12.6.24

Look Me in the Eye

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started this book, it seemed that it might be a vaguely dystopian story about surveillance and online data, but it isn't really about that at all. Look Me in the Eye focuses on three friends -- well, two good friends, Bella and Connie, who have just started high school, and Connie's slightly older cousin Mish, who becomes an unwilling companion to the others after changing schools under a cloud.

The plot of Look Me in the Eye might seem fairly low-stakes. Mish is up to no good, having contact with a mysterious older man. She shoplifts and tells lies, and does her best to evade her father's attempts to keep tabs on her. Bella's mum is pregnant and her new partner Pete has just moved into the family's ramshackle house. Connie has a fragile younger sister, who might be at risk from Mish, and Mish herself seems to have stopped eating. Pete's valuable swap card goes missing. Did Mish steal it? Bella doesn't know what to believe.

Low-ish stakes, perhaps, but by the end of the book I was totally caught up in the suspense of the story and desperately hoping for a good resolution. Mish's father is a domineering and controlling character who exudes a genuine sense of threat, and Connie's complicated position, torn between competing loyalties, is subtly drawn. I really enjoyed Look Me in the Eye, which also describes a world immediately post-pandemic, a world of masks and germ-phobia and general nervousness, where lockdown memories are vivid, a world which is already receding into history.

11.6.24

Going Gray (sic)

In some ways this is a very trivial issue; yet it's deeply personal, particularly for women, and Anne Kreamer found that whenever she raised it, the subject elicited lively responses and strong opinions. I borrowed Going Gray on a whim and read half of it on the tram on the way home from the city. It's not a demanding read, but it is a surprisingly interesting one.

Grey hair strikes early in my family. My mother was completely grey by her mid-thirties. Combined with my father's unusually youthful looks (which were a curse to him in a macho-dominated industry), people often thought she was her husband's mother. I was also totally grey by forty (quite white now), and my poor teenage daughter is already finding grey hairs. I don't think my mother ever dyed her hair (I must ask her), and while I had streaks which eased me over the transition, I never seriously considered returning to my original mousy-brown colour, though before I went grey I was an enthusiastic home dyer. Part of the reason was laziness, and partly I actually preferred the streaky depth of my going-greys to my boring brown.

Kreamer had been dyeing her hair brunette for years until she had an epiphany after seeing herself in a photo, realising that her helmet of dark hair wasn't really making her look younger. However the period of transition to grey was more difficult and disturbing to her sense of self than she'd expected. Does grey hair really signal over-the-hill, un-sexy, let-herself-go?

It was interesting to read Going Gray (2007) after the pandemic, when many women (including one good friend of mine, who'd been conscientiously blackening her roots for years) took the opportunity of forced seclusion to make a clean break. I'm not sure when the fashion for young women to dye their hair silver took hold, and I'm not sure if it's still a thing, but it definitely was for a while. I feel as if at least some of the stigma around grey hair has faded. But it's easy for me -- I'm not in a job where I'm competing against younger, hotter women (well, not much anyway!), or in a professional environment where greyness might render me invisible. Anne Kreamer certainly looked great after going grey, more confident and comfortable in her skin, and that was unexpectedly borne out in experiments with online dating and employment recruitment. I personally think grey, silver, salt-and-pepper and white hair looks amazing -- as long as it's smartly cut. Straggling greys don't really do it for me, but otherwise I say, bring it on!
 

10.6.24

Wilding

Wilding was recommended in a list of uplifting books in the Guardian, and it definitely lived up to the description. Isabella Tree recounts the story of how she and her husband Charlie made the difficult decision to stop intensive agriculture on his family's ancestral estate (yes, they are very posh) and return the land to wilderness. It was in some ways a hard-headed financial choice, and the wilding project was made possible with EU funding, which I assume would no longer be an option since Brexit.

At first their neighbours were appalled as fields were ploughed up, a canal returned to a messy, shallow river channel, and deer and cattle were allowed to roam free on the property. A thistle outbreak led to howls of outrage and cries that Charlie's ancestors would be ashamed of him. Why were they 'wasting' perfectly good land in this way?

And yet within a very short time, the results were extraordinary. Birds thought lost to the local landscape, like nightingales and turtle doves, returned to breed. Clouds of rare butterflies descended (and ate up all the thistles). Torrential rains, which resulted in horrendous floods all over the country, were avoided at Knepp, and the natural flood plain sopped up excess water. Insect life and soil health flourished. It really demonstrates the importance of preserving, not single species in isolation, but whole ecosystems, allowing balance and richness to return to the land.

There are obvious parallels here with First Nations management of Country -- careful observation, a holistic approach, respect for nature, and a light touch with interference. The land at Knepp was not really allowed to 'run wild' but was carefully and thoughtfully watched. The introduction of hardy cattle and pigs resulted in the unexpected creation of 'woodland pasture,' which Tree argues was the most likely landscape in pre-human Britain, in contrast to the dense forest which is often assumed to have covered the island.

This was such a fascinating and heartening story, and I'm thrilled to see that a documentary of the same name is about to be released in the UK, and as part of the Sydney Film Festival. I hope I get to see it soon.

6.6.24

A Legacy

 

An uncharitable reader might accuse Sybille Bedford of re-hashing the same material over and over. I've now read three versions of the story of herself and her own family -- in the autobiography Jigsaw, the fragmented non-fiction Quicksands, and now in this novel, A Legacy. But frankly, when the material is so rich and so fascinating, I don't blame her at all for mining it as deeply as possible.

There's really not much crossover with Jigsaw. A Legacy is largely the story of what came before Sybille herself was born, the tangle of two families, scandals, forbidden marriages, mental illness, murder and suicide. Bedford's sometimes elliptical style, the large cast of characters, and the unspoken social conventions of turn of the 20th century Berlin meant I was sometimes confused about what was actually happening, though to be fair to Bedford, I did take a break from A Legacy to read a couple of library novels, and I lost track of events. 

I was chuffed to see an endorsement from Nancy Mitford on the back cover: One of the very best novels I have ever read. Wow, you could certainly die happy with a blurb like that under your belt. I might not go that far, but I did enjoy A Legacy and its peek into a vanished world.

5.6.24

Five Children

As a child in PNG, I loved the Five Children and It trilogy more than the Bastables. I preferred anything with magic to something similar without, and I re-read Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet over and over. The covers I remember looked like this:

and H.R. Millar's illustrations (name misspelled on the dust jacket of my ex-library omnibus!) are deeply embedded in my memories. So I settled in for a re-visit of these old favourites with great anticipation.

