Books of the Month Odds and Ends

The Undead Mr Tenpenny

That’s the title of a very entertaining book by my bloggy friend, Tammie Painter. It is Book One in her Cassie Black trilogy. Part of the blurb on the back of the book says:

“Cassie Black works as a funeral home. She’s used to all manner of dead bodies. What she is not used to is them waking up. Which they seem to be doing on a disturbingly regular basis lately.

“Just when Cassie believes she has the problem under control, the recently-deceased Busby Tenpenny insists he’s been murdered and claims Cassie might be responsible thanks to a wicked brand of magic she has been exposed to.”

From there the story rollicks along with Cassie trying desperately to solve the murder, learn how to control her own untapped, unwanted magic and stop her boss’s funeral parlour from being shut down. Oh, and deal with a powerful, evil magician.

I was quite charmed by this book. While Cassie manages to annoy just about everyone in her new magical community, she is a quirky character, with a very distinctive voice. Tammie’s writing is light and witty, and there were parts that made me laugh out loud ~ not something I often do when I read.

Stylish book cover

Fortunately for me Tammie’s books are not limited to ebooks. I like to have the solid book in my hand as I read. I like the look of them, the feel, the heft, and especially that you can easily flick back and forth. So, I used the ISBN and asked my local bookshop to order it in for me. As easy as that…although an ebook would have been quicker.

I am looking forward to reading the second in the trilogy, “The Uncanny Raven Winston” which has just been released. I’ll order it through Benn’s Books too.

If you are interested (and I hope you are, because supporting independent talent is always important) you can purchase ebooks here, or use this ISBN to order your real copy 978 138 697 7674. Remember, that’s a great way to support independent book shops too. Check out Tammie’s website to look at her blog and find out some of her other books and short stories. (I enjoyed “Domna” as well.)

Books of the Month

My reading for 2019

Finally, I got around to it. It has taken two months to tally up my 2019 reading. (I keep a record of each book I read.) 95 books.

I like to think about my favourite for the year, but choosing one, or even a couple, is always difficult. This year I have come up with a new category: The Books That Have Stayed With Me.

So, The Books That Have Stayed With Me from 2019, in no particular order, are:


  • Beloved ~ Toni Morrison    Her writing of slavery and the ongoing trauma is powerful, disturbing and so beautifully written.
  • Bel Canto and Commonwealth ~ both by Ann Patchett   I didn’t want Bel Canto to end, partly because I knew that no good could come to many of the characters, and also because I wanted her beautiful writing to go on. Who knew that a book about a hostage situation could be so wonderful! Her words dip and soar across my mind and the point of view shifts seamlessly between characters. I was resistant to getting onto the Ann Patchett Bandwagon, but I am onboard, and loving the ride!
  • Exit West ~ Moshin Hamid   Two things stay with me. Firstly the intriguing idea of the portals opening to transport people to other places on the globe. Secondly, the premise of dystopian novels is usually based on the idea that when society collapses so too will all decency and humanity. Hamid doesn’t base his novel on that idea. While there are many examples of inhumanity, he writes of ways in which a future in a broken society may be built on generosity and a mingling of cultures.
  • The confessions of the Fox ~ Jordy Rosenberg    This book defies description. The best I can do is say it is a wild romp through the transgender world of the 18th century.

Memoir? Biography? Philosophy?

  • The trip to Echo Spring ~ Olivia Laing    Laing follows in the footsteps of six great American writers ~ Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway ~ who were all alcoholics. She looks at how their addiction influenced their writing. It doesn’t sound appealing, but if you know Laing’s work you will understand how attracted I was to her writing. (I loved To the River.) Like Morrison and Patchett, her writing moved easily between characters and across time, with jewels of writing. And I have a fascination for addiction.

“When the sun came out the cataracts of ice shone blue, sliver, grey, pewter and sandy brown, the colours entwined like marble.”

  • Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me ~ Bill Hayes    Another beautifully written book, which is as much about Hayes’ love for New York as his love for Oliver Sacks. The writing is an interweaving of stories of the chance encounters with New Yorkers ~ in taxis, subways, parks, bars ~ and his journal entries of his life with Sacks. He creates a very warm and charming view of people, an optimistic view. Sacks comes across as very sweet, innocent, shy, but with a ferocious brain.
  • The Art of Travel ~ Alain de Botton    The best way that I can encapsulate this book  is to say it is about artists, travel, art works, philosophy, writers, tourists all tied together by de Botton’s smooth writing and fascinating insights.
  • Dark Emu ~ Bruce Pascoe   Pascoe argues, quite successfully in my view, that Aboriginal people were not the hunter gatherers portrayed after white settlement, but instead had an extensive agricultural system, where they grew crops, stored grain, had aquaculture and managed game animals. And they did so in a way that was suited to the land, creating a fertile land. According to Pascoe, indigenous people were baking bread long before the agrarian revolution in the Middle East.

