After the Lights Go Out

I'm a big fan of Lili Wilkinson, both as a person and as a writer (full disclosure: she lives a couple of streets away from me), but I think After the Lights Go Out might be her best novel yet. Lately I've read a few slightly underwhelming kids and YA books, but ATLGO is bloody near perfect. It's solidly constructed, tightly plotted, and smoothly written. It combines drama, romance, fraught family relationships and dystopian catastrophe with hope, kindness and compassion. Even though I'm not a massive fan of apocalyptic stories, I was carried along on the ride on the strength of the characters, and especially the appeal of the capable yet vulnerable protagonist, Pru. The scenario, which Wilkinson admits probably takes some scientific license, feels plausible yet horrifying, and its consequences unfold naturally but not predictably.

Pru's father is a doomsday prepper, and when his dire predictions seem to have come true, his daughters' first reaction is to groan that he will feel so smug. And yet his training proves to have been life-saving... up to a point. It's ironic that when this book was published in 2018, the real global catastrophe was still a couple of years away, and it took a very different form -- a pandemic rather than a massive electronics-frying electromagnetic pulse. And yet the same questions raised by ATLGO were so relevant to all of us -- how to strike a balance between protecting ourselves and helping others; what risks were worth taking; how much could we rely on outside agencies, and how much did we have to take care of ourselves; the ever-tilting seesaw between community and family and self-interest.

After the Lights Go Out is a fantastic read and it's restored my faith in young adult fiction! I note it was shortlisted for plenty of awards but annoyingly didn't actually win any. Grr.


Growing In To Autism

I've read a few of these 'lived experience' memoirs of autism now, and I found Growing In To Autism particularly engaging and relatable. Sandra Thom-Jones is a Melbourne academic, mother of two sons with autism, and someone who discovered her own diagnosis as an adult. Thom-Jones talks of 'growing in' to autism, as opposed to 'growing out' of it, and she often argues against attempts to 'train' children and young people out of their autistic comfort zone, for example, discomfort with eye contact or hand-shaking. Why don't we instead just teach everyone that some people aren't comfortable with eye contact, and work on that, rather than imposing the burden on the people with autism to change themselves?

The book is structured in a very readable way, with short chapters each focusing on a different aspect of Thom-Jones' personal experience: love of routine; food issues; facial recognition (or lack thereof!); special interests; sensory sensitivity. She begins each chapter with a personal anecdote, often quite funny, before leading into a general discussion of each issue. I must admit I found many of these aspects and habits very relatable -- if not for myself, then for one or both of my children. One of my daughters has been pressing for a diagnosis lately, and while I'm still not sure whether her wish is justified, Growing In To Autism may have nudged me closer toward following through.


The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart and Evie and Rhino

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart and Evie and Rhino: two books with more in common than meets the eye (though even the covers are quite similar, now that I look at them side by side), though the first is an adult novel and the second is middle grade. For a start, they each feature one of my daughters' names! They are both written by an Australian woman author. They both feature a selectively mute little girl who lives by the sea, has lost both parents and is in the care of a grandparent. They are both beautifully presented, with lovely illustrations, though one is filled with pictures of wildflowers and the other stars a little girl and a rhino. And they have both been very successful in their own genre: The Lost Flowers has been made into an Amazon miniseries, while Evie and Rhino has been shortlisted for the CBCA awards.

I have yet to see the Amazon version of The Lost Flowers, but I can clearly see what attracted the producers to the project. The book is filled with beautiful and striking imagery -- a house in flames, a craters filled with desert pea flowers, a rushing river, names carved in a river red gum -- and themes tailor -made for television audiences, particularly the horror of domestic violence, dark family secrets, and the phenomenal endurance of women. In Holly Ringland's debut novel, she has taken care to include First Nations lore and multi-national stories, which round out a powerful story. (The Lost Flowers also ties in beautifully with much of what I read in First Knowledges: Plants, like the use of certain plants to make adhesives, or for healing.)

Evie and Rhino is also a striking story, one based partly on a true incident in the nineteenth century where a ship carrying animals destined for the Melbourne zoo was wrecked on the Victorian coast. In real life, the rhino on board died soon after the wreck, but in Neridah McMullin's story, he survives and befriends young Evie and her household, who are soon drawn into a conspiracy to save the gentle giant.  It's a sweet tale about unlikely friendship, kindness and courage.


The Daughter of Time

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) is probably her best-known and most re-printed novel, and it's the book that pretty much single-handedly kicked off the movement to rehabilitate King Richard III. The novel has a cool and original structure, with our detective being bed-bound in hospital with a broken leg, and sending off various minions to do his research and discuss the results. Alan Grant seems to stay in hospital for WEEKS, so in that respect the book definitely shows its age! 

