I heard about this novel on Radio National's Book Shelf when the author, Paul Daley, was a guest talking about someone else's book. But he was able to briefly mention Jesustown at the end of the show and I was immediately intrigued. Anything that explores the history of First Nations and white interaction on the Australian frontier is instantly interesting to me.

Jesustown is a fictionalised version of a part of Australian history. It's set in 'Arcadia,' which Daley has suggested could be anywhere 'above the Brisbane line.' Problematic Nathaniel Renmark, Renny, self-educated anthropologist, was the grandfather of popular historian Patrick, whose own life has spectacularly imploded. (I could certainly see shades of Patrick in a couple of broad-brush, 'story-ist' historians, but he is more extreme than any of them. I did find it hard to believe that any Australian historian, even one who's relocated to the UK, could find such a degree of popularity and notoriety that the tabloids would be obsessed with chasing him.) The story is mostly told by miserable, self-pitying Patrick, but we also hear Renny's voice through some audio cassettes, and it's via Renny's confessions that we learn the truth behind the legends of Jesustown.

Though the history of Jesustown is fictional, it draws on real events, like the Caledon Bay murders in the Northern Territory in the 1930s -- a story I'd never heard of before. Jesustown is also about generational trauma, not only in the First Nations community, but within Patrick's family, with military horror, trauma, brutality and parental neglect passing down through four generations. Hopefully Patrick has acquired enough insight by the end of the book to halt the process, but there is no easy redemption in this novel.


Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne: EDITED

I wish the word 'queer' would come back into fashion. It was such a handy, inclusive umbrella for all manner of sexualities and identities, without having to march through the seemingly endless parade of initials (which now admits defeat anyway, with a + tacked on the end to cover anyone who might have been forgotten). And it carried in its bones an implicit challenge, a bent agenda, to subvert whatever might be considered 'normal' or 'conventional.' Queer made room for everyone who felt themselves to be, for whatever reason, not quite straight.

I borrowed Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne for research purposes, but I found plenty of memories and some familiar faces as well as fascinating unknown stories inside. Secret Histories proceeds chronologically, offering stories from early Melbourne of cross-dressers, exclusive clubs, shadowy corners of parks and riverbanks, often only revealed in court records or tabloid newspaper stories. As the timeline moves into my own lifetime, I was reminded of particular nightclubs and bars, university societies, and advertising campaigns that featured in the landscape of my youth. 

I'm so happy that the archive material for a collection like this, for many years stashed in Graham Willett's garage, has found a proper home in the Victorian Pride Centre in St Kilda. The queer folk who
 stalk, sashay and march through these pages would be astonished at how far we've come, though however much territory is gained, it seems there is always a fresh battle to be fought.

EDIT to add: I was reading this book at exactly the time that the Four Corners program came out, questioning why not one AFL footballer has come out as gay in the whole recorded history of the game (except in AFLW, where it's not an issue at all). One of the final chapters was about the Pink Magpies, a Collingwood supporters' group which was mentioned during the show. It's so sad and disappointing that while the code as a whole and, it appears, individual clubs and players, are welcoming and accepting, it's the game's 'supporters' that seem to form the biggest obstacle to openess -- the internet trolls who don't need any more ammunition to make the players' lives a misery.)


The Joy of the Snow

I've been waiting ages for Girls Gone By to re-issue Elizabeth Goudge's autobiographical memoir, The Joy of the Snow, but it's taken so long, I got fed up and ordered it from World of Books. I knew that I'd read this book before, a long time ago -- maybe in high school? -- because I always remembered one section when Goudge singles out The Valley of Song as one of only three of her own books that she actually loves, even though as she admits it's a rather muddled and peculiar book. But the bit that stuck with me was when she says it was liked by a few children '(and how I adored those children).' I remember feeling so proud and special for being one of those select few, even though Goudge didn't know of my existence!

