26.4.17

The Greatest Gresham

Well, well, well! Barely a month after my last successful visit to Savers, where I found Gillian Avery's The Elephant War, Alice and I paid another visit, and behold! Another Gillian Avery! Do the Savers' staff have a box of them out the back? Are they doling them out when they see me slink through the door?

The Greatest Gresham was first published in 1962, but it's set in Avery's favourite period of the 1890s (though in the suburbs of London this time, rather than Oxford). One one level, it's a charming friendship story, bringing together the timid, respectable Gresham children with their rackety new next-door neighbours, supercilious Richard and imaginative Kate. A secret society is formed, dares are exchanged, and parents are horrified, but everyone learns something in the end.

But on another level, there is a much darker narrative lurking in the background. The Greshams (except for the favourite, little Amy) are timid because they are almost paralysed with fear of their over-bearing, ex-military father, who 'roars' at them and is frequently made angry by his disappointing offspring. In contrast, the Holt children are benignly neglected by their loving but distracted father and aunt. Clever Richard is cramming so hard for a scholarship exam that he makes himself almost physically ill, while dishevelled Kate, who dreams of being a duchess, longs for the order and predictability of the Gresham household. All four of the older children suffer from anxiety to some degree, whether it's caused by terror of their father, fear of what 'other people think', or fear of academic failure. In the end, it's spirited Amy and bold Aunt B, who refuse to be bound by others' judgements, who come out winners.

A delightful book, but also a very good one.

24.4.17

Long Ago When I Was Young

I stumbled across this short memoir, Long Ago When I Was Young, by one of my favourite childhood authors, E. Nesbit, while browsing on Brotherhood Books. I'd never heard of this book's existence, so I had to act quickly to grab it while it was still there -- didn't I?

E. Nesbit's magical (and non-magical) novels were a staple of my youthful reading. The Phoenix and the Carpet, Five Children and It, The Wouldbegoods and The Treasure Seekers, and of course The Railway Children, were borrowed and re-borrowed. I tried reading them to my children but the stories were too slow, too Victorian, and they didn't 'take', which made me so sad, as Edith Nesbit is the godmother of modern urban fantasy. Edward Eager acknowledged his debt to her in every one of his own delightful books, and I believe she invented the genre of 'magic in the real world', or at the very least popularised it.

This slim volume, beautifully illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, collects some of Nesbit's most vivid childhood memories of growing up in the 1860s. She had an unsettled youth, moved from one boarding school to another as her mother shifted around the country with young Edith's (Daisy) ill elder sister. The family also spent time travelling around France and Germany, before finding a more permanent home in the Kentish countryside. The most poignant chapters tell of the things that frightened Daisy -- ghosts, the dark space behind the bed, the gas turned low to make creepy shadows, and especially the terrifying mummies in a crypt that she was taken to see, and which gave her nightmares for many years. What a great idea, to take a sensitive child to see some half-preserved corpses in a cave!

This book has reminded me how much I loved Nesbit's books. Time for a revisit, perhaps.

20.4.17

My Side of the Mountain

Next month's theme for the Convent book group is Wilderness, and I re-read Jean George's 1959 American classic, My Side of the Mountain as our junior fiction selection. (Our YA choice is Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, which actually seems to me to be pitched at about the same level -- not sure why one is in one category and the other is in the other? Something to discuss at the meeting, perhaps!)

George's book, largely based on her own childhood memories of camping in the wild, tells the story of Sam, aged about 13, who runs away from the city to test his own survival skills. (His parents are remarkably relaxed about this decision!) He makes himself a home in a hollow tree, tames a falcon (much more easily than in H is for Hawk, by the way), fishes and gathers wild plants, and even makes himself clothes from deer and rabbit skin. He lives well and healthily, makes it through winter, and only toward the end of the book does he find himself craving human company.

