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?

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…..

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My library system is turning 50. So Happy Birthday!!! ūüéȬ†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.

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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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď as flakes, nuggets, coins and bars ‚Äď 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‚Äôs ‚Äėbig, baggy monster‚Äô 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: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/event/robert-macfarlane-announces-man-booker-2013-winner#sthash.8cO1fTJW.dpuf

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. 

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?

 

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?! ūüôā ¬†) 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. ¬†ūüėÄ

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.

A December Book

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know it is the end of January….but this is a stand out book from December and it has been waiting patiently to be written about. (The Library has not been as patient — I had a few dollars to pay in fines!)

The Maid’s Version¬†by Daniel Woodrell.

Winter’s Bone, another of Woodrell’s, is one of my favourite books.¬†The Maid’s Version doesn’t ¬†quite reach that height, but it comes close. The story centres around an explosion in a dance hall in a small Missouri town in 1929. 42 people were killed. No one was ever brought to account for the crime, but Alma Dunahew, who lost her sister in the explosion, does know the secrets that lead to it. Many years later she tells her grandson.

Like any good story, the plot outline is only the beginning, and can never tell all that needs to be told.¬†The story moves back and forth, between ¬†past and present.¬†I enjoy the challenge of books that move without notice into different times and different characters. This book had an extra challenge — chapters about the lives of some who died in the blast. They would appear and then not be heard of again.

Woodrell’s writing is superb, forcing me to read much slower than I usually do, to enjoy the way he can capture so much in one sentence.

Ruby DeGeer didn’t mind breaking hearts, but she liked them to shatter coolly, with no ugly scenes of departure, where an arm got twisted behind her back by a crying man, or her many failings and damp habits were made specific in words shouted out an open window.

Or

[Buster] ……..struggled with a dual matrimony, having become betrothed to the bottle also, a love he encountered early and fell for straightaway.

Or his wonderful descriptions that meld perfectly with the rest of the story.

Alma was of a height that earned no description save “regular”, sturdy in her legs and chest, and her hair was an ordinary who-gives-a-hoot brown, with finger waves above the ears that always collapsed into messy curls as the day went along.

This quote, like much of his writing, reminds me of Cormack McCarthy:

The trains beating past toward the fabled beyond, the sound of each wheel-thump singing, You’re going nowhere, you’re going nowhere, and these wheels are, they are, they are going far from where you lie listening in your smallness and will still lie small at dawn after they are gone from hearing, rolling on singing long twin rails over the next hill and down and up over the next onward to those milk -and-honey environs where motion pictures happen for real and history is made and large dashing lives you won’t lead or even witness are lived.

Move Daniel Woodrell up to the top of your reading list — and let me know what you think.

November Books

It’s a while since I have published about the books I am reading. I have been reading, just not letting you know. ūüôā

So, this month I found a new author, reread an old book and read others from two of my favourite authors.

The new author:

Kate Griffin — “The Minority Council”¬†

Matthew Swift has become the Midnight Mayor, the person who keeps Londoners safe ~ “the protector of the city, the guardian of the night, the keeper of the gates, the watcher on the walls.” ¬†He does that by using magic, the magic of the city, electricity.

London, a city I love, is a major character in the story. It made me wonder about the other cities that could have so many layers, physical and metaphorical. Melbourne doesn’t have them yet, but places like London and New York certainly do. I think it is about history and diversity and literature and class, that all mix together to allow writers use these cities as such powerful, believable characters

But it is the night streets that is Swift’s world and magic is woven into the fabric of that world.

As we moved, our shadow turned and turned again, a sundial’s darkness moved by street glow, and our shadow was not our own. Sometimes we thought it had wings of black dragon-leather. Sometimes we thought its hands dripped, staining the cracks in the paving stones as it passed. I could feel the places where the bikers moved, those thin points in the architecture of the city where¬†here¬†became like¬†there¬†and it was possible to jump the gap without mucking around with the spaces in between. Ley lines crackled underfoot, following the passage of the underground tunnels, the old water pipes, the silent whirling gas, the dance of electricity. We put our head to one side and could hear the voices in the the telephones lines overhead…

It is a cruel world. Young vandals have their souls sucked out by vigilante monsters. Fairy dust is the newest drug.

“Are we talking …. like cocaine?”

“Yeah, if getting screwed out of your fucking brain by a sex goddess is like going five minutes with your grandma in the rain.”

And the fairy godmother is no fairy godmother

“You really have no idea, have you? Fairy godmother is going to take you down, chop you up and serve you as sushi.”

But then Swift is not really himself either.

I loved Griffin’s London. I loved how the magic was an integral part of it. I loved her writing. Listen to another passage, where again she describes a London just below the surface.

