The Joy Thief

One of my children has been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and I'm fairly sure that my father also has it -- or more likely, after reading The Joy Thief, he seems to have the subtly different Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Anyway, this is all new territory so I thought I'd better start educating myself. Luckily for me, Penny Moodie's book has just come out. (How weird is this? I heard Penny discussing her book and OCD on the ABC radio's Conversations show just after I started reading The Joy Thief, and the guest on the very next day was Pip Williams, whose book The Bookbinder of Jericho I'm also reading! Spooky, eh?)

OCD sucks. We're used to thinking of it in movie cliches of endless hand-washing or counting, but it's probably more accurate to focus on the unwanted, obtrusive and distressing thoughts that spark off the protective rituals. Thoughts that go round and round, thoughts that don't go away, thoughts about forbidden desires or bizarre urges, thoughts about danger and harm striking loved ones (this one I can relate to). The only thing that seems to temporarily quiet the obsessive thoughts is performing the compulsions -- and the compulsions can also be thoughts. But the catch is, the more you perform the compulsions, the more you 'feed the lion' and the stronger the unwanted thoughts become.

Moodie is a strong advocate for ERP therapy (Exposure and Response Prevention), which essentially means sitting with the uncomfortable thoughts and not performing the soothing compulsive actions, until the brain is gradually retrained to tolerate the thoughts. The important thing to remember for a carer or support person is not to offer reassurance, because that is also feeding the lion -- a difficult thing to resist, because of course your first impulse when you see someone you love hurting is to try to reassure them.

I feel sure there is a long road ahead but The Joy Thief is a terrific insight and a great place to start.


The Lives of Christopher Chant

Being unwell entitles one to comfort reading, right? In the past I've turned to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Antonia Forest for convalescent nourishment, but this time I fancied a bit of Diana Wynne Jones. I should revisit her work more often: God, she's good! The Lives of Christopher Chant is chronologically the first, but in publication terms the second, volume of the Chrestomanci series, outlining how Christopher Chant first became the heir to the title. 

Diana Wynne Jones is a master. Her writing juggles complex magical concepts and multiple worlds with deceptive ease, and if this book was any more tightly plotted, it would implode. Christopher is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist, but the rest of the cast are wonderful, particularly the living Goddess of Asheth and her incredible Temple cats. But the novel is so engaging, so witty and so clever, the reader doesn't realise how much she's packed in until you try to explain what's going on.

I enjoyed this book so much I went back to my bookshelf for more Chrestomanci and realised to my horror that I didn't actually possess any more (I have about eight Diana Wynne Jones books, mostly picked up in library book sales -- shame, Darebin libraries, shame! -- but no more Chrestomancis). So I've treated myself to a Kindle bundle of the whole lot and I'm looking forward to six more volumes of pure delight.


Rise of the Rocket Girls

Nathalia Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls was a loan from my younger daughter, who is a bit obsessed with the space race. This is a corner of history that I know almost nothing about (except through her!) and this book gives a fascinating glimpse into a bygone world. I didn't know that before microprocessors, humans doing the complicated maths required to calculate rocket and satellite trajectories were known as 'computers.' And at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, all the computers were women.

A couple of remarkable women at JPL made it a policy to hire only women as computers (nearly all the engineers were men) and they created a harmonious, relatively family-friendly workplace that was fun and exciting. Of course as time went on, the electronic computers replaced the humans. It strikes me that it seems to be mostly women's jobs that are eliminated by the march of technology -- switchboard operators, typists, computers. Is this because the women's work was seen as expendable, or because women were shunted into the boring, repetitive work that was easy for machines to pick up? I suppose robots have also replaced mostly men on the factory floor, so perhaps it's not a gender issue!

E and I are going to watch Hidden Figures soon, which tells the same story from a different angle. I'm looking forward to it.


A Proper Place and Hostages To Fortune

I've really enjoyed my time with Kevin and Sadie. Joan Lingard has created such an appealing young couple ; they are realistically impatient and frustrated with each other at times, but they always manage to come back together. They are a good team -- Kevin, steady and reliable, Sadie, bubbly and cheerful. I genuinely found myself admiring the way that Sadie makes an effort to make new friends wherever they go and embed their little family into the community.