Killing two birds with one stone as I often do, I talked about My Side of the Mountain at my other book group, and we collectively wondered why there is so little of this kind of positive wilderness writing in Australian children's literature. For authors like Ivan Southall, landscape is a hostile enemy in a life or death struggle for survival (eg Ash Road, To the Wild Sky). Only Nan Chauncy seems to celebrate and delight in wilderness (eg They Found a Cave). Is it because white authors don't feel entitled to belong in Australia's 'wild' country? Australian literature has a long tradition of 'lost child' narratives, but very few stories of harmonious living in nature. Hopefully Australia's growing body of Indigenous writing for children and adults will soon fill this gap -- it would be a healthy development, I think.

17.4.17

Melbourne Then and Now

I found this book on my Dad's shelves -- one of many hidden gems tucked away. The silver lining to the arduous and emotional business of clearing out the parental home is that we are constantly making wonderful discoveries, and even Dad admits that without this process, some of his treasures would have remained unlooked-at in cupboards and filed away on bookshelves. At least this way he has actually been able to enjoy leafing through some precious volumes (I'm thinking of the cloud atlas* he bought as an eighteen-year old, carefully stored in its original shipping box).

Anyway, Melbourne Then and Now is a wonderful little book, a simple concept thoughtfully executed. On each double page spread, a photograph of some old Melbourne landmark is married with a modern shot from more or less the same place. Sometimes the buildings are still there, looking exactly the same, with only the surroundings changed; sometimes the original has altered beyond recognition or disappeared altogether. For the first time I realise how Market St acquired its name, and why the Customs House sits where it does (the wharves used to lie directly in front of it).

And if I could resurrect one lost Melbourne building, I would choose the magnificent Federal Coffee Palace. Situated on the corner of Collins and King Streets, its dining rooms could seat 600 patrons, and when it was first built, its dome could be seen by ships at sea. Demolished in 1973, it was replaced by yet another anonymous, boring skyscraper. What a shame!


* Turns out a cloud atlas is an actual thing, not just a novel! Who knew?

14.4.17

The Exiles

I went to the latest library book sale to donate, not purchase (as per the No New Books rule -- which is in shambles, by the way, if you hadn't guessed). But when I saw The Exiles and The Exiles at Home on the table, I couldn't resist grabbing them. I've become a huge fan of Hilary McKay's Casson family series, and I wanted more of the same.

The Exiles (there are three books altogether), like the Casson books, features a family of mostly girls -- the four Conroy sisters. In this first book, they are dispatched to Big Grandma's house for the holidays while their home is being renovated. Various misadventures ensue, culminating in... [spoilers which may or may not involve a fire where books are destroyed -- this part was hard to read!]

This was a sweet book. I had a bit of trouble telling the four girls apart; their personalities are not as clearly delineated as in the Casson books, in fact this feels like a rehearsal for McKay's later, more accomplished work. It also lacks the emotional heft of the Casson series. But it's a light, funny read.

One thing that dated the book was the fuss made about the sisters' allegedly 'weird' names: Ruth, Naomi, Rachel and especially Phoebe. Well, Phoebe might have been slightly unusual in 1991 (not to me, as I have an English cousin called Phoebe), but it certainly isn't peculiar these days -- perhaps helped by the arrival of Phoebe from Friends. Naming trends come and go, and by all means use your favourite unusual names on your characters, but best not to comment on it at much length. Who knows, the popularity of your character may propel that 'bizarre' name into the Top 10! (Unlikely but it has happened -- babies are actually being named Renesmee now, believe it or not.) I still live in hope of a wave of little Calwyns one day...

13.4.17

The Marlows and the Traitor (again)

Over on Memoranda, Michelle Cooper has been conducting a fabulous read-through of The Marlows and the Traitor, which has given me the opportunity to read it again, too. And I think I've enjoyed it even more this time; it really is a cracking story, despite the holes in the plot, the poor behaviour of most of the adults involved and the stiff upper lips all round. Forest uses multiple viewpoints and clever pacing to masterfully control the tension of the narrative. In many ways this is a very adult book. We are told, 'The children are expendable' -- you wouldn't get that in Enid Blyton!

