The Tea Ladies

Hm, do I notice a slight resemblance between the covers of The Tea Ladies and The Thursday Murder Club? There seems to be an emerging style for warm-hearted, cosy mystery stories. The Tea Ladies also has a group of four ill-assorted colleagues who are trying to solve the mystery, though in this instance they are a club of tea ladies: shrewd, sensible Hazel, scatty Betty, unkempt Irene with her criminal connections, and prim, judgey Merl (who soon turns out to be untrustworthy).

I really enjoyed The Tea Ladies and I love the idea that tea ladies know their firms inside out, being privy to secrets behind all doors and on all floors. There is added interest in that the novel is set in Sydney in 1965, in Surry Hills rag trade district, just at the moment that Jean Shrimpton tears up the rule book by wearing a mini-dress to the stuffy Melbourne Cup. How will the traditional dress firms respond?

There is quite a bit going on here, with the missing lady, the murder, the fire, the lying husband, the circus, the night club owner, the dodgy account books, the fashion revolution and the Russians. But Hazel herself is hiding another secret that took me by surprise -- and I pride myself on being able to spot this particular issue from a mile away. It certainly helps to explain why someone as smart and savvy as Hazel has ended up as a tea lady (not that there's anything wrong with that). The Tea Ladies is a lot of fun, and I wonder if Amanda Hampson is brewing up a sequel? (See what I did there...)


Conrad's Fate

Conrad's Fate was new to me (published in 2005) and it was heaps of fun. It started a little slowly but as usual, when Chrestomanci appeared, the story immediately took off. Actually Chrestomanci is not yet Chrestomanci in this book, he is still plain Christopher Chant, aged fifteen, but he is as self-possessed, charming and inventive as ever. Searching for a runaway Millie, he finds himself in the same world, and vying for the same job, as hapless Conrad (a rare first person narrator), both serving as trainee footmen at a huge castle which is plagued by periodic shifts in reality. This might result in all the postboxes turning from red to blue, or different books appearing on a shelf, and is known as 'pulling the probabilities.' Inevitably, money is revealed to be the reason behind all this -- in some ways, all the worlds of Chrestomanci can be depressingly similar.

Weirdly, just as I was reading Conrad's Fate, I started watching a TV series (based on a novel) called Shining Girls, where reality undergoes unexpected sideways shifts in an almost identical way. It's really quite spooky.

I do find it slightly odd that Diana Wynne Jones so rarely creates female central protagonists; though she often has interesting female characters, they're not often in the hero's role. Not a complaint, just an observation.


Across the Barricades

So this was the missing volume in my Kevin and Sadie series -- I'd picked up The Twelfth Day of July from Brotherhood Books, and found volumes 3, 4 and 5 in a street library. But Across the Barricades is the crucial book, the linchpin on which the whole series turns. This is the book where Kevin and Sadie, three years on from The Twelfth Day of July, meet again and become a couple.

Now Kevin is eighteen going on nineteen, and Sadie (I think) is sixteen or seventeen. Their relationship is very innocent: they go for walks up the hill, they catch the bus to the seaside, and eventually they meet each other at Sadie's former teacher's house, where she has a job as a cleaner. But the opposition they face, as a Catholic boy and Protestant girl, is fierce. Kevin is beaten up, Sadie is the subject of cruel gossip, but in the end it's their friend Mr Blake who pays the highest price for their love.

This is a very unsentimental book, in fact no one does use the word love. Deaths  and injuries mostly happen off screen. The most romantic line we get is when Sadie and Kevin admit they 'feel right' together. Knowing the difficulties they will face in the future, and the troubles they are leaving behind, it really is miraculous that they stick together, but the reader never doubts their loyalty to each other. In the later books, the Troubles are mostly far away, but this book brings them to shocking life. No wonder they decided to run away. 

I'm really happy to have collected the whole set, though I'm not sure the later books, when Kevin and Sadie are married with kids, even count as young adult! But these two always seem older than their years. Even at the start of Across the Barricades, they are both out of school and working for their living. At first I wondered if contemporary young people could relate to this world -- but then, they are well aware of conflict elsewhere. Recast Kevin and Sadie as an Israeli and a Palestinian, and it would be the same story today.



