines in his bedroom, mediated through tales from Shakespeare or Arthurian legends. It's very cleverly done and also quite poignant at times.

I loved the way the novel was structured around the 1985 football season (poor Nicky recoils from his father's rage and frustration at the games).* I also enjoyed Nicky's battle with the jigsaw puzzle at his grandfather's house, which happened to be a jigsaw I have recently tackled myself!

I have to agree with Nicky, the waves were particularly tricky... The Starlings is a hugely enjoyable and accomplished novel which I wish I'd read sooner. Come for King Arthur but stay for the touching and funny family drama.

*In 1985, Footscray fell out of the competition at the preliminary final stage -- some things never change.


My Experimental Life


A. J. Jacobs has carved out a strange career for himself as an immersion journalist -- perhaps my favourite of his books was My Year of Living Biblically, which was oddly moving and spiritual as well as snortingly funny. My Experimental Life is a collection of past experiments, mostly conducted for articles for Esquire, in which Jacobs variously manages a dating profile for his babysitter (slightly less creepy than it sounds); outsources as much of his life as possible to a team of very polite, efficient workers in India; tries out Radical Honesty and Unitasking (the revolutionary notion of focusing on one activity at a time). It's all very entertaining but it lacks the deeper dimension that I enjoyed in Living Biblically.

I bought this book from Brotherhood Books and some kind previous reader had left a post-it note inside, saying This is a Good Read XY, and I certainly concur. AJ Jacobs is the kind of writer you'd love to go out for dinner with, he is wonderfully amusing and witty company. 

Possibly my favourite chapter in this book was the last ('Whipped'), in which he puts himself in the hands of his long-suffering wife, Julie. AJ's expectation was that Julie would soon tire of being the boss of everything and welcome back his old self. Didn't happen. Julie relished being in total charge and dreaming up tasks for her husband to cheerfully perform, like foot rubs, sorting out the kids' toys, and doing all the daily shitwork that usually fell to her. Best. Experiment. Ever!! Maybe I'll try it out myself.

AJ Jacobs has a new book out, The Puzzler, and I'm looking forward to reading it.


Catch Up


Okay, I'm not sure how this happened, but I've got terribly behind in my posting. So I'm going to lump together a whole lot of books in one hit.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason -- borrowed from one of my book group ladies (I'm not actually sure who it belongs to, it's been passed around!). This is such a marvellous novel, a funny and dry story about mental illness -- not just what it's like to suffer from it, but what it's like for the support crew of the sufferer. Brilliantly written, moving, sad, clever but also often laugh out loud funny. Ooh, I've just discovered that despite this book being set in the UK, Mason is an Australian author. Yay! I need to read more of her work.

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman -- as you know, I am a sucker for pop psych nonsense like this, but in this case (I always say this) I believe there is a grain of truth to the idea behind it. It's another weirdly Christian self-help book for couples with the emphasis on sticking it out no matter what, which I found very uncomfortable in one chapter in particular where the wife (why is it always the wife??) is advised to basically love-bomb her unresponsive and unpleasant husband in his preferred 'love language' until his 'love tank' fills up and he begins to reciprocate. She has to do this for six months before she has permission to give up! Apparently it worked, but it left a sour taste in my mouth. Having said that, I do think that people express and receive love in different ways and it's just as well to be aware of whether those in your life prefer 'acts of service,' 'words of affirmation,' 'physical touch.' 'quality time' or 'receiving gifts.' I know I am definitely NOT in the last category.

The Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I bought this funny little book for my Dad who is a cloudspotter from way back. Written by the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society (don't laugh, it has over 50,000 members in 120 countries), this is a clear and simple guide to the basic cloud types, explaining the science behind their formation and including plenty of whimsical trivia along the way. The best chapter is the last, in which the author travels to remote outback Queensland to experience the Morning Glory, a truly magnificent cloud phenomenon which glider pilots can surf like a breaker. Look it up.

Knight's Castle by Edward Eager -- it occurred to me that this book, by one of my old favourite children's authors, might have some King Arthur content. Alas, it was more Ivanhoe-centred than King Arthur. Not one of Eager's strongest titles, I'm not surprised I couldn't remember much, or indeed anything, about it, and it owes a huge, and acknowledged, debt to E. Nesbit's The Magic City.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller -- another category of book I have a weakness for, the reading diary, reading self-help book, reading memoir, call it what you will, but this one was better than I expected (my edition has a particularly dull cover). Miller was in a stagnant period of his life when he decided to use his work commute for reading rather than Sodoku, resolving to knock over those classic novels he always claimed to have read but never had. Achieving this goal kicked off an examination of his whole life, with diversions into his reading childhood, his career, his marriage, a bizarre passionate rant about an obscure book on German rock which captures the peculiar euphoria of the book written for you. A strong example of the genre.

Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch -- the most recent installment of the Rivers of London series. I have given up trying to keep track of continuity in this series, and Aaronovitch seems compelled to add more new characters with each volume, which means less and less screen time for the old favourites. Personally I would be quite happy with a story that featured only Peter, Nightingale and Beverly, but hey, it's not my world. I raced through Amongst Our Weapons and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Goldengrove Unleaving by Jill Paton Walsh -- a somewhat problematic book by my new favourite writer. Tracking down this volume (in fact two companion novels) has been my quest for some time and I was so thrilled to find it, both books in one volume. Originally published as young adult, I think they are properly adult novels, though they centre on teenagers. Clearly Paton Walsh felt a strong attachment to the St Ives area in Cornwall, because these books are also set there (like The Serpentine Cave) and her descriptions of the sea and the coast are beautiful. I did wonder, in the second book, just how so many bodies could be crammed, with apparent ease, into this one old house! And I had a massive problem with the way the character of Molly, a young girl with Down Syndrome, was portrayed, to the point where it interfered with my enjoyment of the book. I suspect this element might be the reason why a book described by the New York Times Book Review as 'a beautiful novel and an enduring one' has been so difficult to find. There was a lot of philosophical debate in Unleaving, which reminded me of Knowledge of Angels, written twenty years later. I'm left with mixed feelings.


One Flew Into the Cuckoo's Egg

My younger daughter, who is a big Goodies fan and also a fan of birds, requested this book and now I've read it too. Bill Oddie is best known and loved in Australia as a member of the Goodies, whose program was endlessly repeated in a child friendly slot on the ABC (just before Dr Who) for years and years, so we learned the episodes by heart. In fact as an adult I was somewhat startled to discover quite a few episodes that were not child-friendly at all. In the UK, the Goodies was considered a comedy for adults.

Oddie's autobiography falls into distinct sections. The most fascinating is the first, where he discusses his childhood. His mother 'left' the family when he was a small boy -- she was hospitalised with mental illness for much of Oddie's life, and he never really got to know her at all, finding out some crucial facts only when he took part in Who Do You Think You Are? much later in life. His father was supportive but rather passive, and his grandmother seems, frankly, to have been a horrible woman with plenty of issues of her own. Given Bill's own battles with mental illness, this part of the book is really touching and sad.

His years with the Goodies and later TV work are skimmed over in rather cursory fashion, and then suddenly we are plunged into a real-time crisis, as Oddie slides into a depressive episode in the middle of writing the book. Eventually he pulls out of it, but it's a raw and quite startling interlude. The book ends on what's probably intended as a bright note, as he looks forward to making more wildlife programs (his real passion) and perhaps mastering a computer. However, this made an unexpectedly poignant ending, as I'd already googled and discovered that the year after the completing the book, Oddie was sacked from presenting his beloved wildlife series and ended up hospitalised for depression for most of the following year.

One Flew Into the Cuckoo's Egg is an uneven book, but in its own way, an unexpectedly absorbing one.


How To Speak Money & Econobabble

 I'm not sure why red, black and white seem to be the agreed colours for covers of books about economics, perhaps from being 'in the red' and 'in the black?' I studied Economics in HSC back in the dark ages of the 1980s -- it was my weakest subject. I've never felt very confident, or interested, in money matters, but lately I've decided that wilful ignorance is no longer a reasonable excuse for tuning out economic debates or financial discussions, and these two books seemed like a good place to start.

I've now read three different kinds of books by John Lanchester (his memoir, Family Romance, and two novels, Capital and Fragrant Harbour) and now this non-fiction guide to the language of finance and economics, How to Speak Money. Written in 2014, it's understandably overshadowed by the GFC a few years previously (weirdly, according to Lanchester, it's only Australians who really call it the GFC! Who knew?) and it's also understandably quite Britain-focused. But Lanchester is a smart, engaging writer, and he can make even a dictionary of economic terms into a very entertaining read. Terms that have always confused me, like 'fungible' are clarified, and I was introduced to new words like 'monopsony' (where there are many sellers but only one buyer -- think of giant supermarket chains buying farm produce, or the government purchasing submarines).

Even better is local writer Richard Denniss' Econobabble, a slim, snappy book that briskly debunks all the jargon used to obfuscate and justify why certain things 'can't' be done (like raising the rate of Jobseeker?) and why other things allegedly 'have to' be done (to avoid 'upsetting the markets,' which as Denniss points out, have no feelings -- rich people, however, do feel strongly that they want to hang onto their wealth). Denniss is a lefty and I wanted to cheer on reading almost every page. Originally written in 2016 and revised in 2021 to take account of the COVID pandemic, Econobabble has little patience for right-wing governments: Denniss suggests replacing the phrase 'the economy' in most Coalition statements with 'rich people's yacht money,' and seeing how much sense it still makes. I felt super smug when I happened to hear Alexander Downer on the radio while reading this book and recognised all the tricks he was playing. Highly recommended!