Thursday, 31 January 2013

Blind date with a book

Twenty-One just tagged me on Facebook with this photo:
If you click on it, it will enlarge so you can read the text. However, to summarise, it's a local library project - a shelf of plain-wrapped books for loan, no titles or authors on the wrapping, just odd words suggesting themes.

It reminded me of the time the Ex and I were in a wine club. Basic membership mean signing up for a minimum order - which was one case of wine every three months, delivered to the door. As starter packs, they had three different price levels of these cases, and within each price bracket, you could choose a mixed dozen of reds, whites or half and half of each. So, every three months, this box of wine would arrive, with a few pages of tasting notes. Some of them were labels that were familiar, but some we'd never heard of. It meant, of course, that we drank wines that we might otherwise not have discovered.

Being part of a book club is a little bit like that too, in that over the course of a year, you end up reading a book a month, many of which may not have been on your 'would like to read that' list. I just launched myself into a bit of the unknown by buying a handful of books on the basis of a couple of lists compiled by the literary writer at The Hoopla. I've blogged about one of them already - you can read about that here, as well as some info about that website - am partway through writing a post on the second, and have just started reading the third. Now, those lists came complete with title, author and short blurb, so I chose my selection on the basis of what appealed. Sam, over at Tiny Library, has just been reading through books published by Peirene Press in a readathon of their books. Now, I may have this quite wrong, but in the course of following odd posts by Sam and some of the others doing the challenge - or, actually, it may have been on another post altogether...I have a vague memory of there being a query on a book blog by a reader as to how to expand their reading experience. Hmmm... Anyway, from what I recall, you can sign up to Peirene Press, and you get sent a book a month - or something like that. Perhaps someone out there in the blogosphere can clarify that for me? My point being, of course, that a random book is going to land in the letter box every month that you haven't chosen for yourself - which forces you to read something you might not have otherwise.

With reading, as with anything else, it can be easy to get into a comfort rut - especially if there is no imperative to push past it. Study makes us read - no matter what the subject matter, there are texts and background materials to read. Signing up to the many challenges via the plethora of blogs is another - I've not done that... But I do think this plain-wrapped book idea at the library is a brilliant way of just diving in there.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

It's two centuries this year since Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was published. You would need to have spent your life in a cave not to know about Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, the ill-natured, land-owning uber-spunk; Miss Elizabeth Bennet, sharp as a tack with a will of her own; her skewed array of sisters; her disengaged, ironic father; and her insufferable mother, the archetypal 19th-century airhead. They're part of the tissue of every literate person's mind.
This is the opening paragraph of an article written by Australian writer, Helen Garner, in the Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald. While I do, on the whole, include an element of reviews in most of my posts about an actual book, I'm not going to do that with this one - particularly not having read Garner's pithy analysis, which I would encourage you to read by licking HERE. It's such a superbly refreshing take on this timeless novel that I think it can't be bested! Suffice to say, this is one of the books that stays permanently on my bookcases awaiting - usually - its annual re-read.
One thing Garner doesn't really play with is just why this book, of all the Austens, holds such a preeminent place on the shelves, and in the affections of - to paraphrase - every literate person's mind... It's not just that we all love a good romance - because the book is so much more than that. It's not even that we - well, a certain percentage of readers - like historical novels. It could be possible to argue, in fact, that a two hundred year old tale about a provincial family in a state of genteel poverty, all, ostensibly, consumed by thoughts of marriage is hardly relevant to those of us in a modern, urban society.

During my most recent re-reading of Pride and Prejudice, I had DB asking constantly, "What's funny?" as I chuckled my way through various passages of biting dialogue. He queried, seriously, how I found it amusing - wasn't this one of those serious, classic pieces of literature...? And, it is - but it's Austen's sharply observed characters, and exposing the underbelly of society at the time that are some of the factors that influences its continued popularity. We can probably all identify people we know who share attributes with the main characters. Although it's never, to my knowledge, been adapted for TV or a movie in anything other than a period context, I think it would be perfectly possible to give it a modern setting because the characters, the emotional wrangling, the bickering and posturing, are all just ordinary everyday things that we still see today if we watch our own social circles.

The most recent movie adaptation - with Keira Knightly - I found, possibly, the most satisfying in many ways. It was still set in its original context. However, the approach to the realisation of the novel was modern in the extreme. Following current trends, there was no sanitising of the settings - unlike other adaptations. The constant war being waged in the house to maintain some semblance of gentility, when there isn't the money for sufficient staff, and the house itself is too small for the number of inmates is evident in the barely disguised squalor of certain scenes. Those endless walks taken by the girls - almost the only socially sanctioned exercise for young women in their position - result in dragging, muddied skirts almost up to their knees - how did they get them clean again, is what I want to know?! It is also the only time I began to feel a sneaking sense of sympathy for Mrs Bennett. Yes, she is, as Garner says in her article, appalling. But, consider the broader context: she has five daughters, a disinterested and disengaged husband, insufficient money with which to dower her girls, therefore, no way of guaranteeing any sort of future for them... It's no wonder she's off the rails. Likewise, Mr Bennett, whom I've always suspected was a very clever man, blinded for that crucial moment by youthful prettiness, which he has regretted and punished his hapless wife for ever since... Donald Sutherland's portrayal of his character showed layers of him that I'd never seen before, and for the first time made it clear why he and Elizabeth are so very close.

Austen herself - and this from one of my very great treasures, Life and Letters of Jane Austen - writes of the book shortly after its publication,
The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte, or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.
 And, in a later letter to a dear friend,
I am exceedingly pleased that you can say what you do, after having gone through the whole work, and Fanny's praise is very gratifying. My hopes were tolerably strong of her, but nothing like a certainty. Her liking Darcy and Elizabeth is enough. She might hate all the others if she would.
I wonder what she'd have made of her book's longevity. I wonder how she'd have taken the 'cult' of Mr Darcy! That she had an abundant sense of humour is clear in her writing - both in her fiction and throughout her letters. I'd like to think that if she was alive today, she'd still be writing this same kind of witty, honest, observant prose that we enjoy despite its age, for it's incredible timelessness.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. When I worked as an educator at The Sydney Jewish Museum, we had the daily task of teaching young people about The Holocaust, working with volunteers, many of whom were Holocaust Survivors. The enormity of that task can't be underestimated. The statistics alone, still after so many years, are numbing. Eleven million dead, six million of them Jews - of that six million, none had done anything to warrant their deaths in such a fashion. Their only 'crime' was that they were Jews.

The students we taught came from all over Sydney and beyond, private schools, public schools, Jewish schools, non-Jewish schools. Some were there because they were specifically studying Holocaust history, others because that period in history had application in other areas of their curriculum. Some of the kids had some prior knowledge of the Holocaust, but for many it was their first time coming face to face with information and images outside of  a text book. For nearly all of them, it was their first encounter with anyone who had lived through it. There was one familiar figure though, and at some point we would be asked about her, if we knew of her, and if there was anything of hers in the Museum.

