The Whispering Knights

First published in 1971, The Whispering Knights has something in common with The Time of the Ghost; in both books, a group of children unintentionally summon up a malevolent, ancient feminine force (Morgan in The Whispering Knights, Monigan in Time of the Ghost) and have to deal with the consequences, though Time of the Ghost is a more sophisticated, young adult version, while The Whispering Knights is very much a children's story.

The Whispering Knights also reminded me of Alan Garner's early works, particularly The Moon of Gomrath, as one of the children is captured and imprisoned by Morgan in her big sinister house and needs to be rescued (she is called 'the Morrigan' in Garner's book). It's interesting to speculate about the possibility of these three wonderful writers reading each other's work and being influenced, or having ideas for stories sparked. In order of publication, it goes Garner, Lively, Wynne Jones, but I have no idea whether any of them saw the books of the others. Sometimes story ideas seem to float in the zeitgeist; it's not unusual for roughly contemporaneous novels to share similar plots or settings, or to draw on common source material, as seems to have happened here.

The Whispering Knights is the most straightforward of the three and the most easily resolved; the children have the help of the wonderful Miss Hepplewhite, an equally ancient force for good, and the Whispering Knights themselves, a stone circle which comes to life in the final climatic battle. A good introduction to some big mythological ideas.


A Dead Man in Trieste

Those who know me will know that I'm a sucker for shabby grandeur. Ruined mansions, abandoned towns, overgrown gardens, I love them all. I think it all started when I read The Leopard in high school, when Tancredi and Angelica wander through the shut-up rooms of the palace, which was intensely romantic. 

So imagine my delight when I discovered there is a whole city like this (thanks House Hunters International). Trieste was once the sole seaport of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a meeting place for the Balkans, Italy, German-speakers, a microcosm of Europe itself, a centre of trade and culture. But now it's part of Italy, neglected cousin of Venice, its Adriatic twin -- filled with grand buildings, but now sort of... irrelevant. (I've been amusing myself by shopping for apartments in Trieste online, and boy, you can get some real bargains.) In short, I've become slightly obsessed with Trieste.

So naturally I went hunting for books set there. My local library could only come up with two, one of which is A Dead Man In Trieste by Michael Pearce, the first of a whole series of Dead Man novels set before the outbreak of WWI and featuring polyglot English policeman Sandor Seymour. The back cover says that this novel is set in 1906, but it's actually 1909, and Trieste is a hotbed of intrigue and artistic ferment. The Futurists release their manifesto, even James Joyce ('James Juice' in the novel) makes an appearance.

A Dead Man in Trieste is a short novel, less than two hundred pages, and its mystery is not all that complicated, but I loved the setting (obviously) and this volatile corner of history and geography.


Cue For Treason

My friends know what I like! Thank you, Pam, for scooping up this one for me -- this Puffin edition dates from 1982, but Cue For Treason was first published in 1940. I have heard of Geoffrey Trease but never read any of his books for children, but having read this, I can see why he was so popular and why there are so many editions of his work.

Cue For Treason is a pacy, exciting, historical adventure, set in Elizabethan England. There is hardly time to breathe as thirteen year old Peter is harried from his home by our villain, Sir Philip Morton, falls in with a troupe of actors and another mysterious boy on the run (the reader realises much sooner than Peter that Kit is a girl in disguise), travels to London and of course meets Shakespeare, and soon becomes entangled in foiling a treasonous plot. We meet Shakespeare, Burbage and eventually the Queen herself. It's a wonder that William Shakespeare found time to write any of his plays, given all the extraneous adventures that various authors have inserted him into over the years -- has there ever been an Elizabethan novel that doesn't feature at least a cameo from the Bard?

Cue For Treason slotted in nicely with my (slow) reading of Peter Ackroyd's enormous volume, London: A Biography, which I've been crawling through in stages. But more of that book later.


