29.8.16

Back Home

Back Home was published in 1984, and has twice been adapted for television, but I had never heard of it until someone mentioned it during the Trennels read-through of Antonia Forest's books (which I'm sure you're sick to death of me banging on about). I've been alerted to, and reminded of, lots of books via that read-through! So when I spotted this on Brotherhood Books, I nabbed it, and I'm very glad I did.

Back Home deals with an aspect of WWII that I hadn't given any thought to at all. Rusty (christened Virginia) was evacuated to America at the start of the war, as a timid seven year old, but at the start of the novel, she returns to England as a far more confident and exuberant twelve-year old. Her accent, speech and manners have been thoroughly Americanised; her clothes are bright, unlike the drab, rationed clothing of the English; her voice is too loud, her opinions too decided for her reserved English family's comfort. Poor Rusty soon finds herself exiled to a strict boarding-school, where she suffers not just the torments of inadequate heating, poor food, and petty rules, but the pain of bullying and social exclusion.

Although all does eventually end well, Rusty's plight is truly painful to read about. Her misery is almost unbearable at times. But it's an engaging story, vividly told. This novel brought the period of immediate post-war England strikingly to life, and provided an interesting counterpoint to the far more benign (though sometimes equally irrational) world of Kingscote, the Marlows' boarding-school, especially as the first book in the series, Autumn Term, was published in 1948.

23.8.16

Re-read: Run Away Home

This morning I looked up the post where I wrote about my first reading of Antonia Forest's Run Away Home. I had completely forgotten that I'd written that post on 26th March last year, and seeing that date sent a peculiar shiver down my spine.

Why? Because that was the last day Before; the last day when life was normal. Run Away Home was the last book I read before the day my father had a massive stroke, and all our lives turned upside down. On March 27th, 2015, my father almost died. He was in hospital for a month, and went from there straight into an aged care home. My mother moved in with us. Dad has not been back to his own home since the day he left in an ambulance. These days he gets around in a wheelchair, or, tremblingly, shuffling, with a cane. He can't use his right hand or arm at all. And since that day, he cannot speak.

Our lives have changed so utterly that it's weird to look back and realise that it's only been a year and a half. We're working toward getting Dad to move in with us, too, into the granny flat that we've built for Mum. We think we'll be able to manage it (unhelpful bureaucracy notwithstanding!). And that will be another massive change.

It's odd to reflect that this is one of the recurring themes that Antonia Forest's novels explore: how swiftly life can alter, from one moment to the next; how freely we toss around terms like 'tomorrow' and 'the rest of our lives', without thinking how conditional our futures are, how lucky we are when we do manage to string together our tomorrows.

17.8.16

Re-reading: The Cricket Term

Still re-reading my Antonia Forest collection, and The Cricket Term is one of my favourites of the lot, and one I re-read most often when I was in high school myself. Someone elsewhere has described it as a summery, joyous book, and that is certainly true. In some ways, it seems rambling and episodic, the term punctuated by the usual small dramas (Lawrie's difficulty in finding a way to play Ariel in The Tempest, Nicola's determination to win the Cricket Cup), along with some more serious matters (Nicola finds out that due to lack of family funds, she might have to leave Kingscote; there is a wholly unexpected death). Yet the overall atmosphere of the book is happy and triumphant, with several storylines that have played out over previous books being satisfactorily brought to conclusion. The Cricket Term almost reads like the last of the series -- except that there are two more books to come, the jarringly 'with-it' The Attic Term, in which Ginty features largely (not my favourite Marlow sister!), and the disappointing Run Away Home.

Even though I've read The Cricket Term so many times before, I was forcibly struck this time by the degree to which this novel is about luck. There are many references to superstitions, rituals, and bargains with the gods. Stuff Happens, for no apparent reason, and with no apparent bearing on the overall plot: Nicola hurts her hand, but it doesn't stop her playing in the all-important final match; the person who dies has been off-screen for the whole book, and we readers have forgotten about them such as much as the characters have. Ginty relies on her lucky clover for success in the Diving Cup, but it doesn't work. Nicola's team seem to have lucky breaks in the cricket matches -- flukey catches, unlikely run-outs -- but in fact, luck is with them because Nicola has trained them relentlessly to fly for every chance. And the final awarding of the scholarship is similarly flukey and surprising, the winners and losers unexpected yet somehow right.