Anne Frank has become one of the symbols of The Holocaust - a young girl who died just before her sixteenth birthday who might, had it not been for the survival and publication of her diary, have died the same anonymous death as so many others. Her diary is one of the books that has been in my bookcase as long as I can remember. I remember with spooky clarity the details of the small bedroom I had in the house my parents bought in Sydney's inner west when I was three and a half. I remember the white painted bookcase - later refurbished when Twenty-Seven needed a bookcase in his room. Anne's diary was in there. I read it for the first time when I was about eight, I think. I've re-read it regularly since. At different times in my life, it's meant different things for me. Like many young girls, Anne's romance with Peter took centre stage. Later, of course, the tragedy of the loss of this young life, among so many others, overlaid all other considerations.

I've never seen any of the film or stage adaptations of the diary, and I don't want to. There was a traveling exhibition that came to Adelaide years ago, and I went to that - there were photographs I hadn't seen, and artifacts I'd only ever read about. I watched a number of different documentaries when they were televised. I was very upset when I found that, despite having time, Twenty-Seven didn't go to Anne Frank House when he holidayed in Amsterdam. I don't think any of this activity was particularly unusual - it is a manifestation of the phenomenon of Anne Frank...

I had the great good fortune, while in that job, to be trained as an Educator at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. One of our teachers exhorted us to not even attempt to 'teach six million.' It can't be done. It's simply too great a number to be grasped. She taught us to teach stories of individuals. Consequently, over the nineteen days of the course, we experienced a great number of personal Survivor testimonies, told in a variety of different ways - all the better to show us how first person testimony could be utilised in an educational setting. It was a very tough nineteen days. My nightmares started partway through the first week, and I continue to have flashbacks. I don't know about other people specifically, but I do know that for all of us in the course, it was life-changing.

For me, insulated personally from The Holocaust by six generations of Australian Jewish ancestry, it was chilling to view Nazi propaganda as to the criteria of what made someone a Jew and realise that regardless of the intermarrying within my family, I and my children qualified and, had we been in Europe at that time, would have been candidates for deportation.

And then, one day, a voice from the past - or so it felt. We had spent the day at Yad Vashem, ending up walking through The Valley of the Communities - a monument to all the communities destroyed in The Holocaust - a schematic 'map' carved out of solid rock, naming each and every community regardless of size. It was numbing, it was the end of the day, we were all tired - physically and emotionally. Then a door in a wall opened and we were ushered into a small lecture theatre deep in the mountain where there were two elderly women waiting for us. I am ashamed to say that I don't remember one of them, as the other took all my attention when she opened her testimony with, "My name is Hannah Pisk, and Anne Frank was my best friend."

Hannah told her story, interwoven with Anne's, who she met on the first day she started at the Montessori kindergarten where Anne was also having her first day. Firm friends from that day, they shared a childhood, and then, as Hannah told it, one day, Anne wasn't there any more. Anne had, of course, gone into hiding with her family and the Van Daans. For Hannah, Anne simply vanished without trace. Her narrative went on to describe what happened to her family - along those fortunate enough to be in possession of South American visas, and therefore, given 'special treatment' when they were sent to Westerbork Camp (where large numbers of Dutch Jews spent transit time) and from there to Bergen Belsen. As one of the 'privileged' and early inmates of Belsen, Hannah and her family were housed in relatively solid huts, and were able to carve out some semblance of normal life despite the lack of food and medical care.

There were rumours of incoming prisoners towards what was the end of the war, and on the other side of a screened fence, they soon heard new voices. Then, one day Hannah, walking along the fence, heard two very familiar voices - Anne and Margot Frank, transported to Bergen Belsen from Auschwitz, where they had been sent after the family was betrayed in Holland. For a time, Hannah and her mother threw whatever they could in the way of food and clothes over the fence to the girls. One day, Margot wasn't there - she was ill with typhus. And then, Anne wasn't there, and never came again, succumbing also to the disease.

It was a postscript to Anne's story that I couldn't possibly have anticipated. It is one I told the students who came to the Museum when I was back doing my job as an educator. To this day, I can't tell it without getting goosebumps.

In her, perhaps, most famously quoted passage, Anne wrote:
I want to go on living after my death. And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift...of expressing all that is in me.
The publication of Anne's diary achieved that. So too did Hannah's telling of the part of Anne's story that was also part of her own. Judaism teaches that as long as we remember our dead, they have not completely left us.
Zichrono livracha - may her memory be for a blessing, and the memories of all those who perished in that time.

Friday, 25 January 2013

A book for Australia Day

The literary columns of various newspapers and online news sites had lots of pieces last week on Australian books in the lead up to Australia Day - today, 26 January for my international readers. A lot of them were looking to try and name the quintessential Australian book - in much the same way as the food columnists were trying to come up with the quintessential Australian dish or what defined Australian cuisine.

It reminds me of a music history paper I was set in first year at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide many moons ago. The topic for the term had been the Romantic Period, and the question for a short, 1500 word essay was: Using a single work, or the work of a single composer, define Romanticism. Define Romanticism using a SINGLE work, or the work of a SINGLE 1500 words. To my mind, it was quite, absolutely impossible. I mulled it over for a little while, watched my classmates rifling furiously through various texts, and then producing feverishly cramped apologetics - at least that's how it felt to me, because my gut feeling was that it couldn't be done. And it wasn't actually the small word count in the end; it was the limitations imposed by the use of a single work or the work of a single composer, which flew in the face of everything we'd been learning about the melting pot that was Romanticism, where everyone's work informed everyone else's - and not just within music either. Literature informed visual arts, which informed music, and drama, and back again... In the end, using related examples from all the liberal arts, I wrote a paper saying the question couldn't be answered in the form it was asked, and why. My friends were all horrified, and absolutely certain that I'd fail. As it happened, I didn't. I didn't top the class or anything, but I did get a good grade, and more importantly, a fantastic bit of feedback from my lecturer, who was one of the more imposing figures at the Con, saying how refreshing it was to read something that had so much originality.

So, back to the topic...the quintessential Australian book... In amongst the examples that I recall from all the commentary this week was Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock, Tim Winton's Cloud Street, and a few others that are escaping my memory at the moment, but it was an eclectic lineup, as you'd expect. It prompted me to have a look at my bookshelves and see if I could pull a book off them that encapsulated Australian writing - as much as one book can possibly do that. I own The Magic Pudding and Picnic at Hanging Rock - love the latter... I've not yet got around to reading any Winton for one reason or another. A goodly lot of my children's literature collection is by Australian writers - Ethel Turner, H.E. Brinsmead, Margaret Mitchell, Ruth Park and the like. They're classics, and epitomise much of Australian culture - the city and and the bush. However, what I picked up in the end was a poetry anthology I've had since I was very small that I'm almost certain my mother gave me, although, most unusually, there's no inscription.
It was first published in 1967. My edition is a 1971 reprint. Although it's branded as a children's anthology, I've dipped in and out of it all my life because it's such a comprehensive collection of Australian poets. There are such classics as Banjo Paterson's The Man From Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow, Henry Lawson's The Ballad of the Drover and Andy's Gone with Cattle, John O'Brien's cyclic ballad Said Hanrahan - '"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan', Dorothea MacKellar's My Country, and Edward Harrington's The Bushrangers. It was also my introduction to Judith Wright, whom I later studied at school for my final year in English, and Kenneth Slessor, a great favourite of my mother's. There are also less well-known treasures like Ray Mathew's One Winter Morning that celebrates that wonderfully, unique magpie song that has to be one of my all time favourite bird calls.