Prima Facie

Prima Facie is based on the hugely successful one-woman play by Suzie Miller, which took London and other cities by storm; I've heard rave reviews from people who have seen the film of the performance, and there is also a separate film version being planned. This novel adaptation by the same author has also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. There was a long queue of readers waiting to check it out at the library and I've had to wait a long time to get my hands on it. 

So I know I am in the minority when I say that I was disappointed. I kept waiting for the story to take off and it never really did. Apparently the play is extraordinary, and the bones of the story are compelling -- a defence barrister finds herself on the other side of the legal process as a victim of rape -- and particularly at this moment in history, after the Bruce Lehrmann case and other high profile rape cases. But it never really translates successfully into a suspenseful or even particularly moving novel. The lead up to the rape consists of a lot of slightly plodding backstory, showing Tessa as a working class girl made good, but her shock at becoming the subject of court tactics that she has used herself just isn't very convincing. Perhaps I've paid more attention to these types of cases but I just wasn't shocked at the way victims are treated, or the horribly low conviction rates for sexual assault. One thing that I found irritating was the way Miller repeatedly skipped over court testimony -- 'I made a point and the jury reacted and I sat down in triumph' -- almost literally in those words! It almost read as if she couldn't be bothered making up actual dialogue in parts.

I'm pleased that the play and now the novel have drawn attention to the way that victims of sexual assault are traumatised all over again by the legal process, but it didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, and Prima Facie didn't quite work for me.


The Salt Path

The Salt Path was a bestseller in the UK for many months, and is currently being made into a film. It's a hard and beautiful book, told in clear and concise prose. Perhaps the most difficult chapters to read are at the beginning, when Raynor Winn calmly but devastatingly recounts the events that ended with herself and her husband, Moth, taking to the South West coastal path that winds around Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. Thanks to an unwise investment, the couple lost their beloved farm, home and business; if this wasn't catastrophic enough, Moth is diagnosed with a fatal condition and given only 6-8 years to live. With literally nothing, no money and no home, Ray and Moth spend their last pounds on sleeping bags and a tent and start to walk.

At first numb with grief, Winn and her husband move through fury at their fate, slow exaltation at the gradual realisation that the constant hard exercise of walking, carrying and camping is actually helping Moth's symptoms, despair, misery and joy, to acceptance of taking every day of life and freedom as a gift. 

There are many funny moments and also upsetting ones, particularly when Winn notes the difference in reactions when they tell people they've 'sold' their home (oh, wow, you're so lucky, have a great time) as opposed to honestly admitting that they've 'lost' everything and are homeless (cheerful chit-chat ceases and people back away hastily). It's not an easy walk; their lack of money means surviving on noodles, they can't afford campsites with bathrooms so they stink, they get sunburn and blisters.  But they survive.

Issues of class arose starkly in all the books I was reading at this time: The Salt Path, Prima Facie and The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy. Was it a coincidence that all three were written in the UK? I suspect not.


The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively was a formative book for me (what were the others? The Little White Horse, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, The Long Winter, The Chimneys of Green Knowe, The Summer of the Great Secret, Ballet Shoes, Winter Holiday, The Warden's Niece, Tom's Midnight Garden).

I must have read this book dozens of times. The corners of my copy are all nibbled, and James, at ten, was older than me when I first read it. I'm surprised at how short it is -- just over 150 pages -- because it packed in a lot of ideas that intrigued me. Ghosts, history, people 'having layers -- like onions.' Perhaps this is where my fascination with ghosts began? As an adult, I notice how imaginative James is, always dipping into a private, internal narrative, embarking on experiments, sharing adventures with an imaginary friend (this might have been my favourite element as a child). Bert Ellison, builder and exorcist, is a wonderful character, equally matter-of-fact about shelving and the best methods for laying poltergeists to rest.