And there is a striking contrast drawn between Nicola's hard-won stoicism, which enables her to handle her troubles and disappointments with grace and dignity, and the reactions of her arch-enemy, Games Captain Lois Sanger, whose self-deceiving, fundamentally dishonest approach to life leaves her ill-equipped to face the future that awaits her after school, as she steps out of the pages of this book and the series. It's a subtle lesson, but a valuable one.

I'm considering making this pleasurable re-read an annual event -- a treat for August, perhaps, which is always such a hectic, stressful month. Something to look forward to!

14.8.16

In Praise of the Indulgent Re-read

Image courtesy of bookkunkiesanonymous.blogspot.com

Remember when you were young, and you used to read your favourite books over and over? There were even books that I used to re-borrow from the library and sleep with under my pillow, not bothering to open them because I knew them so well -- I just craved the totem of their physical presence. I had read them so many times that I knew them almost by heart.

These days I don't re-read so much, and when I do, it tends to be those same childhood favourites that wormed their way into my heart all those years ago. (The exception is the Harry Potter books, which have been re-read aloud many times because my children insisted on it.)

But I do allow myself one indulgence, which is Antonia Forest. When I recently filled a gap in my Forest collection with Falconer's Lure, I decided to continue with a re-read of the whole Marlow series. This is a prospect of pure delight; in the last week, I've powered through Falconer's Lure, End of Term, Peter's Room, The Thuggery Affair, and I'm now in the midst of The Ready-Made Family.

My Marlows experience has been immeasurably enhanced by reading the books in tandem with a Livejournal read-through from a couple of years ago, which comprises an expert chapter-by-chapter commentary, followed by a lively and thorough discussion, unpacking resonances between the books, pinpointing obscure literary references, debating time-lines and possible future developments, character consistencies and inconsistencies, and sharing favourite lines.

This is my only experience of such a read-through and I don't know if it's a common phenomenon, but I can't imagine another series that would benefit so well from this kind of close attention... except, now that I come to think of it, Harry Potter!

There's a scene in The Thuggery Affair where the character of Jukie declares his belief in an after-life that fits whatever the individual believes: if that's true, I'd like my heaven to be an endless supply of Antonia Forest novels, please.

4.8.16

Falconer's Lure

I pre-ordered my reprint of Antonia Forest's third volume in her Marlow series, Falconer's Lure, back in February and it FINALLY arrived two days ago -- I had been checking the letterbox several times a day! (This is not a crack at Girls Gone By Publishers or Australia Post, just a comment on my own impatience...)

Falconer's Lure was the last missing link in my collection of Marlow books. My high school library had a copy and I could dimly remember reading it, but I hadn't got my hands on a copy for a good thirty years. I awarded myself a day off yesterday and read it straight through in a single sitting. Would it stand up to expectations? Reader, it did.

Here were characters who have now become familiar, introduced for the first time (Patrick Merrick, Sprog the merlin). Here was Trennels, the Marlow ancestral home, where all the subsequent 'home' books are set. Here is a children's book which meditates on loss and grief, while being ostensibly concerned with the events of a traditional summer holiday - gymkhana, regatta, singing competition - and the less conventional activity of falconry.

There is also some of the most beautiful, restrained writing I've encountered. Here is a favourite passage:

The sun came down in slanting lines through the trees, and made a fishnet of light on the bed of the stream. It was doing that when Nicola and Peter first met. It was still doing so, five minutes later. But by then Peter had managed to tell her that Cousin Jon had been killed when the plane crashed, and that made everything look quite different.

2.8.16

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Evie bought me this at the school's second hand book stall (I couldn't go myself due to scheduling issues, which made me sad). But it was a very good choice. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink falls into a category I'm calling chatty non-fiction -- full of anecdotes, engaging interviews, laced together and sprinkled with enough scientific or historical or psychological theory so that it feels educational even if it's mostly entertaining.