Graphic Novel

  • The Park Bench ~ Chaboute   What a sweet, moving novel this was, of a park bench and the people how interact on it and around it. It is the sort of story that graphic novels do so well.


Now it is over to you….any recommendations are most welcome. I do follow up on them. (For example, someone recommended Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. The second book The Eye in the Door came so close to being on my list. Maybe it should be there, because I still remember how moved I was by the brutality inflicted onto conscientious  objectors in the First World War.) I couldn’t get some that were recommended.


On an artistic note, I have been working on some more embroideries, these ones based on the sea. Tomorrow I am going to write about them in my Letter from the Studio. Sign up for the newsletter if you would like to know more about my art.



Books of the Month


You know, my day doesn’t seem compete if I haven’t read something. More precisely, haven’t read something from a book. A favourite type of weekend, when I worked full time, was to curl up in my comfy red chair and read for the two days. Sometimes I would finish a couple of books. I would often feel the pull of my art things, but it was so comforting to escape into a world that someone had conjured for me. I still read widely and prolifically.

I love lists and record keeping, so no surprise to know that I keep a list of books I read, alphabetically by author. In early January each year I count up the tally from the previous year, and consider what my favourites were.

So, for 2018…..I read 82 books. Not as many as 2017 (89) but more than 2016 (77).

My favourite for last year?

Adrian Walker: The last dog on Earth. It’s set in a dystopian future, which I often find very disturbing. However it was recommended by my good buddy, Janis, and she has great taste in books. I am so pleased I did. It has a humanity about it, which is often missing from novels like this. And it’s worth reading for the character of the dog, who narrates every second chapter. He is a foul mouthed wonder!

Other great reads (The links will take you to much more satisfying reviews than I am going to give you!):

Diane Ackerman: The Zookeeper’s Wife. A true story, a biography of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Christian zookeepers in Warsaw during WW2. Another period that I try hard not to read, but find myself drawn to. I love Ackerman’s writing, and again I am glad I read it, to discover the courage of the people of Warsaw, both Jews and Gentiles. The zoo was used as a refuge and a pipeline for escaping Jews. I was fascinated to read about how the Jews who lived outside the ghetto had to learn how to be Christian. Not knowing simple greetings or to cross yourself when you went past a church could lead to denouncement. There was a support network established, and the zoo was a key part in it.

Elizabeth Gilbert: The signature of all things. I was almost put off this too. Not because of the period, but because of the author. I enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love” but thought that this one would be in a similar style. Instead it had things I love…an intelligent woman at its centre who found her own ways to live her life, botany, evolution, the role of women in science, and Alfred Russell Wallace!

Sophie Laguna: The Choke. Another not for the faint hearted, but beautifully written. This, from the review linked to above,  sums it up well

The Choke is a brilliant, haunting novel about a child navigating an often dark and uncaring world of male power and violence, in which grown-ups can’t be trusted and comfort can only be found in nature. This compassionate and claustrophobic vision of a child in danger and a society in trouble celebrates above all the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

And a very different read……Peter Godfrey Smith “Other minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life”. Yep, fascinating research into octopus intelligence. Godfrey Smith says this in his introduction:

Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lieu so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour. if we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings it is not because of shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.

His italics, my bolding. He makes a fascinating case for octopus and, to a lesser extent cuttlefish, being another line in the evolution of intelligence.

2019 is off to a flying start. I have already read books that have delighted me.

Mohsin Hamid: “Exit West”. Another distopian future, but this time Hamid gives us solutions that celebrate our humanity and connection.

Bill Hayes: “Insomniac city: New York, Oliver and me” A beautifully written tribute to his lover Oliver Sacks. But it is as much a love story to New York too, and the wonderful, quirky people Hayes meets in his wanderings. This may end up as my favourite for the year.

Olivia Laing: “The trip to Echo Spring”. Laing has made an art form of musing in print, and she does this beautifully as she muses on the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemmingway, John Cheever and John Berryman, looking at the impact that their alcoholism had on their lives and writing. The Guardian article in the link above rightly says the book is “part literary criticism, part biography, part travelogue, part memoir”. Another book to read for the insights and the beautiful writing.

Min Jin Lee: “Pachinko”. A family saga. Intriguingly the family is Korean, who migrate to Japan in the 1930s. It is a fascinating look into life for Koreans who live in Japan, because they are never allowed to assimilate into Japanese life. ‘Zainichi’, the term for Japanese Koreans, means ‘foreign resident staying in Japan’. Min Jin Lee refers to Japan as “a beloved stepmother who refuses to love you”. The women are strong and determined to support their families. Woven through are issues of shame and honour, fate and suffering. Which makes it sound very gloomy. It’s not, but it is an eyeopener.

So, I hope you can find something there that you might like to read. What suggestions would you make for me?

