23.6.17

Words In Deep Blue

I bought this book so long ago, my copy doesn't have the award stickers all over it. I've been hanging onto it because I knew we were going to read it for the Convent book group, which means I have arrived very late to the loving-Words-in-Deep-Blue party, but it was worth the wait.

I just love Cath Crowley's writing. When I read her books, I get writing envy. She writes the kind of YA I want to read -- gentle, funny, searing, sorrowful, filled with sweet, witty dialogue and characters you wish you were friends with (or that you wish your kids would hang out with!) Words in Deep Blue has the added bonus of being set in and around the second hand bookshop of dreams -- with a reading garden and a Letter Library where people leave heartfelt notes between the pages of the books they love best. This novel is a love letter itself, a love letter to books and reading, to the power of words to heal and transform.

What a beautiful book. I loved it.

20.6.17

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

Our upcoming theme for the Convent book group is Books, appropriately enough, and Chris Grabenstein's Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library is our junior fiction title.

This book was a lot of fun, with conscious echoes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with books instead of sweets. A team of lucky kids win an overnight stay in a brand-new, whiz-bang library built by a famous inventor; but there's a catch. They have to solve the clues Mr Lemoncello has planted in order to get out! Naturally, the clues are literary ones, but even our hero Kyle, who doesn't enjoy reading, can use his wits to piece together the solution.

If Grabenstein succeeds in pointing any readers to the many books he references in this enjoyable romp, then he has truly performed a service. Mr Lemoncello also speaks in dialogue lifted from famous children's books, which adds a layer of fun for the adult (or widely-read) reader. Apparently this book has also been made into a movie, though I haven't watched it -- no doubt someone in my very conscientious book group will have done so. I'll wait for their verdict before I give it a go.

19.6.17

C. S. Lewis -- Twice

After becoming so excited about Planet Narnia, I couldn't resist ordering these two biographies of CS Lewis from trusty Brotherhood Books -- I had no way of knowing which would be superior so I bought them both. (There has to be some disadvantage to ordering online, and the inability to leaf through and sample the text is definitely a disadvantage.)

However, it was a very interesting exercise to read the two books side by side and I don't regret my double purchase. CS Lewis: A Biography by AN Wilson was published in 1990. It's a dense, scholarly work, somewhat dismissive of the Narnia books, which Wilson claims are 'poorly written', albeit in the throes of 'white hot' emotion. Wilson places more value on Lewis's academic work and his religious apologia. He is clear-eyed and unsentimental about Lewis's complicated private life, and his personal weaknesses, and is disdainful about the body of work (which I was unaware of) by hard-core Christian fans which seeks to paint Lewis as some kind of saint.

Michael White is similarly scornful about the blinkered sanctification of Lewis. But his biography, CS Lewis: Creator of Narnia, published in 2005, is written from the viewpoint of an unashamed Narnia fan. White has had an interesting life himself, including a stint in the Thompson Twins (!), lecturing in science at Oxford, and writing on science for GQ. He gives Lewis's fantasy writings pride of place, the central chapter of his book, and while he covers much of the same ground as Wilson, his book is organised by theme rather than strict chronology, which can be a little confusing. White's book is lighter, shorter and perhaps marginally more readable than Wilson's, and the positive attitude to the Narnia series is refreshing; however, Wilson's is probably more informative.

Needless to say, neither writer has picked up on the 'planets' theory. But I certainly know more about Jack Lewis the man and writer than I ever knew before.

10.6.17

Goodbye to Alyson

I first met Alyson Watt almost thirty years ago. She came to a share-house interview, a Scottish backpacker with a heavenly accent and wild red hair. A couple of minutes into the conversation, Andy and I looked at each other; without words, we knew she was the one.

Warm, funny and gorgeous, Alyson took the top room of the big terrace house. She didn't understand that in an Australian summer, you shut the windows and close the curtains to keep the heat out. As a Scot, she thought the right tactic was to open the windows wide, in case of a cooling breeze. We had to explain to her that there's no such thing in Melbourne in December.

