The Colour of Magic

Terry Pratchett is an absolute legend (or was -- he left us in 2015). He left a legacy of dozens of hugely popular books, notably the 40-odd volume Discworld series, of which The Colour of Magic is the first volume. My main exposure to Pratchett's work has been watching the gorgeous Good Omens, a collaboration with Neil Gaiman, which I must admit I mainly watched for David Tennant and Michael Sheen. However, there's been so much love for Discworld and Pratchett that I thought I should dive in -- after all, if I ended up loving it, there were 39 more books to discover.

Okay, well, I didn't fall in love. Maybe the very first novel in the series wasn't, paradoxically, the best place to start. The Colour of Magic was certainly inventive and moderately amusing, but it seemed a little like, as the kids say, 2 dollar shop Douglas Adams. There was also a striking lack of female characters. It all seemed quite blokey? Not in an objectionable way, but I just didn't feel I was quite on the same wavelength.

So, I admire Terry Pratchett, I mourn Terry Pratchett, and I still love Good Omens, but maybe Discworld isn't quite for me.


The Franchise Affair

I nicked -- ahem, borrowed -- The Franchise Affair from the aged care library, too. This edition is from 1971, so the book was already over twenty years old when this came out. In many ways, The Franchise Affair is the most antiquated of Josephine Tey's novels (the ones I've read, anyway). 

The Franchise Affair has a great premise -- a fifteen year old girl, missing for a month, reappears and claims to have been kidnapped and held captive by a pair of women who live in a big old isolated house. She describes the interior, the furniture, the women themselves, and their car, without an error (well, maybe with one error...) -- and yet the women, an eccentric mother and daughter, insist on their innocence. Who is telling the truth?

We are very quickly led to believe the two women over the girl; the tension of the plot resides in whether the public and the legal system will uncover the truth and exonerate the Sharpes. It's very odd, and uncomfortable, with a modern sensibility, to read the venom heaped by our detecting hero, solicitor Robert, on the head of young Betty Kane. She is painted as a complete villain, a scarlet lying Jezebel who well deserved the beating she received before her reappearance. But I can't forget that she's only a child, and I don't find it so easy to write her off as irredeemably wicked. It seems she was just born that way, as her adoptive mother is presented with huge sympathy. It's weird to read a book that does contain a range of complex, interesting female characters right alongside a set of one-dimensional stereotypes: a doting maiden aunt, a nurturing mother-figure, a hard-boiled 'modern' woman, and of course, Betty herself, apparently destined for a career in prostitution.

As in Miss Pym Disposes, solving the mystery isn't really the central point here. It's more about (ironically) combating first impressions and digging under pat assumptions. If the author had followed her characters' example more closely, The Franchise Affair would be a better book.


Debts of Dishonour

Debts of Dishonour, the third Imogen Quy mystery, was part of my haul from the Cairns secondhand bookshop, but I've only just got around to reading it. Published in 2006, and centred on quite modern-seeming, if vague, financial misdealings as well as murder, Debts of Dishonour nevertheless retains an old-fashioned, cosy, Golden Age feel. Again our setting is St Agatha's College, which despite facing financial ruin, apparently doesn't even consider laying off its full-time nurse!

I read Debts of Dishonour concurrently with Miss Pym Disposes and The Franchise Affair, and this made me wonder whether Jill Paton Walsh owes a debt of her own to Josephine Tey. Even the name of her amateur sleuth almost rhymes with the name of the older author, and despite being written decades later than Tey's most successful books, Jill Paton Walsh's mysteries do echo their settings and some of their attitudes (like robust impatience with social deprivation as an explanation for criminal behaviour!)

Sometimes the dialogue is a little on the clunky side, and the universal trust and affection inspired apparently instantly by Imogen Quy almost strains credulity, but Debts of Dishonour was a very pleasurable and undemanding read.


The Young Detectives

More antique fiction, another ugly cover. The Young Detectives was first published in 1934 and this Puffin edition dates from 1975, so it was fairly antique even then. However, this book has enjoyed a long and popular life, with many readers reminiscing about their love for the story as children. 