Books of the Month

A postscript to yesterday’s post

While I was in the Library I picked up a card that had the popular books of 1968. I meant to add it to yesterday’s post, about my Library’s 50th birthday, but forgot. You might find it interesting.

But before I do, I just want to give a shoutout for my newsletter which I am sending out today. I have some very exciting news (well, exciting for me!). I would love you to hear about, so, if you don’t already get my fortnightly newsletter, you might like to sign up here. No spammy stuff, I promise.

So, Popular Children’s Books of 1968

  • Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel (I loved reading to kids when I was a school librarian, later than ’68 though.)
  • The Foot Book: Dr. Seuss’s Wacky Book of Opposites by Dr. Seuss
  • There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer (Wonderful illustrations.)
  • The Best Nest by P.D. Eastman
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr (Remember how the tiger drank all the water from the tap?!)

And Popular Adult Books of 1968

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • True Grit by Charles Portis
  • By the Prickling of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie
  • Outer Dark by Cormack McCarthy (I didn’t realise he was a popular author way back then.)
  • Dragonflight by Anne McCaffery (I loved this series; did you?)

Any there that trigger memories for you? Dredging up my memory of being a reading teenager around the late 60’s my list might include:

  • The Seventeenth Summer (a gift from an American penpal)
  • Brave New World
  • 1984
  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • And just in case that makes me seem precocious, I was also right into trashy novels like Airport and Alistair McLean’s books.

What about you? What would be on your teenage book list?

Books of the Month Melbourne Odds and Ends

My Library turns 50

Writing about books seems to be on my mind at the moment. I was inspired to write this post after reading Tierney’s from Tierney Creates. She posted about the stack of books she had just borrowed from her public library, and how wonderful libraries are. As she says: “So libraries are good places all over the world and librarians are some of the best people on earth (smile).” I soooo agree.

My local library is almost at the end of my street and it’s part of the fabric of the shopping strip and the neighbourhood. It’s only small ~ the building was originally a bank ~ but it fits in many activities. The busiest is probably Storytime, where mums and some dads and babies and toddlers all join in songs and stories. The noise is infectious and the prams lined up like a parking lot.

Lots of people use the library ~ to use the computers and the printer, the wifi, to read the papers, borrow books or just sit in a safe place. And it’s connected to the main library up the hill and along a little bit. You can order books using the online catalogue and pick them up. For people that don’t read hard copies any more (that’s certainly not me!) there are libraries of digital books, comics, audio books and films that are available too, to be accessed at the swish of a library card.

I think public libraries are one of the markers of a civilised society. A society that says that books, knowledge, entertainment are important and should be free to everyone, and is prepared to commit money to making that happen.

So what did I borrow this week? As usual I went in for one and came out with a few…..


My library system is turning 50. So Happy Birthday!!! 🎉 My little library almost didn’t get to join in the celebrations, because in the early 1990’s the council wanted to close the library down. The time was an era of economic rationalism (when isn’t?) and the little shopping centre library just didn’t fit the model. But the residents didn’t want to loose their little library. We got together and demanded that it stay open. We won, thanks to a resident who was in a wheelchair and took the council to the equal opportunity board (or some such place).

The next move for the little library-almost-at-the-end-of-my-street is to have an outside make-over. At the moment it is a construction site, but it will be interesting to see how the library is brought to the outside, so more people can enjoy the space.


Books of the Month Odds and Ends

Ursula Le Guin and the Wizard of Earthsea

When I heard of Ursula Le Guin’s death last year I decided to reread her stories. I picked up an omnibus edition Earthsea, the first four books in this series ~ A wizard of Earthsea (1969), The tombs of Atuan (1971), The farthest shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990). Unfortunately it doesn’t include the last in the series The other wind (2001). That is definitely my next read.

Each novel continues the story of Ged, who starts out as a young and impulsive wizard in the first, matures into the wise archmage of Earthsea and then becomes the complex, broken man in Tehanu. But it is only the first book that is told through the voice of Ged. Each book, while still carrying on the story, is separate. Lord of the rings is ostensibly three books, but is really one, each book leading on immediately from the previous ending. Le Guin doesn’t do that. Indeed there is about twenty years from where we left Ged and Tenar at the end of The tombs of Atuan before Ged’s story is picked up again in The farthest shore.

Tehanu, the fourth book, was written nearly twenty years after the third. The characters have had time to develop in complexity. For authors it must be a luxury to have time to sit with characters and allow them to grow over time. I guess it’s a luxury that modern  authors, who seem to be expected to publish a book a year, don’t have. Knowing that the books are written over a span of time helps to understand the strengthening of the themes, and the writing.

One of those themes is the place of women in society. There are very few women in A wizard of Earthsea. It’s in The tombs of Atuan that we meet Tenar, a strong, independent young woman. She is the central character again in Tehanu and Le Guin has kept Tenar’s strength and independence but developed her into a woman is prepared to question established norms and fight passionately for those she loves.