Blink is concerned with the phenomenon of snap judgments, and this fairly loose topic enables Gladwell to cover a diverse range of human experience -- falling in love, assessing the authenticity of art works, war games, the pitfalls of market research, the psychology of police shootings (this felt particularly pertinent at the moment). Did you know that after screened auditions were introduced, the number of female musicians playing in US orchestras rose by 55%? Or that there is a psychologist who can watch a three minute snippet of a married couple's conversation, and predict with more than ninety percent accuracy whether they'll still be married in fifteen years?

This was a really interesting read and just what I was in the mood for. Malcolm Gladwell also has an excellent podcast called Revisionist History -- one of his first topics was the prime ministership of Julia Gillard. Well worth checking that out, too.

27.7.16

Ballet Shoes For Anna


The top cover is the one that I picked up from Brotherhood Books recently. The bottom cover is the edition that I owned when I was about ten or eleven, now sadly lost.

I hadn't read Ballet Shoes For Anna for many years, and only some parts of the story had stayed with me. The opening chapters, where the children are orphaned in an earthquake (very dramatic for a Noel Streatfeild novel!) were still vividly imprinted on my mind, and the characters of the three children were as distinct as ever: conscientious elder brother Francesco, spirited Gussie, and Anna, who lives only for her dancing. The details of the boys' struggles to scrape up money secretly for Anna's ballet lessons, and Gussie's entanglement in The Gang, had faded from my memory.

There was one forgotten aspect of the novel that really struck me this time around. The three orphans, children of a nomadic artist, arrive from Turkey to land on the doorstep of their conventional, pompous uncle in deepest English suburbia. 'The Uncle' cannot tolerate disruption to his routine or any displays of eccentric, 'foreign' behaviour and flies into a rage if he's crossed. Sound familiar??? Even the family name, Docksay, is not a million miles away from Dursley!

I'm certainly not saying JK Rowling consciously copied this situation for her novels, and in Streatfeild's story, there is a mitigating, sympathetic aunt and no Dudley; but 'The Uncle' is such a striking figure and the experience of the orphaned outsiders being dropped into an unfamiliar, strait-laced world is poignant and memorable, the best element of the book.

JK and I are almost exactly the same age and I would be surprised if she hadn't read and loved this book at the same time that I did. This was a happy trip down memory lane.

26.7.16

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I had never read Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 American children's classic, despite being exactly the right age for it. Partly I think this was because I had a certain preference for British books, and perhaps partly because I wasn't that keen on rats (I'm still not!). I also didn't realise that Mrs Frisby was a mouse (which might have put me off even further!)

I came across this while browsing Brotherhood Books and thought it was about time I gave it a go. It was a thoroughly charming story, though fairly slow to start, but the pace does pick up once the backstory of the super-smart rats begins. I was bothered by some niggles which probably wouldn't have troubled me as a child reader: like the fact that the rats are taught to read ie recognise letters and words, but it's assumed that they speak English and understand human concepts, and will be able to decipher instructions like 'take the left hand door.' I don't know why this irked me more than the fact that all the rodents, including ordinary Mrs Frisby, use tools and take medicine!

I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this much at the start, but by the end I was completely captured. It's an anthropomorphised animal adventure, not unlike 101 Dalmatians now I come to think of it, but less witty than Dodie Smith's book. It was sweet, and the ending is ambiguous, so you can read it as terribly tragic or pretty hopeful as you choose. If I'd read this when my girls were younger, I would definitely have tried it as a read-aloud. I think they would both have enjoyed it, and there are not many books that fall into that category.

20.7.16

The Rosemary Tree

What a lovely title for a book! I do find Elizabeth's Goudge's titles so beautiful, instantly appealing: The Scent of Water, City of Bells, Towers in the Mist. They just push my buttons (buttons which may have been set in the first place by reading her novels... cause or effect, who knows?)

Having said that, The Rosemary Tree is not a perfectly successful book, in fact as Goudges go, it's fairly pedestrian, but it did contain lots of beautiful moments to keep me going. This was on the shelf in my parents' house, so I think my mother may have bought it once upon a time -- this edition was from 1977, so too early for me to have acquired it myself!

Apparently this book was the centre of a controversy in the 1990s when an Indian author, Indrani Aikath-Gyalsen, plagiarised it for her second novel, changing the setting to India but copying the story in many places word for word. After the plagiarism was uncovered, the author took her own life. A sad shadow to hang over a lovely book.