This works for me partly because it's an anthology - there isn't just one voice. Also, poetry is such an evocative form of writing. The shapes of the poems on the pages, and the pictures the words paint speak to me quite differently than prose. I don't sit and read poetry nearly often enough, and leafing through this anthology has recalled a number of treasured memories, including the times that I sat with my own children and we read from this book as my mother sat and read with me.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The book of the future

Another little spot of appropriation from The History Teacher's Facebook uploads...what can I say? I spent six years at art school - we were trained to make the most of all available resources!! And this is classic - feeds right into everything I've ever said about the whole digital reading phenomena. Enjoy!

I, Iago - Nicole Gallard

I, Iago by Nicole Galland isn't one of my books; it's a book I gave Seventeen. He and The Student studied Shakespeare's Othello last year for English at school, and Seventeen was really taken by the character of Iago. He wrote a spooky assignment that was a series of diary entries in Iago's voice...which he had down pat! So, when I saw this book in my bookshop travels, I decided it had his name on it.
Geraldine Brooks - author of March, The People of the Book and Caleb's Crossing - wrote of this book that it is, "an astonishing work of imaginative empathy, buttressed by deep research and enriched by lively storytelling." Galland has taken Shakespeare's character of Iago and created, with meticulous research into the period, Venice life at the time, and the big picture of Italian politics; a back story to this all important figure in the original play.

We get to have, through her storytelling, an understanding of the young Iago, his position in the family, and how he comes to be - as one of Venice's wealthy merchant class - a soldier in the army. She paints a vivid picture of the genesis of his fierce determination to rise to the top, the motivation - fueled by years of feeling sidelined by his older siblings - to be seen by those with influence as an asset in his own right. We come to a deeper understanding of how that ruthless need to succeed blinds him to the moral compromises he makes in order to gain control over Othello's decision-making, which leads ultimately, to the bloody end game.

It's a tough call, taking a character from an existing and well-known work and running with it to create a new story. To date, those I've read - a number of continuations of Pride and Prejudice by various writers being prime examples that come to mind - haven't convinced me that it's such a good idea. I think I have too much invested in the originals, and while I may wish there were more to come, at the end of the day, I'd rather have them stop leaving me wanting more, than to have the dissatisfaction of reading an attempt to do something that doesn't really work. What marks this book is Galland's research. I've read quite a few novels, and awful lot of historical texts (European art history studies at school, art school and post-grad) about this period, so I have a reasonably good working knowledge of Italy during the Renaissance. There is a solid sense of authenticity in the settings, the manners, the clothes, and the more mundane day to day elements of Venice and surrounds in the period of the story.

Even for those not familiar with Shakepeare's play, this is an enjoyable read. There is romance, drama, intrigue, and surprising moments of farce and comedy. If you do know the play, then it acts as a backdrop to this narrative. For students of the play, I think this can be a useful complimentary text, if only for the colour and detail it can offer in contemporary language, next to Shakespearian English. And for those of you for whom Iago has been a character to revile, you may find it in yourself to have some sneaking sense of sympathy with him, if, at the same time wishing that he had it in him to just accept himself for who he is and abandon all the baggage that eats away at him, prompting his machinations that have such tragic consequences for everyone.

Monday, 21 January 2013

More bookcase porn

There's a monster thunderstorm brewing here. I've been watching the sky darken and the clouds get lower, and there's a growing brassy quality to the light that suggests it's really going to be something when it unleashes itself. I'm not bothered by thunderstorms. I love the drama of them. But there is an undeniable tension that mounts as it builds to breaking point that is getting to me a bit. So, to some internet surfing, looking for ideas for my perfect home library set up...

Google 'home library' sometime - you'd be amazed at the variety of images that you can find. I didn't do too much editing as I browsed. I set myself a limit of five images and then went with the ones that really grabbed me. They're fairly eclectic - which is reasonably predictable, but, on looking at them all together, I'm realising that without having really thought about it, there are some particular things that I would like to have in my ideal home library.

This last one got me for its whimsicality. I had a mezzanine level in a house Twenty-Seven and I lived in in the Adelaide CBD just before moving back to Sydney. Because of the layout of the place, I had to split the books up and half of them were upstairs, wrapping around a corner of the mezzanine which also sported a divan bed and my desk - making it not unlike this space. I like the idea of an upstairs library - that sense of being up in an eyrie... In the Adelaide house, that was heightened to an extent because there was a huge tree that filled the small rear courtyard, so the view out of the casement window over my desk was straight into the middle of the tree, which was very cool!

So, to take elements from these five images and combine for my perfect library... I want the upstairs thing from No. 5, with its high ceilings and odd shapes. I also want the warmth of the natural timber and the rugs on the floor. I want the utter indulgence of that enormous window seat in No. 4 - it's HUGE! Might be very hard to find the motivation to get out of that spot... I like the mad, spidery lamps in No. 1, and the pile of cushions on that big daybed - borrow those to pile up in the window seat. I get the mirror in No. 2. Part of me likes the idea of making space for other elements in the shelves - there was another image I liked that had a painting hung over some of the shelves with books behind - but, ultimately, I struggle with taking shelf space that could be used for books! All but No. 1 have wonderful natural light too - must have natural light and windows that open. Last but not least - absolute MUST, regardless of any other features - I have lusted after an Eames chair and ottoman since absolutely forever. I don't want a reproduction one. I want an original - preferably a rosewood one with black leather. We actually found one fairly recently, for the best price I've ever seen. Still too much for now...but, one day, who knows...?

Floundering - Romy Ash

I signed up for The Hoopla the other day. It's a news website set up by Wendy Harmer that approaches news and current affairs from women's perspective. In amongst the things I found while I was cruising around the site, getting to know where things were, was a list of top books from last year and a suggested list for what was coming out this year, both compiled by reviewer and blogger, Meredith Jaffe. I'd include a link to her blog, but I can't get to it via Hoopla for some reason. Anyway, from Jaffe's lists, I compile my own - smaller - list and took me down the hill to Oscar and Friends in Double Bay. I came back with three of the books on my smaller list, plus the first book in a series for Twenty-One (I mistakenly gave him the second one as a gift...oops!) and another treasure that I will blog about soon...