I bought Quicksands in the first flush of my Sybille Bedford infatuation, after devouring Jigsaw, her semi-autobiographical novel about her childhood and youth mostly in the south of France. Well, Quicksands is described as 'A Memoir' and it covers a lot of the same material, except this time (written twenty years later) using real names. It's interesting that she describes her writing method as pretty much just typing whatever's in her head (her eyesight is very poor) without planning or revision, because it certainly does read that way, as if she's sitting in the room with you talking, remembering, digressing, going off on tangents, sometimes repeating herself.

Jigsaw stops in about 1930 and Quicksands does cover some of her life after that date -- living in a weird shed-like apartment on top of a commercial building in Rome, various literary anecdotes (many of them about people I don't know) -- and of particular interest is the story of her marriage of convenience, which secured her British citizenship just before the outbreak of World War II. As a German-born half-Jew living precariously in France, her position was very vulnerable, until Maria Huxley (Aldous's wife) had the brainwave of marrying her to 'one of our bugger friends.' However, the whole plan almost fell apart when the registrar suspected it was a sham relationship, and a lot of frantic scurrying about was required before they managed to pull it off.

For me, Quicksands was worth reading for that section alone but it was probably a mistake to read it so hot on the heels of Jigsaw. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose Jigsaw, which has the structure and rhythms of a novel. It was interesting to contrast the two versions, though, and see where she trimmed and bent the facts to suit her form. She really had a most fascinating life and I'd love to have more of the gaps filled in (who was 'my painter friend?') but I guess I'll never know.


Mixed Magics

A slight entry in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Mixed Magics consists of four stories featuring the great enchanter to greater or lesser degree, published in 2000 to celebrate the reissue of the Chrestomanci series. 
I wasn't a massive fan of the first story, 'Warlock at the Wheel', a laboured comic tale of the Willing Warlock and his escapades in a world very similar to our own. The second novella, 'Stealer of Souls,' starring Eric Chant and Tonino Montana from The Magicians of Caprona, is much better, and takes up about half the volume. 

'Carol Oneir's One Hundredth Dream' was fun, though I was slightly sad that Christopher Chant as Chrestomanci had evidently almost completely forgotten Oneir, his only childhood friend at boarding school. Surely you don't forget the boy who takes one of your nine lives by whacking you with a cricket bat. 'The Sage of Theare' barely features Chrestomanci at all and was one of those logic puzzle stories that Diana Wynne Jones obviously enjoyed constructing, but which I personally find a little contrived and confusing for true pleasure (I'm thinking of Hexwood, which muddled the heck out of me).

Mixed Magics is nice to have, but not essential.


North Woods

Daniel Mason's novel North Woods was a recommendation from a guest on the ABC's Radio National Book Shelf show, and a very enjoyable read it was, too. As someone who has recently published a novel featuring several time-slip journeys within one house, a grown-up novel tracing the history of a single house over centuries was extremely appealing. 

I think North Woods was described as a 'polyphonic' novel; another very appealing genre. It's almost like a collection of short stories, in different voices and styles, chronologically following the building, extension, and slow ruin of a house in the remote woods of Massachusetts, beginning with a runaway pair of Puritan lovers and ending far into our future when the yellow house has disintegrated and burned to ashes. There are clever threads that resurface through the story, as bodies and lost letters are rediscovered and ghosts of past characters haunt the current inhabitants. It's never cutesy, though, don't imagine a literary version of Ghosts; in fact at times it's quite eerie and even edging into horror. The woods themselves are a constant vivid presence, which followed on very neatly from my reading of Braiding Sweetgrass.

Long ago I read Daniel Mason's first book, The Piano Tuner, for my then book group; it was a massive success, and notable for being written while Mason was still a medical student. I remember thinking it was all right, but it didn't blow me away (I was probably jealous, being then unpublished myself). North Woods is an entertaining, assured and accomplished novel which was hugely fun to read and was probably also a lot of fun to write.


Braiding Sweetgrass

What an extraordinary, beautiful, enlightening book. I'm so grateful for the recommendation from my book group friend Cathy. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American botanist and writer who braids these three strands into a generous, glorious whole. I'm really struck by the parallels between Native American spirituality, and First Nations Australian philosophy -- it shouldn't be surprising that first peoples share a similar attitude to caring for and gratitude toward the environment. Braiding Sweetgrass also emphasises an idea that I saw recently expressed in The Monthly magazine, that while it's tempting to think that 'wilderness' should be untouched by human involvement and left strictly alone, in fact these 'wild' areas thrive with judicious human management -- selective harvesting, selective burning actually helps the environment to flourish, and this light-handed tending is precisely where first peoples have thousands of years of experience.