Thomas Kempe's reign of terror is quite brief, but it escalates rapidly, from breaking crockery through graffiti to arson in a few chapters. And the final chapter, where the sorcerer's ghost admits bewilderment about the modern world and Bert and James succeed in helping him on his way, is very moving.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is a tight, poignant and beautifully written story. I hope modern children are still reading it, it seems to be still in print. It's fifty years old and James himself would be sixty, one of those onion-layered adults he muses about as he walks home in the summer dusk, just as a wide-eyed eight year old reader is still locked away inside me.


The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy

Penelope Lively has had a successful career as both an adult novelist and a writer for children, in fact I think she used to write books for adults and children alternately. I've enjoyed her adult novels but personally I think her books for children are superior. (She is still with us, aged 90.)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, published in 1971, has echoes of Alan Garner's The Owl Service: a local boy, made an outsider by education, stirring uncomfortably beneath the weight of expectations that he'll take up a family responsibility (in this case, becoming the local smith and implicitly, the ancient, sacred role that also involves), a hot summer, a girl from outside the community who is drawn to the boy, and people messing with deep powers they no longer understand. The Wild Hunt centres on younger children than The Owl Service, and doesn't include the undercurrent of adolescent hormones in the earlier book, but it conjures up a similar oppressive atmosphere and tension, as the Hagworthy Dance is revived and the local boys become a pack, almost possessed by ancient forces.

Penelope Lively and Alan Garner, and perhaps Lucy M Boston, all wrote quite a few books in the 1970s (perfect timing for child reader me) that explored English folklore and ancient traditions, books that enthralled me. I was inspired to re-read Wild Hunt after reading about the wild hunt in Dogsbody (1975), but I was thrilled to see that Yeff, the wild hound in Dogsbody, is named for the Yeff Hounds of Somerset. Another coincidence -- I've started reading The Salt Path, which is set in the same part of the world; Ray and Moth's long walk begins in Minehead, the big town closest to fictional Hagworthy. I never tire of the way that these threads dart between different books, connecting them in unexpected ways.



This will be the last of my Diana Wynne Jones re-reading festival. I picked up this copy of Dogsbody years ago from the library book sale. I'm not a massive fan of this cover, which is not at all representative of the story, and I'm not normally much of a fan of books told from the point of view of animals, but Dogsbody is an excellent novel.

'High Effulgency' Sirius (not quite a god, but certainly a powerful celestial being of some kind) is sentenced to exile in the body of an ordinary earth dog, and takes a while to remember who he really is and the task he must perform to save himself and recover his position -- to find a mysterious object called a Zoi and prevent it being found by rival celestial beings. But poor Sirius is of course hampered by ordinary dog-sized obstacles, like being locked in the backyard or fighting with the household cats.

Wynne Jones brilliantly juggles the foggy dog-nature awareness of 'Leo' as he is rechristened by loving Kathleen, and the 'vast green thoughts' that lurk inside and belong to his former exalted station. This is a gripping adventure, often funny, and really touching as Kathleen struggles to cope with her horrible relatives (more horrible relatives!) Human and canine, and various kinds of super-powerful beings (including the Sun, Earth and Moon) all assist Sirius in his quest, and while the ending is not exactly neatly happy, it is supremely satisfying.


Right Story, Wrong Story

I'm worried about Tyson Yunkaporta. I was exhilarated by his previous book, Sand Talk, which threw open doors of perception and ways of seeing the world that I found bewildering, exciting and challenging. This follow up, Right Story, Wrong Story, strikes a darker note than the playful energy of Sand Talk; Yunkaporta reveals some personal tragedy and struggles in Right Story, Wrong Story, which may go some way to explaining why.