I have gobbled up the smallest book from my new stash - I grabbed it for the commute this morning, precisely because it was the physically smallest book in the pile and my bag was a bit full, but also because the blurb had me really intrigued.
Floundering is a debut novel by Romy Ash, a Melbourne writer. In an except from her review on the back cover, Cate Kennedy writes,
These boys are so real you will lie awake worrying about them, hoping that somehow they will find their way through.
Thankfully, I started reading this book this morning, and I've just finished it, otherwise it would have been one of those books that kept me up reading until it was finished, because Kennedy is quite right - it was impossible not to worry about what was going to happen next.

Tom and Jordy have been living with their grandparents after having been unceremoniously dumped on the doorstep by their mother, who has decided she can't manage them on her own. Life has been safe, predictable, comfortable and secure, but that changes suddenly when Loretta appears one afternoon, trailing them in a beat up car as they walk home from school. When she stops, Tom gets in but Jordy is reluctant. When she insists, he looks vainly up and down the street, but there is no one around and he joins Tom and Loretta in the car. Without preamble, she heads the car out of town, driving west into the hot afternoon sun. Jordy is hostile, peppering Loretta with questions, which she evades, insisting that she never left them, she was always coming to get them, that everything will be fine now...

The story is narrated by Tom - even the conversations they have are held within the narrative, without using inverted commas, so that the sense of being swept along with events as helplessly as the boys is enhanced.

Loretta waits until they've crossed the border into the next state to phone their grandmother. The small agonies of traveling in an old car in the heat of an Australian summer without any proper supplies add up, and Tom's sweaty, sticky, increasingly dirty skin and clothes become a tangible discomfort, and I found myself willing Loretta to just stop the car someplace where there was a tap and just wash him down, but that never happened. He gives up trying to clean himself and find a comfortable spot, resting his head against the window of the back seat and letting the vibrations of the moving vehicle lull him into a kind of a trance.

Breaks, when they happen, are rushed and frightening - a brief pull into a petrol station for fuel and toilet stops, and a rushed exit while Loretta pulls junk food from her pockets that she's lifted without paying. The same in another town, only it's a supermarket this time. They sleep in rest stops along the highway, the car pulled in behind trees. The boys squabble, old tensions surfacing as Jordy attempts to find some sense of control in the situation and Tom tries gain strength from him. Loretta is offhand with them both, casually abitrating when the squabbles irritate her beyond her scanty patience. Eventually, they turn off the highway and rattle down a rough, corrugated dirt road towards the coast, winding up at a primitive beachside campsite of tents and rickety caravans where Loretta parks outside a derelict van and announces they've arrived. There's no power, no water, and just a long-drop toilet at the rear of the van. Rummaging in the dusty cupboards, she finds a few ancient cans without labels, a can opener and some furry plastic plates and cutlery to make a primitive meal.

They're spooked by the old man who lives in the van next door. He is antagonistic, and announces that he doesn't like kids and they're to stay away. At the same time, he points out that they have to bring water in... The next day, Loretta leaves the boys and heads back to the highway to get water and provisions. When she doesn't return, they brave Nev, the man next door, and insist he take them to look for her, which begins a tense and unpredictable relationship between the three of them.

Things get more and more unexpected and difficult. Loretta is erratic, uncommunicative, and lackadaisical in her care of the children. There is a rising edge of panic in Tom's narrative that increases steadily, like one of those imperceptible hills that look flat until you have to walk up them and they just keep going up and up while the burn in your calves increases.  Jordy, struggling to manage in his position as the older of the two, is alternatively offhandedly nurturing of Tom and then roughly dismissive of his fears and needs and his own tension is played out in his inability to defecate. Although the setting itself is inherently beautiful, it is also hostile and dangerous, and can ultimately offer the boys no sanctuary. Reading through to the end becomes nail-bitingly tense and it isn't until the last few pages that resolution is reached.

This is a wonderfully fresh and masterly first novel. It's a fairly quick read - partly because I found I just had to keep turning the pages to see what would happen next, so I completely lost track of time when I got home this afternoon to continue reading. It brought back many memories of being hot in the back of an un-airconditioned car in the middle of summer with the crusty stickiness of salty seawater drying on your body; the greasy saltiness of hot chips wrapped in newspaper, eaten with sandy, salty fingers; the short-term satisfaction of cold soft-drink, followed inevitably by a thirstiness that can only be assuaged by lots of cold water; and the unremitting brassy glare of the Australian sun.

Given the current heatwaves - even here in Sydney - those memories suddenly feel very much closer than they have for years.  This book is in bookshops now, and I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit unexpected. It's not exactly a 'nice' read, but it's hauntingly authentic.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Storyteller's Daughter - Maria Goodin

This is one of those books that just called me.. The cover design is lovely, and its cover is that lovely silky paper that feels like a dust jacket - even though this is a paperback edition! These are the things that you NEVER experience with the whole e-book thing...
What do any of us really know about our early childhoods, or our parents' stories? Only what they or other people tell us... That is the essence of this exquisite book. Meg May grows up believing that her father was a French pastry chef who died in an accident that was somehow connected to his work; that as a tiny, failing to thrive, premature baby, she was put on a windowsill to ripen; and that the scar on her cheek was a bite from one of her mother's crab cakes. These, and other fanciful stories, form the basis of the family history that Meg learns from her fairytale-telling, cookery-obsessed mother. 

When she is eight, her class teacher sets an assignment entitled 'My Earliest Memory'. When her turn comes, Meg stands up to read her paragraph:
In my earliest memory I am very little and I am sitting on the kitchen floor at home and my mum is about to start chopping runner beans when they all leap up and run away. My mum says she knew she shouldn't have bought runner beans and then she starts chasing them and they are running in circles round me and I am laughing. It was very funny.
The teacher is not amused, and the children she thought were her friends are laughing and sniggering behind their hands, and she can hear muttered whispers of, 'Liar...'

The trouble is, the story is one Meg 'remembered' through the many tellings by her mother, who has filled her childhood with similar fanciful tales, shying away from any direct questions for what really happened. This instance is the final straw for Meg who, since beginning school has become increasingly isolated as the world of make believe that has receded quite naturally for all the other children remains the core of her existence, making it impossible to have friends home, and unable to answer basic questions about her family.

She rebels, refusing to play her mother's game any longer, eliminating anything fanciful from her life, and becoming obsessed with truth and logic. At twenty-one, she is on the brink of a potentially successful career as a scientist and is in a relationship with a man who is already well-established in his own scientific field. Then she gets word that her mother is ill, very ill, and she goes home. What is intended initially as a short visit to 'sort things out' and get the low down from the doctor becomes their final summer together. Meg, realises that this is her last chance and, egged on by her boyfriend Mark, starts a process of finding out the truth from her mother - about her father, her early childhood, all the things that were covered up by her mother's storytelling. Time and again though, she meets roadblocks - not the least being her mother's apparent inability to actually remember the real events and subsequent collapses if pushed - which Mark interprets as willful, but which Meg comes to realise are genuine, serious distress. Ewan, the gardener her mother has employed, further confounds Meg with his mixture of what appears to be a similar brand of fancifulness as her mother's, coupled with surprising bits of facts and figures which pop up in their conversations.