A Proper Place opens with the couple (plus new baby Brendan) living in a couple of run-down rooms in Liverpool, before Kevin lands a job on a farm and they all move to the country. Hostages to Fortune finds him, alas, losing that job and the couple take to a camper van (I'd never heard one referred to as a 'caravette' before!) and picking up work where they can, before finding a prospect of a home where they might be able to settle down for good. While Kevin and Sadie's relationship is strong, it's sorely tested at  times by the difference in their religion, something they've managed to dodge until now, and especially by their families. Sadie's mum barges in to visit from time to time, much to Kevin's discomfort, while Kevin's mother has gone downhill rapidly since his father's death (it seems as if she's succumbing to dementia) and troublesome siblings turn up on Kevin's doorstep for him to deal with. His mother never brings herself to even acknowledge his marriage, and can't understand why he can't just come home to help her.

I think my favourite part was when new hippie friends Matt and Angelica suggest that Kevin's wayward sister 'just needs love,' which a modern reading of the text definitely supports, but which just bewilders Kevin and Sadie! Hostages to Fortune left some loose ends (particularly regarding that difficult sister) and I wonder if Lingard ever intended to continue Kevin and Sadie's story -- by this time, though, they were probably getting too old to justify being in YA novels, even under the imprint of Puffin Plus.


The Good Parents

Another novel that's been lurking in my wardrobe pile for a shamefully long time. I bought The Good Parents on the strength of loving Gilgamesh (though I can't now remember much about that first book!), and Joan London's writing is so quietly beautiful.

The Good Parents is not exactly an eventful book, in fact it's quite static, written in small vignettes that focus on each character in turn, which has the effect of making them all seem isolated in their own separate world. When eighteen year old Maya vanishes, her parents Jacob and Toni at first wait passively for her to return, then each find their own way of dealing with her disappearance. Gradually we learn about Jacob and Toni's own youthful pasts, the baggage of their histories that they carry with them, the ways they've tried to escape. This novel is all about attempts to escape -- from parents, from expectations, from responsibilities.

Reading The Good Parents is quite a meditative experience, like sipping a flavourful soup -- you want to hold each mouthful for a while before you swallow it. (Forgive my strained metaphor, I'm blaming Covid brain...) There's not much plot, is what I'm trying to say, but the beauty and gentle strength of the writing makes up for it.


The Best We Can Do

The attentive reader of this blog will notice that I'm getting through a lot of books at the moment. There's a reason for that: I have bloody Covid, so I'm spending all my time lying on the couch reading. Ah well, silver lining to every cloud etc.

The Best We Can Do is such an odd little book. I bought it in my recent rush of infatuation with Sybille Bedford, and while her voice is still there, it's much more muted than it was in Jigsaw (which was published just after this book). The Best We Can Do is pretty much straight reportage of a trial that was a cause celebre in 1957, a very rare trial of a medical professional, a doctor who was accused of giving one of his patients, a rich old lady, an overdose of opiates to hasten her death. Much turns on nuances here -- did she die by overdose of morphine, or from natural causes after a stroke? Was the overdose given deliberately, accidentally on purpose, from compassion for her suffering, or in cold calculation with a legacy in mind? Dr Adams chose not to testify, and this case became important in establishing a precedent that such silence should not be held against the accused.

I must say I wasn't very impressed with the look of Dr Adams, he looks like a smug toad to me, judging from the photo on the cover. Sybille Bedford was convinced of his innocence, but according to Wikipedia it's pretty much accepted now that he was not just a murderer but a serial killer, 'hastening' the deaths of many rich old ladies and accumulating many handy legacies from their estates. Though true crime already existed as a genre in the 1950s, apparently Bedford was the first writer to see the potential for drama in an account of the trial alone -- we experience it just as any observer in the court might, or like a member of the jury, with Bedford's help to imagine tones of voice, ripples of consternation, satisfied smiles. 