Alas, one element of these books which hadn't sunk into my memory was the awful, gratuitous anti-Semitism that surfaces several times in these volumes. Though Nesbit never uses the word 'Jew,' the stereotypes are easily recognisable, down to the big noses and love of money, and are even transported (inaccurately) into the ancient past. It's so sad and so unnecessary, I wonder if modern editions have been altered, because it would be so easy to do without affecting the stories at all.

Because in many other ways, these books stand up so well! The magic is straightforward and unfussy; the children get themselves into natural scrapes, especially when the Psammead is granting wishes (my favourite is when they wish their sweet toddler brother was already grown up, and he is transformed into a languid and patronising young man with a moustache and a bicycle). I'm sure the ancient history described in the Amulet adventures has all been debunked, and this volume contains the worst anti-Semitic episodes; yet it also contains my very favourite scene, when the 'learned gentleman' of their own time and the Egyptian temple priest become one in their love of learning.

I suppose one good thing is that clearly the anti-Semitic parts had no effect whatsoever on my childish soul; at the time I simply didn't understand them, so they glanced off without penetrating. And it would be perfectly possible to read these aloud and skip the bad bits. But I'm very disappointed to find these beloved books so stained and spoiled.


4.6.24

Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect

I absolutely gobbled up Benjamin Stevenson's previous murder mystery novel, Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, and its sequel, Everyone On This Train Is a Suspect, did not disappoint. Stevenson has immense fun playing with the conventions of rules of the mystery genre, pointing out when the rules are broken, and when he's adhering to them (hm, we're at the 60,000 word mark now, we're due for another murder). In fact the key word for Stevenson's books is playful, despite their sometimes gory and dark subject matter. 

There was an extra element of fun in this book for me, because it features a collection of murder writers, who each specialise in a different kind of mystery and thus contribute a special expertise to the deduction. Thus we have forensics, legal, psychological etc. Ernest himself is suffering from the insecurity of the debut novelist, and there are plenty of enjoyable digs at the publishing industry, literary festivals, writing snobbery and rivalries (of course this wouldn't be possible with a collection of kidlit and YA writers, because everyone in that community is so supportive and simply lovely -- I'm not even joking).

The idea of a crime writing festival held on the Ghan is simply gorgeous -- what a dream! I hope Stevenson got a grant for research. Trains, writers, murder and self-aware playfulness, as well as a genuinely clever and twisty plot: what more could you ask for? Oh, and it's Australian, too.

3.6.24

About A Girl

I wasn't really aware of Georgie Stone's story -- despite her starring on Neighbours, and being featured on Australian Story and Four Corners. But I'm so glad I picked up this memoir by Georgie's indefatigable mother. Rebekah Robertson, herself a staunch trans ally and activist. Reading an account like About A Girl, you're left shaking your head at the confected panic stirred up by conservatives. Georgie has known she was a girl since she was two and a half; all she's ever wanted is to be able to get on with her life, as an actor, musician and school student. And yet she and her family were forced to fight every step of the way for the treatment she needed to live in a body that was profoundly alien to her deepest sense of self.

Who the hell does it hurt for an individual to choose how they want to express their own gender or sexuality? And yet the word 'choose' is also misleading, as it doesn't feel like a 'choice' but an undeniable inner reality. Georgie has always maintained that her identity was a private affair; she didn't come out at high school for years, though she had to live with the threat of exposure, bullying and abuse every day. The obnoxious lobbying around the same-sex marriage vote was also incredibly damaging to kids like Georgie, and recently (this book was published in 2018), while awareness of trans people has grown, so has the vitriol aimed at their very existence. I've been deeply disappointed at the anti-trans stance taken by JK Rowling, for example. Earlier this year, the story of Nex Benedict, a non-binary teenager who was beaten up in a school bathroom in the US and died the next day, brought me to tears.

And yet even as I type these words, an episode of All In the Mind has just come on the radio, discussing 'gender euphoria' -- the utter joy experienced by trans people finally living as their true selves. As Georgie Stone reminds us, there are good stories out there and we have to hang onto them.
 

31.5.24

Dreams Must Explain Themselves

I wish I had discovered The Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels when I was at school, but somehow, even though I loved fantasy, they passed me by. I used to read quite a bit of science fiction in high school, too, but again, I somehow failed to find Ursula Le Guin's classics, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed until I was an adult. However, once I found her -- not coincidentally, just as I was embarking on writing my own fantasy novels -- I was an instant, utter convert to her writing. Her influence on my work is probably clear to see, though I haven't read everything she's ever written. (The character of Ursa in The Singer of All Songs is a nod in her honour.)

I was thrilled to stumble across Dreams Must Explain Themselves, a collection of some of Le Guin's non-fiction work, arranged chronologically, from 1972 all the way to 2014, just a few years before she died. There are speeches, articles, meanderings, and rants here, from an indignant defence of the importance of gender in Left Hand of Darkness (complete with later admissions that she got some decisions wrong at the time), to a wonderful wander through the history of animals in children's fiction, including praise for a 1930s Australian novel which was much lauded at the time, but which I'd never heard of: Man-Shy by Frank Dalby Davison (published as Red Heifer in the US).

It's sobering to note that Le Guin is writing about the banning of her books way back in 1984, and discussing the same issues that arise in Wifedom in 1988. Le Guin's wisdom, her wry humour, her sharp intelligence, shine from every page. I wish she was still around, but I'm glad we had her for as long as we did.

24.5.24

My Sister Rosa

I finally caught up with Justine Larbalestier's 2016 novel, My Sister Rosa (thanks, Athenaeum library). Larbalestier likes to dance on the dark side -- Razorhurst featured legions of Sydney ghosts in the gangster dominated 1920s, Liar centred on a murderous unreliable narrator. My Sister Rosa is about a bad seed, a malevolent manipulative psychopath -- who happens to be a cute ten year old girl. How far will she go, and can her big brother Che stop her in time?

This is a sinister story, raising uncomfortable questions about the nature of evil and morality. Is Rosa irredeemably wicked, or is she just a child with some issues around social adjustment? Rosa is very good at picking holes in other people's arguments, pointing out correctly that everyone else also lies, sometimes takes pleasure in others' misfortunes, wishes people dead, and puts their own interests first -- so what's wrong with her doing it too? And what about Che? With the same family genetics and upbringing, is there a chance that he could be the same as Rosa? His mother is concerned that Che loves boxing, which as far as she's concerned, is just pure violence. Is there a difference between violence in the ring and on the streets? (On this issue, I think I'm on Sally's side rather than Che's, but it's clear Larbalestier is a boxing fan.)