When Meg finally stumbles over a potential lead, she prevaricates - perhaps, after all, it isn't so important to know the 'truth'. Perhaps the important thing is that she spend the time living the truth of the actual relationship she has with her mother. However, she has set a train of events in motion that, unbeknown to her, she can't stop, and her mother's past comes back to enlighten her of the real story. She is left with two stories - the real story and what her mother created to protect both herself and Meg from what actually happened. She comes to understand that truth isn't always freeing, and that there can be validity in seeking to escape.

This is a coming of age story with a difference. Although Meg is of adult age, there is much about her that is quite childlike, and the rebellion and angst of adolescence are still very much part of her make up - in part because of the fairy tales, but also because she holds onto her sense of having been hard done by for so long. The summer with her dying mother, who holds true to form, is the first time since she was eight that she has just spent time with her... The conflicts are still there, but in their daily conversations and activities, Meg comes to realise that one thing underpins everything - her mother loves her no matter what, and always has. Realising that for all Meg has tried to push her away, has left her out of situations for fear of embarrassment, has absented herself, her mother has always been there, unchanging, loving, caring, cooking (!) and asking nothing of her other than she be herself.

I'm drawn to mother/daughter stories at the moment, and stories about how mothers and their children build and maintain their relationships throughout the rough and tumble of getting through life at different stages. I don't think I was quite expecting the depth that this one offered. It's gently written, but there are some powerful messages contained within the story. I really couldn't put it down...

Friday, 18 January 2013

Flowers for Mrs Harris - Paul Gallico

To continue with my holiday stash, I had a lovely re-read of Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico. Somewhere - and I'm hoping beyond hope that it is in one of the storage boxes - I have a lovely old hardcover edition of this book with dust-jacket. I've dropped an image of that, and the next in the series, at the end of this post. This new paperback edition has been renamed Mrs Harris Goes to Paris - presumably to fit with the next book, Mrs Harris Goes to New York, which is included in this edition.
It's a very long time since I read this book, but I was struck by just how timeless it, and most of Gallico's writing, is. It was originally published in 1958, but it reads so freshly now that its vintage isn't very obvious. Mrs Ada Harris is a London char, as is her good friend Violet Butterfield. They are unalike in temperament and build, but are the best of friends, meeting up for tea most days after they've spent hours cleaning people's houses. They have a routine of regular recreational diversions - the odd movie, the local now and then for a drink, occasional visits to the greyhound racing - but, given their straitened means, their lives are very simple. Mrs Harris indulges her love of colour and beauty by cramming her small house with potted geraniums, Mrs Butterfield's is full of knick-knacks.

And then, one day, Mrs Harris sees, in the house of one of her clients, a Dior evening gown. Well, she sees two - the client has them out trying to choose which she'll wear to a function that night. Mrs Harris is entranced - she's never seen such beautiful dresses - and from that moment on, despite being told how much they cost, she's determined that she too will own a Dior dress. So begins a period of scrimping and saving to acquire the four hundred and fifty pounds it will cost, plus a fare to Paris. When she wins a hundred pounds in the football pools, she takes it as a sign that it's meant, and re-jigs her whole budget to save what she can from her meagre income. Mrs Butterfield thinks she's quite mad, but curtails her own socialising so as not to leave Mrs Harris, who forgoes outside pleasures in order to save, so that she can keep her friend company. She loses fifty pounds betting on a dog, acting on a hunch. Mrs Butterfield tries to make her give up the project, but Mrs Harris just sees this as another sign that she has to achieve her heart's desire by her own hard work - one win was her ration.

Eventually, the grand day arrives. She spends some of her hoard acquiring a passport. Aided by an American client, she sidesteps the laws restricting the movement of British money between England and France by converting her pounds to dollars - little realising that she's still breaking the law! She flies to Paris, is taken by taxi to Dior, and then comes to her first roadblock - access to the showing that afternoon. She hits the manageress, Mme Colbert, on a bad day. While she is initially confused as to exactly where Mrs Harris fits in the social strata, she eventually works it out and when faced with Mrs Harris' obdurate refusal to be turned out - she has the money for a dress after all - she cracks when Mrs Harris finds a chink through to her underlying unhappiness...and they bond, woman to woman. Consequently, Mrs Harris finds herself in the front row, in prime seating, to view the collection - which has far reaching consequences.

This is just a delightful read. Mrs Harris 'does' for a wide range of people, rich and not so rich. She has learned, over the years, that people are just people, regardless of their situation. She understands all too well that having money and position aren't necessarily all it takes to make a person happy. In her forthright and disingenuous way, she finds her way into the lives of the people she encounters. Unexpectedly - for her at least - she has to remain in Paris for the week it takes to make the dress. She is offered accommodation by one of Dior's accountants, and befriends the young woman who modeled the dress she chooses. She meets the grand gentleman who had been seated next to her for the showing a few days later at the flower market - for him, she is a memory of his university days in England, and the char who 'did' his rooms. Over the course of the week, Mrs Harris experiences Paris in a way she'd not expected, and when she heads back to London, leaves good friends behind. 

There is an unexpected twist to the the end of the story, and I would encourage anyone looking for a lovely weekend read to go out and get a copy to find out what it is. The bonus of this edition is that it comes with the next story, when Mrs Harris and Mrs Butterfield go to New York as housekeeper and cook for the American couple who helped Mrs Harris with her money. My original hardcover is a stand alone, as is my copy of Mrs Harris Goes to New York, which is in the bookcase - hopefully I will find its companion when I am able to get the rest of the books out of storage again.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie - May Gibbs

This is one of the books of my childhood. It's May Gibbs' birthday today. Google has the best graphic on its homepage today, made up of gumnut babies, animal characters and lots of native flora in her honour. I think she would have liked it.

