15.2.18

One Would Think The Deep

Claire Zorn's third YA novel, One Would Think The Deep, won the CBCA Older Readers Book of the Year last year, and I can see why. Wow. Zorn's writing is amazing -- clear and powerful, unpretentious but resonant, a perfect voice for young adult writing.

But jeez, it's bleak stuff. As the book opens, Sam's mum has just died suddenly. The only relative he can contact is his estranged aunt Lorraine, who grudgingly accepts him into her chaotic household with his two older cousins, hostile Shane and bouncy Minty, who is an extraordinary surfer. The surfing scenes in this book are the best I've read. Sam is smart and sensitive (he adores Jeff Buckley's music), but he's also self-destructive. When the black hole inside threatens to overwhelm him, he looks for someone to fight. Will Sam destroy his tentative relationship with Gretchen, possibly the best thing that's ever happened to him? And will he find out what blew his once close family apart?

Set in 1997, the music of the nineties is threaded through the book. Tumbleweed, Shihad, Jeff Buckley, Chili Peppers, Tori Amos -- these were all the artists who were around when I was working in the music industry and the book brought back some powerful memories. I can also well remember the wave of shock and grief that rippled through us all when Jeff Buckley died -- followed by the unseemly scramble to package up and market every scrap of music he had ever recorded. Lucky Sam didn't really just how tawdry the music business could be, or he'd be even more cynical.

13.2.18

Rockhopping

Next month in the Convent book club we are looking at the winners of the 2017 CBCA Awards. Trace Balla's Rockhopping was the winner of the Younger Readers' Book of the Year category (an award I was also honoured to win with Crow Country a few years ago).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's like a cross between a picture book and a junior graphic novel, with a deceptively simple cartoonish style which contains lots of marginal detail: birds and insects, wildflowers and trees. Clancy and his uncle Egg take a hike through Gariwerd (the Grampian mountains near Melbourne), with detours and adventures along the way. Indigenous placenames are foregrounded, with European names given in parentheses. While Clancy and his uncle are not Indigenous, Uncle Egg's best mate is Aboriginal, and gives snippets of local knowledge and mythology which are respectfully received by Clancy and Egg. There is humour and danger, and Clancy discovers he is more resourceful than he thought.

Of course I was always going to enjoy a book set in Victoria, and especially when Clancy and Egg set off from near Merri Creek, my own local waterway. Designed for younger readers, this book will be enjoyed by curious travellers of all ages.



12.2.18

The Midnight Folk

The copy of John Masefield's The Midnight Folk that I found secondhand was published in 1957 -- it cost 3/6! -- but the book was first published in 1927. I picked it up because Susan Green had mentioned it as a favourite childhood book, and during the Dark Is Rising twitter read-through, several participants talked about The Midnight Folk and its sequel, The Box of Delights, as formative fantasy texts.

The Midnight Folk is a strange little book -- not so little, actually, it's over 200 pages in fairly small font. Young Kay Harker embarks on a quest for the lost treasure entrusted to his ancestor, Captain Harker, which has been stolen and mislaid several times over, and in so doing he tangles with witches and talking animals, walks into portraits and meets many peculiar characters, human and non-human.

Several times I was reminded of other books, which shows how influential this novel has been. Kay tries on bat wings and otter skin which enables him to fly and to swim, which reminded me of the Wart's educational experiences in TH White's The Book of Merlyn. The witches, and especially Mrs Pouncer with her wax face, foreshadowed Roald Dahl's witches. The talking portraits took me straight to Hogwarts.

I'm not sure this book would appeal to a modern audience, though it would make a great read-aloud -- there are heaps of opportunities for funny voices, and it's actually pretty humorous, though I suspect children might need to be led through some of the jokes. I found the whole treasure plot quite confusing, though I must admit pirates and treasure aren't really my cup of tea. I'm glad I've read it though, and I will keep a look out for Kay's further adventures in The Box of Delights.

8.2.18

The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name is the second volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels series, which I borrowed from the library (there were many reservations ahead of me, so I had to wait a while). This copy was obviously well read, with a cracked spine and soft pages -- lovely to handle!

At first I had some trouble getting back into the story. Who were all these people again? The cast of the 'neighborhood' had faded from my memory and I found it hard to pick up the threads. It also takes me a while to adjust to Ferrante's style: the long, complex sentences, the detailed dissection of emotion and, in contrast, the almost complete lack of physical description.