Before long Alyson was joined by Jo, and the two of them became 'the Scottish girls', an inseparable pair. When our lease ran out, Liz and Alyson and Jo and I rented another house together, a tiny run-down workers' cottage in North Carlton, just the other side of the cemetery. Jo and Al crammed into the third bedroom; there was just enough room for two mattresses and a rack of op-shop dresses.

That was a year of chocolate puddings and beer, curries and chips, Doc Martens and cotton frocks, bikes in the hallway, silly hats and the Pixies and stupid jokes. I watched the fall of the Berlin Wall in that house. But by then the Scottish girls had moved on, backpacking their way north and eventually home.

A couple of years later, it was my turn to be the backpacker. I landed in their flat in Edinburgh and stayed there on and off for months, through the weird midnight sun of summer, then with Chris in a golden Scottish autumn and finally the bleak perpetual dusk of an Edinburgh winter. It was Alyson who cuddled me on her knee when I was homesick, and Alyson (working as a nanny) who told me I was 'good with kids.' That was Alyson -- generous and kind and always knowing the right thing to say.

Alyson hated flying so she never came out to Australia again. I saw her one more time when I went back to the UK in 1998. I never dreamed that would be the last time. Because Jo comes and goes often between north and south, we always knew what was happening in Alyson's life. Our last exchange on Facebook was only a couple of weeks ago.

Since the dreadful news of her death, so many random things have made me think of Alyson -- taking the tram down Brunswick St, listening to Kirsty McColl or Elvis Costello, hearing a Scottish accent on the radio, a picture from The Year My Voice Broke (Leone Carmen will always remind of Alyson when I knew her best!)

One day soon, Liz and Chris and I will find a pub somewhere and have some drinks for Alyson; it's the only way we've got to say goodbye.

31.5.17

Waterslain Angels

I was always going to love this book. Written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, whose Arthur series I both loved and deeply admired -- check. Set in the marshes of Norfolk in the 1950's, the same setting as one of my favourite childhood novels, When Marnie Was There -- check. (Okay, Marnie was set in the sixties, but pretty damn close!) Gentle, mystical children's fiction about lost angels and the power of unexpected friendship -- tick, tick, tick.

Ten year old Annie joins forces with newcomer Sandy in a hunt for the carved wooden angels which once adorned the roof of the village church, racing against time in case unscrupulous Alan Leppard finds them first. The children discover many angels along the way, in language, flowers and dreams, and face real dangers before they find what they're seeking.

Just a lovely, lovely book. Old fashioned in the best possible way, thoughtful, poetic, slow-moving despite the odd thrilling episode, atmospheric. This won't appeal to everyone -- my friend Heather will loathe it -- but it might have been written just for me. Thank you, Kevin Crossley-Holland!

26.5.17

The Vanishing Moment

Borrowed from another friend. I know Margaret Wild mostly as a picture book author; The Vanishing Moment is the first YA novel of hers that I've read. Published in 2013, it's the story of two young women, Arrow and Marika, both struggling to deal with tragic events in their pasts -- in Marika's case, very recently. They both end up in the same small seaside town and strike up a tentative friendship. They also encounter a mysterious man who claims to have changed his life -- to have swapped it for a better one. Could Arrow and Marika do the same? Would they want to?

This book reminded me strongly of Margaret Mahy's magical novels, The Changeover and The Tricksters -- the endangered little brother, the coastal setting, questions of fate and free will, and young women at the centre. But instead of concentrating on the magical element, The Vanishing Moment takes its time setting up the initial scenario -- Arrow's emotional paralysis and her encounter with muggers, Marika's horrifying loss. The question of the Interchange doesn't even arise until the final quarter of the novel. After this, events swirl rapidly to a punchy conclusion.

I'm not enjoying much YA at the moment, but I did sprint through this and the last quarter of the book was a great reward for the slow start.

25.5.17

Chasing Redbird

Borrowed from a friend, my first Sharon Creech, and a companion piece to the other books on wilderness I read (or half-read!) for the Convent book group.