Most of the Goudge ingredients were in place -- long backstory explanations for each major character, ruminations on faith and beauty and the power of forgiveness (all things I believe in, and enjoy reading about), massive coincidences and a final neat resolution in a beautiful natural setting, this time Devon in the 1950s. Though I did quail when the lovely shabby manor house was 'saved' by being sold to become a monastery -- I don't know how long that was going to last!

Elizabeth Goudge tends to set up her stories with a long introductory set up where she lovingly arranges her characters like chess pieces on her board and tells us all about their lives and what's brought them to this point; then there is a series of moves where the characters connect and collide and everything changes (generally for the better); then we're done, and the figures on the baord are left standing in slightly different orientations from before. It's not exactly plot-driven, and it's not pacy, but it's very soothing to read, and absorbing once you allow yourself to be captured by her world.

I've made what seems to me a revolutionary, liberating decision, and one that goes against the advice I regularly give to writing students when I visit schools -- from now on, I'm only going to read books I enjoy. Life is too short to do otherwise. So you can expect plenty more Elizabeth Goudge book responses on this blog.

13.7.16

The Hard Sell

A quickie read of a book that's been floating round our house for months -- I think Michael picked it up on sale somewhere on the strength of seeing Dee Madigan on The Gruen Transfer, where she is consistently smart and funny.

This slim book is likewise smart and funny, a brisk primer on the art and business of election advertising, quite timely given that we've just emerged from the fog of the longest election campaign in history. Written in 2014, it contains lots of stories about the 2013 election but obviously wasn't quite up to date with the very latest developments -- Tony Abbott was still PM at the time of publication. It was enlightening to hear the rationale behind a lot of decisions that have mystified me - for example, why do parties run candidates in seats they have no hope of winning? One reason is that the party's Senate candidate can piggy-back off the local candidate, and benefit from their how-to-vote cards and general visibility. There were many amusing anecdotes, like the one about PM John Howard insisting on a particular ad (about the benefits of the GST!), even though the polling showed it wouldn't work. They duly made and ran the ad -- but only in the parts of the country where the PM happened to be campaigning at the time.

A quick but enjoyable, and dare I say, educational read.

12.7.16

Mice

Our theme for the Convent book group this month is Bullying, and Gordon Reece's Mice (2010) is our YA title. I borrowed this from the local library, whence I shall shortly return it, so that other Conventers can have their turn.

Shelley thinks of herself and her mother as 'mice', meek perpetual victims whose survival tactic is to run and hide - from the girls at school who savagely bully Shelley; from Shelley's dad, who oppressed her mum for years and finally abandoned them; from her mum's boss, who exploits her. But everything changes when a stranger breaks into their remote cottage and terrorises them. What happens that night will change the 'mice' forever...

I had really mixed feelings about this novel. It's a cracking read, pacy and engaging, and I raced through it. But I had a few serious problems with it. Firstly, I didn't buy the narrative voice, which sounded much more like a middle-aged man than a sixteen year old girl. Second, I was troubled by the implications of the story, which seems to suggest that empowerment and self-assertion can be most securely won through violence against others! Crime and Punishment this ain't, but it does a good job of tracing the psychological aftermath of a violent act. Lastly, and most trivially, I was annoyed by a sprinkling of typos which should really have been picked up in the proofing stage, something that publishers can't really afford to do thoroughly any more.

I'll be interested to see what my fellow book groupers make of this one. It's set in the UK, but the author lives partly in Australia, so I'm counting it as #LoveOzYA.

6.7.16

The Dean's Watch

When I was younger (high school and earlier), I was a huge Elizabeth Goudge fan, but her books are difficult to come by now. I especially adored The Little White Horse (also a favourite of JK Rowling) and Linnets and Valerians, written for children, but I also read a number of her novels for adults, of which The Dean's Watch is one. Goudge is one of the authors I regularly trawl for second-hand, so when I saw this come up on Brotherhood Books, I pounced.

Wow. Now I remember why I loved Goudge so much. This book touched me deeply. It starts very slowly, and on the surface it's not a promising premise, essentially tracing the growing friendship between two old men -- one the proud, frightening Dean of the Cathedral in this unnamed fen city, the other a humble, cowardly watchmaker who has lost faith in almost everything. But the ripples of this tentative relationship gradually spread to encompass the entire city. It's also about clock-making, creativity, compassion, fear, love and death.