My Sister Rosa doesn't have a happy ending, and there's a twist that I didn't see coming which raises even more awkward questions. As well as a family and friendship drama, the novel also contains a beautiful love story and a peek into the world of the super rich. It would make a great Netflix drama.

17.5.24

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

After devouring the second part of Rumer Godden's autobiography, A House With Four Rooms, a few weeks ago, I pounced on A Time To Dance, No Time To Weep when I saw it on the shelves of the Athenaeum. Some of the material was familiar to me from reading Godden's novels, but I'm fairly sure I haven't read this first volume of autobiography before.

It was so fascinating to read another memoir of young adulthood spent in India during the 1920s and 30s, the same time as M.M. Kaye, though I don't think they ever crossed paths. But Godden is fathoms deeper and more thoughtful about her experience, more aware of the local inhabitants outside the Raj bubble, and with many more personal relationships outside of the servant circle. Kaye certainly had fun; but Godden had joy.

I especially love the final section of the book, which deals with Godden's time living in a simple wooden house in the mountains of Kashmir with her two young daughters. Her marriage had broken down and she couldn't afford to live in the town; but the family could afford to live for almost nothing in Dove House. The frightening story of how this idyll collapsed is also told in Kingfishers Catch Fire, but the truth is even more painful than the novel.

I absolutely adore Rumer Godden's writing, and A Time To Dance alerted me to several early novels of hers which I have never come across. Reader, I broke. I have ordered six previously unread (by me) Rumer Godden novels from World of Books; I couldn't live without them any longer! No Book Buying resolution totally smashed.
 

16.5.24

Seeing Other People

I was equal parts jealous and admiring of Diana Reid's whip-smart debut, Love and Virtue, partly because I was also working on a novel set in the first year of a university residential college, and she'd taken all my best material! In Seeing Other People, the stakes feel lower, though really, what could be more important than being in love, and family?

The spiky triangle at the heart of Seeing Other People consists of two sisters, Eleanor and Charlie, who both fall in love with the same woman, Helen. But there are other complications, in a Sydney summer of beach swims and share houses, backyard parties and theatre auditions. It's eminently readable, clever and touching, and as the cover art suggests, sits comfortably alongside Sally Rooney and Nina Kenwood (albeit for a slightly older audience than Kenwood's books).

BUT! I was appalled by the sloppy editing which really irked me -- I noticed break instead of brake; discrete instead of discreet; hairbrained instead of harebrained. My daughter scolds me for my pedantry and says I should chill out about the fact that language changes. I can accept that, up to a point, and I'm struggling to relax about it, but perhaps my 'braking' point is here.

14.5.24

The Bastables

I loved E. Nesbit's books as a child, I borrowed them over and over again from the Mt Hagen library, and while my favourites were the magical Five Children stories, I also read the Bastable novels multiple times. However, I'm pretty sure I didn't know that New Treasure Seekers existed until very recently, and I broke my 2024 No Buying More Books resolution to instantly purchase a copy.

The covers of these three volumes make an interesting comparison. The Treasure Seekers is the first Puffin edition, from 1958; The Wouldbegoods is a 1981 TV series tie-in; and New Treasure Seekers is a brand new (2021) reprint complete with blurb by Neil Gaiman. While it's heartening to see that a hundred and twenty year old children's book is still in print, I must take issue with the cover illustration, which bears NO relationship to the contents within -- there is no skating, there seem to be four girls and two boys on the cover while any Bastable aficionado knows that family consists of two girls and four boys...grr. 

The books were originally published in 1899, 1901 and 1904 and yet in many ways they seem as fresh as if they were written yesterday. Obviously the details of the daily lives of these Victorian children are fascinatingly different from our own, and were even when I first read them decades ago, and distressingly there are some words and attitudes that have not aged well (the chapter in New Treasure Seekers where they search for their lost dog in a Chinese quarter of London is... not good). And yet the Bastables are wonderful company -- striving to be and to do good, but constantly getting themselves into trouble.

There are quite a few references to soldiers and war (the Boer War) in these books and Oswald's dearest dream is to die heroically on the battlefield. It's sobering to realise that he is exactly the right age to do precisely that. (I note that Michael Moorcock uses the name Oswald Bastable for the protagonist of his 1970s early steampunk novels.)

The conceit of having one of the children recount their adventures, but not specifying which one, adds a delicious flavour to the narrative (I remember how proud young Kate was at figuring out that our story teller was Oswald). I wish I'd thought to read these books aloud to my own children, perhaps I didn't have them at the right time? With some judicious pruning, they would make wonderful stories to share and discuss. I'll have to save them for the grandchildren!
 

10.5.24

My Life in France

I went through a bit of a Julia Child moment a few months ago, which was when I picked up My Life in France from Brotherhood Books. I'd watched the first season of Julia with Sarah Lancashire, and I must have seen something else too, because I became quite intrigued by this tall, practical woman with the love of French cooking (and don't tell me that Bonnie Garmus' Lessons in Chemistry doesn't owe something to Julia Childs' story).

I finally got around to starting My Life in France while I was on holiday in Cairns, and due to many interruptions I've only just finished it now. I have absolutely zero interest in French cooking, but I am very interested in life in Europe in the post-war years, the gusto for life's pleasures displayed by Julia and her husband Paul, and Julia's unlikely television and publishing stardom. My Life in France was a late-life book, a collaboration between Julia and her great-nephew Alex Prud'homme, who wrote down her memories and anecdotes and shaped them into a book. It's episodic and meandering, but often very charming, punctuated with evocative photos by Paul (an accomplished photographer and visual display producer, despite being blind in one eye) and Julia's idiosyncratic exclamations -- 'Whoops! Merde alors! Ouf!'

It's Julia's appetite for life and her determination to wring every ounce of enjoyment from her experiences that makes her such an appealing character. Her classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was a labour of love over many years, and she was convinced (rightly) that American housewives weren't just content to produce over-processed, quick and easy gloop. I'm sure it's no accident that there was a bit of a Julia Child rediscovery during pandemic lockdowns, when we were all trapped inside our own kitchens and with time on our hands to learn how to make bread properly. And now I want to catch up with all the other Julia content I haven't seen yet -- season 2 of the Lancashire show, the film Julie and Julia (tied in with this edition of My Life in France, as the cover attests) and a documentary, also called Julia, on SBS. Bon appetit!