Throughout Tehanu Tenar is trying to resolve the notion of power. Where does women’s power come from and why does it come from a different place to men’s? Why is it seen to be a weaker power? In a discussion with Ged she says:

“If power were trust,” she said. “I like that word. If it weren’t all those arrangements — one above the other — kings and masters and mages and owners — It all seems so unnecessary. Real power, real freedom, would lie in trust, not force.”

Le Guin shows us that masculine power as an overt force with the rape and horrific abuse of the child in the story, as well as with a wizard who takes away all Tenar’s power ~ of speech, of action and even of thought ~ because she is a woman. Le Guin also shows us the casual sexism that we know so well. Tenar’s son refuses to put his dishes in the sink because it is ‘women’s work’; other characters take no notice of what she is saying.

In her obituary to Ursula Le Guin Margaret Atwood identifies other themes, which also come through strongly in this series.

In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing, but that was not on offer. It would also have contained mutually enjoyable sex and good food: there was a better chance of that…….

The Earthsea trilogy, for instance, is a memorable exploration of the relationship between life and death: without the darkness, no light; and mortality allows all that is alive to be. The darkness includes the hidden and less pleasant sides of our selves – our fears, our pride, our envy. Ged, its hero, must face his shadow self before it devours him. Only then will he become whole. In the process, he must contend with the wisdom of dragons: ambiguous and not our wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless.

As you can tell, I loved Tehanu the best of the four, and am so looking forward to reading The other wind, (as well as her non-Earthsea works, especially The dispossessed and The left hand of darkness) not only to finish off the stories of these strong, interesting characters but to enjoy Le Guin’s beautiful writing. Oh, and there are dragons too!

(Tenar) had done right to make the dress, and she had spoken the truth. But it was not enough, the right and the truth. There was a gap, a void, a gulf, on beyond the right and truth. Love, her love for Therru and Therru’s for her, made a bridge across that gap, a bridge of spider web, but love did not fill it or close it. Nothing did that. And the child knew it better than she.

And again…

Because Lark didn’t see Hawk (Ged) through the words herdsman, hired hand, widow’s man, but looked at him himself, she saw a good deal that puzzled her. His dignity and simplicity were not greater than that of other men she had known, but were a little different in quality; there was a size to him, she thought, not height or girth, certainly, but soul and mind.

And don’t we need a size in soul and mind in all of us now?

Books of the Month

2 fatties and a thin — May Books

I have been reading two thick books recently. I began reading Ash, which is 1113 pages with small type. Then I had to put it aside while I read the Book Club book, The Luminaries, which is merely 832 pages! Persepolis: The story of a childhood was light in weight, but certainly not in subject matter.

Persepolis: The story of a childhood — Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi was a 10 year old school girl in 1980, the year the Fundamentalists tightened their grip on Iranian society. She came from a left-wing family who had been involved in opposition to both the regimes of the Shah and the Fundamentalists. She tells of her uncle Anoosh, who escaped imprisonment by the Shah’s secret police by fleeing to Moscow. He returned after the revolution but was soon arrested and executed for being a Russian spy.

 Satrapi cleverly shows us not only the big events in Iranian/Persian history, and how people fought against persecution, but she also shows us how Fundamentalism impacted on daily life, especially her life as a teenager. Her parents had to smuggle Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde posters in from Turkey. She is accosted in the street by the Guardians of the Revolution for wearing Nike runners and jeans. She writes: “And the Committee they didn’t have to inform my parents. They could detain me for hours or for days. I could be whipped. In short, anything could happen to me. It was time for action.” That action was to make up a horror story about her home life and burst into tears. Music and parties were forbidden, with harsh penalties for those found with decks of cards, records or cassettes.

What makes this an even more interesting read is that it is a graphic novel. I was impressed that Satrapi is able to convey complex concepts in this limiting format. For example after the Shah had been toppled and before the Fundamentalists took power the young Marjane finds out that Ramin’s father was in the Secret Police and had “killed a million people”. Outraged Marjane leads some of her friends to find Ramin to beat him up. Fortunately her mother intervenes and explains that Ramin is not his father. Justice is not for them to dispense. When Marjane tells Ramin she forgives him, she is further outraged when he replies that his father is not a murderer because “he killed Communists and Communists are evil”. We understand how difficult this is for her. All this happens in 15 frames.

These experiences develop her natural strength and intelligence — she continues to be outspoken at school and does not retreat when confronted with inequalities. The Iran/Iraq War puts the distressed society under overwhelming pressure and we know that Marjane will not be able to keep quiet. The end of the book is only the end of part 1. Part 2 will be just as interesting.

The Luminaries ~ Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction last year. The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, or Zimbabwe.