Some readers accuse Goudge of sentimentality, and it's true, she does veer pretty close to the wind at times. Others will probably find her overt Christianity off-putting. But for Goudge, God is literally Love, and that's a form of Christianity I can get on board with -- in fact it might be that reading Goudge was formative in developing my own ideas about faith and spirituality. Elizabeth Goudge writes with such love and tenderness about all the things I love too -- moonlight and bells, dancing winds and candle-light, snow and stars. She makes the everyday world into something magical, and small human interactions into a facet of the divine.

I sank into this book as though stepping into calm waters. Reading it was a meditation, refreshing to the spirit. This will be a book I return to till the end of my life.

29.6.16

The Little Book of Hope

Mum asked me to buy this for her after hearing Ade Djajamihardja and Kate Stephens speaking on the radio a few weeks ago. Ade had a devastating stroke several years ago, which left him partially paralysed and facing multiple challenges to regain good health. He tells his own story here, with some sections written by his partner and primary caregiver, Kate.

Not surprisingly Mum and I are always on the lookout for 'stroke stories', especially those with a relatively happy outcome, and Ade and Kate's story is told with good humour and a focus on the positive, without sugar-coating the very real difficulties and pain the couple have endured. Lots of the advice here could apply to ordinary life, not just life after a stroke: change what you can to improve your environment; staying positive is good for the well-being of the people around you as well as yourself; set yourself tiny goals.

There are disappointing stories here too, like the time Ade was invited to an industry conference, planned meticulously so he could attend, and was so excited to be dipping his toe back into his former life. He and Kate arrived at the venue, only to find that at the last minute the conference room had been switched upstairs, which meant that Ade in his wheelchair could no longer be part of the event.

But overall, Ade and Kate's story is an encouraging one, with a focus on making the most of every day, which is a lesson we could all afford to learn, stroke or no stroke.

28.6.16

Laurinda

First time around, I read Laurinda in a single day. This time, it's taken me more than ten days. And I still haven't managed to sort out my feelings about this novel. The queens of the Cabinet are so awful, yet so powerful -- I don't understand how the principal gives her tacit approval to their actions, yet still seems to believe in Lucy. There's a lot going on in this book and I can't shake the impression that Pung herself hasn't fully worked through her own attitudes about privilege, origins and power. But then, who has? So much of this novel is powerfully written, simultaneously punchy, yet delicate and authentic -- but I can't quite seem to shake it down into a coherent whole.

I'm looking forward to discussing Laurinda with the Convent book group. Those smart ladies will help me work out what I think!

18.6.16

Friday Barnes: Girl Detective


I bought Friday Barnes: Girl Detective on the Kindle because there was only one copy in my library chain, and three of us from the Convent book group who needed to read it. (This month's theme is School Stories). The first of a series of five (to date) these junior fiction novels seem to be doing brilliantly.

The central premise is 'what if Sherlock Holmes was an eleven year old girl?,' but in truth Sherlock and Friday don't have much in common apart from a lack of social skills and a gift for solving mysteries (on the other hand, what more do you need?) Here I must confess that a few years ago, I was toying with the idea of a pair of eleven year old girls as Sherlock and Watson -- it must have been when I first came across BBC Sherlock. My sleuths were called Charlotte and Joss... and that's about as far as I got before I realised that while Sherlock and his imitators have a gift for solving mysteries, I sadly lack the gift for creating them. But RA Spratt has succeeded splendidly where I failed to even cross the starting-line.

At first I found Friday's world oddly hard to place -- was she living in America, the UK? The cultural markers were weirdly elusive, deliberately so, I suspect, as the series has sold into the US. It was a relief to discover that RA Spratt actually lives in Bowral. But it was slightly weird to read a world (mostly boarding school) which is sort of Australian, but not really -- a kind of fairly white bread, Australian-ish alternative universe. (To take a trivial example, TimTams are clearly described, but not named as such -- because poor USians don't have them over there.)

But overall, Friday Barnes is a lot of fun to read, and, I suspect, lots of fun to write, too.