But soon I was wrapped up in the story -- the complicated web of interpersonal relationships, love and hate, jealousy and obligation that criss-crosses the neighborhood; and the equally complex inner lives of the two young friends, Elena and Lina/Lila, at the centre of the narrative. When the story opens, Lila is newly married (at sixteen!) but the relationship soon founders. The most compelling section of the novel centres on a summer holiday at the beach on Ischia, where Elena, Lila and another friend meet up with a boy from the neighborhood who Elena has always loved. The painful account of Elena's repressed feelings, her growing conviction that Nino also cares for her, and the inevitable betrayal when Nino and Lila begin a clandestine relationship, is absolutely gripping and agonising. It brought back terrible memories of unrequited love from my own youth. From there I raced to the end of the book, and I've just reserved the next volume!

This is a novel of contrasts. For the first time the story creeps out from the narrow bounds of the neighborhood (apparently based on the Rione Luzzatti district of Naples, which is tiny) to explore other areas of the city and the island of Ischia. Lila, so tempestuous and unpredictable, seems more brilliant and gifted than conscientious Elena, and yet it's Lila who finds herself trapped in her marriage and the business of grocery store and shoe factory, while Elena escapes to study in Pisa, opening the door to a yet wider world.

At the start of the novel, Lila seems to have it all, wealth, love, glamour and power, while Elena is her timid shadow; by the end of the book, the scales have switched and Elena is the successful one, while Lila appears to have lost everything.

Yet again, I've turned to Google Maps and images to give me a visual sense of the setting. Thank God for the internet!

31.1.18

Tuck Everlasting

I had never read this 1975 American classic, though I know it's a popular set text for primary schools, and Evie is familiar with the musical version. It was a quick and easy read, divided into very short chapters, and with a simple and straightforward story that nonetheless raises some big ideas.

Young Winnie Foster encounters a friendly family and learns their tightly-kept secret -- they have accidentally drunk from a magical spring which has given them eternal life. They will never grow older, and never die. For me, the most interesting aspect of the tale lies in Winnie's attraction to the youngest son, Jesse, who offers to share the gift with her when she turns seventeen -- though she finds it pretty easy to refuse. The book is a reflection on the pattern of life -- the Power of Becoming, as the Tremaris books would have it -- birth, change, aging and death. The Tucks have been removed from this cycle, and so their lives have become meaningless.

I don't know if I'm entirely convinced by the book's argument, but certainly I wouldn't want to live forever either, and I'm pretty sure that Winnie made the right decision.

30.1.18

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters

I came across The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters months ago in a second hand bookshop in Sydney - at over 800 pages, it was way too heavy to bring home!
'Haven't you got that one already?' asked Michael. 'Didn't you have that in St Kilda?'
'No, no,' I said. 'That was letters between Nancy and Evelyn Waugh [mysteriously went missing, long story, I was very cross]. I don't have this one.'

So when I found it again on Brotherhood Books, I bought it, and I've spent many happy hours in this hot week trawling through the correspondence between these fascinating, complicated, witty, sometimes cruel, sometimes deeply touching sisters, who led such varied and intriguing lives and spanned almost the whole of the twentieth century.

From Nancy, successful novelist but unlucky in love, to Pamela, food and dog-loving countrywoman, to Diana who scandalously left her husband to marry Oswald Mosley, leader of the British fascists (they were both imprisoned during the war); to poor Unity, who loved Hitler and tried unsuccessfully to kill herself when war was declared, to Jessica, a socialist who ran away to America and became a 'muckraking' writer, her life marked by personal tragedies, to Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, who turned Chatsworth estate into a successful tourist enterprise. Between them, the Mitford sisters seem to have crossed paths with almost every noteworthy character of the twentieth century.

Sometimes I find them exasperating, racist, conservative, snobbish, judgmental, bitchy. Sometimes I can hear the voices of my English aunts. But whatever I think of their politics or their personal lives, I keep being drawn back to the Mitfords because they are simply wonderfully entertaining company. And I imagine that is why people adored them in real life, too.

Halfway through this very weighty volume, I was sorting through my bookshelves when I discovered an overlooked volume:
Yes, it's the same book, different cover. Dark spine rather than light spine. I had it all along. No wonder some of those letters seemed familiar. To misquote the title of one of Nancy's novels: Don't Tell Michael.

29.1.18

Northern Lights

... and the next book to reach the finish line was Northern Lights, which I picked up after reading La Belle Sauvage, which is a prequel to this first volume of His Dark Materials (confused?)