Robert Macfarlane, Chair of judges, 2013 Man Booker Prize, said this about it:

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, set in the New Zealand gold rush, slowly but deeply staked its claim upon the judges. It is animated by a weird struggle between compulsion and conversion: within its pages, men and women proceed according to their fixed fates, while gold – as flakes, nuggets, coins and bars – ceaselessly shifts its shapes around them. In this way capital and character are brought both to clash and to meld. At 832 pages, it might seem like one of Henry James’s ‘big, baggy monster’ novels, but in fact it is as intricately structured as an orrery. Each section is half the length of its predecessor, right down to the final, astonishing pages. It is a book, therefore, which does things brilliantly by halves.  – See more at:

And one of their reasons for giving the prize to Catton?

…….we [the judges] are confident that this is the one that does the most to invigorate and renew its chosen form. This is the one that makes the novel seem novel again. (Quoted in The Telegraph, 16th Oct 2013.)

That is a big statement, but I am sorry to say that I don’t have an opinion on whether the book does that. I am not sure that I agree that the novel stopped being a novel, as this quote seems to imply. Do I understand why it won? In part. Catton controls her writing so beautifully. The plot is so complex, but never convoluted and she maintains an ‘old fashioned’ style of writing all the way through. While it was a great read, it was not a brilliant read, and I feel that prize winning books should be. 

While a lot has been said about the astrological aspects of the book, really the heart of the plot was a murder mystery, with gold hidden in the seams of dresses, lost crates, lost miners, duffer gold claims, unsigned deeds and lots of opium smoked. There were stories and tales told, overheard conversations and secret meetings. The first chapter, which is half the book, is like a jigsaw puzzle where each character adds what he knows to the whole mystery. But it is never straight forward and the tale loops back on itself. It is intricately structured and I marvel at how Catton was able to keep it all straight as she wrote it. It must have been some whiteboard!

It is not a book that I have fallen in love with, but it is one that I would recommend. Don’t be put off by the length, just go along for a rollicking good ride!

Ash: A secret history  ~ Mary Gentle

However, I would not recommend Ash unless you were a fan of Mary Gentle’s  work or enjoyed modern medieval style of novels. I enjoyed it but it is LONG. While I was distracted with other books, I had to renew this 3 times from the library! I never thought I would say this about a book, but it would have been much better as a trilogy, then you could pause between sections.

Ash is a young woman who has become a very successful mercenary captain in Europe in the 1470s.  She is successful because she hears voices during battle. As the story progresses she finds out that she is channeling a Stone Golem, which in turn is being used by Wild Machines that use the power of the pyramids.

The story of Ash is a recently found manuscript being translated by an modern academic, who, in email correspondence with his publisher, is discovering that Ash’s world is one that is an alternate world to the one we know. So it is also about alternative and parallel universes.

 While all of this sounds odd and unbelievable, Gentle actually pulls it off. Partly because her knowledge and understanding of Medieval life builds a realistic world. But it is mainly because Ash is a very convincing character and the reason I kept on reading. 

Books of the Month

March Books ~ A Chinese classic, a murder mystery to absorb you and Neil Gaiman

Red Sorghum ~ Mo Yan

I am finding it very difficult to sum up this book for you.

The story covers three generations of a Chinese family, with most of the events happening in the late 1930s, during the occupation of China by Japan. As you can imagine it is brutal, with descriptions that made me hurriedly turn the page. Most of this horror takes place in the sorghum fields around the village of Northeast Gaomi Township, which Mo Yan describes with delicacy and love. On the one hand the brutality, on the other beauty.

Mo Yan has been lauded for this book. It has won awards and been made in to a film. The extracts on the blurb sing his praises, as these extracts are meant to do. He has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So, it is my ignorance that makes me wonder what the fuss is about. It may be that I am so familiar with literature from the European tradition that the moment I step out of my comfort zone I am flummoxed.

I liked the way Mo Yan used flashbacks. Often they were not directly related to the event that had just happened, but instead built on other happenings. Some of the stories he tells are wonderful. The way that Grandma and Granddad meet is just lovely and Beauty’s ordeal in the well was heart rending.

But towards the end I found that the plot unravelled. I never did find out if Grandma was buried, but that may have been because, by this stage, I was skimming through battle scenes. The last chapters only brought us up to date on minor characters. I finished it feeling rather dissatisfied.

Also, I found that the characters were rather cartoon like ~ in the best graphic novel way, not in the Disney fashion. Again, this is probably my lack of understanding of Chinese literature. The European tradition is big on the internal dialogue of characters. There was little of that in Red Sorghum, so that often I was at a loss to know what the character was feeling beyond the broad outlines of anger, fear, love, bravery and so on.

I am glad I read it. Granddad and Grandma will stay with me for a while, as will the fields of red sorghum. However, I am glad that I finished it because now I can settle into reading something that is less challenging.

And that something was the latest Louise Penny novel, How the light gets in. I have spoken about her series before.