From Jigsaw, I went into this book already knowing of Bedford's fascination with the justice system, and her personal experience of morphine addiction (via her mother). Neither of these are explicitly mentioned in The Best We Can Do but for me, they cast a shadow on every page.



Borderland is the kind of book I've very excited about, and I'd love to see many more of them. Graham Akhurst's debut YA novel is the story of Jono, a young First Nations man who is not connected to his Country or his tribe -- educated at a prestigious, mostly white, private school and now attending an Aboriginal performing arts college, Jono isn't sure where he belongs. Constantly swooped by magpies and haunted by a mysterious dog-headed figure from the darkness, Jono finds himself out in the desert and events begin to escalate.

Borderland is politically aware, spiritual, a little bit romantic, a family drama, and a coming of age story. As a fantasy writer, I was most interested in the skilful way that Akhurst has woven strands of authentic cultural material with imagined lore to create a gripping, multi-dimensional young adult story. It's described as gothic horror -- I'm not sure how accurate that label is, but there are certainly some very creepy moments!

Young Australian readers of every background need and deserve more novels like this, that help us all to understand the spiritual connection to Country and give us a deeper appreciation of First Nations experience.


The Round House

It sometimes happens that I'll buy a book but I don't get around to reading it until weeks or even months later. This was the case with Louise Erdrich's The Round House which as been sitting at the bottom of my wardrobe for ages -- I actually thought it was a YA book until I pulled it out and realised it was an adult novel.

I guess the spur for finally reading The Round House was that I've been watching a terrific crime series on SBS called Dark Winds, which is also set on a Native American reservation, in this case Navajo, while The Round House is set on Chippewa land. This has sparked a hitherto dormant interest in Native American culture, and I guess I'm intrigued to see if there are any parallels between Australia's First Nations peoples and the indigenous population of a different country. Certainly the history of dispossession, attempted genocide and oppression is similar, but so is the toughness and the survival of culture and spiritual beliefs and ceremony.

The Round House is such a fantastic, powerful novel, narrated from the point of view of 13 year old Joe (coincidentally also the name of the main character in Dark Winds), whose mother is brutally attacked in the first few pages of the book. This event is the catalyst for Joe's coming of age, his learning about the history of his community, and his realisation of the double standards of white and Indian justice (another recurring theme in Dark Winds). This is a beautifully written and moving story, sometimes funny, often dark, and I'm so glad that I finally picked it up off the bottom of the wardrobe.


QAnon and On

Van Badham's timely and horrifying book is subtitled A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults (at nearly 500 pages, it's not that short, actually, though it is extremely readable). To research QAnon and On, Badham did a deep dive into the dark corners of the internet, and she's painstakingly traced the shadowy origins and bewildering proliferation of online conspiracy theories. I was vaguely aware of something called Pizzagate, Gamergate and that Q was some kind of (probably imaginary) evil mastermind who whipped his followers into frenzies, but seeing the detailed timeline spelled out clearly was indeed shocking and disturbing. 

Perhaps the culmination of conspiracy thinking was the January 6th assault on the White House during which several police and protesters died. It's hard to unpack exactly how much Trump was responding to online calls for action from the likes of Q, and how much he was encouraging them -- perhaps it doesn't matter, because the end result is a tangle of hydra-headed and self-reinforcing spiral of lies and panic. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect is how quickly someone can be sucked into the quicksand of delusional belief, and how eager they can be to act on it: Badham outlines some tragic cases. There was the man who turned up at an innocent but demonised pizza restaurant, heavily armed and ready to rescue the children he was convinced were being held captive there. There was the woman who marched on the Capitol to support Trump and ended by losing her life.

Badham's advice for those who have lost loved ones down internet rabbit holes is to not break contact with them, however tempting that might seem, but to remain connected and gently remind them that there is a world beyond the closed universe of conspiracy message boards. One might even call it the real world.


The Bad Quarto

I treated myself to the final Imogen Quy mystery by Jill Paton Walsh, The Bad Quarto, published in 2007. Imogen is, as usual, warm and restful company, though I found this time that the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall rather haphazardly around her and only fit together satisfactorily at the very end.