I read this years and years ago when it first came out but I had never reread it. The story came back to me in patches and occasional vivid images, though there were whole sections I had completely forgotten. As always, the business of Dust confused me (despite the primer of La Belle Sauvage, which did help a bit). Lyra is obviously intended to be a vivid, feisty, courageous character, but somehow she never quite came to life for me. The armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, on the other hand, is a fabulous, magnificent creation! I was pleasantly surprised to discover a couple of characters from the earlier/later book, ie Hannah Relf and Farder Coram (who seems like a completely different person). Hannah Relf must come into more later in the trilogy (I forget) because she does nothing in this book except be 'elderly' which I don't think she was in LBS.

When Alice and Evie saw me reading this, they both had comments to make.
Evie: Oh, I remember that book, it was boring and confusing and I never understood what was happening. I only wanted to read it because it had an animal on the cover. [Prob my fault, I think I gave it to her too early.]
Alice: It was terrible, it was SO SAD! I wanted an animal buddy, and then they CUT THEM APART.

So anyway, it made an impression.

28.1.18

Built On Bones

The trouble is, I've been reading three books at once -- since I found each of them individually, for different reasons, too much to tackle in one hit, I've been reading a chapter from each in turn. Which has slowed down my rate of book consumption considerably!

First one completed was Brenna Hassett's Built On Bones, which Evie thought I would enjoy for Christmas, all about the lethal consequences for the human race of settling down into agriculture and cities from a hunting and gathering life (particularly interesting to read after Dark Emu -- unfortunately Hassett, a bioarchaelogist, has Not One Word to say about Australia!) After discussions of plague, violence, domestic animals and sexually transmitted disease, Hassett's conclusion is that the real killer is inequality, which urbanisation facilitates (the shift from shamans to temple priests etc). However, she ends on the optimistic note that living in cities, which encourages specialisation, also encourages adaptability, and she is sure we can adapt our way out of our problems.

It took me a while to adapt to Hassett's style, which is part breezy American and part dry English irony, with much heavy academic detail leavened by lame jokes in the footnotes. But I did learn a huge amount about the history of cities, agriculture, and archaeology, which is a good thing.

17.1.18

Richard Hittleman's Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan

Something a bit different today. I've had this book for 20 years and returned to it many times, but it's been neglected for the last three or four years -- but I pulled it out again 26 days ago and I'm back, baby!

I'm not a great one for signing up to classes; I prefer to learn things from a book, privately, and work at my own pace. Richard Hittleman's 28 Day Yoga program is perfect for that. It leads you gently, step by step, through 38 basic yoga positions over a month, building steadily and carefully to ever-greater challenges, and leaves you with three basic daily routines to practise at the end. I followed those daily routines for many years -- not always daily, but regularly. But it's been great to go back to the start and ease into it again. Having not done yoga at all for a long time, I can really feel the difference in my body -- I feel looser, lighter, fitter and more supple.

A word of warning: the book was first published in the 1970s, and it shows. Each day's program (taking about 20 minutes to complete) ends with a 'Thought for the Day' on topics like nutrition, smoking, the benefits of gentle stretching etc. There is much wisdom here, but also much dated hilarity. The reader is assumed to be a 'housewife.'
If the activities of housework (cleaning, shopping, child care) constituted true exercise we would not see the housewife tense, irritable, overweight, flabby, depressed and complaining of many aches and pains.
There is also an unhealthy emphasis on how yoga will make you beautiful! So take all that with a pinch of salt. But the exercises themselves are fantastic, and the program is so carefully structured, it's a wonderful introduction to yoga.



12.1.18

La Belle Sauvage

From the snow and thunder of The Dark Is Rising, to another flood engulfing the landscape -- and once again it's the Thames that bursts its banks and sweeps away everything in its path.

This long-awaited prequel to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy was one of my Christmas presents, and we are also reading it for the Convent book group, where our next theme is Water. I must confess to ambivalent feelings about His Dark Materials. I think the trilogy is a magnificent achievement, brimming with imagination and big ideas: the animal daemons, the subtle knife that cuts into parallel worlds, the armoured bears, the alethiometer (which was always going to appeal to an occasional tarot card reader like myself!)

And yet I have never gone back to re-read them. I admired the books, but I didn't love them.

Maybe I'm just too old to fall in love with books like that any more? Perhaps it's partly because, as a lover of Narnia, I was slightly resentful of Pullman's deliberately anti-Narnia project. But reading La Belle Sauvage, it occurred to me that the difference between the two series for me was not whether they were pro- or anti-Christianity. For me, the difference is that the Narnia books were written out of a deep and almost incoherent love, an emotion that could sweep along talking beasts and Greek gods and the figure of Christ transformed into a lion (to return to the flood analogy). But Pullman's books seem to have been written from the intellect more than the heart. However brilliant they are, however clever and carefully constructed and layered, for me that crucial element of love is missing.