I don't think it has aged well! The dialogue is stilted, the characters are thin (it seems the family were based on the author's own children, who share their names) and the action is predictable. There is a horribly complicated plot device involving doors that open and shut when a window is open or closed, which I struggled to follow, but results in people being trapped on one or other side of the secret passageway. The upper class children, whose family have rented the huge old seaside house and brought their servants along to wait on them, are very bossy to the mere fishermen and police they interact with, which really grates on a modern reader. Fro some reason, the way the mother addresses the oldest boy as 'my son' also irritated me. There are smugglers and caves and a wrecked ship and accomplished amateur theatricals, and luckily 'Daddy' (who is absent in America for most of the book) appears at an opportune moment to beat up one of the bad guys.

I didn't have much patience for The Young Detectives, especially compared with almost contemporaneous adventures like Swallows and Amazons. However, I can see that it might have been influential on later, better written stories of children's adventure.


Miss Pym Disposes

 There are SO many editions of this novel, but this is the one that I pinched (borrowed) from the Westgarth Aged Care library. I've read complaints online that the solution to the 'mystery' is too easy to predict, but I think this is missing the point of Miss Pym Disposes (1948), because it's really about character, and judgment, and justice, and guilt. The setting, in a physical training college, seemed bizarre, like something Tey had invented, but it turns out she actually trained as a PE teacher in a similar institution, so we must accept that the weird details (like bells waking everyone at 5.30am and the peculiar physical exercises they study) are accurate!

Miss Lucy Pym, author of an overnight psychology bestseller (boy, I'd love to read that), lands at the college at first as a guest speaker but finds herself staying on and getting to know the students and staff more intimately. The murder itself doesn't take place until deep into the novel, and while there is a twist at the very end, the meat of the story is Miss Pym wrestling with her unexpected position as arbiter of justice -- does she reveal the piece of evidence that she has discovered, and possibly ruin several lives, or hold her tongue and let justice go unserved?

Not surprisingly, Miss Pym Disposes is a distinctly old-fashioned novel, not just in its setting, though it was refreshing to read a book peopled almost entirely by female characters. The most old-fashioned element centres on Miss Pym's assessment of her new friends: character is immutable, a criminal is born bad, and your personality can be read in the features of your face! In fact, the book ends with Lucy planning a second book based on face-reading, though even she admits that it won't prove popular with the so-called experts. Hm, wonder why?


Love Stories

I have to confess that I haven't (yet) read Trent Dalton's bestselling novels Boy Swallows Universe or All Our Shimmering Skies, but I was intrigued by a book group discussion where one member passionately adored Love Stories, while another admitted that she couldn't finish it and found it 'a bit much.'

Weirdly, I agree with them both. I think if I'd sat down to read Love Stories in one hit, I might have found it a little too sentimental. But I interspersed it with a couple of other books and I absolutely loved it. 

During the pandemic, Trent Dalton set up a card table on a street corner in central Brisbane and asked passersby to tell him their stories about love, which he then beautifully wrote up into the chapters of this book and also sent copies to the story-tellers. Not all the stories are about romance; some are about the love for a city, a friendship, or a parent-child relationship. Not all the stories are about the story-tellers themselves: some are about their parents or friends. Not all the stories are happy; some are distressing and some are painful. But Dalton understands the transformative power of love and connection, and he manages to write about it in a way that doesn't become repetitive or cliched. Yes, it's warm and uplifting and hopeful, but as Dalton himself says, he was tired of being cynical and glib, and he's certainly right that after the stresses of lockdown, we are in the mood for being warmed and uplifted and injected with hope. At least I am! I'm very, very glad I read Love Stories.




A real antique fiction today, first published in 1960, much reprinted and much awarded, and I've just realised that it's Edel Wignell's copy that I bought in the secondhand bookshop! Isn't it a lovely cover? This edition is from 1972.

Nan Chauncy's Tangara is a problematic read today, but in its time it was extraordinarily sympathetic to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, who were widely regarded even then as 'extinct.' It's a time slip story of sorts, and along with young Lexie, we see the original Tasmanians living in their old way -- hunting, sharing, telling stories, playing, bickering. Chauncy carefully researched her subject before writing to get the details right, but of course the biggest fact of all is wrong: the Tasmanian Aborigines did not 'die out,' despite the best efforts of the colonists. This assumption casts a melancholy, mourning air over the entire story, but most of the (white) characters are horrified by what happened and generally sympathetic to the 'vanished people' and quite honest about their appalling treatment. There is even a massacre, though it occurs off-screen, but the lonely figure of Merrina, always waiting for her people to return, is truly heart-breaking.

