I was so charmed by David Goodwin's Conversation with Richard Fidler on RN that I reserved Servo immediately from the library; perhaps I wasn't the only one listening, because I had quite a wait. I felt a certain fellow feeling with Goodwin from the start, having also spent my young adulthood working in a menial service job (in my case, phone sales and admin at a record company) while finishing uni and aspiring to be a writer, interspersed with odd bits of overseas travel. However, my job in phone sales took place during daylight hours, rather than between midnight and sunrise in a service station, and I never had to deal with the levels of weirdness and drugged up lunacy that Goodwin faced on a nightly basis (at least, only at conferences...) On the other hand, I worked at the record company for thirteen years, while Goodwin lasted a paltry six, so I'm not sure who really had more stamina in the end.

Working at the servo changed him, Goodwin says. Firstly, he found confidence in being able to stare down the various 'characters' he encountered (good). Then he tried drugs (bad). Then he discovered meditation (good) and a kind of Zen peace with whatever life threw at him, as well as fistfuls of random scribblings to turn into a book. There's not a lot in the way of plot, but Servo's glimpse into the hellscape of someone else's job is both entertaining and a cautionary tale. Bonus points for Goodwin being a Western Bulldogs supporter.


As Happy As Here

Jane Godwin is becoming (in my mind) one of those reliable authors whose books you can relax into, knowing that you're in safe hands for the journey. As Happy As Here, like Look Me In the Eye (though it was published earlier), features a trio of girls aged around thirteen, one of whom is more troubled than the other two. In this book, Evie, Lucy and Jemma are thrust together in a hospital ward, and while there is a mystery to solve and danger to face, the real focus is on the gradual friendship that stutters between the three of them. Evie and Lucy are comfortably middle class and secure in their parents' love (though Lucy has lost her mum, and is also facing her own health battles); but Jemma is an unwanted, lonely child who displays her insecurities in undesirable behaviour -- lying, stealing, being rude. But Godwin is skilful in helping the reader to understand the challenges that Jemma faces, even though she's not easy to be around.

Godwin captures precisely the atmosphere of a busy hospital, the constant activity, the fact that even the nights are never truly dark or quiet, the close but brief relationships with nurses and physios, the boredom, the discomfort. The mystery plot is clever, too, even though it ends in a shocking way. And there are big questions sprinkled throughout -- about fate, and choices, luck and kindness.



Thirteen year old SJ (formerly Samantha) has just moved to a new town, a place where no one knows her shameful secret and she has a chance to start again. Maybe here in Kingston, she can be cool, and pretty, and carefree? Things begin well: SJ makes a new friend, Livvy, and a cute boy is paying attention to her. But her secret can't stay hidden forever...

SJ's shameful secret is her skin. Like Webster herself, SJ has terrible eczema which flares up unpredictably, and also severe allergies, not all of which have been identified. She reacts to grass, to the flowers the class dissects in science, to eggs, and who knows what else. Her worried mother puts her on an exclusion diet which eliminates almost every food, but SJ can't stop scratching, and she's tortured by the thought that people might guess that under her clothes, her skin is a red, painful, itchy mess. And what if the cute boy wants to kiss her? He'll be repulsed!

Sensitive draws heavily on Webster's own experiences; she almost died (twice) as a result of her conditions. Some of the strategies in the story seemed outdated to me, and it was hard to believe that a contemporary family (especially with a librarian for a mother) who avoid Dr Google so completely. My heart really went out to SJ and her family (and by extension, to Webster herself), and of course anything that makes you different, and especially look different, is all the more agonising at thirteen. Sensitive would be such a useful, compassionate book to give any child or adolescent suffering from skin complaints


Ghost Species

 James Bradley's novel Ghost Species has been on my radar since it was published in 2020, and I finally got around to reading it. The premise is intriguing. In a near future, an eccentric billionaire is bringing species back from extinction -- a kind of extreme rewilding project! But in addition to resurrecting mammoths and aurochs, he is also bringing back a Neanderthal child. (One niggle: the singular of aurochs is aurochs, not auroch -- like ox, I guess?)

The novel follows the child, Eve, and the woman who becomes her mother, Kate, secluded in Tasmania, as the world begins to disintegrate around them, until the final catastrophic 'Melt' brings about the end of society as we know it. Ghost Species makes for uncomfortable reading, as this future apocalypse is all too plausible (though I did find it hard to believe that container ships would still be sailing after the total breakdown of global civilisation). It's interesting that the novel was written before at least one cataclysm hit the planet in the form of the covid pandemic -- it must have been spooky for Bradley to see some of his predictions unfold. And it was particularly good to read this book just after Wilding (which reinforced the view that our eccentric billionaire was barking up the wrong tree in trying to preserve single species rather than habitat). Ultimately the conclusion is unavoidable: we all depend on each other.


Fixed It

Ten years ago Jane Gilmore, fed up with the reporting of men's violence against women, came up with a brilliantly simple and effective way of highlighting the defects in headlines. Her project, Fixed It, took off on Twitter and is still going strong, and I'm sure has led to at least some change in the way that reporters and editors choose to describe crimes against women and children. A typical example: POLICE CHARGE YOUNG MALE WITH ILLICIT ATTACK ON YOUNG MOTHER became MAN CHARGED WITH ATTEMPTED RAPE OF A WOMAN. As Gilmore points out, softening the crime of attempted rape to 'illicit attack' is misleading at best and at worst reduces serious crimes to the level of 'a schoolyard incident.'

This book is a few years old now but it feels particularly timely with the current spotlight on men's violence. Gilmore's focus is on the way media chooses to report this topic, but this book also gives a useful summary of men's violence against women and other gender issues in sport, politics, pop culture and the legal system. Fixed It shows the power of a simple idea -- that red pen correction of offensive and inaccurate headlines has become iconic. In a way it makes depressing reading because we clearly still have a long way to go, but it's encouraging to note that change is occuring. Although when I hear about the growing influence that misogynists like Andrew Tate have over young men and boys, I do despair. One step forward, two steps back? Let's hope not.


The Gate of Angels

Good old Athenaeum Library came up trumps again, with a whole chunk of shelf devoted to Penelope Fitzgerald novels which I look forward to investigating in future. On the recommendation of the reluctant dragon, I started with The Gate of Angels. And what a treat it was!

Penelope Fitzgerald could teach some modern writers a thing or two about writing with precision. Each of her chapters is short, usually only a few pages, and the whole book is less than 200 pages long. And yet she packs an entire world, a whole society, a vivid moment in history, into each scene. Fitzgerald's writing is intensely cinematic; I could definitely see The Gate of Angels as a film. And she knows how to leave gaps for the reader's imagination to fill in. We see the characters act, but we aren't always witness to their thoughts and feelings. Even the happy ending has to be inferred as occurring after the end of the novel. This is fitting in a book which is about chance, luck and randomness, with a series of accidental events pushing Daisy and Fred in one direction then another.

I'm so looking forward to discovering more of Penelope Fitzgerald, even if The Bookshop sounds rather sad. There is a surprising amount going on in so few pages, which is infinitely preferable to the reverse, I think!


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.


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!



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.