I enjoyed La Belle Sauvage and I will read the rest of the sequels when they appear. I might even, finally, return to the original books. Perhaps my analysis is wrong, and it might be fun to find out.

6.1.18

The Dark Is Rising

A terrible muddy image, but the only one I could find of my beloved copy of Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books in one volume. I reckon I haven't read The Dark Is Rising for about thirty years, though it always occupied a treasured place in my reading memory. But then I was alerted to a special event taking place on Twitter, and all at once I was catapulted back into the snowy, enchanted world, menacing and strange, of Will Stanton, Merriman Lyon, the Signs and the Old Ones, and the Rising of the Dark.

Late last year, Rob MacFarlane and Julia Bird decided to host a communal reading event via Twitter: The Dark Is Rising, read in 'real time' (is there any such thing?) over the days when the action of the book itself occurs, from Midwinter Eve to Twelfth Night. This idea snowballed into a wondrous collective reading experience, #TheDarkIsReading, with readers sharing their own insights, favourite moments, quotes and memories. A parallel group spontaneously sprang up to accompany the reading, #TheArtIsRising, where people posted artworks, drawings, paintings and photographs which beautifully expanded the reading experience. Spookily, the weather in England began to echo the events of the book, with unusually heavy snowfalls, storms and floods appearing as if on cue. And as we shared our immersion in this wonderful fantasy, it was as if a circle of Old Ones joined hands around the world to recreate our own magic and drive back the Dark together.

Though I am far from the cold and snow of this quintessentially wintry story, I was pulled back into the atmosphere of a northern-hemisphere Christmas -- a wonderful, magical way to end one year and begin the next.

3.1.18

End of Term

Is it terrible of me to confess that I own not one, not two, but three copies of Antonia Forest's End of Term? I bought the first, a Puffin edition, in 1991, in an op shop in Scotland, and it reminded me just how wonderful Antonia Forest's books were (I had discovered some, but not all of them, in my school library). The second copy, pictured above with a very ugly cover, was ordered from Girls Gone By last year. And then I found another, less battered Puffin edition in my local secondhand shop -- probably discarded by someone who had also upgraded to a GGB edition!

But I don't care, because I love this book. I didn't re-read it when my GGB copy arrived, but waited for Michelle Cooper's read-through on Memoranda. I've read it so many times that I almost didn't need to refresh my memory, but revisiting it was a pure pleasure.

In this fourth Marlow book, and the second of the school stories, the action twists between two plot strands -- the netball team, which Nicola is inexplicably left out of (thanks to the machinations of her nemesis, Lois Sanger) -- and the Christmas play, which Lawrie, the fabulous actress, is inexplicably left out of (thanks to the dubious judgement of the headmistress, Miss Keith, who has her own ideas about casting this particular piece and feels that reverence and religious feeling should be more important than talent). These twin disappointments are the backdrop against which various friendship dramas play out (see what I did there?), with Nicola finding herself isolated from her sister and her former bestie, Tim, and making two new friends in spiky Miranda and shy Esther.

There is another strand woven skilfully and unusually through this book, which is religion. Miranda is Jewish, therefore also excluded from the play. And Nicola's friend from home, Patrick, is Catholic, and a sincere believer, who still feels passionately grieved about the Reformation and the martyrdoms of 500 years ago. Nicola is a puzzled agnostic, who tends to think that people used to believe 'properly' in the distant past, but that 'science changed everything.' And her twin Lawrie is a cheerful and unabashed heathen who thinks the whole Christian story is completely imaginary (and there are plenty of readers who would agree with her!) Their various viewpoints are inserted subtly into the story -- much more subtly and entertainingly than in later books (I'm looking at you, Attic Term).

Antonia Forest is at the peak of her powers in this, and the next few books in the series. An absolute delight.



31.12.17

Reading Round-Up 2017

Time for my annual reading round up! This year I read a total of 109 books. I feel like that's more than usual. So a good year for reading!  Now for the breakdown:

Children's & YA v Adult

Wow, I read more adult books than children's and young adult! Has the tide turned? Am I growing up at last? I must admit that I enjoyed more adult books than kids' books this year -- and the books I hated were all YA (not naming any names...)

Female v Male authors

As usual, the ladies have it -- but not by much. I read two books with a mixture of male and female contributors. I might need to start a non-binary category, if I can find some books by non-binary-identifying authors.

Fiction v Non-fiction

Quite a bit more non-fiction this year, though fiction is still clearly dominant. I had a couple of binges which might account for the swelling of the non-fiction ranks: I read a lot of Oliver Sacks books early in the year, and then later on I had a binge on WWII and post-war memoirs and non-fiction. I also read a handful of books about the English language.