This is a quiet but lovely book which will mean a lot to Goudge fans but not much to anyone else, I fear. She writes beautifully about her childhood and youth, her parents, and particularly of the places she has lived, each of which has its own atmosphere and beauty and each of which she has used as settings for her novels. The power of Goudge's love of place and nature is deep and spiritual, and it's this that I most respond to as a reader, I think. She also writes very amusingly of how Green Dolphin Country unexpectedly won a major American prize (though she only received a small percentage of the money) and how this good fortune changed her life forever, much to the bemusement of her friends and neighbours. 

Goudge suffered all her life with anxiety and at times depression, and a modern reader wonders whether, with her extreme sensitivity and hatred of change, she may have been neuro-diverse? It was also interesting to read a chapter about ghosts and what Goudge calls 'ESP,' the very day after I'd been to see the play 2.22 A Ghost Story


Naked Ambition

Robert Gott's new novel, Naked Ambition, was just published this year, so I was quite surprised to find it in an op shop already -- maybe a book reviewer doing a clean-out? Their loss was my gain. Naked Ambition is a short novel with an entertainingly simple concept: Gregory is a young(ish) politician who has, against all common sense, commissioned a full frontal nude portrait of himself, to be entered in the Archibald Prize. All the women in his life -- his wife, his mother, his mother-in-law, his sister, his boss the Premier -- all think this is a terrible idea, for various different reasons, but Gregory insists on sticking to his plan. And then the portrait is stolen...

Naked Ambition unfolds almost like a play, with most of the characters assembled in one room and exchanging their views. There are really only a handful of scenes, so it wouldn't even be a very long play. I've enjoyed Robert Gott's previous work, his historical murder mysteries, also featuring self-centred, self-deluding men, and also his long-running cartoon series, The Adventures of Naked Man (what else!) It is funny to reflect on the disruptive effect of that simple thing, human nudity, and Naked Ambition neatly explores a variety of responses to Gregory's portrait. As usual with Gott's work, the women are far more intelligent and insightful than the men; but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll come out on top. Which is also like real life, unfortunately.


The Guinevere Deception

Back on the King Arthur bandwagon, and what a fabulous version Kiersten White's Camelot Rising trilogy seems to be! I actually started reading the third volume, The Excalibur Curse, first, but I was totally lost and decided I really had to go back to the beginning.

White's premise in The Guinevere Deception is genius: the real Princess Guinevere is dead, and in her place, Merlin sends his own daughter (we don't learn her original name, at least not in this book) to protect Arthur from magical attack. Merlin himself has been banished from Camelot, and all use of magic has been outlawed there, rather against Arthur's own wishes. So our Guinevere is immediately in danger on two fronts -- her identity as Merlin's daughter must be kept secret, and also the fact that she is using her own magic to guard Arthur. She is also terrified of water -- why, exactly, we're not sure yet. 

I love the fact that Guinevere's magic uses knots, and later we discover another feminine version of magic using sewing -- a clever, almost invisible, female form of enchantment. In this version, Lancelot, the Queen's champion, also holds a secret, which is a nice surprise. I also enjoyed the twist that because Arthur and Guinevere's marriage is a sham, there is no sex and therefore no heirs will be produced -- a very good explanation for their traditional lack of offspring.

Naturally The Guinevere Deception ends on a cliffhanger, and I'm looking forward to part 2, The Camelot Betrayal.


The Twyford Code

Janice Hallett's second novel, The Twyford Code, was a recommendation from Angourie Rice on the ABC's Book Shelf radio show -- she described it as a young adult novel, but I don't think it is, and my library certainly shelves it in adult mysteries. It is, however, a huge amount of fun and a really original concept, wrapping mysteries within mysteries in an intriguing and engaging way.