We walked through the subways beneath Waterloo, where the beggars huddled beneath changing light and white stalagmites that hung from the ceiling cracks, and south again, past the silent black guns of the Imperial War Museum and towards that strange place where distances started to warp and the centre of the city met inner city and had a fight that left both bleeding by the one-way signs.

This is the fourth in a series. I dislike starting a series in the middle, but it happens when you randomly pick a book from the Library shelves. So I will find the others, and begin at the beginning. I recommend that you do too.

The book from my shelf:

Diane Ackerman: The moon by whale light

It is subtitled: ‘and other adventures among bats, penguins, crocodilians and whales’. You may remember that I enjoy reading natural history books, and I enjoyed reading this for a second time. Ackerman is a journalist with a fascination for the natural world. She travelled to many places to gather the information for the book. At one point she was lying on top of alligators, holding them down¬†while scientists took samples, measured length and teeth, and determined their sex. She describes all the creatures in her book with love, and makes you love them too — if only for the time of reading! I am not sure that her writings would foster a love of saltwater crocodiles.

As you can tell from the title, Ackerman has a beautiful, poetic way of writing. She is in Patagonia to be with the whales:

At sunset, an orange fur lay along the horizon and the sea grew blue-grey. Areas of wet sand, exposed by the withdrawing tide, shone like an array of hand mirrors. Venus appeared overhead, bright as a whistle blow, with the small pinprick light of Mercury at its side. As night fell, the shallows shimmered like ice and the frantic winds began to sound like freight trains.

And then to Antarctica to be with the penguins:

The mountains, glaciers and fjords bulged and rolled through endless displays of inter-flowing shapes. The continent kept turning its shimmery hips, and jutting up hard pinnacles of ice, in a sensuality of rolling shifting, cascading landscapes…..And yet it could be blindingly abstract, harrowing and remote, the closest thing to being on another planet, so far from human life that its desolation and iciness made you want to do impetuous, life affirming things: commit acts of love…..touch voices with a loved one by way of a satellite…..be passionate and daring, renew the outlines of your humanity.

I am not sure if it is in print. If you come across it, snap it up and enjoy.

Two more books from two of my favourite authors:

Terry Pratchett: Snuff

It is not as funny nor weird as many of his other Discworld stories. But it is funny and it does have weird bits. And it has many of his familiar and wonderful characters. Sam Vines goes on holiday and soon finds that the countryside is a hot bed of mayhem and murder — as well as a lot of poo.

However, as in many of his books, Pratchett makes comment on our world. This time he addresses racism. As reviewers on Goodreads have said, there is a darkness in this novel. The Goblins are the lowest of the low, vilified, on the margins of Discworld society and blamed for the ills of the world. Sam Vines investigates the murder of a young goblin girl and helps to uncover many prejudices, and worse. As well he learns much about the unexpected complexities of the Goblin culture.

Louise Penny: A rule against murder

The fourth in her series of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I find her books very difficult to put down. At the same time I want to, because I want them to last. I was transported to her world of the French Canadian countryside, and caught up in the terrible family that Gamache has to investigate. But he investigates with such patience, he listens to what is said, and what isn’t said. If I was a policeman I would want¬†Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to be my boss!

But once I left the world I wondered about the family. It was so unlike mine that I found myself doubting, and thinking about the inconsistencies. Would they always behave with such cruelty to each other? Why do they return to each others’ company? The mother is so awful why did the step-father love her for so long, much less marry her? Would Marianna really be able to keep that secret about her child? (Notice how this is a Spoiler Free Zone? ūüôā ) If you have read it I would love to know what you think. Am I being naive?

However, it is not enough to make me stop reading her books. Again, I really enjoy her writing. Her characters are interesting and the settings well evoked. And the food they eat ~ delicious!

What have you been reading? Any recommendations? 

August Books

I have been an avid reader of murder mysteries for many years. It is a genre that has expanded to fill every nook and cranny of life [or even death!]. Every occupation, every city, every era has their own detective — like these two!

Barbara Nadel: Sure and certain death

Nadel’s detective character, Francis Hancock, is one of the most unusual that I have come across. He is an undertaker, which is a clever device, as and death go hand in hand. He has an Indian mother and an English father. Not an oddity these days, but not such a common sight in the east End of London during World War 2, when the series is set.

I liked the issues Nadel raised — racism, trauma because of war, the invisibility of older widowed or unmarried women — and I really enjoyed the way positive she dealt with them. Hancock is an interesting character, and I will read more of him.

[Update: Now I have read another of her books, Ashes to ashes. Not such an easy read as the first one. It was set in St Paul’s Cathedral during one of the most intensive bombings of London, and the firestorm that followed. It was dark, hectic and dangerous in the cathedral. I got confused about who was where and, indeed, who was who. It didn’t flow as easily as the other, and the premise seemed a little far fetched.]