Chasing Redbird has a lot more going on than the other titles, which focused primarily on the physical demands of wilderness survival and the daily fight for existence. Zinny is part of a large family, torn by grief, and her fight is to find her own place in a teeming mass of siblings. The trail she discovers and restores is the one place where she feels free to be herself, not smothered by her family. But she also has to deal with the recent loss of her aunt, the long-ago death of her almost-twin cousin, and the unwelcome attentions of hot boy Jake Boone, who has the unfortunate habit of stealing things and giving them to Zinny to attract her attention.

I did enjoy Chasing Redbird, and the wilderness sections were lovely. But I was quite troubled by the whole Jake sub-plot -- he is pretty stalkery at times, and there's one section where he grabs and kisses her against her will, which made me shudder. What made this more creepy is that he's sixteen and she's thirteen... It all works out in the end (of course), but I felt the story skated over the implications of his behaviour in a very carefree way which disturbed me (though I did enjoy Zinny's older sister insisting that Jake must really like her, and the thwarting of that expectation!) And the complications of the family situation, and the darting back and forth between timelines, initially confused me.

23.5.17

Planet Narnia

I have rarely felt such genuine excitement reading a book (let alone a book of literary criticism!) as I did while reading Michael Ward's Planet Narnia.

Ward, a Lewis scholar of many years, has developed a theory so persuasive and elegant, it's utterly irresistible. Simply put, he argues that C.S. Lewis wrote the seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia according to a secret scheme which adheres to the seven planets of the medieval Ptolemaic universe (namely, Jupiter, Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury and Saturn).

Thus, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe bears the influence of kingly, generous Jupiter, who 'banishes winter' and forgives all. Peter swears by Jove and the colour red recurs; there is feasting and jollity. Seen in this light, the appearance of Father Christmas, sometimes seen as incongruous, makes perfect sense.

Prince Caspian is influenced by war-like, disciplined, knightly Mars; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by golden, joyous Sol; The Silver Chair by watery, submissive Luna; The Horse and his Boy by quicksilver, eloquent Mercury, forever dividing and uniting; The Magician's Nephew is ruled by fertile, life-giving Venus; and Saturn, old, cold, ugly and deathly, rules over The Last Battle.

There is too much textual evidence to repeat here, and I must admit I skimmed some of Ward's more abstruse philosophical discussions. There is also a lot of material on Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet trilogy, which anticipates and reinforces Lewis's thoughts on the planets. I'm convinced that Ward has indeed found an important key to understanding the Narniad. The glorious jumble of imagery and atmosphere, the apparent unevenness of plot and some inconsistencies are at last explained. For example, the figure of Aslan is no longer a simple allegory for Christ, but appears in different planetary guises and roles in each volume.

This book has made me see these beloved books in an entirely new light. I can''t wait to read them again!

22.5.17

My Father's Books

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Half a shelf's worth; approximately one twenty-fouth of the library
 My father was a hoarder. A meticulous, neat, super-organised, OCD-type hoarder, but a hoarder nonetheless. (I say was, though he is very much still with us, because since he moved into aged care after a stroke a couple of years ago, his opportunities for hoarding have been drastically curtailed. Thank God, says my mother.)

The extent of Dad's hoarding was suspected, but never confirmed, until it came time to clear out my parents' house for rental. To give you some idea: Michael has been sorting through the two rooms that made up Dad's study; I have done the whole of the rest of the house. My job was far easier, I'm all finished! Michael is still going.

A hoarder Dad may have been, but he was never really much of a reader. As well as all the other things he collected (stamps, coins, business cards, matchbooks, train tickets, computer software, cameras, model aeroplanes...), he amassed a library, which contained many books he'd used in teaching -- texts on principles of flight, meteorology, aircraft magazines, cloud atlases -- as well as various other books that reflected his other interests -- travel guides, dictionaries, photography manuals, bird guides, street directories, histories of classical music.

It was fairly easy to decide about the other books, whether to keep them ourselves or pass them on, but the aircraft collection was more difficult. They were so specialised, so niche -- yet there were so many of them! Wasn't it better to try to keep them as a collection, for someone who might appreciate them?