My original copy was given to me by my maternal grandfather. It was a large format hardcover, with sepia toned illustrations throughout, just like the ones I've included here, and half a dozen glossy, coloured plates. It had an inscription in it, in his beautiful, old-fashioned script. It was never in my bookcase for long because I read it and read it and read it - over and over, constantly. Snugglepot, Cuddlepie, Little Ragged Blossom and Mr Lizard were my good friends. Conversely, Mrs Snake sent shivers down my spine, and to this day, walking past a banksia tree is slightly creepy - those Big, Bad Banksia Men could come after me, and that wouldn't be a good thing!
The book tells the story of two gumnut babies who creep away from the family home (the first illustration here) in the dead of night to seek their fortunes. They are befriended by Mr Lizard, a goanna, and rescue Ragged Blossom, a poor little girl gumnut baby, who is all alone with no one to care for her. They have great adventures, always pursued by Mr Lizard's mortal enemy, Mrs Snake, and her cohort of Big, Bad Banksia Men. My edition included further adventures, when they end up diving into the ocean to escape Mrs Snake and wind up having lots more adventures with the fish and sea creatures - having eventually to escape from the clutches of John Dory....
It's one of the great Australian children's classics, and if you've never read it, please, please, please go out and find a copy for your children, your grandchildren, nieces, nephews and yourself! Think Beatrix Potter - in the colonies...and all the more raw and dangerous for that. There are oodles of lovely presentation editions available in mainstream bookstores, and if you hunt around you may well manage to find a lovely old copy. My very original copy from my grandfather went missing - presumably in a house move. I was devastated. It was the only thing I still had with his handwriting on it. After much hunting, I was able to replace it with an identical edition, minus his inscription, of course... It's not in storage. It's in my bookcase. I still pull it out regularly.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth

I missed the BBC adaptation of this book when it screened recently on the ABC here. Frustratingly, I kept seeing trailers for it and then for one reason or another, just didn't manage to connect... However, while I still have intentions of getting hold of the DVDs and watching it, it appears that this book and I were destined to come together. It's one of my holiday haul, was on a sale table (always good) and I had to buy it for homework...seriously! Apparently, the subject of my next profile interview at work for the magazine had some involvement with the East End midwives - I don't now precisely what role she played, but I will find out - and let you know once the article is published!!!
Part historical document and part memoir, this is a great read. Jennifer Worth worked as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s, having trained initially as a nurse. Her narrative is a rich fund of facts about the area at the time - the poverty, the overcrowding in the wake of bombing in the docks area during the war, the atrocious conditions in tenements that had been condemned but were still full of residents because there was no alternative housing available, malnutrition, pockets of domestic and other violence, and for most, a lack of opportunity to break the cycle. However, despite these and other challenges, she also chronicles close extended family networks, strong moral codes, a solid work ethic and utter respect for those, like the midwives, who lived and worked among the people. 

Structurally, the book works in layers - Worth's own story is the thread running throughout, peppered with anecdotes about the nuns with whom she lived and worked, the other midwives, snippets of her social life, and her patients and their families. Both elements inform each other. At the beginning, Worth is quite candid about never having planned to become a midwife - or even a nurse, for that matter. She is highly skeptical of anyone living the religious life and approaches becoming a resident in a convent in order to do her training with no small degree of apprehension. She also struggles to find common ground with her patients - who are inherently suspicious of those from outside the community who come to 'do good.' She has to learn to see the nuns as real women, build working relationships and friendships with them and her her colleagues, find time and energy to have some 'normal' time for herself between being on call, ongoing study and being geographically inconveniently placed to easily maintain contact with her friends. She also has to break through her inhibitions about the community in which she's working, gain understanding of the nature of the people, and find ways to connect with them on a personal level so that she can work with them throughout pregnancy, birth and post-natal care periods - all the time giving them the best care and education she can without taking anything away from them in the way of their pride, dignity and self-respect. 

Some of the stories of her patients are heart-breaking - Irish Mary, who runs away to London after being raped by her stepfather, is penniless and caught up in prostitution, meets Worth by approaching her asking for change of the five pound note she stole when she ran from the brothel once they discovered she was pregnant - having watched one of the other girls die after an illegal abortion. Worth takes the girl back to the convent and care is arranged for her in a country convent where there are other single pregnant girls. She is safely delivered of a baby girl, and Worth visits her there shortly afterwards, finding her aglow with new motherhood. However, given her age (15), past and her lack of any family to support her, a decision is made that the baby will be adopted out. She's not consulted as she's underage, the baby is simply taken from her. She's found a job as a ward maid in a hospital in Birmingham, and that's the last Worth hears of her - until years later, when a baby-snatching case makes national headlines, and a photograph of the culprit, apprehended attempting to board a ship to Ireland is apprehended...Mary, aged twenty-one, is incarcerated. 

Others - like that of Conchita, a Spanish girl rescued by an idealistic East Ender who'd gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War - are beautiful, and heartwarming. He brings her back to London with him, age unknown, and when Worth first meets her to do home-based ante-natal care, she thinks someone's made an error with the paperwork as the case is listed as Conchita's twenty-fourth child... Large families aren't uncommon in the East End, but this is pushing the limits! However, as she discovers, this is in fact the twenty-fourth child due to Conchita and Len Warren. It is, unlike many of the homes she visits, a totally harmonious household. Cluttered, overcrowded and chaotic, but underpinned by great love between all in the family. Everyone, Len included - which is most unusual for a man at that time in that community - takes part in all the necessary domestic work. He is even involved in the ante-natal care and is there during the delivery of the baby - unprecedented at that time, but entirely necessary as Conchita has never learned English. The pregnancy is uneventful, and the baby is a healthy girl - and for everyone, the occasion is a joyous as if it's a first baby. The next birth, however, is one of the  miracles in the book. After a fall, concussion and a bad infection following a chill caught while unconscious outside on a freezing night while Len was at work, Conchita is delivered of a premature boy. She is not lucid, due to her medical issues, but despite emergency crews being summoned in the dead of a thick London fog to retrieve the infant for medical care, Conchita, from some deeply primitive source, refuses to release the baby, which she has tucked between her breasts. The baby survives, Conchita having her dressmaker daughter fashion her a sling to keep the baby tucked between her breasts, and feeding him with expressed milk off the tip of a fine glass rod - used by another daughter for icing cakes. Worth contrasts the care of this tiny infant with the typical - even today - de-personalised, removed care that these tiny early babies have, in humid cribs, on hard surfaces, under bright lights, rarely touched, other than for procedures... It was incredibly moving.

There are many more stories, and with two more books to go - more shopping... - many more to come. I do recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in women's health, social history, postwar British history...or just a really good, real story...

P.S. I promised this and then forgot about it. If you click on this link, and then go to page 6 of the PDF file it opens, you will find my article about the parishioner at St James' who was one of these midwives. She is a MOST delightful woman and it rates right up there at the top of my interview list since I started this job. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Lost books

We've all done it, left a book behind when packing up, lost one or many in a house move, forgot to pick one up when gathering up stuff leaving a cafe. Whatever... However much we value our books, sometimes, they leave us unexpectedly. Courtesy of a friend's husband on Facebook, here's a rather lovely story about one such book that made me realise that no book is ever entirely lost. Read and enjoy:

Westwood - Stella Gibbons

Westwood, written by Stella Gibbons in 1946, has been one of the more delightful reads I've had in a while. Gibbons is possibly best known for Cold Comfort Farm, a book that my mother absolutely adored, which I read and could see why she loved it, but it never did a lot for me. I'd not come across other works by this writer - apart from Cold Comfort Farm sequels, which didn't appeal - until I was beguiled by the lovely cover art of this Vintage paperback edition.
I picked it up at the bookstore down the road from my office and had started reading it during the madness of my last couple of weeks at work - believe me, the pre-Christmas lead-up at a big, busy city church is completely insane! I had no expectations, really, just a hope - from the blurb - that it might give me something peaceful and elegant as an antidote to the chaos. That chaos moved from work to a house full of family for a week, and then the quiet bliss of time away with DB and I've only just got back to the novel to finish it.