I wouldn't recommend Tangara to children these days, but it's not a bad read for adults, especially readers who want to be reassured that a) there were people who cared, even in the bad old days, and b) that we have travelled a long way since then.




Susanna Clarke's novel Piranesi has been on my radar for a while, but I had a vague impression that it might be long and abstruse and difficult to penetrate, so I didn't go out of my way to get hold of it until a friend from book group (thanks, Pam) told me she thought I might like it. And I did! 

Piranesi was none of the things I feared it might be -- it was fairly short, entertaining, engaging and original. It takes the form of a diary, of a young man who lives in a vast house, empty of everything but mysterious statues and the in-rushing sea, and the Other, whom he sees from time to time but who is busy on his own researches. The mystery of this young diarist's identity, the nature of the House and how he has ended up there, unfold in an intriguing speculative fiction that has magical and philosophical elements, but is ultimately grounded in the real world. As more visitors appear in the House (which seemingly stretches for kilometres in every direction, made up of immense Halls and Vestibules, and the odd abandoned skeleton), 'Piranesi' comes to question everything he has taken for granted, and his whole reality is turned upside down.

Piranesi is beautifully written and elegantly designed and I was sorry when my wander through its majestic, mysterious and chilly halls was over. I'm counting it as adult fiction, but it could be young adult, too. One of the best books I've read this year.


Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone


This book was so much fun! Benjamin Stevenson has a background as a standup comedian, and this sharp, clever, very funny book plays with murder mystery tropes in a hugely satisfying way. Our narrator, Ernest, writes ebooks about how to write murder mysteries, presenting us at the very beginning with Ronald Knox's 10 Commandments from the Golden Age of murder writing (eg no supernatural agencies, no more than one secret room or passage, no inaccountable intuition on the part of the detective etc) -- in short, the author is obliged to play straight with the reader.

Ernest arrives at a family reunion at a ski resort, but it's a family reunion with a twist -- his brother has just been released from jail, and it's Ernest's evidence that sent him there. It turns out that all the members of the Cunningham clan have dark secrets, motives for murder and for gaining access to large sums of money, and the story takes many twists and turns (and a few tricks) before the end.

Murder mystery fans will get the most enjoyment from this playful and accomplished novel and particularly Ernest's asides to us, the readers. He alerts us at the start to the pages on which deaths will occur, or at least be described, and only plays a couple of tricks with the list... But the mysteries at the centre of Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone stand up solidly in their own right, quite apart from the games and winks to the reader, which add an extra layer of delight. Bring on the next one!


Arthur at the Crossing-Places


A lovely deep green cover for the middle volume of Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur trilogy, Arthur At the Crossing-Places. Unfortunately the spine of my copy has faded to a nondescript shabby blue. 

This book, excellent as it is and beautiful as the writing is, suffers a little from middle-book syndrome in that both the Arthurs, King Arthur-in-the-stone and young Arthur our narrator, are marking time between the beginnings and ends of their stories. Arthur de Caldicot has discovered he is not his parents' child, and while he knows his true father is William de Gortanore, they mystery of his mother's identity has not been solved. But not much progress is made on this front, and Arthur spends most of this book waiting, waiting to find out more, waiting to join a Crusade, waiting to see if he and Winnie will be betrothed, waiting for an adventure to begin. 

Inside the magical stone, too, not much is happening that directly concerns King Arthur. Merlin has vanished and there is a procession of stories about various knights and ladies, jousts and dragons, deceptions and romance, which all blur into each other after a while. I'm more interested in young Arthur's personal story than all these indistinguishable battles and stolen kisses, so I admit I glazed over from time to time. Which won't put me off the last volume, King of the Middle March.