9.5.24

Queen Bees and Wannabes

I can't remember where I picked up Rosalind Wiseman's classic 2002 book about teenage girls, Queen Bees and Wannabes, which informed the making of the equally classic movie Mean Girls. It might have been around the time that I was writing novels for the Girlfriend Fiction series; I'm pretty sure that my own daughters were not teenagers yet, and I wanted all the information I could lay my hands on.

Re-reading Queen Bees and Wannabes at least a decade later, my children have passed through the teen years (well, almost -- the younger one is still technically a teen for a few more weeks) and I can appreciate how much influence this book had, not just on my writing, but on my parenting. Even though it was written before the tsunami of social media crashed over us all, before the strains of lockdown life, and before new awareness of neurodiversity and gender fluidity, there is so much wisdom in these pages. The key messages -- like keeping lines of communication open, no matter what -- are just as helpful now as they ever were.

Much of the focus of Queen Bees is on helping your child to navigate the social hierarchy of high school, and some of it does have a particularly American slant. In this edition at least (I believe there is a revised version available now) there are some glaring gaps like the ones mentioned above, but the heart of the book hasn't changed much. Wiseman insists that the most important priorities are to build and maintain trust, establish boundaries, model the behaviour you want to see. She is realistic about the issues that teenage girls face and the limits of what parents can control. Better to equip your child to solve her own problems rather than march in and to fix everything for her.

It was a relief to put this book down and realise that, despite often stormy waters, maybe we didn't do such a bad job after all.

8.5.24

Black Duck

When I was a baby writer, and Bruce Pascoe edited Australian Short Stories, I sent him a few of my attempts. He rejected them all, but sometimes he'd write a kind note on the rejection slip which was almost as good as an acceptance. In latter years I have become a big fan of his, for his revelatory work on Dark Emu and for his dignity and patience in dealing with the sometimes vicious and deeply personal criticism that the book has attracted.

Black Duck is a very different book from Dark Emu. It's subtitled A Year at Yumburra, Pascoe's Gippsland farm where he is putting some of the discoveries from Dark Emu into practice, growing and harvesting native grains and making delicious flour from them. I love the loose diary format of this book, divided into seasons, and I marvel at the amount of labour that Pascoe undertakes at a time of life when most of us would be planning rest and retirement. It's not just the heavy work of farming and managing a rural property (fencing, clearing, cool burning, chopping wood, mending, building, caring for animals), but the endless demands on his time from the media and from interested visitors. Some are just breezing through, some are more deeply committed, but Pascoe takes the time to show them around and explain his work. He's also deeply involved in the local First Nations community; though he doesn't go into details, there was clearly some conflict to sort out during this particular year, which also takes up time and energy.

What I loved most about this reflective, generous book was the model Pascoe presents on how to live in harmony with Country -- grateful for its bounty, tending it with care, sensitive to the presence of birds and animals and vegetation, always aware of its stories. It's a glimpse of an approach to life which holds the possibility of so much richness and nourishment for us all, just as the native grains might teach us to appreciate the flavours of our own place instead of food imported from the colonisers. The shadow of death, infirmity, the disastrous Mallacoota fires, and petty back-biting falls over Black Duck, but at its heart this is a joyous and celebratory book.
 

7.5.24

Golden Afternoon

As a teenager, I had a very romantic view of the British Raj. In my mind, it was all potted palms and linen suited chaps sipping gin and tonics on shaded verandahs; the miniseries of Paul Scott's Staying On and The Jewel in the Crown, which led me to Scott's Raj Quartet novels, as well as the film of A Passage to India, created a misty, glamorous image of the exotic East and the melancholy of lost glory. I had no idea of the cold economic reality, oppression and violence that underpinned these romantic images.

I started reading M.M. Kaye's memoir of her 1930s youth in the light of this nostalgic glow. Oddly I have never seen or read The Far Pavilions, Kaye's novel which propelled her to bestseller status and was certainly a contributor to the rosy-hued view of the Raj which was floating around in the 1980s. I have read and loved Rumer Godden's memoirs and novels of her Raj childhood (like The River and Two Under the Indian Sun), also tinged with romantic nostalgia, but also informed with at least some political awareness. Perhaps I'm drawn to memoirs of colonial childhoods because I grew up in a colonial milieu myself, though expat PNG was a long way less romantic than British India. In any case, I suppose I was expecting another wistful, elegiac remembrance of a vanished world.

However, Golden Afternoon did NOT fulfil this brief, and my reading of it was interrupted, and complicated by, reading Empireland. I was expecting something of Rumer Godden's exquisite prose; I was not expecting a posh, breezy voice not unlike my English aunties (may they rest in peace), chattering about endless parties, high jinks on Kashmiri lakes, feasts with local princes, death-defying drives through flooded landscapes -- 400 pages of largely unreflective japes and frivolity in a gorgeous but politically neutered setting. The occasional remark is tossed out: 'No wonder they wanted to get rid of us!' but the existence of empire is accepted as merely a colourful background to a very personal story.

I had been reading Golden Afternoon (which is only the middle volume of a three volume autobiography, mind you) as a bit of a guilty pleasure, but after finishing Empireland, the pleasure largely drained away and only the guilt remained.
 

6.5.24

Empireland

I found Sathnam Sanghera's Empireland at the local library after hearing him speak on a podcast in the middle of the night -- it was probably Empire (funnily enough) with William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, which is reliably fascinating -- because he's spruiking his new book, Empireworld, which examines the ways in which the globe has been shaped by British imperialism.

Empireland has a more modest scope, focusing on the sometimes unexpected ways in which imperialism has created modern Britain. While the Brits often congratulate themselves on their part in abolishing slavery, they tend to skate over the part where it was a major part of their economy (and I was shocked/astonished to learn relatively recently that the British government has just finished paying abolition compensation -- not to the descendants of the enslaved people, mind you, but to the slave owners!)

Sanghera sees the roots of many contemporary British attitudes stretching back to the imperial era: for example, the exceptionalism that encouraged many to believe that Britain would be better off out of Europe than in it; the foundation of so many venerable British banks and companies; the distrust of 'cleverness' when what was needed to run empire was solid, unquestioning loyalty; the amnesia about the presence of people of colour all the way through Britain's history, right back to the Romans; and the unsurprising desire of the colonised to move to seat of empire. 'We're here because you were there,' as some activists have pointed out. And that's not even touching on the topic of loot (see another excellent podcast, Mark Fennell's Stuff the British Stole), including human remains. While of course Australia was part of the empire project, Sanghera focuses mostly on India.

