The Time of the Ghost

The Time of the Ghost is one of my favourite Diana Wynne Jones novels. It has a truly intriguing beginning -- we are inside the consciousness of a bodiless being, speeding along a country lane, knowing only that 'something has gone wrong, there's been an accident.' This ghostly being doesn't know who or where she is, and only gradually remembers details about her home and family; however, things remain fuzzy to the point where she is not sure until almost the end of the book which of the four Melford sisters she might be.

The plot is slightly tricky, involving swoops back and forth in time as well as the identity muddle, but as usual with Diana Wynne Jones the underlying concept is solid as a rock. Somehow these children have accidentally revived an ancient and bloodthirsty presence, they have pledged their lives to her in jest, but now Monigan has come to claim her due, and she is deadly serious. The struggles of the 'ghost' to understand what is happening parallels the gradual comprehension of the reader, and the agonising (and sometimes very funny) battle to communicate the situation to her oblivious siblings, is tremendously satisfying. And the stakes are as high as they could be.

Diana Wynne Jones often treads a fine line between confusing and cleverly twisty, which means that her books reward re-reading. I loved The Time of the Ghost even more the second time around.


Dark Quartet

When Dark Quartet came up on Brotherhood Books I was intrigued. I'd never come across this 1976 novelisation of the lives of the tortured Bronte siblings by the author of The L-Shaped Room and The Indian in the Cupboard. Dark Quartet follows the Bronte family from early childhood until (spoilers!) the death of Anne, which left Charlotte the only remaining child out of the original six. Banks continues the story of Charlotte's later life and literary success in the sequel, Path to the Silent Country.

I had some trouble initially immersing myself in this novel, which is written in a fairly high flown style and with some dialogue reproduced from letters and other original sources. But gradually I found myself carried away by the intensity of the story. I already knew the bare facts pretty well, but there was something compelling about living through it with them which made their awful history so much more vivid. The power of fiction, eh? Who knew?

Branwell in particular had always been a shadowy figure to me, much as in the famous portrait in which he painted out his own image. But Dark Quartet paints a stark picture of his disturbed and unhappy life, complete with what seems to be a gang rape by a gang of Irish labourers, and paedophile tendencies, as well as an ill-conceived passion for his married employer. I'm really not sure how much of this, if any, is based on fact, but whatever the case, for the first time I appreciated the central place that Branwell filled in the family, and the misery of his loss. It's easy to focus just on the three gifted sisters and forget about the equally creative (if possibly less talented) brother.

Dark Quartet definitely brought to dramatic life the family dynamics and the stuttering attempts of the sisters to gain employment. Literary success arrives only at the very end of this novel, and is immediately undercut by the heart-rending parade of deaths that left only Charlotte and her father alone at the parsonage. I've always been more of an Austen fan than a Bronte girl, and I prefer Charlotte to Emily, but Dark Quartet has left me with a deeper fascination for the whole family. Banks writes particularly well of the siblings' imaginary worlds, a difficult topic to handle; Dark Quartet is light on the details but emphasises the obsessive and addictive nature of their 'plays.'



I've developed a fascination with old Australian children's books that address the issue of Aboriginal people and their place in the nation. Unfortunately many of them take the attitude that First Nations people are facing an inevitable decline, tragic as that may be -- and extraordinarily, that is true even of Manganinnie, which was published as late as 1979. Bizarrely, it was translated into French and Japanese, and won the French children's book of the year in 1986. It was also made into a film, which to my astonishment was easily found on SBS (I watched a few minutes but the technicolour costumes gave me a headache).

I cannot imagine a contemporary child reading this book. On one level, it's quite a lovely story, following old Manganinnie as she moves through the year and the landscape, searching for her vanished
 people after the 'Black Drive' of 1830. Along the way, from loneliness and fear of all her knowledge being lost, she kidnaps a white toddler who stays with her for three years. There are some narrow escapes for the outlaw pair, and encounters with various animals, but on the whole it's quite an uneventful journey, lyrically described, but shot through with the sorrow and desolation of Manganinnie, alone in the wilderness and with the white settlers always drawing closer.