Kimmerer is expert at explaining the science behind how plants work; her writing is never dry or difficult, and she marries the science with traditional stories and anecdotes from her own teaching and personal life to spark up her narrative. It's really a collection of discrete essays that build to a compelling whole. It's easy to despair at the state of our world and the terror of climate change, but Kimmerer holds onto hope, despite her clear-eyed recognition of the damage we have done. And her writing is just exquisite -- right up there with Robert McFarlane and Helen McDonald, my two favourite nature writers.

Braiding Sweetgrass is definitely one of my books of the year.


The Last Devil To Die

Months ago I read somewhere that the fourth volume in Richard Osman's Thursday Murder Club series would be the last. However, an afterword to The Last Devil To Die assures me that there will be more mysteries for the club to solve in the future; Osman is going to write some different books for a while, but the gang from Coopers Chase will return. Phew!

That news is a huge relief because it would make me very sad to think that we'd seen the last of our crime-busting geriatric foursome and their friends. The plot of The Last Devil To Die revolves around a big bag of heroin and a mysterious ugly box, but it almost doesn't matter what criminal shenanigans are going on, because the true heart of the story lies with Stephen, in the relentless grip of dementia, and the friendship between his ruthlessly efficient ex-spy wife, Elizabeth; shrewd, chatty Joyce; kind, insightful Ibrahim; and gruff ex-union boss Ron. I would happily read a book about these four going to the supermarket, I just enjoy their company so much.

I laughed, I cried, and I can't wait for the next one.


Consent Laid Bare

Hot off the presses, Consent Laid Bare feels so timely after a horrific couple of weeks that saw five women in ten days murdered by a male partner or ex-partner. But let's be honest, these statistics are always horrific, and they never seem to go down. It's six years since a dear friend of mine was murdered by her boyfriend, which sends every nerve jangling when I hear about another domestic violence incident -- and it feels like my nerves are jangled every single week, sometimes every day.

But to be clear, Chanel Contos' campaign (I always find myself calling her Chantal, apologies Chanel) is not against DV as such, but rather against sexual assault, and particularly that murky area of what she calls 'entitled, opportunistic rape,' where a male uses social pressure or emotional manipulation or an unspoken discomfort to pressure a woman into sex. I found out some shocking truths about the sex lives of the young by reading this book -- God, I'm so thankful that I didn't come of age in the time of social media and camera phones -- but it's equally shocking how little has changed in the last couple of generations. Some of Contos' arguments are Feminism 101; it's hard to believe that we still have to argue this stuff! But of course to Contos' peers, this is all fresh information, because those battles still haven't been won.

Two metaphors I loved: that being a woman in the world is like being a cyclist on the road. Technically you're subject to the same rules as cars, but if something goes wrong, the damage will fall much harder on the cyclist, and everyone will tell you, well, you should have been more careful, because in reality, the roads we ride on favour the cars (ie the men). Second, Contos caught herself cooing over a cute dog she met in the street, and reflected that the way some men regard hot women in public is much the same as they way she might greet a puppy -- she feels free to give them unsolicited compliments, even to touch them without permission, because as far as she's concerned, they exist just to brighten up her day. Hmm! I might think twice before I pounce on the next sweet puppy I see out and about...

Consent Laid Bare is an accessible, fierce and energetic call to arms -- or at least a call to awareness. The final chapter is addressed specifically to men, young and old, asking them to regard the women they encounter as fellow humans. It seems such a small thing to expect, and yet still, here we are. Consent Laid Bare is not explicitly aimed at young adults, but wow, they should definitely read it.


Witch Week

The journey through the Chronicles of Chrestomanci continues. I don't have any memory of reading Witch Week before, and it's possible I might have started it but not continued, because honestly I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy it for the first few chapters. It really only picked up about two thirds of the way through when Chrestomanci appeared. 