In this book, we ('us-two') are imagined in a self-built canoe, paddling our way through the circles of hell, a journey that introduces us to many other interesting thinkers and to some bleak subject matter. Yunkaporta structures Right Story, Wrong Story as a series of interconnected thought experiments, a conversation between himself, the reader and the various contributors we meet along the way. We discuss violence, technology, power and story, always int he context of being in either 'right relationship' or 'wrong relationship.' In Indigenous thinking, relationships are everything; no individual stands alone, there are no superheroes to the rescue, and solutions are worked out through collective contributions, often over a long time. If only the modern world could turn to this kind of problem-solving! Perhaps this is one cause of the suppressed rage and despair that bubbles through these pages.

I might not have enjoyed the journey of Right Story, Wrong Story quite as much as Sand Talk but Yunkaporta is always stimulating to read.



There are thirty eight people waiting to read Edenglassie after me! I hadn't realised that Melissa Lucashenko started as a young adult writer, and though Edenglassie is an adult novel, Lucashenko retains the pace and immediacy and the emotional punch of the best young adult titles.

Edenglassie was one of the first names for the settlement of Brisbane, and the novel is set in parallel time lines, one in the present day and one in the mid 1850s, in the early days of colonial Queensland (still known as New South Wales). Lucashenko creates a vivid and all-too-real portrait of a place in transition, where First Nations people still outnumber white settlers and the two peoples are able to live together, sometimes in relative harmony and sometimes in brutal conflict. What sets Edenglassie apart is the steady focus on the First Nations characters: bold Mulanyin, beautiful Nita, resolute Yerrin, wise Diwalbin.

The parallel modern day storyline takes a more comic twist, but its links to the distant past keep it grounded. Edenglassie is one of the most readable and relatable accounts of early Australian settler society I've read, and I'm not surprised that there are eager readers lining up to consume it.


Eight Days of Luke

Now this one is a favourite! I think Eight Days of Luke might be the first Diana Wynne Jones novel I read, I definitely remember reading it at school and feeling smug because I figured out the characters were Norse gods before we were told. I have a feeling Eight Days of Luke might have been a favourite of JK Rowling as well, because David's situation at the beginning of the book is strikingly similar to Harry Potter's at the beginning of Philosopher's Stone -- living with horrible suburban relatives and his life being made a misery by them (though the stories diverge considerably from there).

Cricket plays a part in this book too, which coincided with me watching the Test Matches between Australia and Pakistan -- it would have been even more perfect if it had been the Ashes, which are going on during the novel. Eight Days of Luke is a perfectly constructed book, and Luke (Loki) is a charismatic but also clearly rather dangerous character. David is a resourceful and loyal ally who faces the various trials and tests bravely, and Cousin Astrid starts out as just another dislikeable relative but gradually thaws into an appealing friend.

Thoroughly enjoyable.


Stolen Focus

Johann Hari is an extremely readable writer. Coming from a background in journalism, that's not really surprising. I don't always agree with everything he says, but when he claims that the world is suffering from a global crisis of attention, it's hard to argue.

In Stolen Focus, Hari doesn't just blame screens and social media for our inability to focus; poor diet and pollution also play a role, along with general exhaustion and poor sleep. He also points out that it's not just personal weakness that makes us vulnerable to eternal scrolling and constant phone-checking; these technologies are being specifically designed to be addictive. I think Hari is being optimistic in calling for an end to 'surveillance captialism.' There is just too much money tied up in advertising, and though he admits that any solution will rely on government regulation, I honestly can't see that happening either, which is a bit depressing.

Hari also takes a couple of chapters to reflect on the way we are robbing our children of the chance for mind-wandering (my own childhood was basically reading and mind-wandering), by scheduling every minute of activity and removing free play from our education systems. As far as I know, things haven't gone quite so far here in Australia as they have in the US and UK, but we are certainly heading down the same road with a focus on competitive testing and a move away from unsupervised play.

Stolen Focus is a sobering read, but I was relieved to note that I'm already following a lot of Hari's advice. I make a lot of time for reading (books!), I don't spend much time mired in social media, I strive to achieve a 'flow state' while I'm working, I let my mind wander. But as he points out, individual efforts aren't enough to solve this social crisis, in a time when we need more deep thinking and imaginative solutions than ever before. I'm afraid it might be too late to go back.