There is an air of tragic inevitability to Manganinnie's experience, and while she is sympathetically portrayed (by the white author) and many words of language are sprinkled through the narrative, there is never any doubt that these are the old woman's final days. I suspect this attitude still survives in pockets of this country; even though some people may draw the line at the physical extermination or dying out of First Nations people, they certainly see no place for their culture or beliefs in a modern Australia. For that reason, I'm glad that Manganinnie is no longer on the shelf of the op shop where some unsuspecting young person might actually read it.


The Bannerman Shortlist

Full disclosure: Colin Batrouney is a friend of a friend and we used to live in the same apartment block (I once suspected him of pinching my volumes of Mitford letters which mysteriously disappeared at that time -- if they did end up in your possession, Colin, I'll take them back, no questions asked...)

The Bannerman Shortlist has a cracker of a premise. Six novels are shortlisted for a prestigious prize, but the current heir to the Bannerman fortune has vanished without a trace (much like my Mitford books). While we follow the mystery of Gideon Bannerman's disappearance through the efforts of his lifelong best friend, and Chair of the prize, Tasha Moubray, we also meet each of the six short-listed authors and glimpse their works. So in a way this book is like one of those collections of linked short stories that I adore.

Batrouney has researched the behind the scenes machinations of awards committees, and as I suspected, the eventual winner ends up being a compromise when the prize givers are stubbornly split on the merits of other titles. However, who ends up winning isn't really the point, it's the diverting, moving, amusing and shocking journey along the way that makes this such a satisfying novel. One author, mired in grief, wants to withdraw from the list; a debut author is terrified; a popular author is distracted by a personal discovery that drives the possibility of winning (always remote) completely out of his head.

For me, The Bannerman Shortlist was marred only by a consistently eccentric use of commas, whether because of the author or an editor I'm not sure. But please don't let that quibble put you off. The Bannerman Shortlist is a terrific book.


Fighting on the Home Front

I picked up this large print edition from the library reject trolley for $1, and it's one of the best dollars I've spent. Kate Adie is a former chief news correspondent for the BBC and has spent a lot of time in war zones, so she really understands the gritty and gory detail of war. However, Fighting on the Home Front : The Legacy of Women in World War One spends more time back in the UK, examining the myriad contributions made by women in supporting the war effort, both directly and indirectly.

Of course many women did their bit on the battlefield, as nurses, drivers, entertainers, and many more stepped into fill the vacancies left by male soldiers, working in ammunition factories as 'munitionettes,' building tanks, farming, making ropes and nets, or informally working (without pay!) knitting, organising, fund raising, even playing football. Apart from nursing and knitting, all these efforts were greeted with disquiet, anxiety, and outright hostility, along with many protests that this work would only be necessary 'for the duration.' Even when women proved that they were more than capable of operating heavy machinery, driving buses or running hospitals, there was no question that they would be expected (allowed?) to continue doing so after the war was over. 

Even the 'reward' for patriotic and humanitarian service, the granting of the vote, was a mixed gift. The vote was given to women over thirty-five, thus excluding the younger women who had carried out a lot of the actual work in factories etc for which women were supposedly being recognised. Kate Adie is an intelligent, humorous and wise companion on this fascinating journey, and along the way I met many other women whose stories should be more widely known, like Flora Sandes, who actually picked up a gun and fought with the Serbian troops, surgeon Elsie Inglis, and Mabel Stobart, who created all-women medical units who worked on the battle lines.

Definitely worth reading.


A Harp of Fishbones

In my youth I met a grand total of two authors -- but what a pair. One was the legendary Alan Garner (a select group of English students were driven into the city to attend a talk at the Little Bookroom, and my friend actually asked him a question (I was too shy); and the other was Joan Aiken, also at the Little Bookroom. I still treasure my signed copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which was one of the top ten formative books of my childhood. But even before I discovered Willoughby Chase, I had adored her short stories, especially the collections All You Ever Wanted and More Than You Asked For, which I borrowed repeatedly from the Mt Hagen library.

A Harp of Fishbones is another collection of short stories -- patchy, as collections are apt to be, but there are some gems here. My favourite tale was 'Mrs Nutti's Fireplace', which features repeat characters the Armitage family, a transposed room which overlooks a mysterious city, and a griffin's egg! How strange that you can go years without reading about a single griffin's egg, and then two books come along at once that revolve around them (see The Pinhoe Egg).