Witch Week is set in a world very similar to our own, but where witches are outlawed and burned on 'bone-fires' when they're discovered -- unfortunately it seems that witches are extremely common. The school where the action takes place is so very unpleasant, and the atmosphere of threat is so strong, that I was on edge for a long way into the book, and it took me a while to warm to the characters. I think this is a book I'd enjoy much more on re-reading, and now I know that it ends well I won't be afraid to revisit it in the future (strangely, Book Grocer sent me an ad for Charmed Life today! Do they know what I've been reading? But then they should be aware that I've already bought it.)

The premise for Witch Week is strong, but the actual mechanics of the set-up felt a bit -- vague? Not as firmly conceived as I've come to expect from Diana Wynne Jones. Also, according to the internet, I'm not the first person to think that David Tennant would make a perfect Chrestomanci, which is chastening, but hey, great minds think alike and all that.


The Bookbinder of Jericho

Like everyone else, I loved The Dictionary of Lost Words, and I joined the long queue of eager readers waiting to take Pip Williams' companion novel, The Bookbinder of Jericho, out of the library. I enjoyed it even more than the first book; definitely worth the wait.

Peggy works in the bindery, the workshop where books like the dictionary are physically sorted, bound and sewn together. She and her twin, Maude, have just lost their mother, so they're living in their canal boat home alone. Calliope is lined with flawed and rejected products of the bindery, so Peggy is well-read, and longs to be a scholar; but Maude needs her. Then the war comes and turns everything upside down.

The weight of Peggy's responsibility for her sister hit me hard, and her tentative relationship with the wounded Belgian soldier, Bastiaan, was very touching. Again, Williams highlights the way that women's sacrifice is taken for granted -- there are no fancy memorials to the women who died caring for the sick during the Spanish flu epidemic that took twice as many lives as the war itself.

The Bookbinder of Jericho is another steady, thoughtful, deeply satisfying novel that wears its historic detail lightly. Dare I hope that Pip Williams is working on a third Oxford volume about women and words and resistance?


The Magicians of Caprona

I'm not sure whether I like this cover of The Magicians of Caprona or not -- it's a little misleading, since the elephant only appears very briefly in the story, and I'm inclined to think that the griffins should have been more prominent. The original cover looks very familiar, so I think I might have read it when it first came out in 1980 or shortly thereafter.

No one could accuse this cover of being too exciting, but I like the medieval feel and the Italian atmosphere which is one of the greatest pleasures of the book. It's a shame the all-important angel is hidden by the title! Also the figure on the left is supposed to be Chrestomanci and he doesn't look nearly charismatic enough.

The feuding Italian families has an obvious source in the story of Romeo and Juliet, and this book even includes a pair of star-crossed lovers to make it even clearer. However there were elements that I didn't enjoy quite so much, namely the Punch and Judy theme -- I'm not a huge fan of puppets and the violence inherent in the traditional Punch and Judy story troubles me, though Diana Wynne Jones uses the device cleverly. (This reminds me, I don't think Gwendolen getting spanked in Charmed Life has aged too well, either.) But the puppet stuff doesn't spoil a hugely satisfying story, even though the solution to the problem of the missing spell words is perhaps a little simple -- would they really have overlooked the answer for two hundred years? I do love Angelica and Tonino working together, and of course the cat Benvenuto steals every scene he appears in. I'm noticing how much Diana Wynne Jones loves her magical cats. No wonder my friend Judy, noted cat-lover, is such a DWJ fan.


Charmed Life

As noted previously, I've bought all the Chrestomanci books on my Kindle, so I don't get the benefit of this excellent cover. I had quite strong memories of Charmed Life, the first of Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci books. I remembered fiendish, selfish Gwendolen, and her helpless (until the end) brother, Cat, though I'd forgotten the details of the awful magical tricks that Gwendolen played. Having just read The Lives of Christopher Chant, I was familiar with the Castle, Chrestomanci himself and his lovely wife Millie, though there was a slight pang in meeting them again suddenly grown up.

Chrestomanci himself is a delicious character, everything a powerful enchanter ought to be -- tall, devastating, charismatic and rather terrifying at first, and owning an amazing array of luxurious dressing-gowns and elegant suits -- the dressing-gowns and suits had also made a lasting impression. I might have been confused by the structure of this universe and the series of alternate worlds if I'd read this book first. The Lives of Christopher Chant explains it all more clearly. 

Now that I think about it, Chrestomanci has shades of Dr Who, especially as played by David Tennant -- ooh, I'd love to see a TV adaptation of these books with Tennant in the title role. Come on, someone, make it happen!