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.

2.3.17

Started Early, Took My Dog

Alas, I fear with this fourth volume in the series, Jackson Brodie might have run out of puff. Perhaps Kate Atkinson agreed, because Started Early, Took My Dog (the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem; there is a surprising amount of poetry in what is ostensibly a crime novel) is the final Brodie book and she has moved on to different projects.

There is still a lot to enjoy here, particularly in the story of Tracy, ex-copper turned security guard, who impulsively buys a stray child at the start of the novel and spends the rest of the story on the run with her. This is a tale of lost children -- stolen, adopted, bereft and betrayed in various ways. Sadly, though we spend a lot of time with Jackson Brodie, who is a character I like a lot, he doesn't actually DO anything much in this book -- he's supposed to be investigating the biological origins of his client, Hope, but most of the time he just wanders around ruminating while the reader has already put two and two together before he does. And the vile, blokey police culture of the 70s is on full view here -- not as much fun as Life on Mars, which she references.

Reading a Kate Atkinson novel will never be a waste of time, but I must admit I was slightly disappointed in this one. Farewell, Jackson! It was fun while it lasted.

28.2.17

Love's Executioner

In my twenties, I shared a small, dark house with a friend who was in therapy (he went on to qualify as a psychotherapist himself). Some of our happiest moments in that house were spent with our feet up on the gas wall heater, me on the cane couch, him in the armchair, endlessly analysing ourselves, each other and all our friends and family.

Inspired by Robert's example, I even tried therapy myself, but I didn't last long. Reading Irvin Yalom's accounts of his own patients, I found myself drawn back to my own experience, wondering what my therapist made of it and exactly why I'd abandoned the project so abruptly. I don't think I was really committed to therapy, to tell the truth; I felt I could manage on my own (maybe that's the story...)

I'm pretty sure I've read Love's Executioner before -- maybe even when I was living in Budd St. Dr Yalom is an appealing writer -- honest about his own mistakes and failings, determined to dig beneath the surface to find what's interesting about his clients, even when they seem dull or irritating (I remember I was very concerned that my therapist might find me boring... I'm sure I was!) Again and again, he returns to his central mission -- to explore the meaning of being human. Interestingly, in this earlier work, Yalom is much more preoccupied with sex; in Creatures of a Day, published many years later, his thoughts revolved more around death.

There is wisdom in this book, hard won and sometimes denied (Yalom includes some failures in these case studies). No wonder it's become a classic.

26.2.17

Modern Love

While my aunts were visiting from the UK, Michael and I took them out to visit Heide. I've been there several times before, but strangely never gone inside the original house -- Heide 1 -- or even known that it existed. It just so happened that there was a craft market on the grounds that day, too, so we had plenty to occupy us, as well as the exhibition that I really wanted to see: three female modernist painters, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington-Smith and Georgia O'Keefe. Wandering the gardens and exploring the house and galleries, we spent an absorbing afternoon. But though I had some vague notions about Heide's famous inhabitants, John and Sunday Reed and their artistic circle, I realised that I knew very few actual facts to satisfy my aunties' curiosity.

Too late for my aunties, but Mum's new friend (via Westgarth) heard that we'd visited Heide and kindly lent me her copy of Modern Love: The Lives of John and Sunday Reed, which I've spent the best part of a week reading (thanks, Myroula!)

Wow, it really is a tangled story, mingling love and bitterness, generosity and venom, friendship and art and tragedy. John and Sunday Reed are usually described as patrons or benefactors of the artists they supported, but they preferred to see themselves as partners and collaborators in the artistic project, especially as their financial support always extended into friendship and often into passion. While these intimate relationships were nourishing for a time, they usually turned sour at some point, and ended up damaging everyone involved.

I was more interested in the first part of the book, which traces most of these early, intense entanglements; the latter part, which described the Melbourne post-war art scene in more detail than I really needed, was less engaging. But I really did learn a lot about Australia's place in the modern art movement, and the lives of many extraordinary people. It's so sad that things worked out tragically for some of the players in the drama (thinking particularly of Sweeney, the Reeds' adopted son, who took his own life in his thirties).

I'm very glad I took the time to read this, and next time I visit Heide, I will see the place with a new, and better informed, eye.

20.2.17

The Real History Behind Foyle's War

I stumbled across The Real History of Foyle's War by Rod Green while browsing on Brotherhood Books. (I really should shut up about Brotherhood Books and keep it as my own secret, or else all the good stuff will be snapped up before I have a chance to find it!)