This is quite a short book, only about 250 pages, but it's eminently engaging and readable, and it made me think a lot. Elements of Empireland have kept popping into my head while I'm reading other books, and I think I will need to read the follow up, too.

29.4.24

Green Valentine

I'm a big fan of Lili Wilkinson; she has got better and better with every book. From my observation, her career has gone through three phases -- the early quirky rom-coms, the serious 'issue' novels, and now she has embarked on a rich and colourful fantasy series (which, like Green Valentine, centres on plants).

Published in 2015, Green Valentine is, I think, the last of the quirky rom-coms, a genre which Wilkinson perfected with books like A Pocketful of Eyes, Pink and The Zigzag Effect. Though thoroughly enjoyable, it's perhaps not her strongest entry, and maybe it's significant that after this she turned to darker subject matter. Gardening has always been a passion of Wilkinson's and in the author's note she says she wanted to write a book about gardening that wasn't 'totally boring.' With guerilla gardening at midnight and a delicious romance, she certainly achieved that, and the message that solutions aren't found with a single silver bullet, but from hundreds of small ideas, is still extremely timely.

Green Valentine is an uplifting story about hope and making change and community, and it would be a great antidote for a young person who might be feeling despair about the future of our fragile world.
 

25.4.24

The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales

The story behind The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales is a sad one. The first Virago Book of Fairy Tales, edited by Angela Carter, was received with such acclaim that a second volume was commissioned. Tragically, Angela Carter died before this book was finished, though her notes on many of the stories are published here, and she chose each tale for the compilation.

This is an eclectic collection of folk tales, some evidently quite ancient, some so recent they are hardly more than single page jokes. There are stories from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas featured here and almost the only thing they have in common is that they all centre women. There are cunning witches, resourceful maidens, downtrodden and vengeful wives.

I'm not sure if I enjoy fairy tales and myths as much as I think I should. Perhaps it's the distillation of story down to almost pure plot -- characters are barely sketched, and if they have any distinguishing personality traits, they are boiled down to a single adjective: 'clever,' 'kind' or 'jealous.' I'm not sorry to have read this collection but I don't think I'll be hunting down volume 1.
 

23.4.24

The Durrells of Corfu

I was looking for a light read and The Durrells of Corfu hit the spot. As a teen I adored all Gerald Durrell's memoirs about his childhood on Corfu, My Family and Other Animals and its sequels, I found the family anecdotes hilarious and the nature writing vivid and delightful. It's now clear that those memoirs were quite heavily fictionalised -- different stories were exaggerated, some people erased and events shifted around to suit the narrative. I have no problem with any of that but it was interesting to find out what the actual facts were. For example, big brother Larry was presented as a temperamental, aspiring author, while in fact he'd already had two novels published and was an established member of the London literary scene. Moreover, his wife Nancy came with him to Corfu, and mostly the couple lived apart from the rest of the family -- but poor Nancy doesn't appear at all in Gerald's books! (Another literary wife deleted, a la Wifedom??)

There are lots of photographs included in Michael Haag's book and he does a great job of filling in the family background as well as the historical context. The Durrell idyll only lasted a few years, ending of course in the outbreak of war, and it seems that the antics of the bohemian clan were not universally approved by the island's other inhabitants, who took a dim view of nude sea-bathing and what they saw as a patronising attitude. At this distance, who knows the truth? But I think I will still hang onto the golden memories of Gerry's perfect childhood and the eccentric characters that surrounded him, including his siblings.

22.4.24

The Borrowers Aloft and Avenged

 I thoroughly enjoyed these last two adventures of the Borrowers, which see them in genuine peril, especially in The Borrowers Aloft, where they are abducted from the model village in Fordham and imprisoned by the villainous Platters, who plan to put them on permanent display as an attraction in their own rival model village. The horror of being gawked at by humans all day is very real. I remember visiting the model village at Bourton-on-the-Water in England as a child and being enchanted by it -- surely this was the inspiration for the creations of Mr Pott and Miss Menzies (the goodies) and the unpleasant Platter pair?

 
(By the way, with 26 letters to choose from, was it really necessary for Norton to name her small cast of characters Pod, Peagreen, Pott, Platter, Pomfret and Parkinson? But I digress...)

The Borrowers Aloft begins with a long dull set up involving the Platters' financial woes -- I don't love the framing of the borrowers' adventures with human activities, I just want to get into the borrowers' world immediately -- but once the borrowers have been kidnapped, the story really gathers pace, culminating in a daring escape by balloon (not really a spoiler since you can see the scene on the cover). The Borrowers Avenged sees a new borrower introduced, the gentle Peagreen Overmantel, and I wonder if he will one day become a rival to Spiller for Arrietty's affections? However we leave the borrowers in their new home (complete with ghosts) long before this becomes an issue, and there is only one fleeting reference to the First World War to shadow the otherwise tranquil ending (the stories are set in 1911).the

For a lovely nostalgic journey, The Complete Borrowers was the best $2 I've spent for a long time.


18.4.24

A Letter of Mary

I genuinely have no idea whether I've read this book before or not! I suspect I might have, I know when I first discovered Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice at the local library, I immediately read all the books in the series that they held -- whether A Letter of Mary, the third in the series, was one of them, I don't know. I hunted through my reading diary and couldn't find it, so at any rate I haven't read it since 2011; but I've mislaid the pre-2011 reading diary, so perhaps I read it before then?

ANYWAY once you get past the ick factor of having Sherlock Holmes in the 1920s married to Mary Russell, who at 23 must be at least forty years younger than he is, these books are a lot of fun. Mary is a worthy partner, with her own independent academic interests, and she narrates the stories with verve and wit. I did spot one slip -- I think it was a slip: usually Russell refers to Watson as the chronicler of Holmes' adventures, but at one point she notices a copy of The Strand magazine "with Conan Doyle's stories inside"???

I particularly enjoyed the character of Dorothy Ruskin, who could have stepped straight from the pages of Square Haunting -- a no-nonsense woman archaeologist, expert in her field, who wears trousers and is impatient with men (of course excepting Sherlock). Even if I have read A Letter of Mary before, I enjoyed it just as much as if I hadn't.