Sources

Oh my God!! My secondhand book spending habit is clearly out of control! I knew it was bad, but I've been in denial about how bad it actually is... The red part is taking over the whole pie! I cannot let my husband see this. Clearly I have a major problem. And this was supposed to be the year when I didn't buy any more books till I finished the ones I had!

Nationality


Okay, I may as well move to the UK and have done with it. I seem to have a British reading-soul. Must be all those English children's books I grew up with that I've never managed to shake off. Thank God for Elena Ferrante and Tove Jansson or this chart would look even worse.

Publication date


Clear majority of books were published in this century, so maybe my addiction to antique books is not as bad as I feared. I caught up with some late 20th century children's books that I was too old for when they were first published, so I'm filling in some gaps there. I'm happy to say that most of the newest publications were by Australian authors, and mostly YA and children's books. #LoveOzYA!

Favourite books of 2017
Perhaps the single book that made the greatest impression on me this year was Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, a scholarly, enlightening and convincing examination of the possible astrological pattern behind the Chronicles of Narnia.
I was delighted to discover the books of Kate Atkinson, and thoroughly enjoyed both the Jackson Brodie series and Life After Life. There are still titles of hers I haven't read, and she has a new novel out next year.
Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu made me angry.
Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight made me laugh.
John Lanchester's Family Romance made me cry.
Michelle Cooper's Dr Huxley's Bequest taught me loads about the history of medicine.

I had two extraordinary reading experiences this year. First was Alan Garner's Boneland (so good I read it twice) and the accompanying Guardian blog, and my subsequent delving into Garner's back catalogue.
Second was the on-going Twitter read-through of Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, #TheDarkIsReading, which is being held over the actual time frame of the book, from midwinter's day to Twelfth Night. More about this later.

Happy 2018 to you all and may your year be filled with books!


24.12.17

Walk Two Moons

'Don't judge a man till you've walked two moons in his moccasins.' Sharon Creech's classic novel Walk Two Moons is all about judgments and preconceptions, about grief and memory and misunderstandings.

Salamanca Hiddle has lost her mother and her father has moved them to a new town. But when Sal begins to tell the story of her own new friend Phoebe (whose mother also disappears) to her grandparents, she begins to understand her own story better.

Creech's adept weaving of these three strands -- Phoebe's story, Sal and her parents' story, and the story of Sal and her grandparents as they take their cross-country trip -- builds a layered narrative which is never difficult to follow, and the ending is very moving.

I didn't love this book unreservedly; there were elements that made me uncomfortable, like the slightly stalkery relationship between Sal and Ben, and the part where their English teacher reads extracts from their private journals to the class. I was also annoyed that Creech uses a saying that I was planning to use in my own WIP -- about the birds of sadness/worry flying overhead but not nesting in your hair... Damn it!

But overall this is a beautiful little book with a deceptive depth of feeling and a sort of naive poetry.



20.12.17

The Lacuna

Just look at that beautiful cover. I think that's the reason I picked up The Lacuna at the library book sale, even though I knew nothing about the novel. I had read The Poisonwood Bible many years ago but couldn't remember much about it. So I put The Lacuna next to my bed, and there it stayed. I'm ashamed to say how long it loitered there before it went into hiding in the wardrobe... three years maybe? But finally it's seen the light of day, part of my 'yellow' quota. It counts as a 'yellow' book because its spine is the same colour as the frilly bits at the top of the cover. Apart from that I knew not one thing about it. It was a complete mystery.

I was about a hundred pages in before it dawned on me that Kingsolver was doing something very technically interesting -- she was writing a first person narration without using the word 'I.' And doing it very effectively, since it had taken me that long to notice!

Harrison Shepherd is a character who seeks to blend in, not stand out. But he finds himself in the centre of some riveting events -- shuttled between Mexico and the US due to his mixed parentage, never feeling entirely at home in either country, he becomes a plaster-mixer for Diego Rivera, no less, then a cook for the Rivera-Kahlo household, and eventually a cook and secretary for Leon Trotsky. I didn't know that Trotsky and Rivera knew each other, or that Trotsky and Kahlo had an affair! After Trotsky's murder (spoilers), Shepherd flees to the US and becomes a best-selling author, before getting tangled in the McCarthy-era Un-American Activities witch-hunts...

I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy The Lacuna but by the end I was utterly absorbed, and now I want to know more about Rivera and Kahlo and Trotsky, and the Incas and Mexico (I already know enough about the McCarthy trials, thanks). And coincidentally, I was reading about Frida Kahlo just when Salma Hayek published her article about the making of Frida, which now of course I am desperate to see!