I did enjoy the Night Climbers of Cambridge -- apparently a real thing -- a secret society of daredevils who reminded me of the Cave Clan here in Melbourne, but devoted to scaling towers and rooftops rather than tunnels and drains. The element of expert medical evidence, declaimed so confidently in court, resonated spookily with another book I've been reading, Sybille Bedford's The Best We Can Do, her groundbreaking account of a trial for murder of a doctor in the 1950s, which relied heavily on... expert medical evidence, though the three experts all disagreed with each other. This story hinges on a performance of the so-called 'Bad Quarto' of Hamlet -- a much shorter version of the famous play than we are used to, which was intriguing.

I was happy to leave Imogen at the end of her latest adventure, apparently secure in her job of college nurse, safe in her little house with lodgers Fran and Josh upstairs for company. She is an unusual model of self-sufficient, busy and contented womanhood -- never pining for sex or romance, or feeling herself incomplete without a partner, but keeping herself happily occupied with friendships, acts of kindness and mysteries to piece together. A modern Miss Marple, perhaps, who can pride herself on a useful career rather than needing to busy herself with village gossip! I'll miss her.


Into Exile

A few months ago I read The Twelfth of July, the first volume in Joan Lingard's Kevin and Sadie series, about a pair of star-crossed lovers in Belfast during the Troubles. And then the other day I was walking past a street library and saw volumes 3, 4 and 5 just sitting there. It was like a sign...

So now I've read volume 3, Into Exile, which sees Sadie (17) and Kevin (19) married (!!!) and living in London. Obviously I've missed the events of volume 2 which have seen them fall in love, against the opposition of both families, and run away together (references in Into Exile hint at the cost of this decision). Published in 1973, it's an extraordinary time capsule: Sadie is working in a department store, spending most of her days bored and idle behind the counter; Kevin gets a job in a radio repair shop (radios barely exist anymore, let alone repair shops). I loved the portrait of multi-cultural London, with families from India, Pakistan and the West Indies jostling in the couple's lodging house. They don't have a telephone in their single rented room. When Kevin is called back to Belfast, they can only communicate by letter or telegram; there's no chance of a chat to smooth over misunderstandings. And they are so young! And so isolated, far from home and family.

At the end of the book they are reunited in Ireland, and Kevin has made the agonising choice between the needs of his family, and his commitment to his young wife. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Kevin and Sadie.


The Things That Matter Most

I heard Gabbie Stroud talking on the radio about her new book, The Things That Matter Most, but I must have only been half-listening because I didn't pick up that it's fiction, not non-fiction. Stroud is an ex-teacher and has already written a couple of non-fiction books on the subject, so perhaps that's where my confusion arose.

This is a terrific, lively, easy to engage with novel which starkly dramatises the issues teachers face --overwhelmed with box-ticking, pointless admin and besieged by demanding parents and media, as well as their own personal dramas, they find themselves with less and less time to really connect with the students themselves. As one small family falls through the cracks, each staff member at the primary school sees part of the picture, a couple of little clues, but because there is no space or time to put it all together, the result is a tragedy.

Teachers have a really tough time, and they shoulder the blame and responsibility for a lot of social problems that really shouldn't need to be their core business. They work bloody hard and they don't get paid nearly enough. The system is cracking under the weight. In the course of my working life, I see a lot of very well-resourced schools, with amazing staff and wonderful facilities, but I'm well aware that there are also amazing staff in schools with leaking classrooms and outdated computers. It's not good enough. All our children deserve the very best -- thank God that teachers do the incredible work that they do, but we need to reward them properly.


The Country Child

I knew that Alison Uttley was probably best known in her lifetime for her books for young children, including The Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig -- I haven't read any of those. The only book of Uttley's I know really well is A Traveller in Time, for older children, which absolutely enchanted me at the age of about ten. Published in 1939, it's about teenager Penelope who finds herself time-slipping to Elizabethan times and becoming involved with the Babington family in a (real) plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots. This was perhaps my first exposure to time slip and I was utterly bewitched. Alas, when I revisited A Traveller in Time as an adult, I was disappointed -- the magic had evaporated and I found the story laboured and dull.

