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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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!