The Making of the British Landscape

Francis Pryor is familiar to me from Time Team, which has always been a family favourite show. The Making of the British Landscape is a hefty tome, more than 700 pages, as Pryor takes us on a whirlwind journey through British history and pre-history, examining the way that humans have shaped and given meaning to the landscape. It's inevitable that some sections of the journey seem too rushed for comfort, while others feel a little plodding (the parts I'm less interested in!)

I found the early parts of the book, dealing with the time before the arrival of the Romans in 43CE, the most fascinating, probably because this period is Pryor's own area of archaeological expertise. He argues convincingly that these early inhabitants viewed themselves as deeply embedded in a landscape soaked in sacred meaning and sustained by ritual (similarly to First Nations culture here in Australia before white invasion). Though there are areas of Britain that can seem untouched and wild, like the Highlands of Scotland, it's probably true that no corner of the landmass has been unaffected by human intervention, whether through farming, hunting, enclosure, building, mining or industry.

Pryor is at his most compelling when he takes a personal view, arguing passionately for the preservation of important sites, or for local freedom to manage and maintain local quirkiness and distinctiveness. He is a knowledgeable and entertaining companion on a long and complicated journey.




Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott's third novel, Limberlost, has been much shortlisted and won The Age Fiction Book of the Year. This is a small, quiet novel, and yet it's also huge. Closely following the events of one wartime summer, young Ned traps rabbits, saves up for a boat, misses his two brothers, away at war, cares for an injured wild quoll. But while the plot is almost negligible, the novel wrestles with big questions of masculinity, death, guilt and love, responsibility and freedom. We flash back and forward in time, to understand the origins and consequences of the choices Ned makes in this pivotal summer and end up seeing a whole life in the shape of this one season.

Arnott's prose is exquisite. He packs a heft of subtle beauty into each gorgeous paragraph; Limberlost is worth reading for the descriptions alone. While some of the characters may be less than satisfyingly fleshed out, the world of the senses, the river and the bush and the orchard, are richly realised. Arnott withholds the name of Ned's wife until a good way into the novel, but it wasn't hard to guess her identity, and this trick did pull me out of the story.

Now I'll have to check out Arnott's previous, equally lauded, novels. He's still a relatively young writer, and I'm intrigued to find out what he does next.


Gentian Hill

Another less-than-inspiring cover! Gentian Hill is the last in the batch of Elizabeth Goudge novels that I bought in Basement Books a few months ago, and I've been reading it on and off for what feels like forever. It's a long novel, with very small print, and while all the usual Goudge ingredients are present (a star-like, serious, elfin child; a faithful youth; lost babies who are eventually reunited with their rightful -- and noble -- parents; a jaded man who rediscovers the joys of life through the agency of the elfin child; a wise old eccentric lady etc etc, in Gentian Hill, for me at least, they failed to catch fire. Maybe I've overdone the Goudge oeuvre, but reading this novel felt more like laboriously ticking boxes than the serene, transcendent experience I've come to expect from the very best of Elizabeth Goudge's work.

Anyway, I've finally finished the damn thing! Girls Gone By are going to re-release Goudge's autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, later this year, and I'm looking forward to reading that again. But maybe I'll have a little break until then.


Catherine, Called Birdy

A new contender for the worst cover of all time? Catherine, Called Birdy was published in 1994, and has just been made into a film (which I would love to see, if my younger daughter hadn't imposed a ban on Disney in our house). The book has been in print for thirty years, and it's a wonderful, sprightly, funny, surprisingly frank diary of a young girl in medieval England. It pulls no punches on the topics of sex, death, and arranged marriage -- in fact I wonder if it would even be published in the US in today's climate.

But oh lord, the covers have not served it well. Too much like a Disney princess film; medieval Vogue, anyone?; strange and dark rather than funny and lively. In fact the best version is probably the film poster, which shows Birdy as a live, warm, breathing human girl.

It's interesting to compare Karen Cushman's novel with Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur diaries, set about a hundred years earlier, with the same conceit. Many of the details of daily life are similar, though as a boy and a squire, Arthur's experiences are not the same as Birdy's, but the main difference is in tone. The Arthur books are beautifully written, but they take themselves more seriously than Cushman's. I think young readers would do well to read Catherine, Called Birdy first, and if they get a taste for medieval life, give Crossley-Holland a try.