In January I read A Beautiful Mystery, where Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvior investigated a murder in an abbey in the wilds of Quebec. The end left me gasping, and if I had had this next one I would have begun it there and then — there was the lounge room sofa and then was about 12:30 at night! Instead I had to get it from the library, all the while thinking “Jean-Guy, Jean-Guy, non, non, non”.

And I could have read this one in one sitting, leaving the dishes to pile up and losing quite a bit of sleep. But I also wanted to make it last. I am not going to tell you anything about the plot, because anything I said would be a spoiler. I will say that I was gripped from the first and loved every page-turning moment. I will also say that if you are going to read any of Penny’s books, start at the beginning, with Still life because the machinations within the Surete build on from book to book. I do hope you enjoy them.

American gods ~ Neil Gaiman

This is another sprawling book that is very difficult to sum up. However it was much more familiar than Red sorghum.

It would be a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip. It would be about the migrant experience, about what people believed in when they came to America. And about what happened to the things that they believed.

Gaiman wrote this in an essay, describing how he came to write the book. The book revolves around the gods that migrants bring to America. Over time those gods are forgotten and are left to live at the edges of society, while other gods rise — gods of electricity and other modern phenomenon. The plot is built up to a battle between the two groups.

It is a ‘long hard look into the soul of America’, as the blurb says. But it is a quirky look too. Gaiman, like Terry Pratchett, looks at the world in a different way to most of us. His stories make me look at something familiar and think “I have never thought about it like that before”. He does that within a fabulous, page-turning story.

One of the great strengths of the book are his characters. Even the minor ones are well rounded and credible. I loved Shadow’s dead wife Laura.  Mr. Nancy, Jacquel, Easter and the other gods Shadow and Wednesday recruit, add life and interest to the story.

The main character is Shadow. We follow him through the story, through his work with Wednesday, his dreams, his life in Lakeside, and at the battle at the end of the story. To want to follow him through the 600 plus pages of the book we have to believe in him and want to know how things are resolve, how he ends up. That tells me that Gaiman has created such a strong and believable character.  

What have you been reading lately. Anything that you think I might enjoy?


Books of the Month

February Books — a classic, a mapmaker and some gardeners

Firstly, the classic

The Chrysalids ~ John Wyndham

I first read this when I was a teenager. I had always had a longing to be telepathic, so this book resonated with me. I reread it quite a few years later and while I still enjoyed the telepathy aspect, I was fascinated with the post-nuclear society that Wyndham creates. But let me tell you about the plot, before I go on about what I enjoyed reading in it this time.

David, the narrator, is a teenager, growing up in a post~apocalypse world. The devastating event happened hundreds of years ago, so the rigid society David lives in has developed strong laws about deviations away from the norm. The norm is based upon the Bible, the only book to have survived. (Why is it always the Bible? Why not The Origin of the Species or an Agatha Christie novel?! 🙂  ) Deviant crops are burnt  and animals slaughtered. Babies are checked at birth. Any deviations and the baby is sent to the Fringes, an area between the ‘civilised’ world and the Badlands.

David has first hand experience of this when, as a young boy, he makes friends with Sophie. Sophie has grown up with her parents, away from mainstream society. She has six toes. Events happen that cause the family to flee to the Fringes and David sees how dangerous deviations can be.

Because while his physical body is normal, he is a telepath, able to send mind pictures to a group of others in the area. The group was safe until the birth of David’s sister, Petra. She was a very powerful sender, which lead to their unmasking as well as their rescue.

The copy I read this time had an introduction (sorry, I have forgotten who wrote it). The Chrysalids was written in Britain in the 1950s and this introduction placed the story into the social context of that time. There were still resonances in Britain from the Second World War ~ effects of rationing, the destruction of industries, the loss of the empire. It was interesting to reread it with that in mind.

However the most potent influence on Wyndham seems to have been the nuclear issue. The atom bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, causing outrage and concern about a nuclear future. Fears were heightened by the impact of the Cold War. It became the dominating theme in The Chrysalids.

As for the writing….It must be a difficult task to write in the first person, especially when describing a new world. The narrator can only tell what he/she knows. Wyndham is able to build up our understanding of the society David lives in with a lightness of touch.

For example, David overhears a conversation between his mother and her sister. The sister has given birth to a baby with a defect, and is asking for help from David’s mother. The defect is not spelt out. From this incident we learn about how babies with deformities, and their mothers (but of course not fathers) are dealt with. David’s mother and father are fleshed out and it allows David’s compassion and growing concern to come through.

However, Wyndham’s writing does become more ponderous when he fills the reader in on the Badlands, a world that David could not know about. David’s sympathetic uncle has been a sailor, and travelled past these areas, with all their grotesque plants and devastation. He tells David what these areas are like, but it comes across more as a lecture than a conversation.

And the ending is literally the God-In-The-Machine technique, which was sort of annoying. But it did give the novel hope, which, given the horror of the world that Wyndham created, was a relief.