I've read The Daughter of Time a couple of times before, and I still find Tey's arguments pretty persuasive. In the middle of reading it, I (obviously) did some googling, and also listened to a The Rest is History podcast on the topic. Dominic and Tom were fairly scathing about the idea that Richard couldn't have murdered the princes because he was a good administrator and has 'a nice face' -- which is basically the foundation of Tey's argument; their view was that he probably did do it, but he kind of had to, given his circumstances. They didn't examine the version of history that Tey presents, which was disappointing, and I still don't know how accurate her facts are -- things like the timing of the rumour surfacing, why Richard wasn't accused immediately by Henry VII after the defeat at Bosworth, which I find more persuasive than the 'nice face' angle. I'd love to know if this is the accepted timeline or if more scholarship has emerged since Tey wrote her novel. Having read a few Josephine Tey novels in a row, it's clear that she's a big believer that faces are the key to personality, a belief that her detective Alan Grant shares, and I view that I cannot endorse.

So I wouldn't say I'm a hundred percent Ricardian, but I'm open to arguments either way!


Plants: Past, Present and Future

Plants: Past, Present and Future is the most recent publication in the First Knowledges series, this one by Zena Cumpston, Michael-Shawn Fletcher and Lesley Head. I am a big fan of this series, which presents short, manageable texts on various subjects, by First Nations experts. They're like tasters on the First Nations knowledge of astronomy, design, management of Country -- perfect for the layperson. They are often quite political, but appropriately so. For example, Plants is vocal on the topic of 'bush foods' and the way they are being appropriated by non-Indigenous businesses, sprinkled on top of 'normal food' like a garnish (sometimes literally), rather than being seen for what they truly are, nutritious and complete diets in their own right.

There are various chapters on different native plants -- spinifex, quandong, yams -- but I think my favourite section was 'Abundance' by Zena Cumpston, in which she forensically examines a photo of three people camped on Country, taken in the late nineteenth century, and picks out all the different plant-based items visible in the picture. There are nets made from bulrush fibre, digging sticks, coolamons, thatch on the hut, a grindstone, spears and boomerangs, bunches of leaves used as medicine, and more. This photograph illustrates with immediate clarity and force the degree of reliance of traditional peoples on plants; what it doesn't show is the reverse relationship, the degree to which First Nations peoples managed and curated Country to ensure that the plants and animals thrived and flourished, with the careful use of fire and practices like replacing yam-tops so the tuber would regrow. As Cumpston reminds us, Country is still here, even when it's hidden under urban sprawl, and we can still learn to care for and respond to it, even in our cities and suburbs.

I'm looking forward to reading the next volume in the series, Law, co-written by the formidable Marcia Langton, and I hope there will be many more volumes to come.


Summer Skin

Another book about college life -- pertinent to my current WIP. It was interesting to read a contemporary novel in this setting -- it seems somethings haven't changed much, despite all the lip service paid to issues of consent and respect. Kirsty Eagar's Summer Skin is primarily a love story, and a very sexy one. Our protagonists are nineteen, and each has some experience under their belts (so to speak), so it's not a first-love, discovery novel; but Jess and Mitch are still very young and relatively inexperienced, and they are each carrying a bit of personal baggage.

Summer Skin is smart and feminist, but I have to admit that I didn't initially find the troubled Mitch a particularly appealing personality. He kept on acting like a dick well past the point where I suspect in real life, Jess would have given him the flick. But of course he proves to be worth the hard work in the end. I enjoyed the Brisbane setting, which makes a change from the streets of Melbourne and Sydney, and the steamy Queensland summer is almost a character in its own right.

My library copy of Summer Skin has obviously been well-read, and there are many rave reviews on Goodreads, so it's good to know that this mature, explicit book has found its audience.


How To Be Both

I haven't read any Ali Smith books before. I thought perhaps I had, but now I suspect I was mixing her up with Monica Ali. And when I heard about the split structure of How To Be Both, I thought it sounded a bit gimmicky -- one half written from the point of view of a fourteenth century fresco painter, the other from the perspective of a newly grieving contemporary teenager, but with the two sections printed in one order in some copies, and the other way around in others. But what do I know? How To Be Both is sensational.

At first I thought I was going to struggle with this novel, because it's written with eccentric punctuation, no speech marks, and the first few pages (of my copy, at least) were more akin to poetry than prose, and I do historically find poetry Quite Hard Work. But the rhythm of the novel soon swept me away. It's about art, and history, and observing; it's about love, and loss, and memory; it's about women, and perception, and friendship; it's about family, and words, and pictures; it's about money, and fame, and reputation. And true to the promise of the premise, the two stories, while separate, reflect and resonate upon each other in unexpected and lovely ways. It wasn't a hard read at all, and I adored it. No wonder it won all the prizes. And now I have to read all the other Ali Smith novels I can find.