In other news, I had to do something absurdly upsetting this week -- get rid of my childhood books. I'm in the process of clearing out my childhood home -- I'm very fortunate that my parents have lived in the same house for nearly fifty years, and the books I read as a four and five year old have all been tucked away in a spare bedroom, to be read by my younger sister and then by my own children. I've saved my special favourites, but I couldn't keep them all, and most of them were so tatty (and had my name scribbled in them!) that they couldn't be passed on. So into the recycling bin they had to go. How ridiculous that this, more than anything other aspect of the business, reduced me to tears! I had to go home, too upset to do any more clearing out that day.

When I got up next morning, I discovered that my lovely husband had fished the books out of the bin and brought them home. 'They don't take up much room,' he said. 'We can keep them.' Bless him.

3.4.17

The Mighty West

A massive exception to the No New Books rule: I pre-ordered The Mighty West long before it came out. I feel as if I know Kerrie Soraghan (aka The Bulldog Tragician) from her blog and her posts on the Whitten Oval Online Forum; a lifelong Western Bulldogs supporter, she has chronicled the fans' journey in poignant and funny prose.

This book draws on her blog posts from the last couple of years, so I was already quite familiar with a lot of the material. It was a quick and effortless and very pleasurable read, re-living the Bulldogs' journey to a flag which reached its glorious fairytale conclusion in October last year. Soraghan writes so beautifully of the fan experience -- of the emotional investment that supporters place in these young men, who we kid ourselves we know (from 'a few stilted interviews' and their exploits on the field) and love (often fiercely, often beyond all reason). Fans feel like insiders, and the actions of the team and the club matter to us so much -- and yet ultimately we are not insiders. We know hardly anything of what really goes on inside the club, and we are powerless to affect what happens, whether that's a club captain walking out, or a team winning an impossible game. All we can do is tell ourselves that our silly superstitions (sitting in the same place on the couch, wearing a lucky badge) and our barracking, our cheers and encouragement -- our love -- really do make a difference.

And once in a lifetime, that those dreams and hopes come true.

For Western Bulldog fans, this is a must-read; you will relate to every word. As soon as I finish this post, I'm buying it for my mother-in-law.

31.3.17

Mountains of the Mind

After finishing Michelle Paver's mountaineering book, Thin Air, last week, I found myself caught between two competing rules I'd set for myself this year: Read What I Feel Like Reading, and No New Books. I knew I had Mountains of the Mind hidden in the cupboard for when the No New Books rule expires, but the timing seemed too perfect to miss. So Read What I Feel Like won.

Mountains of the Mind was Robert Macfarlane's first book, a prize winner which kick-started his subsequent career as a wonderful writer on nature and wildness. (Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I am a huge Macfarlane fan.)

Mountains of the Mind is a little more earnest and academic than its successors, packed with quotes and scholarship, tracing the evolving history of attitudes toward mountains and mountain-climbing, from fear and horror through fascination and awe, to the hunger for conquest and domination, and sheer wonder at the otherworld of high altitude. But for me, the strongest sections of the book are drawn from Macfarlane's personal experiences and observations as a life-long climber, and this is the track he has followed in later books. He writes with exquisite precision:
Specks of ice drifted in and out of the beams [of our head-torches] like phytoplankton... When I turned my light off and turned around, there was total darkness and then, like a developing photograph - the image swimming into sharpness in the chemical bath - the forms of the peaks around us came into focus...
The penultimate chapter of the book, Everest, was utterly gripping. It describes the story of George Mallory, a man who became obsessed with Mt Everest. He tried three times to climb the world's highest peak, in 1921, 1922 and 1924, and vanished without trace on the last attempt. For years mountaineers have speculated on whether or not he had reached the summit before his death. Mallory's body was discovered, almost perfectly preserved, in 1999, seventy five years after he vanished into the mountain's mists: a tragedy, a myth, a mystery. Now I'm on fire to learn more about this charismatic, driven young man, who adored his wife and young children and yet couldn't resist the hunger to climb.