Foyle's War is one of our all-time favourite TV series (Michael says it probably is his absolute number one). A beautifully produced murder mystery series set in Hastings during World War II, it has explored all sorts of knotty issues -- espionage, internment, horrific injuries, women's employment, evacuees, the arrival of American troops and subsequent racial tensions -- as well as your everyday black market crimes, conscription dodgers, home grown fascist sympathisers, bombings etcetera. The show features some gorgeously understated acting from Michael Kitchen as Christopher Foyle (he can say more with a single raised eyebrow than with pages of dialogue), his reserved sidekick Milner (whose amputated leg seemed to grow back as the series wore on), wonderfully plummy Sam Stewart (surprisingly, the only character based on a real person!), and Foyle's dashing pilot son Andrew.

I enjoyed this book hugely, even though it finished at the end of season 6 and didn't include the very last of Foyle's post-war adventures, or the end of the war itself. It was a thorough coverage of the general background of crime and police work during the war, as well as detailed episode-by-episode plot descriptions and the origins of those stories in the real world. Lavishly illustrated, this was a hugely enjoyable read.

17.2.17

Soon

Morris Gleitzman's Soon is the fifth book in what he describes as the 'Felix family' of books: Once, Then, After, Now and now this volume, which is set in the period immediately after the end of the war. But the world is still far from safe for Felix and his friends. Food is scarce, brutal soldiers and partisans are still roaming the streets, and death is around every corner.

Although Soon is firmly written for younger readers, some very dark themes are touched on here -- rape, hate crime, Nazi medical experimentation, murder and genocide. The body count is high, and so is the rate of injury. But Gleitzman keeps the action moving at such a pace, and with enough humour and optimism, that the reader isn't weighed down by the dark content.

Soon won the CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers last year, and I suspect that it was a kind of lifetime achievement award for the entire series. I asked Evie if she'd read any of them; she said no, but several of her friends read the first book, Once, last year, in Grade 6. Reviews were mixed -- some loved it, some found it 'boring.' I'm not sure about that verdict -- perhaps what they really meant was confronting, too confronting to fully engage with. And that's fine. But for young readers who are ready to face some of our world's darkest history, this series is a fine introduction.

16.2.17

One Good Turn

Kate Atkinson's second Jackson Brodie novel, One Good Turn, is sub-titled 'A Jolly Murder Mystery', which is not a totally accurate description of its contents. It is, however, a lot jollier than the other two titles, since (spoilers!) only unpleasant characters (with one exception) meet a gory end and everyone else survives relatively unscathed, except for Jackson, who is unmercifully beaten up as usual. Given that Atkinson has said that she wanted to create 'a good man' for her main protagonist, you have to wonder if there is a touch of sadism in her treatment of the poor bloke, who seems to be  biffed with baseball bats, run over, almost drowned and punched up every few pages.

I'm starting to see why some readers complain about Atkinson's tricksy love of coincidence, though it isn't spoiling my enjoyment (yet). In the opening chapters we are presented with a mysterious man with a false name who is obviously up to no good; a beserk, murderous thug; a gentle writer of the aforementioned 'jolly' mystery novels, who lives in an imagined 'retro-utopia' of nostalgic England (I live there too); a Russian call-girl; and middle-aged, matter-of-fact Gloria who suspects that her husband is a crook.

Of course, events will slowly draw this disparate cast together, with the aid of Jackson, his actress girlfriend Julia (from Case Histories) and Detective Inspector Louise Monroe (who will return in When Will There Be Good News?), the threads pulling tighter and tighter until you're scared the plot will snap under the strain. But it doesn't -- not quite.

One more in this series to go. I'll definitely read it, but I might leave a longer gap this time.

14.2.17

Cloudwish

Most of the images of the cover of Fiona Wood's award-winning Cloudwish belong to the decapitated-female school of YA artwork. But my cover, with all the medals on it, has lost the female, who has been replaced by a string of pegs. It's cute, but not really that attention-grabbing. I don't know why the publishers made the change, it would be interesting to find out.

(**EDIT I've just discovered that I have the US cover! The plot thickens...)

I just love Fiona Wood's novels. She writes slowly, but it's a vindication of quality over quantity. Cloudwish is the third in a loosely connected series that began with Six Impossible Things and continued with Wildlife. This is really excellent YA literature: funny and smart, heartfelt but not over the top, intelligent and satisfying. Van Uoc Phan is a worthy successor to her heroine, Jane Eyre, while Billy Gardiner nicely fills the niche between bad boy and vulnerable adolescent male. Lou, Sibylla and Michael from the previous novels also make their appearance.

Cloudwish makes an interesting companion read to Alice Pung's Laurinda. They both feature bright girls from Vietnamese backgrounds, scholarship girls at Melbourne private schools who are fish out of water and trying to reconcile two cultures. But they are quite different stories and take differing paths to their resolution. Laurinda is perhaps more earnest,  while Cloudwish has a lighter touch.

Fantastic Australian fiction.