Most of these stories have a fairytale quality. 'Humblepuppy' stars a sweet, invisible ghost puppy (yes please) and 'The Dark Streets of Kimball's Green' is quite eerie. None of these stories quite matches my all-time favourite, 'A Room Full of Leaves', which elevates the idea of a family tree into a new dimension -- and is no relation to Kate Grenville's novel. I'm not sure I'll ever succeed in collecting all Joan Aiken's work, she was extremely prolific, but I'm happy to add A Harp of Fishbones to my shelves.


The Exiles in Love

Hilary McKay is a favourite current English children's writer. Recently I've loved her war novels, The Skylarks' War and The Swallows' Flight, and before that I fell in love with her series about the creative, chaotic Casson family. The Exiles are earlier books, centred on the four Conroy sisters. I already had The Exiles and The Exiles at Home, but spotting The Exiles in Love in the op shop was a surprise, I didn't know it existed.

The Exiles are less feverishly eccentric than the Casson family, but they are still delightfully unpredictable and often very funny. The Exiles in Love firmly wraps up their story in some obscure packaging that is revealed at the end to be the two oldest sisters reminiscing about the past at a wedding. Some readers feel that this third volume is the weakest of the trilogy, but I enjoyed the eruption of the 'family failing' (falling in love with unsuitable people), the impulsive trip to France that proves that even Big Grandma is not immune, charming Philippe (I almost fell in love with him myself), and the mysterious back story between Big Grandma and the Caradocs. 

I must confess I do find it tricky to tell the four sisters apart sometimes, I find it hard to see them clearly as individuals, but probably by the third novel McKay herself could see them so clearly that she didn't think to pop some hints into the text for the less attentive reader. I think reluctant upper primary readers would have a lot of fun hanging out with the Exiles.


From Here On, Monsters

From Here On, Monsters was a recommendation from someone in the Chat 10, Looks 3 Facebook group -- not recommended to me, but to another Chatter looking for books about translation. From Here On, Monsters is partly about translation, but it's also about so much more, and I'm astonished that I haven't heard of it since its publication in 2019.

From Here On, Monsters is a clever and unsettling novel. The narrator, Cameron, is working in a second hand bookshop in an anonymous city (which sounds very much like Melbourne) when she lands a weird job for a controversial artist doing 'words.' It transpires that Cameron is coming up with the kind of bureaucratic non-speak that we have all become very used to over the past few years, like referring to refugees as 'illicit maritime arrivals,' stripping them of their personhood. Although there is an edge of satire to this part of the story, we shouldn't forget that it probably is someone's actual job to come up with this bland, inhuman language, just as it was someone's job to come up with the cruel abomination of the robodebt scheme.

From Here On, Monsters also encompasses ideas about doubles and mirror images, translated texts, art and plaigarism, colonisation and invasion, the transmission of ideas, and the complicity of silence. It slides into the territory of magic realism with the presence of a ravening monster on the roof of Cameron's building, one which feeds on the homeless refugees sheltering there (an allegory for depressive suicide?), and at the end of the story, the project Cameron is working on ('Excising Our Hearts') becomes so successful that people, including Cameron herself, become literally unable to see the displaced people that they no longer possess words to describe.

This is a short but chilling read, drawing on elements of fantasy and 1984-style dystopian fiction to make a harrowing point about lack of compassion for asylum seekers. It reminded me a bit of Piranesi in its adventurous approach. Some readers have found the very end of the novel confusing (I would have appreciated a little more clarity, too) but don't let that put you off -- this is an extraordinary and thought-provoking novel, which I suspect will haunt me for a long time.


The Lost Library

Rebecca Stead is one of my favourite current children's authors. She combines clever, twisty plots with warm, vulnerable characters, and The Lost Library wraps these ingredients in an appealing package with the love of books, a gifted cat, some ghosts and family secrets. I don't know Wendy Mass but she and Stead evidently work beautifully together.