The Cartographer ~ Peter Twohig

This is also narrated by a young boy of about 11, who is growing up in the 1950s in the working class Melbourne suburb of Richmond. We never know his name. The only clue is that it starts with T. He assumes different personas, the Outlaw, the Train driver but mostly, the Cartographer.

He is still reeling from the accidental death of his twin brother Tom. The underlying story in the novel is the narrator coming to terms with his guilt; he tried to help, but could not save Tom. He reinvents himself as a superhero, who would have been able to rescue his brother.

He takes on the persona of the Cartographer as he makes a map of his journeys around Richmond. The map is meant to protect him from dangerous places, such as the playground where Tom died. It doesn’t work, because he finds danger everywhere he goes. But then he goes into some pretty amazing places. Backyards and lane ways are only some of them. Down drains, along train tunnels, into houses, even ending up in the cellars underneath Government House.

In the early chapters he climbs a ladder and witnesses a murder in the upstairs room. He confronts a kidnapper down one tunnel and, while creeping through a house, watches an ugly confrontation between a mother and child.

It sounds rather grim, and you watch the boy with amazement as he dives down another drain or investigates another house. But somehow it is quite a funny novel. The boy’s relationship with his dog, Biscuit, is gently amusing. He has a great relationship with his grandfather, a shady character who knows which horse will win and when something will fall off the back of a truck. His grandfather is one of the few stable influences in the boy’s life and Grandad helps to sort out some of the mayhem that coalesces around him.

The boy is an engaging character. He doesn’t quite take himself seriously. He is resilient,  intelligent and such a risk taker that you worry for him. There were times when I thought “Oh no, not another drain”. But then who knew that there were so many dodgy characters down in that subterranean world! It reminded me of Extremely loud and incredibly close by Jonathan Safran Foer although this book is less sentimental and not as quirky.

And now to the gardeners:

The brother gardeners: Botany, empire and the birth of an obsession ~ Andrea Wulf

This fabulously researched book explores the identities of the men who “made Britain a nation of gardeners and the epicentre of horticultural and botanical expertise.” Wulf wanted to answer the question of why the English garden had its roots in America. While her book talks about a number of interesting characters, such as Daniel Solander, Linnaeus’ apprentice who later worked with Joseph Banks, it is Peter Collinson and John Bartram who are the central characters.

In the mid 1700s Collinson was a wealthy English merchant who had a passion for gardening. Collinson asked his overseas contacts to send him seeds and cuttings for his garden, but it was his developing friendship with Bartram that would be the most productive. Bartram was an American farmer who went on extensive seed collecting trips through the still wild parts of America. He sent Collinson the seeds and cuttings he had collected. Over time many boxes of seeds were sent to Collinson and his friends. They were paid for by subscription. Collison sent back books on botany and natural history so that Bartram could build up his library.

American plants had become very fashionable after Mark Catesby’s return from Virginia and Carolina. He published a book of engravings of his plant paintings and the British fell in love with his magnolias, wisteria and callicarpa. Bartram’s seeds would eventually allow grand landscapes to be planted with native birches, American sycamores,  rhododendrons and many more.

Until Bartram began sending his boxes, autumn in England had been a fairly lacklustre affair. Now the falling of leaves was preceded by an extraordinary show. At Thorndon scarlet oak and white ash competed with the bloodied foliage of tupelo, and the glowing reds and oranges of the large fluttering maple leaves with the aubergine of liquidambar.

It is a fascinating time in history. There was an explosion of unknown plants and animals coming into European consciousness. Many of these new discoveries were to the detriment of the native peoples around the world and often fuelled imperialist desires. However, scientific theory was also expanding to make sense of all the new knowledge. Carl Linnaeus, for example, created the binomial nomenclature to enable uniform species identification. Wulf’s book has some interesting insights into the cranky arrogance of Linnaeus.

It was a good read, fleshing out aspects of that time. I had read about Bartram’s expeditions, especially those with his son. However I didn’t know of his importance to modern gardens, and I was interested to read about the British gardeners.

What have you been reading? Anything that you think I might like? As you can see, my tastes are very broad. Let me know.  😀

Books of the Month

January books — from The Midnight Mayor to Nazi Germany

A Madness of Angels, or the Resurrection of Matthew Swift by Kate Griffin

Also The Midnight Mayor, or the inauguration of Matthew Swift

I had read The Minority Council late last year. Of course it turned out to be number 4 in the series — don’t you hate that, not starting a series at the beginning. But I loved the book so much that I willing hunted out the first at the Library. (This is not a difficult task, as I can request them online and hey presto! they appear at my local branch.)

To the books…..

Matthew Swift was an reasonably good sorcerer before he was killed. After he was resurrected he became an amazing one. This is not giving anything away. He is dead before the book begins, and the opening pages describe his resurrection, and the resurrection within him of the blue angels. The blue angels/Matthew Swift draw magic from electricity and phone lines, giving them power that very few magical creatures can withstand.