Hallett's previous novel, The Appeal, was written in text messages, documents and emails; The Twyford Code presents us with the transcriptions of 200 audio files, recorded by recently released ex-convict Steven Smith on his son's old phone. The transcriptions aren't perfect; Bournemouth becomes 'bore mouth', Miss Iles becomes missiles, must've is 'mustard' -- this adds a quirky character to Steven's narration, as he recounts both his own personal history as a member of a crime gang, and embarks on the unravelling of an elaborate mystery: the Twyford Code of the title. Edith Twyford is a thinly disguised version of Enid Blyton -- an unfashionable author, reviled for her sexism and racism, but someone who apparently planted clues in her 'Secret Six' books which are reputed to lead to hidden treasure.

The combination of mystery, Enid Blyton and literary puzzles was irresistible to me and I was richly rewarded by this clever, layered and thoroughly enjoyable novel. I might have to check out The Appeal now, if it's as good as this one I won't regret it.


A Life in Frocks


Another unofficial borrowing from the Westgarth Blue Cross library! In A Life In Frocks, Kelly Doust has produced a charming personal memoir, tracing the course of her life through the clothes she's worn and loved (not all frocks). Obviously Doust takes fashion much more seriously than I do; I'd be hard pressed to remember most of the clothes I've worn over the years and (despite what my husband thinks) I don't buy many new ones. I used to buy a lot of my clothes from op shops but as I grow older, it's harder to find clothes that appeal. Doust does the same, but she has the advantage of being able to sew, so she can alter her retro and vintage finds to suit her better. (Learning to sew is one of those life skills that I've been vowing to acquire for a long time, but never seem to find the time to actually do.)

A Life In Frocks, with its pretty pink cover, is not trying to be anything more than it is -- a gentle, sometimes moving, sometimes amusing memoir that might nudge the reader into reminiscing about their own wardrobe.


The Ghost Theatre

The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman (brother of Richard) is a dazzling novel and an extraordinary read. Set in Elizabethan England, and in the world of theatre no less, it manages to only mention Shakespeare once: but if Shakespeare lived in this world, it's no wonder his plays were so richly imaginative. 

The universe of The Ghost Theatre is so teeming, sensuous and strange, it reads like a fantasy world. 'Flapper' Shay is an Aviscultan, a fringe religious sect who worship birds and see prophecy in the murmurations of starlings. 'Lord' Nonesuch is witty, daring and brittle. Together, they create the Ghost Theatre, an outlaw, dangerous theatre of the streets. But enemies abound and all is not as it seems...

A boyish girl and a feminine boy find love and comfort in each other's arms, but Shay and Nonesuch are carrying such burdens of betrayal, deprivation and desperation that a happy ending seems impossible. But the minor characters are just as vivid and memorable: from Devana the falcon to Evans the entrepreneur with his glass-walled palace, from Queen Elizabeth herself with her painted face and ruthlessness to sweet, gifted Trussell -- it's a cast to conjure magic with. The Ghost Theatre might not be historically accurate but it's a story to set your imagination on fire. Highly recommended.


Firewatcher: Brimstone

The first in a trilogy, Kelly Gardiner's Firewatcher: Brimstone weaves together not one but two exciting historical events in a neat time slip structure. When Christopher Larkham finds a mysterious ring on the banks of the Thames in the London Blitz, it seems to give him the power to travel back three hundred years to the Great Fire of London in 1666. Kit darts back and forth between two cities in fiery extremis, using his knowledge of the past to combat the slow-moving but catastrophic seventeenth century blaze -- but he also has to contend with the sinister Brother Blowbladder and his evil plans.

There is plenty of action in this fast-paced adventure, and the other volumes in the Firewatcher series take Kit further back in time, to Saxon Lundenwic and Roman Londinium. I love the concept of getting two historical timelines in a single book, and the idea of linking fires from different eras. An engaging story for younger readers.



Anna Funder's Wifedom is an extraordinary book. (Thank you to Chris for lending it to me so I didn't have to sit in the library queue for months -- currently 102 reserves!) It's doing several things at once: telling the story of George Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a fascinating woman in her own right; examining the way that she has been erased from Orwell's history, both by Orwell himself and by subsequent biographers; and a reflection on the largely invisible work that most women do, whether it's supporting and encouraging an artist, or the simple and unsung caring work that seems inevitably to fall to women's lot (childcare, elders, spouses, siblings...)