And we found someone. A young woman associated with the flying school where Dad had taught for several years, someone who loves books (and also, coincidentally, is fascinated by PNG) and flying. She was dumbstruck when she first saw Dad's collection -- awesome and insane was what she finally stammered. She ended up loading her car with textbooks, maps, flight manuals, course materials, NOTAMs, notebooks and other treasures -- this was the back seat. The boot was full as well. Her poor little car was groaning, and dipping at the rear.
She spent a couple of hours exclaiming and exploring: we still use these sheets! Oh wow, this is from 1975! I've never seen anything like it...  Some things she'll keep and some she'll give away, but I feel reassured that this part of Dad's collection, at least, is in good hands.

Thank you!



On Looking

I bought On Looking from Brotherhood Books (yeah, yeah, I know...) but it wasn't until I began to read it that I realised I'd read a review or an extract from it a few years ago and tucked it away in the back of my mind.

Horowitz, a neuroscientist, has come up with a fantastic idea for a book, which appealed to me instantly: instead of repeating her familiar dull walk around the block with the dog (in New York City), she takes various 'experts' and others with her, to find out what they observe and she has missed. She walks with a blind person, a painter, a geologist, a specialist in fonts and graphics, her own toddler son and her dog, and records the different ways they experience and make new this familiar territory. She is shown bugs and signs of wildlife she's never noticed, hears sounds and smells odours that had escaped her attention.

I did enjoy this book, but ultimately it promised more than it delivered. Perhaps because On Looking was necessarily so rooted in a particular place, a place unfamiliar to me, it held less resonance than the same concept set in, oh, I don't know, the suburbs of Melbourne? The plants and architecture were unknown to me, the wildlife is different, the streets and traffic don't operate in quite the same way. Some chapters were more successful than others -- the geology one was frankly dull, despite Horowitz's best attempts to spice it up. On the other hand, the walk with the blind woman was absolutely fascinating, as was the chapter with the sound effects guy.

Overall, a mixed success, but more enjoyable than not.

17.5.17

The Story of English in 100 Words

Evie took one look at this book and said, 'But this is longer than a hundred words... Ohhhh, right, okay.'

In a neat conceit, linguist David Crystal makes a survey of one hundred English words, starting with the rune for 'roe' scratched on a deer bone, possibly the earliest written word in English ever found, and moving through the centuries to take in 'lea' (a clearing, a word element which survives in countless place- and surnames, like Bromley or Dunkley), 'potato', 'jazz' and up to 'twittersphere' in the twenty-first century. He manages to cover much of the same ground as Mother Tongue -- borrowings from other languages, truncations and elaborations, swear words and technical terms. But with only a couple of pages available for each word, this ends up being more of a skim than a delve.

A quick, fun and informative read that will probably leave the reader wanting more.

9.5.17

Mother Tongue

Evie has been on a bit of a language kick lately -- which means reading Wikipedia articles about slang and the origins of English. So I dug out Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue for her, thinking it might be of interest, and of course ended up reading it myself.

Published in 1992, I dare say the scholarship has advanced since it was written, as has technology: no internet or smartphones mentioned in this text! And the cover could do with reworking, in fact I think in later editions it has been. A Bill Bryson book is never less than supremely entertaining, though the facts are sometimes a little loose (Australians don't habitually drop the u in words like 'labor' - only when we're talking about political parties; and is an ice-crean tub in Victoria really known as a 'pixie'? Not in my lifetime!)

As a rapid, amusing sweep through the history of English and its rise as a global language, it's a fun ride and packed with fascinating snippets and anecdotes. But I would hesitate to rely on it as an authoritative academic source, despite the massive bibliography in the back.

3.5.17

The Exiles at Home

 
I picked up The Exiles at Home at the last library book sale, even though I'd read it before. It's taken me a surprisingly long time to re-read; the story seemed to start very slowly, though it did come together satisfyingly enough by the end. The structure was episodic by necessity, as the story was about the four Conroy sisters needing to raise money monthly to sponsor an African child, and their various misadventures and schemes for doing so.

Hilary McKay is very good at capturing the amiable chaos of middle class family life, but I still had trouble telling the four girls apart (except for implacable Phoebe, the youngest, who is very vivid). I am curious to read the final volume in the trilogy, The Exiles in Love, but I don't know that I'm keen enough to actually pay full price for it... It might be one that I keep an eye out for second-hand.

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.