It is set in wartime London and tells the story of a young teacher, Margaret Steggles. She is plain, introverted but passionately sensitive, and according to her mother, 'not the type that attracts men.' Her school chum, Hilda, is the opposite - bright, light-hearted and vivacious, and busily engaged with a vigorous social life with the many servicemen she encounters.

On a walk over Hampstead Heath, Margaret finds a dropped ration book - it belongs, she discovers, to a member of the Challis family - Gerard, a famous playwright; Seraphina his socialite wife; Hebe and Alex Niland, his daughter and her painter husband; Hebe's children; Grantey, the family retainer/nurse/housekeeper who gravitates between the Challis and the Niland households as needed; Grantey's brother Cortway, chauffeur/ handyman/gardener; and Zita Mandelbaum, a Jewish refugee who lives in and helps with cooking, housework and sewing. All of Margaret's idealised notions about the lives of great writers and artists are galvanised and she wishes for nothing more than to have access to the great house, Westwood where the Challises live. She is able to introduce herself by restoring the ration book to Hebe, and finds herself, willy-nilly, drawn almost immediately into the family's lives by arriving just as Hebe is poised to leave for a social engagement, but is held up by Grantey being late arriving to babysit. Deciding Margaret looks trustworthy, she thrusts the children at her, reassuring her that Grantey won't be far off, and departs. Far from being affronted - as anyone else might justifiably may have been, Margaret sees it as a heaven-sent opportunity, if a little unexpected.

Little by little, Margaret is drawn into the bohemian, and at times, bewildering lives of her idols. Welcomed for her practical good sense and assistance at times of varying crises - a broken fuse just before a party during Cortway's absence, babysitting when Hebe and Alex's house is bombed, and again when Grantey is ill - she continues to put herself forward, despite her inherent shyness, in the hopes of seeing Gerard, whom of all the family, she cherishes the most idealised view and for whom she forms a profound crush. She is laughed at behind her back - overhearing a number of jibes - by many in the family, who have dubbed her 'Struggles' for her seriousness and obviously star-struck emotional involvement. Partly, she feels she deserves their contempt - her mother's conditioning has reinforced her inherent sense of inferiority and plainness - but growing familiarity, which starts to show her the fallibility of her idols also begins the process of her beginning to understand that they are not the perfect beings she originally thought them to be, and she is not as insignificant a creature as they clearly assume.

Meanwhile, Hilda, in the depths of a late night fog, is assisted home from the tube by the elegant and chivalrous Gerard - introducing himself merely as 'Marcus' - who is much taken by her delicate prettiness which he encounters just at a critical point of writing his new play. She becomes for him his muse, upon whom he begins to remodel his heroine. His view of Hilda is as unrealistic as Margaret's view of Gerard. Hilda, a very normal, healthy young woman who doesn't lack for male attention, finds him a little odd, and sometimes tedious, but quite enjoys the dinners, movies and other dates they share every three weeks or so. He continues to build his fantasy around her while she is blithely unaware - skating, as she does, but lightly along the course of male/female interraction, refusing to take his - to her - exaggerated protestations of her perfection, beauty and inspirational qualities seriously.

As Westwood and its inhabitants gradually eat into Margaret's scanty spare time, and Hilda - who finds Margaret's intensity a little trying - moves away from her a little, both situations continue develop without either girl being aware of the involvement each have with Gerard Challis. Inevitably, things come to a head but not before Margaret has had a number of opportunities to come more out of herself and begin to see that she needn't be condemned to the fairly colourless existence that she once felt was her destiny.

This is a gently paced, and very lovely read. There is a blog I follow, Book Snob, written by a young English woman, who has a taste for vintage British fiction, often by quite obscure authors, many of whom I've never heard of (but am now in the process of hunting down!) and this book made me feel, at times, that I'd stumbled onto the kind of novel that I read about so often on her blog. There is a sense of timelessness in the style of Gibbon's prose, a classic elegance, that slows down the reading process. I am a great gobbler of books - particularly the first time I read them. If I've really loved a new book, I'll go back to the beginning and re-read it through more slowly - mad, I know! Westwood demands that every word be read, every nuance absorbed, every detail be understood, before moving onto the next bit. Having said that, it doesn't drag, the slower pace never felt like a chore - I found myself viewing the thinning number of pages as I got closer to the end with dismay, because I didn't want it to end. And now that it has, I really want to know what Margaret did with her newly discovered view of herself and the things she'd learned through her relationship with this very self-indulgent and quite pampered family.

The statement on the back cover from a Times review, that 'Stella Gibbons is the Jane Austen of the twentieth century', is not unwarranted based on my reading of this book. It is very much the story of people's everyday lives, their concerns - big and small - preoccupation with where they fit in the social structure, and also with its examination of differing moral viewpoints. There is also a similar gentleness made lively by the pithy observations Gibbons makes of her characters. Margaret is saved from being too prim and prissy by having a healthy temper which, when pushed, results in her delivering some delightfully caustic one-liners, and also by the awareness she has of her own intelligence, which often puts her at odds with her disgruntled and disenchanted mother - not unlike Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

It's always nice to be pleasantly surprised by a book. It was, as I said, the cover that first made me pick it up off the shelf, and it also only cost me something around $12, and at just on 500 pages, was going to potentially offer me a solid read - and was SO over re-reading at that point, having been so good for so long about not going into bookshops - and have been reasonably bad since...! However, I am not sorry I succumbed to temptation this time, and I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who has a liking for Austen, because I think the parallels are quite obvious, but also to anyone who enjoys period fiction, particularly the WWII period. 

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Earthly Delights - Kerry Greenwood

The first of my holiday loot... This was a re-read. I was loaned a copy of this book years ago by a friend and gobbled it up in one sitting I think! I've collected the others since, and Faye Kellerman and Kerry Greenwood between them constitute about 99.9% of my crime fiction diet, since it's a genre that doesn't appeal to me overmuch.
The tagline on the front cover of the book is the first indication that it's not going to be your average piece of crime fiction:
Introducing Corinna Chapman, baker and reluctant investigator.
Corinna Chapman is a one-time accountant who left the world of offices and corporate politics (and her equally corporate husband) to become a baker, eventually buying an apartment in an eccentric building modeled on ancient Roman apartments, The Insular, operating her bakery from a ground floor shopfront. The apartments are all named for various Roman deities and house an equally eccentric cast of characters - Meroe, a Wiccan witch who also runs a shop in the building; The Lone Gunmen, a trio of geeks who live in a closed and shuttered world of their computers, bad takeaway food, vodka breezers and their obscure clientele; a retired history professor who bought in so that he could furnish his apartment in authentic Roman style; Dutch Trudy, who maintains the rooftop garden which includes a bower, lawn, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables; Mistress Dread, a dominatrix of dubious gender, who runs a fetish shop in the remaining shopfront; Kylie and Goss, the interchangeable (apart from distinctly different navel rings), anorexic, wannabe actresses who pay their bills by working shop for Corinna; the Greek family who run the cafe on the ground floor; mysterious and inscrutable Jon, who is absent most of the time on exotic trips to the East...; the newly arrived and unknown Mr Halliday; and the Pemberthys, an old couple - he, and ex preacher, seemingly cowed by his fussy and demanding wife whose chief focus of affection is for her overweight and snappy terrier, Traddles.