16.4.24

Holiday Reading

 Choosing the books to take on holiday is where having a really tall to-be-read pile comes into its own. I would never take library books away with me, particularly when I'm planning to read beside a pool -- anything could happen!

So I picked six books from my stack and stowed them in my suitcase -- believe me, they took up way more room than the clothes I brought with me. I chose mostly secondhand volumes so I could take risks with them, and indeed, I left a couple of them behind in the house bookcase for others to enjoy.

The first book to be finished (almost finished on the flight to Cairns, in fact) was Monica Edwards' The White Riders. This was a fun, horsey adventure where Tamzin and her friends pretend to be ghosts, or demons, or something scary anyway, to frighten away developers who are building a holiday camp on the marshes. As a child I adored the second volume of Edwards' Romney Marsh series, which features only Tamzin and Rissa, and I remember my indignation when I came across a later book which included BOYS. However, I've now grown used to Meryon (hot, dashing, descendant of a pirate, clearly going to be Tamzin's romantic interest when they get a bit older) and Roger (Rissa's cousin, nice enough, but just making up the numbers). I enjoyed The White Riders but I don't think the idea of dashing around dressed in white sheets has aged particularly well...

Next up was Ramona Koval's By the Book, part memoir of her own childhood and adult reading, and part rumination on books and reading in general. As someone who for many years hosted the ABC's Book Show, she had lots to share about the joys of reading and some fascinating stories to tell, such as the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah (which I think is the basis of Geraldine Brooks' novel, The People of the Book? Haven't read that one). This was a perfect holiday read, interesting but light.

Next I finished Mary Stewart's Touch Not the Cat, passed onto me from a street library by my friend Sian. This novel rang bells with me, the cover proclaimed it as a Number 1 International Bestseller. I thought I might have read it as a child when my mother borrowed it from the Mt Hagen library, but the publication date of 1976 makes that unlikely. Now I think I might have read part of a serialised version in the Women's Weekly or New Idea. I definitely remember being intrigued by the title. Anyway, Touch Not the Cat is quite the melodramatic tale, involving telepathic lovers, a maze, a neglected mansion, coded messages in antique poetry, and a pair of sinister twins. Also perfect holiday reading! (This is exactly what my copy looked like, too, by the way...)

Another old favourite author was next, also rescued from a street library: Mary Wesley's A Dubious Legacy. However, this was not my favourite Wesley title. There was the usual knotted plot, psychological surprises, eccentricities and refreshing sexual frankness, and even the reappearance of some characters from previous stories, but A Dubious Legacy was irreparably marred for me by an instance of animal cruelty played for laughs, and also a factual inaccuracy -- she has children watching Dr Who in the summer of 1990, when any serious follower of the Doctor knows that the show went on extended hiatus from 1989 till 1996. Sloppy research, Mary!

Last, but definitely not least, was White Night by Ellie Marney. A rare stand alone novel, White Night is set in the country town milieu that Marney knows well, and -- I was going to write, there's no violent crime in this book, but that's not exactly true! However, White Night is at its heart a story about love, the ties between people, and friendship. It's narrated by Bo, a sixteen year old boy becoming a man, who falls for Rory, the 'feral' girl from the mysterious community on the town's fringes. I loved the way that Marney lets us, the readers, fall in love with the Eden community just as Bo does, before its flaws become obvious to us all. Thoroughly recommended (as usual).







15.4.24

Ten Steps To Nanette

Dear readers, I have been on holiday. I enjoyed a lovely relaxing week with some friends in Cairns, bobbing in the pool in the sunshine, eating delicious food, chatting, playing games, and of course, reading (more on that later). But before I left for my week in the tropical sun, I had a task to complete. I had borrowed Hannah Gadsby's sort-of autobiography, Ten Steps To Nanette, from the Athenaeum Library (are you sick of me talking about that yet??) and it was due back the day after my return from FNQ. So I had to finish it before I left, didn't I?

It was no chore to race through this book, though it is harrowing reading at times. Gadsby is an absolute professional at playing their audience like a fiddle, something they talk about in some detail while describing how they wrote their award-winning, brilliant show Nanette. Gadsby uses some of the same techniques in constructing this narrative, easing us into comfort with some laughs and then, wham, punching us in the solar plexus with horrific memories or a piece of shocking information. Gadsby has wrestled with shame and fear, sexual assault, depression, self-harm, neuro-diversity, and gender identity, as well as poverty, employment issues and then, almost most disorienting of all, global celebrity with the violent success of Nanette, self-described as 'a comedy show that isn't funny.' (If you haven't seen it yet, please, in the time-honoured phrase, do yourself a favour.)

I particularly enjoyed Gadsby's discovery of the history of art and subsequent obsession with the topic as a way of understanding the world. They are obviously extremely intelligent and it's an indictment on our education system that they were allowed to fall through the cracks at school -- more evidence that we need to pay more attention to autism and ADHD in children. I really wanted to reach back in time and give little Hannah a big hug.
 

3.4.24

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

I've been on the waiting list to read Shankari Chandran's Chai Time At Cinnamon Gardens for so long, it's probably time for the new winner of the Miles Franklin Award to be announced. There was even a reserve list at the Athenaeum! But my turn eventually arrived at good old Preston Library.

Despite waiting for so many months I'd lost count, I did not take advantage of this time to find out anything at all about the novel. I think I'd assumed from the title that it would be something like The Thursday Murder Club or those books set in nursing homes -- sorry, aged care facilities -- where people climb out of the windows (extremely unlikely in the aged care homes that I'm familiar with). The cover also led me to believe that this might be a gentle, whimsical story with quirky characters and a heart-warming ending.

Well, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens was sort of like that -- but also not like that at all. To begin with, much of the story centred on the civil war in Sri Lanka, a period of history I'm ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about. This brutal and bloody background colours the experience of several characters, and reminds us how many refugees and migrants to this country have come from such horrific situations. Towards the end, the novel becomes quite polemical in sketching an all-too-plausible white reaction to the Sri Lankan facility in their midst -- I'd like to be able to say it seems a little over the top, but alas, it's probably not extreme enough.

Chai Time was a much darker novel than I anticipated, including domestic violence and racist attacks as well as scenes of torture and slaughter, though there are indeed uplifting relationships and quirky characters. It's definitely a story of modern Australia and a worthy winner, a book that deserves many readers. With reserve lists this long, it's defiitely finding them.
 