I was very cross when I read a review of Wifedom in The Saturday Paper, that seemed to be berating Funder for failing to acknowledge sufficiently Orwell's genius. Well, Funder does acknowledge the value of Orwell's work, not just once but many times through the book; but on re-reading the review, it dawned on me that the reviewer seemed to under a fundamental misapprehension. He (yes, it was a he) seemed to think this was another biography of Orwell, this one focusing on what a bastard he was to his wife, and pleading for greater 'balance' by asking the author to admit that he wrote amazing books as well as being a bastard. Well, no. This is a book about Eileen, not George -- that's actually the whole point.

Quite apart from being a skilful, witty writer herself, and improving the quality of Orwell's writing (all his biographers admit his prose style improved markedly after his marriage), quite apart from creating the peaceful, organised domestic environment that he required to work, Eileen was the real performer when the duo travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War. Though Orwell was terrified at the time, and for the rest of his life, that Stalinists were going to assassinate him, it's far more likely that they were targeting Eileen, who actually worked in the POUM office and would have possessed far more valuable information than George, who did little more than get himself wounded.

But Funder's most outstanding achievement in Wifedom is to show the sleights of hand, the judicious use of the passive voice ('passports were obtained...dalliances occurred...') to blur or erase Eileen's positive actions, and to do the same for Orwell's less admirable ones. If nothing else, it seems that Eileen had a huge part in creating Animal Farm, a work markedly unlike any other Orwell ever wrote, and for that alone, we have much to thank her.


I Have Some Questions For You


I enjoyed this novel SO MUCH. My interest was initially piqued by some Facebook discussion of the fact that one of the characters in I Have Some Questions For You shares a name with a prominent character in Antonia Forest's Marlow series: the murder victim is called Thalia Keith. Now, Thalia Keith is not a common name, and frankly I don't believe Rebecca Makkai when she claims that it's a complete coincidence; however, it seems that some characters were named by winners of a fundraising auction, so I'm guessing that's how Tim Keith weaseled her way into a starring role in this book.

However, I Have Some Questions For You, with or without Thalia Keith, is a brilliantly satisfying read. It skilfully combines dual timelines -- the present, in which alumna Bodie Kane returns to Granby school to take a podcasting course; and the past, in which she remembers the murder of a classmate in the 1990s. There is a lot going on in this novel, quite apart from the murder mystery. Makkai interweaves issues of cancel culture, sexual and racial politics, class, memory (not just for the facts of the fateful night or the months that led up to it, but the past students' memories of their own identities -- was Bodie a cool, even 'scary' Goth, or an awkward misfit? Was golden girl Beth Docherty effortlessly popular, or mired in misery? Was music teacher Denny Bloch (the 'you' of the title) an inspiring teacher, or a sexual abuser, or worse?)

I galloped through this thick book at top speed; luckily, I had a busy week, or I would have just sat down and devoured it from beginning to end. Makkai resists the temptation for easy solutions to the moral and ethical questions she poses here, and her prose is gorgeous. I hate to compare novels (at least in terms of quality), but I couldn't help contrasting Makkai's book with another adult novel I read recently (a very successful one) and the difference is chalk and cheese. I Have Some Questions For You is lots of fun, but it's also grown-up literature.


There's A Good Girl


I had a feeling I'd read Marianne Grabrucker's There's A Good Girl before and parts of it were definitely familiar, but it must have been thirty years ago, and having had two daughters in the interim, it certainly bore a revist. Subtitled Gender Stereotypes in the First Three Years of Life: A Diary, this memoir really covers about two years of Grabrucker's daughter's life, from the time she starts speaking until she starts pre-school and Grabrucker returns to full time work after Anneli turns three.