A Tale of Time City

Along with most of my other Diana Wynne Jones books, I scooped up A Tale of Time City in a library book sale a few years ago. It's not my favourite Wynne Jones story -- the premise is so complicated that I have trouble getting my head around it, including a city outside time that oversees history, four 'polarities' that somehow anchor the city in time and space, a villain trying to sabotage history, an evacuee from 1939 who ends up in the middle of all this impersonating a cousin... It's enjoyable, but I still struggle to understand exactly what's happening!

However, perhaps the real lesson is that time is important in another way, as in the time of your life that you encounter a book. There is a reviewer on Goodreads who passionately adores A Tale of Time City. She was given it as a nine year old, and it blew her mind, introducing her to concepts about time and history that she hadn't thought about before, enchanting her with its inventiveness and ingenuity. Certainly I can believe this is a book that would benefit from repeated reading, the way a child reads a favourite book, over and over until it soaks into your bones. I must have read A Tale of Time City before, years ago, but I couldn't remember anything at all about it. Maybe I needed to meet it when I was nine, too.


Reading Round Up 2023

I read 161 books this year; I really should get a job! In my own defence, I will say that some of them were extremely short.

Kids/YA v Adult

The proportions of adult to children's/YA books that I read probably isn't going to change much while I maintain my current 3-books-at-a-time habit -- one kids, one adult fiction, one adult non-fiction. It feels like a pretty good balance.

Author Gender

I always lean toward reading more female authors than male, but I think my bias was even more extreme this year. I read hardly any fiction by men (though I very much enjoyed North Woods by Daniel Mason, Limberlost by Robbie Arnott and The Bannerman Shortlist by Colin Batrouney). Maybe I was feeling pissed off with men this year, who knows? I read three books with a mixed female/male authorship. As far as I know, I didn't read any non-binary authors this year.

Fiction v non-fiction

These proportions stay pretty steady, too, since most of the children's books I read are fiction. So it always works out to about a one third/two thirds split.

Book sources

Pretty even split between the library and secondhand sources this year (I'm including street library finds in the secondhand total rather than the library total). And the proportion of books re-read from my shelves, borrowed from friends or family, purchased on the Kindle and bought or given new, are all quite even. Doesn't it make a pretty graph, though?

And did you know that the pie graph was invented by Florence Nightingale? That's one of my favourite fun facts.


The maths isn't going to work out on this one because I counted some authors; I wanted to see how many First Nations authors I'd read this year (7). Most were Australian but two were Native American. The German slice of the pie is mostly Sybille Bedford. Otherwise my reading was not particularly diverse this year -- lots of English authors as usual!

Notable books

Some of my favourite reads came at the start of the year, with Nina Kenwood's lively, unaffected YA novels, Unnecessary Drama and It Sounded Better In My Head. Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was unexpectedly brilliant.

I binged six Jill Paton Walsh novels, eight by Diana Wynne Jones, and read thirteen books centred on King Arthur, Merlin and Camelot by various authors, marvelling at the many angles one set of legends can inspire.

I seemed to read a lot of 'funny murder' books this year (is there a name for this genre?). Richard Osman, Janice Hallett, Benjamin Stevenson and Amanda Hampson were all delightful company.

In non-fiction, Wifedom by Anna Funder and Consent Laid Bare by Chanel Contos made my feminist blood boil. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer was a beautiful and enlightening journey that showed me many parallels between Native American and Australian First Nations cultures.

In adult fiction, some novels that challenged and haunted me were Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman (what a talented family) and From Here On, Monsters by Elizabeth Bryer. For pure enjoyment, I loved Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld, I Have Some Questions For You by Rebecca Makkai and Willowman by Inga Simpson. The Things That Matter Most by Gabrielle Stroud made me cry for our teachers and our kids.

Happy reading for 2024!