It looks as if the No New Books rule may be broken again.




20.3.17

Thin Air

Borrowed from a friend at book group, Michelle Paver's Thin Air is a ghost story set on a 1935 expedition to climb Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. For many years thought to be the world's highest mountain, it was relegated to third place only in the 1850s. I was familiar with Kangchenjunga from references in the Swallows and Amazons books, where the hills of the Lake District that the children climb and camp among are promoted to Himalayan status.

This was a wonderfully creepy and atmospheric tale, blending the isolation and terror of the natural geography with the all too human horrors of jealousy, betrayal, rivalry, suspicion and paranoia. The expedition is following in the footsteps of a former, ill-fated trek, and it gradually becomes apparent that something sinister has been left behind on the mountain...

Apparently Paver has written a couple of other ghostly stories, Dark Matter and Without Charity, so I might just hunt those out too. This was enjoyably scary, but not so terrifying that I couldn't bear it!

And just as I was writing this post, a fellow who gives ghost tours of Melbourne happened to come on the radio... Spooky!

18.3.17

The Warden's Niece

What a joy it was to read this book again! I adored The Warden's Niece when I was about ten, and read it many times -- you can tell it was a favourite because the corners were all torn off and chewed (terrible habit). Reading it again, I can see why it appealed -- Maria is 'thin and brown and silent, but rather better than most girls,' and despite living most of her life in a haze of embarrassment and social indecision, is still capable of bold action where necessary. As the intimidating Thomas tells her, 'For someone so mouse-like, I must say you do some startling things -- storming Bodley, for instance.'

The setting is Victorian-era Oxford, where 'lady students' are just beginning to attend lectures. Orphan Maria runs away from her truly frightful school to live with her uncle, the Warden of (fictitious) Canterbury College, and shares lessons with the three Smith boys who live next door. Their tutor is temporarily replaced by the alarmingly eccentric Mr Copplestone, immensely tall and completely devoid of social embarrassment, and with his encouragement, Maria tries to impress her uncle with a piece of original research, which leads to 'house-breaking, playing truant, gatecrashing into the Bodleian, and being a receiver of stolen property.'

First published in 1957, The Warden's Niece is a very gentle book, but the mortifying Francis Copplestone is a wonderful character, and the three Smith boys, lofty Thomas, nervous Joshua and the insufferable James, are so vividly drawn that I have never forgotten them. (I may have had a slight crush on Thomas.) I was so pleased to discover that there are more books about the Smith family -- Maria's story ends just as you would hope it might, with her mystery solved and an affectionate relationship beginning to develop with her uncle. I think this might be where my adolescent love of Oxford, later nourished by Brideshead Revisited, truly began.

17.3.17

Jennie

Paul Gallico's Jennie falls into the CATegory (see what I did there?) of books that I probably wouldn't have picked up if I didn't have to read it for book group. As a rule, I'm not a massive fan of animal books, as I may have mentioned a couple of hundred times before, so a book with a cat on the cover, however cute and wistful, wouldn't push my buttons.

Jennie was first published in 1950, and it shows. It's quite long, there are wince-inducing moments of racism and sexism, and the style is old-fashioned. It's the story of eight year old Peter, who loves cats and longs to own one, and who is magically transformed into a cat himself after being knocked down by a coal lorry (I told you it was old-fashioned!) He is befriended by a delightful, brave and loving little cat called Jennie, who guides and instructs him in all the skills he'll need to survive as a cat, and  the two share many adventures before their partnership comes to its inevitable end (spoilers: it's really sad!)

Gallico excels at describing the habits and disposition of cats -- apparently he owned 28 cats! -- and Jennie and Peter's adventures are mostly plausible and absorbing, but I couldn't help feeling some misgivings about their relationship. Jennie begins as a maternal figure, protecting and teaching the naive Peter. In the enjoyable middle section, they become true partners in adventure: taking a ship to Scotland, confronting fierce dogs and rats, getting trapped high on the girder of a bridge.