Louise Penny: The cruelest month

The niche that Penny’s detective occupies is Montreal and the province of Quebec. Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec solves murders that mostly happen in the charming village of Three Pines.

Penny’s writing is lovely and quite poetic. Her characters are well created. And if you find them a little twee at times, you know that there are nasty undercurrents, especially in the Surete!

I have read four of the books in this series, and like the world Penny describes to me. That’s the sign of a good series — does the world hold together over a number of books; do I care enough about the characters to invest more time with them. However, I would recommend starting this series with the first book. Often it doesn’t matter which you pick up first. This does. Not only is there a continuity of character development, which I like, but also there are plot developments in one book that may spoil an earlier one.

And for something completely different….

…..Neil Gaiman

He is an author I have heard of for a while. Someone mentioned him on a blog recently and I decided to read more of him. This month I read two.

Stardust was written quite few years ago. It is almost a fairy story for adults, and has resonances of Douglas Adam and Terry Pratchett, both of whom I really enjoy.

The other book was a graphic novel,¬†Black Orchid¬†, with stunning illustrations by Dave McKean. Gaiman takes the Super Hero concept, and distorts it. To quote Mikal Gilmore’s introduction

…Black Orchid works against these conventions of violence: It begins in the horror of reality and it works its way towards a lovely, dreamlike end that is no less powerful or hard-hitting for all its fable-style grace.

An author to explore further.

April Books

It’s a book sort of day today. I went to Readings and bought 4 books from their cheap book table. Then I went to the library and borrowed 3 more books. So it seems appropriate to tell you about some of the books I read in April.

Dennis Lehane: Mystic River

I loved the movie (Sean Penn acted in it, Clint Eastwood directed it); I loved the book too. It is worth reading for Lehane’s writing. He has an ability to take a metaphor that has become a cliche and give it a new twist, a new life.

Dave’s hand tightened around Michael’s, and his chest felt as if someone had dunked a knife in ice water and then placed the flat of the blade against his lungs.

Or images such as

….as if the twenty-five years in between had passed as fast as a TV commercial, feel that beaten, pissed off, begging aloneness that had lain in Jimmy Marcus like pulp hollowed from the core of a dying tree.

Or

…Sean thinking if he were dead that’s one of the things he’d probably miss most, the colors, the way they could come out of nowhere and surprise you, even though they could make you feel slightly sad, too, small, like you didn’t belong here.

And the plot and characters are worth the read too!

David Hill: The Great Race

The subtitle of this book —¬†The race between the English and the French to complete the map of Australia —¬†sums up its premise. Most Australians are familiar with the explorer Matthew Flinders, especially his journey with George Bass through the strait between Tasmania and the mainland. However it is his later journey, his circumnavigation of Australia that is the focus of Hill’s book, because, while Flinders was on that journey a French expedition was also on the same task.

The French expedition was lead by Nicolas Baudin in¬†Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste, and his brief was similar to Flinders’ — to survey the unknown part of the southern coast and to explore whether a river or a strait separated New Holland (the western half of the continent) from New South Wales. Baudin and Flinders had a chance meeting in the Southern Ocean, near what is now the Victorian/South Australian coast.

I have also been re-reading Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper (more of that later). One character, Adam, gives his ‘What is History?’ lecture and he makes¬†this comment, a comment that made me realise what was missing from The Great Race:

“The chronological narrative might be the spine of the body of knowledge we call history but psychological insight and a vigorous imagination will help us get not merely the “what” of history but also the intensely satisfying “why”.”

There is a wealth of information in The Great Race, including early voyages that reached the shores of what would be Australia, and Flinders’ imprisonment on Mauritius. That information makes it a good read. However,¬†the psychological insight is missing, and therefore the ‘intensely satisfying why‘. That’s what stops it from being a really good read.

Elliot Perlman: The Street Sweeper

As you know, I loved this book. If you didn’t know, you can read my thoughts of it here. I regarded it so highly that I selected it for my book in Book Club. We had a wonderful discussion about it and I came away with other aspects to ponder, especially all the different parent/child relationships there are, and what those relationships add to the sweep of the story.

Tony Hillerman: The Listening Woman

It is a while since I have read any of Hillerman’s books — I tend to go through phases of reading particular authors. So I was glad to become immersed in his world of the Navajo people again, to follow his characters through the deserts and up canyons, and to learn more about Navajo spiritualism, which I can only presume is accurate. The plot does have a Die Hard/Bruce Willis I-am-the-only-one-who-can-save-these-people ending, but it was a nice way to while away a few hours.

And my books next month may include some of the ones I picked up today….