However, I retain enough residual affection for my childhood reading experience to pounce on the semi-autobiographical The Country Child (1931) when I saw it at the op shop. It's still in print, which surprised me, because there's no plot here at all and it seems like the kind of book that would appeal more to an adult audience than to a contemporary child, an adult audience who enjoys lyrical nature writing with a dose of rural history thrown in. Young Susan communes with the trees and the kitchen furniture, she accidentally invites fifty girls home for tea, she observes the rituals of harvest and spring and Christmas with the (adult) household of the isolated farm. I found I had to treat it like a meditation and relax into the lack of incident before I could completely enjoy it.

I also hadn't realised what a tragic life Uttley had. Her husband died by suicide a year before this book was written (partly as an act of solace, perhaps) and her adult son also killed himself, after Uttley's own death. I read one article that subtly blamed Uttley for both these deaths, suggesting that she was 'jealous' and 'bitter' and 'difficult to live with,' using quotes from her diary to support this view, which seems a little unfair to me. If you can't pour out your bitterness into your private journal, then nowhere is safe! Perhaps I'll have to read her diaries and make up my own mind.



For some reason, it's taken me ages to get around to reading Michelle Obama's autobiography, Becoming; it's been sitting on my To Read pile for about a year. And then when I did start it, I took my time over finishing it, reading a couple of other books in between. This is not because it was hard going: it's totally engaging, warm and energetic -- much as I imagine the former First Lady herself might be.

After the orange fool who succeeded the Obamas in the White House (and horrifically, looks like getting back in there for a second term), it was so heartening to read about a pair of highly intelligent, compassionate and determined people who are driven by the desire to achieve good things for society -- to build stuff, instead of tearing it down or making money for themselves. Michelle grew up in the South Side of Chicago, in a declining neighbourhood; but her family always encouraged her education and she ended up at Harvard before working as a lawyer, which is where she met Barack. Of course these two are massively high achievers, but they also come across as normal people, people you could imagine having dinner with. I could never imagine having dinner with the Narcissist-in-Chief.

I say this book was heartening, but it was also so depressing to think that the reaction of America to Obama's two terms was to elect someone so utterly different in every way, someone so intent on undermining everything that the Obamas had worked for. In the last few pages of the book, Michelle describes looking around at Trump's inauguration ceremony and seeing a sea of pale, male faces -- a contrast to the 'vibrant diversity' of her husband's two inaugurations, and a sign of things to come.


Such Stuff

Such Stuff (also on loan from Suzanne, thank you) is a new, improved and expanded version of Singing For Mrs Pettigrew, and it's the book that I first saw in a library on a school visit. Some of the stories are the same, but most are at least expanded, if not entirely new, and there have also been added some historical notes to supply the facts behind the inspiration.

I forgot to note when I wrote about Mrs Pettigrew, around the same time as I was reading Strangers at the Farm School, that Michael Morpurgo and his wife have actually run their own version of a farm school for many years! It's not a full time residential school, but more like a camp where students come to stay and experience farm life for a week at a time -- but still, pretty close.

Micheal Morpurgo describes himself as a story-teller, and in this book he gives a wonderful insight into the creative process, the way that fragments of ideas drift around the mind, click and connect, strike sparks off each other, or just sink and ferment sometimes for years before suddenly flowering into story. He excels at building stories, slotting layers of plot and character together. But for me, he is less gifted at voice and style -- as I read the various stories and novel extracts in Such Stuff, they all sounded as if they could have been written by the same person, whether the tale was told by a horse or a shipwrecked little girl or Morpurgo's alter ego when young. (I hasten to add, I know I'm guilty of the same fault myself, which is probably why I'm so acutely aware of it.) Nonetheless, Morpurgo is a master craftsman and he has amassed a body of work that he should be very proud of.