But towards the end of the book, their friendship takes a peculiar turn. Peter is enticed away by a 'charming' cat called Lulu (who I found merely slappable) and loses Jennie for a time; when they are reunited, their roles reverse and Peter becomes Jennie's protector and champion. We're told he's grown and matured into a strong, handsome tomcat, capable of fighting off Jennie's undesirable suitors, and the implication is that Peter is almost acting as Jennie's mate would do. But inside, he is still an eight year old boy, and the overall effect is slightly creepy.

Jennie has been reissued as a Collins Modern Classic. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.

14.3.17

The Elephant War

Is there any thrill to compare with the excitement of discovering a hitherto unknown book by one of your favourite authors? Especially when you find it at Savers and it only costs $3!

Gillian Avery only died last year. She was the author of one of my absolute favourite childhood books, one I returned to over and over, The Warden's Niece, her debut novel which was commended for the Carnegie Medal in 1957. Set in Victorian Oxford, The Warden's Niece centres on Maria, who runs away from her horrible school and tries to impress her academic uncle into letting her live with him permanently by conducting a piece of independent historical research. Maria's ultimate ambition is to be a Professor of Greek at Oxford -- a lofty aim, considering they were barely allowing women to study at Oxford in 1875. On the face of it, this sounds like a dull premise for a novel, but Maria becomes entangled with the lively trio of boys next door and their fantastically unconventional tutor, Mr Copplestone (otherwise known as 'the spider-monkey'), and their embarrassing adventures make for an energetic narrative.

Oh dear, this is supposed to be about The Elephant War, which was written after The Warden's Niece but is actually set shortly before the events of that book. This time our heroine is Harriet, who also becomes entangled with the three Smith boys, but not in a friendly way -- this time it's a war, nominally over whether to save Jumbo the elephant from being exported to America. But soon events spiral out of control, with parcels and insults hurled in the street, pursuit around the greenhouses of the Botanical Gardens, and tadpoles poured through letterboxes.

Newly arrived in Oxford, Harriet has a temper and longs for a cause to believe in; in the end, she finds the promise of new friends and discovers the delights of Oxford for herself. I wish, though, her indulgent father hadn't ended the book by consoling her, 'Never mind about school, you'll make a good wife one day'!!!! Makes a contrast to Maria, I suppose -- whom Harriet is due to take tea with when the story ends, thus tying the books together nicely (though I don't think we hear anything about Harriet in The Warden's Niece -- must check!)

I didn't love this as much as the first book, because it lacks Maria's love of history and earnest academic dreams, but it was still fun. And I learned that there are three other books featuring the irrespressible Smiths -- something to hunt for in my perpetual secondhand quest, though I'm not hopeful of finding them.

11.3.17

Into The Wild

Evie has been obsessed with the Warriors series for years now, but this is the first time I've actually sat down and read one from beginning to end, despite having about ninety of the bloody things clogging up the Kindle. And I have to say I was pretty impressed!

The premise is that there are groups of wild cats, each hunting in their own territory and largely hidden from the Twolegs. Thunder Clan lives in the forest, River Clan by the river, Wind Clan on the moor, and so on. In this introductory novel, Into the Wild, Rusty the pet kitten (a despised "kittypet") runs away to join Thunder Clan, becoming Firepaw the apprentice, and having proved his worth through various trials and battles, graduates to become Fireheart the warrior.

The world building in this series is tremendous -- I can well understand why kids become absorbed in this universe. The clans are organised into warriors who hunt and defend territory, queens who rear the kittens, youthful apprentices, kits and elders. Each clan also has a medicine cat who learns the secrets of herbs and healing. The cats have a well developed history and mythology, even a form of spirituality: dead cats pass into Star Clan, and can communicate with the living leaders. (Evie tells me she doesn't believe in heaven, but she does believe in Star Clan.) And the stories span whole generations and cross from clan to clan.