Although the diary was mostly written in 1983/4, and some observations have dated, it's horrifying to see how many still feel relevant forty years later. Perhaps Anneli's grandmothers might not be so keen to encourage her to play with dolls (or perhaps they would!), and perhaps the mothers of the little boys that Anneli plays with might not stress so hard the need for boys to not cry; and parents of both sexes might be less relaxed about the violence that the little boys mete out on the girls, and might not insist that the children have to 'work out their squabbles for themselves.'

In daily entries, Grabrucker observes and records the hundred little nudges that small children experience, pushing them toward inflexible gender roles: the advertising billboards that show naked women and powerful men; the fathers who fix things around the house; the urge to dress up little girls and tell them how pretty they look; the little boys who get away with snatching toys and how the girls are told to 'hold on more tightly next time.' Even for progressive, feminist German parents in the 1980s, who are convinced that they're bringing up boys and girls the same, and who are well aware of stereotypes, time and again they fall into the trap.

This is a slim book but it packs a punch far more powerful than its size suggests. Well worth reading, or re-reading, even now.



Clair-de-Lune was a fortuitous op shop find, because this is a book I've been meaning to read for a long time. I became Facebook friends with Cassandra Golds after meeting her once years ago, I adored The Museum of Mary Child, but Clair-de-Lune was written in 2004. Golds and I seem to have had quite similar tastes in childhood reading (ballet books, Narnia, the incomparable Nicholas Stuart Gray) and Clair-de-Lune combines the most magical elements of my favourite books into one irresistible package.

It's a fabulous story -- by which I mean, it's like a fable. Small, silent Clair-de-Lune lives in a tall old building filled with mysterious inhabitants in a city that seems quite like Paris. She lives with her grandmother in genteel poverty, just like Sylvia and her great-aunt in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, except that Clair-de-Lune's grandmother is mean, unlike Sylvia's gentle aunt. Two of the most mysterious inhabitants are the kind monk, Brother Inchmahone (yes, there is a whole monastery secreted in the building, behind a stone door) and the chatty, excitable mouse Bonaventure, whose dream it is to start a ballet school for mice. (Shades of Narnia's gallant Reepicheep!)

To say more would be to spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Clair-de-Lune, most unexpectedly, made me cry. I'm a jaded old reader these days and I can't remember the last time I cried at a book, but Clair-de-Lune did it. This book is a gorgeous treasure, old-fashioned in the best possible way.


Davita's Harp

What a miserable-looking girl! There are more appealing covers for this novel out there, but this is the one I picked up from Brotherhood Books in the middle of my Chaim Potok binge last year. Maybe I'd overdone it because I started reading Davita's Harp months ago and then abruptly gave up -- I couldn't handle yet another story of a morose child in dismal 1930s New York, struggling to understand the threatening rules of the adult world. So Davita's Harp has sat sadly on my reading pile with a bookmark near the start, until I relented and picked it up again.

Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood back then, maybe I had spent too long in Potok's world and needed a break, but this time around I quickly became absorbed in Davita's world and this novel might even have become my favourite of Potok's works. For one thing, it actually features a girl as the main character -- the only one of Potok's novels to do so. It also approaches his usual material -- orthodox Jewish community, politics, not fitting in, parents and children -- from a different angle. This time, the family are outside the Jewish community: Davita's Jewish mother has renounced her faith, driven to rebellion by an abusive, sexist father, and married a non-Jewish man, Davita's father. The usual central relationship in Potok's novels is between father and son; this time, it's mother and daughter. It's almost as if Potok challenged himself to break all his own rules! And instead of the central character chafing against the strict demands of Hasidic Judaism, this time Davita finds herself drawn toward the comfort of ritual and community, and gradually coming to embrace her Jewish identity, while still clashing with its misogynistic assumptions and injustices.

I found the background of Communist party activism and the Spanish Civil War fascinating, and it was timely in that I also recently watched Oppenheimer and began reading Anna Funder's book Wifedom about Eileen Blair, George Orwell's wife, and her involvement in Spain. It's so weird how these things seem to converge, time and again, without any conscious effort on my part!