Sweater Quest

I picked up Adrienne Martini's memoir, Sweater Quest, from the seconds trolley at the library -- for a dollar, it was worth a punt! Though I must say that the subtitle, My Year of Knitting Dangerously, is a bit of an overstatement. My daughter asked me what it was about and I had to answer, 'well, it's about a woman knitting a jumper,' and honestly, it isn't much more than that. But I enjoyed this book a lot, and it did spur me to pick my own neglected knitting project again, so I'm calling it a win (and I suspect Martini would, too).

The jumper (eventually cardigan) that Martini spends her year trying to complete is no ordinary sweater. It's a Fair Isle pattern by notoriously prickly Scottish knitting designer, Alice Starmore. There is a lengthy account of the whole Starmore story (which I was unaware of), chronicling the designer's feud with various wool manufacturers and her fierce, and litigious, protection of her designs. And yet those designs are so complex, so colourful and original, they remain irresisiable, even though Martini herself admits that having knitted the damn garment, she will probably never wear it. See below for an image of the finished article:

I mean, it is pretty gorgeous, as an object, but I probably wouldn't actually wear it either. Anyway, Martini travels the country chatting to various knitting experts and community figures about crafts, women's work, creativity, life and connection, the role of internet knitting blogs and how-to videos in fostering a new wave of knitters, and lovey stories about the way the skill has been passed down, often from older relatives, so it becomes a family memory.

I don't think my grandmother was a knitter, but my mum certainly was. She made countless lovely little cardigans, hats, jumpers and bootees for my babies, until sadly it turned out neither of them could bear the feel of wool against their skin (we've kept them all, though). She taught me how to knit and she's still the one I run to when I get into a tangle, though she claims to have forgotten everything. Just recently I rescued her own knitting bag from storage at our own home, and who knows, maybe I'll end up knitting a pattern from her collection one day.


Drop Dead Healthy

I've developed a real fondness for A.J. Jacobs and his quixotic quests to know everything, live biblically, and solve every puzzle (though I haven't read that one yet). Drop Dead Healthy (2012) covers two years of Jacobs' life during which he strives to become the healthiest man alive, one body part at a time -- so we get chapters devoted to the ears, the nose, the lungs, the heart, the stomach, the back etc.

Jacobs is always entertaining company, and I enjoyed his attempts at bodily self-improvement. He changes his diet, starts eating with a small plate and little fork, starts working on a homemade treadmill desk (this habit seems to stick, and he becomes quite evangelical about it), takes part in a triathlon, and takes advice from a whole battalion of experts. In a handy appendix, he lists the ten best pieces of advice he received (shop at the edges of the supermarket; don't eat white food; eat protein for breakfast), and there's another appendix with tips for guerilla exercise (always take the stairs; literally run your errands). In fact, you could probably just read the appendices if you want health advice; but the point is to go on the journey with A.J. and his long-suffering family. I'm not the first to observe that his wife Julie deserves a medal.

There are a couple of sobering notes among the jollity. Jacobs loses his beloved grandfather and aunt during the project; ironically, his aunt is completely health-obsessed, compulsively avoiding toxins and consuming organic everything, and yet she succumbs to a particularly nasty cancer. No matter what precautions you take, something is going to get you in the end. Perhaps the trick is just to be as healthy and happy as you can before you get there.


Murder Must Advertise


I am losing my mind -- or it's true that e-books don't stick in the memory like physical books! Because it wasn't till I'd bought and re-read this copy of Murder Must Advertise that I discovered that I'd bought it on the Kindle and read it about five years ago. For proof, see here. And I still couldn't really remember who dunnit! So maybe my mind is going, after all.

Murder Must Advertise is one of my favourite Sayers novels. I enjoy the breezy, gossipy workplace setting, with people darting in and out of each other's offices and perching on desks chatting (certainly that was very like my last job), and all the fascinating period minutiae of preparing ads in the 1930s. Sayers was ahead of her time in bemoaning the commercialisation and shallow greed of modern society; the sentiment of those rants hasn't dated at all, though the content of the ads might have (it's all "Whifflets" and "Crunchlets" for Pym's Publicity!) 

Also, there's the superb cricket match at the end of the novel, one of the best in fiction, and pertinent to the plot, too. As I lay in bed listening to Ben Stokes cut loose on the final day of the Second Ashes Test last night, I couldn't help but be reminded of Lord Peter with his blood up, cutting and driving all over the ground. (That stopped me minding so much about the runs Stokes was accumulating -- and then we won anyway, so that was okay.) There's no Harriet, so that's a bummer, but I can overlook that just this once.

The only aspect that is, as the kids say, cringe, is Wimsey leaping around in a harlequin costume. Yeah, no thanks. I prefer his disguise as mild-mannered copy-writer, Death Bredon.