The Lost Library is a perfect Christmas book for primary aged lovers of books and mysteries. It's lovely to see the little street library, which became so crucial during lockdowns, playing a central role in the story. I especially loved the character of AL (the Assistant Librarian) even if she did seem to have wandered in from a book of a previous century (or two). And there is a nice dig at helicopter parenting! The Lost Library is a delight.


Stand Up and Speak Out Against Racism

The story of Yassmin Abdel-Magied's appalling treatment by Australian media is a cautionary tale about speaking out while being brown-skinned in this country. After what some might consider a pretty innocuous tweet on Anzac Day in 2017 ("Lest We Forget. Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine..."), this young former Australian of the Year was relentlessly trolled, hounded and received death threats, backed by the vocal disapproval of mainstream journalists and politicians. Abdel-Magied fled to London, where she has lived ever since. What a loss to Australian society, that this smart, arrticulate young woman doesn't feel welcome here anymore.

Stand Up and Speak Out Against Racism was published in the UK but it has clear relevance in Australia too, and Abdel-Magied is well qualified to discuss the topic. This book is aimed at younger readers, with many reassurances along the way -- yes, this stuff is difficult to talk about, yes, it's okay to feel overwhelmed. There are simple explanations of colonialism and power dynamics, and the insidious mechanisms of racism. Helpfully, there are practical tips and tricks for questioning that potentially racist uncle at a Christmas BBQ (why is that joke funny? Can you explain it to me? Why do you think that?) and supporting targets of public racist abuse (don't confront the abusers unless you feel safe to do so; instead, start talking to the targeted person).

This is a colourful, vibrantly illustrated and clear book on an uncomfortable subject. Though it's intended for kids, many adults would benefit from reading this, too.


The Pinhoe Egg

The final Chrestomanci book in my bundle, and one I hadn't read before. The Pinhoe Egg, like many Diana Wynne Jones books, builds slowly, as she carefully lays the foundation for the climax to come, each piece of the puzzle precisely placed for the later payoff.

It was nice to have a prominent female protagonist in Marianne, and I really adored Klartch, the baby griffin. Millie has quite a big role in this book as well, which for once sees Chrestomanci in his own backyard instead of roaming through the multiple worlds. The rival village families are all pretty nasty, though just how nasty isn't revealed until the end -- I was horrified that Gammer Norah was planning to release smallpox. And, as usual, there is a charismatic cat to reckon with: Nutcase can even walk through walls!

I wish Chrestomanci would come and sort out our world's problems with magic, he is such a wonderful character with his vague stare and incredible dressing-gowns. I have enjoyed visiting and revisiting his universe so much, I think I'll have to reread the rest of my Wynne Jones collection.


The Other End of the Leash

The Other End of the Leash was a street library find, written by Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviour specialist who owns four dogs and has worked with hundreds of others. She has some amazing insights about the clash between our human/primate ways of behaving, and the preferences of dogs/canids. For example, we humans love to interact face-to-face, and to embrace chest to chest. But for dogs, this is deeply uncomfortable -- their natural preference is for side-by-side company. It's true, if you leave it up to the dog, she will snuggle by your side, and they can find staring into their eyes confrontational, though we might experience this as loving. 

McConnell has similar tips to offer about behavioural training, emphasising dogs' preferred behaviour. For instance, if you want to persuade a dog to come to you, it's better (if counter-intuitive for a human) to turn away from the dog, which will encourage it to follow you; moving toward the dog, which most of us would do instinctively, will only encourage it to move away from you (dogs love chasing). We humans also insist on repeating ourselves; if Spot doesn't obey our command to 'sit,' we're likely to just keep saying 'sit, sit, sit' in a more agitated, louder voice, which the dog will just hear as the equivalent of excited barking.

However, I was just as interested in her stories about the differences in her own dogs' personalities and ways of relating to each other -- she owns three Border Collies, all of different temperaments, and a Great Pyrenees, a breed I hadn't come across before. McConnell writes movingly of the death of a previous dog, and the night-long vigil she and her other dogs held with the body. Each dog had a different reaction to the dead dog's body -- one ignored it completely, one sniffed it all over in utter confusion, one recoiled in seeming horror and distress. Absolutely fascinating.