There is a whole parallel world of fan fiction, art and animation revolving around Warriors, and I can see why. These cats inhabit a world between children and adults, living secretly in the woods but facing real perils and difficult adventures. Birth and death, injury and betrayal, friendship and fear are all part of their lives. I've never been a huge fan of animal stories, but this series has a depth and solidity that makes it work.

9.3.17

Southern Sky, Western Oval

Southern Sky, Western Oval by Martin Flanagan, is the story of one season in the life of the Footscray Football Club, as it was still known in 1993. (The Western Oval has changed its name, too, to the Whitten Oval.)

I took this cover image from Fishpond, so I suspect it's the actual copy I bought! Bornadog, from WOOF, tracked it down for me after I said I'd been hunting for it for a while. The Whitten Oval Online Forum is a wonderful community. When the Bulldogs made it into the Grand Final last year, 60 years after their last appearance, WOOF's motto was 'no Bulldog left behind.' Somehow, everyone looking for a ticket was helped to find one, thanks also to the generosity of other football fans who had tickets but gave them up so that the maximum number of Bulldog fans could experience the day.

Anyway, the 1993 season, though it began with high hopes, did not have the happy ending of 2016. Nonetheless, it's a wonderful read, even though I was unfamiliar with many of the characters and the world of AFL has changed enormously in the last twenty five years. One of the players in the 1993 side was a young Luke Beveridge, who coached last year's team to the ultimate victory.

It struck me that Beveridge's coaching style might have been influenced by his coach at the Bulldogs at this time, Terry Wheeler. Wheeler was a coach ahead of his time. In an era when most coaches were stern, shouty disciplinarians, Wheeler aimed to create an environment where each player could produce his best. He would quote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, took his team sky-diving, played bag-pipes before a match. The club president has said that if he'd had his time over, he wouldn't have sacked Terry Wheeler. But Wheeler is still a close friend of the club, and rejoiced in last year's victory with the rest of us.

Martin Flanagan writes about football like no one else. He understands the romance, the anguish, the bonds that knit a club together. And he has a poetic eye. He describes one player on the field as looking like "a bread van surrounded by sports cars." Another player's shoulder muscles "bulged like plates in a suit of armour." In my opinion, he is as fine a writer as his brother Richard, whose novel Wanting I read at the same time as Southern Sky, Western Oval. But because he writes about sport, he is under-rated by literary critics.

Martin Flanagan has been asked to write a book about the 2016 Western Bulldogs premiership. I can't wait.

8.3.17

Wanting

A proper, grown-up literary novel -- the first one I've tackled for ages. I just haven't been in the right mood to face the challenge of having to think, or read more slowly, or piece things together for myself -- hard work, in other words! I have a few literary novels on my shelf which I'm waiting for the right moment to open. But as time goes on, I'm beginning to wonder if that moment will ever arrive. (The Goldfinch, The Lacuna, I'm looking at you -- and you are so long.)

But as literary novels go, Richard Flanagan's Wanting was a good place to start -- it's pretty short, and its premise sounded promising. It loosely interweaves three true-life stories: that of Charles Dickens, who is facing a crossroads in his life and marriage when he meets the young actress Ellen Ternan; Lady Jane Franklin, who we see in two stages of her life, the wife of the Governor of Van Dieman's land (now Tasmania), and as the grieving widow of the same husband, lost on a polar expedition; and lastly (and to me, most interestingly) the story of the young Aboriginal girl Mathinna, who was adopted by the Franklins during their time in Tasmania, and then abandoned by them.

Flanagan said that this novel is about love and yearning, not really about history, and I gather he has made his own use of the facts to suit his narrative. The writing is beautiful and the links between the three main characters are certainly intriguing. But in the end I found that the tragedy of Mathinna held my attention much more firmly than Lady Jane's lamentations or Dickens' mid-life crisis.

Richard Flanagan's subsequent novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North has won multiple awards and accolades, but I've decided that it will be too harrowing for me to handle at the moment. Is it wrong that I am consciously looking for diversion and enjoyment in my reading? I hope this is only a temporary state of affairs. I will come back to 'serious' reading, I promise!

But not yet.