Griffin has taken the traditional element of fantasy, such as magic, wizards, sorcerers, fairies and so on and woven them into something new and dynamic. I am new to the concept of Urban Magic, so her ideas may be mainstream within this genre. However I would be very surprised if that was the case. London sits firmly in the centre of her creation and it is the movements, patterns, history that creates the magic.

I love the real London, and I love the London Griffin has created. I can easy believe in the gritty, powerful magic of the city.

An example of this urban magic — Swift uses his Oyster card to fend off an dangerous creature, Hunger, at an Underground barrier. He explains later that

…everyone and everything has its own unique magic. The underground’s magic is defined by the rhythms that go through it. It’s like a heartbeat, a pulse, the flow of life like blood through its veins, describing in every detail the shape of power in its tunnels. When you go into the underground, you buy a ticket, you pass through the barrier, you enter its tunnels, you take the train, you use your ticket, you exit through the barrier. This part of what defines it, this is part of what makes the taste of magic different, heavy, crowded, full of dirt and noise and life and strength. If you know that this magic is there, if you understand the rhythms that shaped it, it is a very simple matter to harness it to a spell that utilises to the full its unique signature.

There is the Beggar King, and the Bag Lady — “She isn’t simply a bag lady….she is The Bag Lady, the queen of all those who scuttle in the night, gibbering to themselves, and the voices that only they can hear. She is the mistress of the mad old women in slippers who ride the buses….she is the lady of all dirty puddles…..However, when the pigeons were nested for the night, it was to the Bag Lady that my gran would always offer her prayers.” There is a litter monster, the last train and, in The Minority Council, fairy dust, more powerful and more addictive that any drug found in our world. There is the spirit of the train conductor, who helps Swift after accepting a gift of The Train Journey’s Companion.

Switft’s urban magic doesn’t work in the countryside, or even in the large London parks like Regents Park.

It sounds cute, and parts of it are endearing, much of it witty. However it is also strong and violent. Right from the beginning of each book Swift has to fend off  monsters that are overpoweringly awful.

Angry. Attacked, burnt, attacked, hurt, attacked, fled, attacked, attacked, attacked, gunning for us, gunning for me, gunning for my….for people who stopped to help. (From early into  The Midnight Mayor)

The action pulls you along and you discover what the blue angels are and who brought Swift back to life. He is no superhero, but a well drawn character who, while making mistakes, also knows when to use a can of spray paint, an Oyster card or the by-laws of the Underground!

And by the way, her distinctive writing is pretty good too! I am so looking forward to reading the third book. I just hope there is a fifth, sixth, seventh etc!!

A man without breath by Philip Kerr

(Warning, this review has a big spoiler in it.)

Many years ago I read a trio of stories by Kerr about his detective, Bernard Gunther. What made these stories standout in the vast genre of crime fiction was that Gunther was a detective in Berlin in the late 1930s. In these stories Gunther had to tread carefully, while holding onto his own moral compass. So, when I saw this one on the Library shelves I wanted to read it. And I got about to thirds of the way through when I decided not to finish it. This is most unusual for me, especially as I had got so far.

It wasn’t the awful subject matter of the story, although that was pretty gruesome. It is set in March, 1943. Gunther is working for the German War Crimes Bureau and has been sent to Smolensk, in German occupied Russia, to investigate a mass grave found in a forest. If it is the grave of thousands of Polish officers who had been murdered by the Russians, it is good propaganda for the Germans. If it is where the SS murdered thousands of Jews, then it must be a secret that stays buried.

Smolensk is a frozen town filled with anxieties and fears, with not much food or hope. Other murders happen that Gunther is drawn to solving.

What countered the foul taste in my mouth while reading this was that Gunther and others are determinedly anti-Nazi. Kerr’s research has found events that shine like a beacon in this dark time.

One was a protest. On February 28th 1943 Berlin’s last Jews were rounded up for deportation. A couple of thousand were held in the Jewish Welfare Office. They were Jews who had non-Jewish wives. The wives protested outside the office and, miraculously, their husbands were released. They were the only Jews who were not deported. As Gunther, the narrator, muses:

……it begged the question, what might have been achieved if mass protests had taken place before? It was a sobering thought that the first organised opposition to the Nazis in ten years had probably succeeded.

What made me close the book [spoiler alert!] was when Gunther murdered a man, and it wasn’t one of the baddies. It wasn’t done in an argument or rage. Gunther uses the Greater Good Argument, but I don’t think that was good enough. He is a detective in the Philip Marlowe mould — hard bitten but with a core of decency. That’s why he is anti-Nazi. That’s why I couldn’t countenance his murder of another anti-Nazi.  I don’t want my Good Guys to behave like the Bad Guys. That’s why I had to close the book.