2.4.24

Some Shall Break

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a HUGE fan of Ellie Marney, and I gobbled up her previous FBI novel, None Shall Sleep, with ravenous glee. Inspired by Mindhunter (which I also loved) and set in the 1980s, these books feature earnest Travis Bell, trainee FBI agent; damaged but resilient Emma Lewis, who escaped from a serial killer; psycho but charismatic monster, Simon Gutmunsson, and his oddly charming twin, Kristin. Some Shall Break sees our team on the track of a copycat, and ends on a beautiful loose end which I'm sure will be the subject of book three (thanks to social media, I know that Ellie is working on book three right now!)

The Shall novels hit a particular sweet spot for me, in that they deal with horrific crimes (rape, murder, abduction, torture) so the stakes are always very high; but they are not so graphic that I get disturbing images seared into my brain. I don't enjoy reading about real world pain and suffering, and I don't enjoy reading about imagined pain and suffering either. But perhaps because these novels are YA, they skirt the margins of the worst crimes, leaving the details mostly to our own imaginations (or not, if preferred; which I do).

I cannot wait for book three. Crack on, Marney!

26.3.24

Yellowface

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but I was able to pluck Rebecca Kuang's viral satire, Yellowface, off the shelf at the Athenaeum library; there are 87 people in the queue to borrow it from my local.

I raced through this novel, though parts of it were hard to read -- not because they were badly written, but because their forensic dissection of white guilt, overt and unconscious racism, and self-righteous self-justification were so painfully accurate and shameful. Don't get me wrong -- Yellowface is very funny as well as excruciating, not just about racism but also about the world of publishing (fortunately, as a children's author I have been spared the worst excesses of the publicity machine and the cycle of the Hot New Thing). I think I read almost this entire novel with a wince on my face.

Kuang's protagonist, June Hayward (known as Juniper Song after she steals her dead friend's manuscript and passes it off as her own), is monstrous, but she's also pitiful in her longing for admiration, validation and praise. I'm sure I'm not the only author to read this book and catch a glimpse of painful self-recognition in the character of June.

25.3.24

London: The Biography

I feel as if I've been reading this book FOREVER, so it was with some relief that I turned the last page. Don't get me wrong; London: The Biography is a fascinating, exhaustive, endlessly interesting exploration of the history and geography of this ancient and still vibrant city, but at 800-odd pages, it is a marathon, not a sprint, and I had to pace myself, with many breaks in between.

London: The Biography doesn't follow a strict chronological plan; instead, Ackroyd chooses one facet of the city's life and traces that through time. London's rivers, its crowds, pollution, theatre, children, the poor, plagues, fires, railways, all receive their own section. He has obviously pulled together a vast amount of research.

As it happened, while I was making my way through London: The Biography, I watched Ripper St, set in Victorian Whitechapel; read Square Haunting, about one Bloomsbury square; and remembered Ghost Theatre, set largely in Elizabethan London, south of the river. London: The Biography helped me to imagine all these areas more clearly, even though I have only made fleeting visits to the city and never had much of a clue about its geography. I do remember on my first visit diving into the Underground to travel a few stops, without realising that it would have been much quicker to walk through the streets on the surface!

Ackroyd (who had previously written another volume devoted to the Thames) seems quite enchanted by the city, resorting to almost mystical terms to describe its immensity, variety and unquenchable vitality and resilience. This book was published before the upheavals of Brexit and the Covid pandemic, but I am sure Ackroyd would point out that London has survived many such crises in its history, and these turbulent times will also pass.

22.3.24

A House With Four Rooms

Another treasure from the Melbourne Athenaeum Library -- I didn't even know that this book existed. And isn't this first edition pretty! The title is explained at the very end of the book:

Like everyone else I am a house with four rooms. As a child the physical room was barred to me, I had to fight my way to get into it. The room of the mind has always been mine. In the emotional, I have been marvellously lucky; with the spiritual, it was a long time before I would do more than peer in; now it is where I like best to be alone.

All of us tend to inhabit one room more than another but I have tried to go most days into them all -- each has its riches.

My house is, of course, slightly worn now but I still hope to go on quietly living in all of it, finding treasures, old and new until the time comes when I shall have, finally, to shut its door.

Isn't that absolutely beautiful? What a wonderful way to imagine the balance of life. Rumer Godden lived a full and rich and long life (she died in 1998), somehow managing to write dozens of books in between growing up in India, a failed marriage that led to a spartan life in a hut in the Himalayas, raising two daughters, numerous house moves, illness and tragedy (one house burned down and they lost almost everything), speaking tours of the US, several of her novels being turned into films, and other adventures...

Some of the personages she mentions in A House With Four Rooms are not known to me, others I have heard of. I looked up Stanbrook Abbey, the inspiration for perhaps my favourite Godden novel, In This House of Brede, and saw that it's become a hotel -- due to declining numbers, the abbey's sisters relocated to Yorkshire. It sounds (according to Wikipedia) as if the move was painful; three sisters left the abbey and set up their own establishment. It would have made a perfect, agonising plot for another novel.

18.3.24

The Borrowers Afield and Afloat

 My copies of The Borrowers Afield and The Borrowers Afloat are of course contained inside the omnibus volume I bought at the op shop, so I've picked my two favourite covers to share with you instead. Afield picks up exactly where the first story left off, with the three borrowers racing for their lives from the big house towards the dubious sanctuary of the badger's sett where they think their relatives might be living. 

Most of Afield sees the borrowers camping outside, sleeping in an abandoned boot, gathering berries and hiding from owls as well as humans. This book sees the arrival of the enigmatic Spiller, almost a wild borrower, infinitely resourceful and fortunately willing to help Pod, Homily and Arrietty. Afield ends with the reunion between the Clock family and their relatives -- no longer living in the badger's sett but safely in a cottage.

Alas, the happiness is short-lived, as we discover in Afloat -- the cottage, with only two human inhabitants, can't support all these borrowers, and anyway, as Arrietty learns, even those two are leaving. So our family decamp, with the aid of Spiller, for a thrilling adventure down a drain and along a stream, where they are almost caught again by a human from the previous book, but escape in the nick of time.

I'm so torn about these books, because the adventures are exciting and the whole concept of tiny people, living alongside us and repurposing our discards, is wonderful. But, sadly, some elements of these books are, shall we say, of their time (though I think they could be altered with no harm done) -- Mild Eye, the human who tries to capture them, is a gypsy, with all the squalor and 'foreignness' that implies in children's books of this era. Homily protests that she doesn't want to work 'like a black slave' and a head covering is described as having a 'Klu Klux Klan (sic)' appearance. If I was reading this aloud to a child of today, I would have some explaining to do.