Romantic Comedy


I heard Curtis Sittenfeld's Romantic Comedy being discussed on the Radio National's Book Shelf (increasingly I discover new books through this show on a Saturday morning -- of course it's also a podcast). I duly reserved it at the library without being able to remember exactly what had sparked my interest -- which meant that actually reading it several weeks later became a delightful surprise.

Sally is a writer on The Night Owls (Saturday Night Live in very thin disguise) when she meets that week's host and musical guest, the intoxicatingly handsome and horrendously famous pop star Noah Brewster. Is there chemistry between them? Is such a thing even possible between such a handsome man and an averagely attractive, very intelligent woman?

I'm embarrassed to admit how much of my youth I spent wrestling with similar questions, convinced that anyone I fancied was automatically out of my league. It's hard not to conclude that Romantic Comedy is, on one level, pure Mary Sue wish fulfillment -- like me writing a novel about David Tennant falling passionately in love with me. It also strains credulity slightly that Noah could have turned out so emotionally literate and utterly perfect, as the child of two unpleasant parents followed by a life of pop star adulation. 

But who cares? Romantic Comedy is whip smart, witty, enormous fun and has a lot of opinions on gender and relationships. It also has excellent use of the pandemic as a plot device that contributes meaningfully to the story. I found it deeply satisfying and 100% enjoyable. I've been a bit suspicious of Rodham, Sittenfeld's controversial alternative universe life story of Hillary Clinton, but I think I might have to read it now.


Certain Admissions

I love Gideon Haigh's writing, though I've mostly read his cricket writing rather than his books on crime or business. Certain Admissions popped up as I was browsing Brotherhood Books and I checked if it was available at the library, and it was! 

I'd never heard of this notorious 1949 Melbourne murder case, but when I picked up the book from the library, my mum immediately said, 'I remember this,' and started flicking through it. She would have been a young teen at the time of the crime, but since it sprawled over three trials and the convicted man continued to attract media attention long into his sentence, she would have been aware of him for a long time.

Beth Williams was brutally killed on a beach one summer's night and suspicion immediately fell on John Bryan Kerr, with whom she had spent the previous evening. He vehemently protested his innocence, the police were heavy-handed, and two juries were unable to reach a verdict; he was finally convicted, but released after a decade in jail. He was known as the 'Prince of Pentridge' -- a debating star and radio personality. The fact that he was young, handsome, and well-educated no doubt swayed public opinion; but the notoriety he so carefully cultivated followed him around long after his release from prison. But did Kerr do it?

It's always a bit of a thrill to read a book set in your own hometown and I'm very familiar with the streets and suburbs featured in Certain Admissions. (One letter of protest was sent from a street metres from where I live.) I also visit Pentridge pretty often -- it's my local shopping centre and cinema these days, though when this book was written, it hadn't yet been redeveloped and Haigh was able to wander through the cells occupied by men like Kerr. I must admit I don't think I could live in a house built inside the grounds of Pentridge -- too many ghosts! Certain Admissions was a fascinating story in its own right, grippingly written by Haigh, but the fact that it's set in Melbourne did add an extra frisson.



 I'm not sure why Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw caught my eye when it appeared on Brotherhood Books, though the subtitle, An Unsentimental Education: A Biographical Novel, definitely piqued my interest. An author's (fictionalised?) memoir of her youth in the South of France in the 1920s? Right up my alley. I noted it down on my wish list.

And then, a day later, I was browsing real life books in our local op shop, and there was this same bright blue cover peering up at me, and only $2! It was obviously meant to be, and I brought Sybille Bedford home with me.

Well -- wow. I enjoyed this book as much as anything I've read for ages. What a story! Young 'Billi,' shunted across Europe between her stiff, sad German father and her beautiful, feckless, vivacious, mother, winds up in a small seaside French town with her mother and her mother's much younger, besotted husband Alessandro. They befriend the local characters and exotic visitors and enjoy various delightful and comic misadventures, until the last third of the book takes a darkly gripping turn, and I could barely put it down from then on till the final page.

This is so much my kind of book, I couldn't believe that I've never come across Sybille Bedford before. I immediately ordered two of her books online and if any more of them wink at me from a box in the op shop, I will dive on them with joy.