The building is located near the CBD in the southern Australian city of Melbourne - a city which vied at one point with Sydney to be the nation's capital. The solution, in the end, was Canberra, a planned city halfway between the two, in a specially created territory. But I digress... Melbourne these days is a big international city. It lacks landmarks like the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge which have made Sydney such a well-known place on the international stage, and competition for supremacy between the two cities continues to this day - who has the best food, the best coffee, the best theatre, the best shopping, etc...

Like all big cities, Melbourne has its seedy side, its underbelly, and with her bakery located on the fringes of the city centre, Corinna sees plenty of its less desirable characters. Her routine, which she likes to keep uninterrupted, is to rise at 4am five days a week - she doesn't trade on the weekends - bake her bread, having breakfasted lightly on serial cups of coffee and toast or a croissant in the company of the gracious Horatio, her house cat, prior to descending to the bakery to appraise the overnight catch of The Mouse Police, AKA Heckle and Jekyll - two street cats who have an uneasy relationship with Horatio. Once the shop opens, and the bread is all baked, she can leave the shop in the hands of Goss or Kylie to shower and make herself presentable for the day, and do the business of selling her wares. That done, post clean up and prep for the next morning, she can retire with Horatio to the rooftop garden, an eski stocked with the makings of a good gin and tonic or three, and her book, to either read, snooze, contemplate her dinner options - or all three - with or without the serendipitous company of the other tenants of the building.

This routine is rudely awakened one morning when she opens the bakery's back door to the alley to let The Mouse Police out, and is confronted by the collapsed body of a young junkie who is a deep shade of blue... A panicked flurry of activity later, the ambulance comes, the girl is revived, and Corinna is rescued from her drug induced fury by the sudden arrival of six foot something of male, tall, dark and handsome...who leaves her in a distinctly jellied state on top of the predictable shock. In conversation with Daniel (tall, dark, etc...), the paramedics and the police, she discovers this is not the first young junkie to have OD-ed recently - it seems that someone is killing Melbourne's junkies... And that's not all. Later in the morning, still feeling more than a little jangled, she is confronted in her shop by six foot six of angry, leather-clad Mistress Dread - before whom, almost her entire custom melts away - demanding to know if she knows anything about the graffiti on her - Mistress Dread's - shop wall proclaiming 'WHORE OF BABYLON'... A little more investigation, and the discovery of a hate letter under her own apartment door indicates that someone is stalking the female tenants of The Insular.

From there on, the book is an absolute romp - the action moving swiftly between the bakery (where Corinna takes on, kind of accidentally, another young junkie, Jason, who has a talent for making muffins), the roof gardens and other parts of The Insular, the soup run with Daniel and a whole team who minister to the homeless in the local neighbourhood, and culminates in a dramatic scene in an exclusive inner room of Blood Lines, Mistress Dread's nightclub, where Corinna - corsetted, booted and whip-carrying, leading Daniel on all fours on a leash, stage, with Mistress Dread's help - and a few other players - becomes part of a set up to catch the vampire who has been distributing the pure heroin that has been killing the junkies. Domestically, Corinna and Daniel, with the help of The Lone Gunmen and a curse set by Meroe, narrow down the possible suspects for the terror campaign in the building, unmasking one of their own.

But you'll have to find a copy of the book and read it to find out who it is...

Kerry Greenwood also writes the Phryne Fisher Mystery series - vintage crime fiction set, again, in Melbourne, but in the 1920s. They're fun too, but I love the fresh, contemporary nature of the Corinna Chapman books more. If you haven't stumbled across them yet, do yourself a favour and go get them - and this is coming from someone who doesn't really do crime fiction!!

Oh, and there's an added the back of the book...

Friday, 4 January 2013

Ultimate book nook might not be the ultimate one, but it's pretty amazing methinks. Thank you to a work colleague who posted this on Facebook for me - I'm doing electronic catch up now after a week away...oy! Apparently, this space was originally a cupboard, and some enterprising book junkie had a wonderful vision of how much more fun the space could be. Do I want one? Ooooooh, yes!!!

Book junkie on holiday

There's a saying that I stumbled across once upon a time, which my mother promptly appropriated - it's written in her tiniest notebook that lives in my handbag (the $1 coin is there so you can see just how tiny it is):
If you click on the image, you'll be able to see a bigger version and read Mum's beautiful script. I can't for the life of me remember where I found it, only that - thanks to my dear Ma scrupulously notating - I can tell you that it was attributed to the father of Gwin Thomas. Who Gwin Thomas was I do not know - it was one of those literary mysteries that we never solved. If anyone out there knows, I'd be delighted to have it solved! my usual divergent style (DB would be telling me to get on with it already!), we're just back from a week away. I'm a great advocate of travel for travel's sake - and love nothing more than a road trip with someone of like mind so that if something looks interesting, we can stop and have a look...rather than being stuck in a car with someone who is so hellbent on getting from point A to point B that whatever is outside the windows is just a horrible distraction. Happily, DB and I love stopping and starting. We also had no expectations of our destination - neither of us having been there before... Consequently, both journey and destination were thoroughly enjoyable, we're just home, and neither of us really felt quite ready to exchange the fresh air, peace and tranquility of far south coast seaside towns for the bustle of Sydney. However, back we are, and the purpose of this post is to show off my LOOT! I can sniff out a bookshop with an industrial peg jammed on my nose, I swear! I had DB in fits.

So, here is the new, highly eclectic pile of reading ahead of me. I did buy two of the books for DB, actually - TRUE - but that doesn't mean I won't read them...!
I've already gobbled up Earthly Delights - which was a re-read, and a book I'd been hunting for ages, having borrowed it originally, before acquiring further books in the series, but hadn't been able to lay my hands on a copy - until we found the secondhand bookstore in Mogo... So, in the next day or so, as routine kicks in again, I'll post on that - great, light-hearted (if this isn't a complete oxymoron...) crime fiction by a Melbourne writer.

And, just as a wee, happy footnote - while we were away, I went over 10,000 hits on my blog since I started early in 2012. Many, many thanks to all my readers - regulars, lurkers, and occasionals. I love hearing from you all, so feel free to drop by and leave a comment - I love it when a post generates a conversation, and it never fails to surprise me which posts take off...