And yet the borrowers themselves are so courageous, inventive and resilient, they are great role models for small people who also feel themselves helpless and vulnerable in a large, unfriendly world.

15.3.24

Blood on the Wattle

I can't believe it's taken me this long to read Blood on the Wattle, Bruce Elder's book about Aboriginal massacres and mistreatment which was first published as far back as 1988. There really is no excuse for saying 'we didn't know;' Elder collects together previously published material into one numbingly awful litany of slaughter.

Bruce Elder is not an academic, but a journalist, and he suggests that this might be the reason why he and this book were largely spared the attacks that the so-called 'black armband' historians received in the 1990s. There is a chapter included in this edition where Elder explains why the objections of the anti-black armband crew don't stand up; it beggars belief that all these stories, passed down through oral history in First Nations communities, should be invented or exaggerated, especially when there is plenty of other proof to be found, as David Marr's Killing For Country demonstrates.

There is no real central thesis or narrative here, it is a painful list of events which do start to almost blur together. Blood on the Wattle is not as beautifully written as Killing For Country, and Elder makes no attempt to pretend he is being 'objective' -- he is sickened and ashamed, and rightly so. Blood on the Wattle has been used as a school text for decades, and yet it does seem that the average white Australian is still ignorant of this basic history, or worse, knows about it and doesn't care.

Feeling depressed.

13.3.24

The Scent of Water

Inspired by the reluctant dragon I borrowed this first edition of The Scent of Water from the Athenaeum. It has a delicious scent itself, the smell of old books, a scent that takes me back to the small dark Mt Hagen library of my childhood. These days, of course, most old books are weeded from the shelves of modern libraries, so they never have the chance to develop this nostalgic fragrance.

I'm sure I've read The Scent of Water before. It has so many ingredients of a classic Elizabeth Goudge novel -- it may even be the ur-Goudge of which all the others are mere shadows. There are the delightful children, one sensitive and at least one slightly comic and ernest; a seeker (Mary Lindsay, a middle aged single woman who comes to live in the village); someone bitter (Valerie, who sees herself as a martyred wife to her blind husband); a gifted artist (Valerie's writer husband Paul). There is the refuge of the church, a forgotten history of saintly monks, the wonders of the natural world.

The Scent of Water features several varieties of what we would now recognise as mental illness. Mary's older relative, also called Mary Lindsay, suffered from episodes of 'madness' -- perhaps bi-polar disorder. The Vicar's sister, Jean, struggles with acute anxiety. Valerie is probably depressed (luckily, it only takes some masterful behaviour from her husband to snap her out of it). The no-good son of the heroic old couple would probably today be diagnosed with PTSD; in 1963, when the novel was published, he has no support or sympathy at all after his traumatic war experiences, except from his indulgent parents.

But while Goudge can be judgemental, she is also compassionate, and she strives to understand why each of these flawed characters has ended up the way they are. Indeed, the explicit message of The Scent of Water is that love alone is not enough, without understanding.

The miniature treasures featured in this novel (the 'little things') would make perfect gifts for Borrowers; both books also include a cat named Tiger!

10.3.24

Killers of the Flower Moon

I managed to struggle through the film version of Killers of the Flower Moon -- at three and a half hours, it was too long to watch in one sitting. I did appreciate the elaborate, expensive scene setting and the cultural details, but the action moved at treacle pace, and Leonardo di Caprio gives me the irrits (sorry, Leo). However, it's such a horrifying and intriguing story that I wanted to know more.

David Grann wrote the book on which the film was based, and unbelievably, the facts turn out to be even more shocking than the movie version. When the Osage tribe were forced onto what seemed to be worthless land in Oklahoma, no one dreamed that they were sitting on a fortune in oil fields. Before long, the Osage were sharing immense wealth from 'headrights' -- unalienable rights to the minerals beneath the land. However, the white townsmen found ways to grab themselves some of that wealth -- by grossly inflating the prices of goods sold to Indians, by having themselves appointed as 'guardians' to control Osage spending (no full blood Osage was deemed to be 'competent' to manage their own finances) and, most horrifically, by marrying into an Osage family and then conspiring to murder them so they would inherit their fortune.

The film focused on one family -- Mollie Burkhart and her sisters, Mollie's white husband Ernest, and Ernest's conniving uncle Bill Hale, a powerful local figure who was eventually convicted of plotting the murders of several Osage. However, Grann's work shows that there was a wide conspiracy to plan, carry out and cover up Osage killings, and that probably the victims numbered in the hundreds rather than the dozens. It's a truly chilling tale and while Ernest Burkhart and Hale ended up in jail, it's likely that many more men escaped justice entirely.

What's most distressing is the utter cold-blooded racism behind the murders, and the deep, scarring paranoia and fear that this history has left behind for Osage descendants.
 

7.3.24

The Borrowers

I'm trying not to buy new books this year -- I have the most enormous backlog to work through:

Plus, now I have a whole new library to explore... But when I found this Borrowers omnibus in the op shop for $2, I just couldn't resist. I loved the original Borrowers book as a child, and I managed to acquire The Borrowers Afloat from a library book sale years ago, but some of these six titles I have never even read before. It would have been churlish to walk away -- right?

Anyway I have now reread The Borrowers and I remember why I was so enchanted. There is something magical about a world in miniature and I remember that what captivated me most as a child was the way that Pod, Homily and Arriety repurposed human possessions for their own uses -- a cotton reel as a table, postage stamps for art, sliced chestnuts toasted like bread, a ring worn as a tiara. It's a very simple story, bookended by the device of Mrs May telling the Borrowers' tale to young Kate. I had completely forgotten Kate and Mrs May, which is surprising as I tended to latch on to any character sharing my name.

Funnily enough I am also reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water, which features a collection of 'little things' -- tiny precious treasures which cast a spell over several generations of little girls. And my daughter, though not a little girl anymore, has just been putting together a miniature scene in a tin, which also clearly caters to this thirst for the tiny and detailed. I wonder where this fascination comes from and what purpose it might serve, and whether it is truly universal?

May Norton said that she began thinking of the Borrowers as a story during the years of World War II; perhaps the experience of feeling very small and vulnerable beneath falling bombs triggered a fellow feeling for these very small and vulnerable, though resilient and inventive, people?