‘The January Stars’ by Kate Constable

Disclaimer, because this is an Australian book: I’ve never met Kate Constable but we internet-know each other and she is a regular commenter on this blog. However, I wouldn’t write nice things about her books unless I really, truly enjoyed them. If I don’t like something written by an Australian writer I know, I just don’t write about it. I rarely spend time blogging about books I don’t like (unless the books are amusingly bad and the author is either dead or so famous that my opinion is irrelevant to their well-being).

The January Stars by Kate Constable is a warm-hearted, thoughtful novel about family, in which twelve-year-old Clancy and her older sister Tash accidentally kidnap their grandpa from his awful nursing home and set off on an adventure to find him a better life. In the fine tradition of children’s literature, the grown-ups are mostly dead, absent or useless, so the girls need to be resourceful and clever. Clancy is an endearing and relatable protagonist — initially shy and anxious, reluctant to take risks or challenge the rules, but ultimately able to draw on hidden reserves of resilience and courage. It’s lovely to watch how her relationship with her confident older sister evolves. I also liked Pa, who has had a stroke, is partly paralysed and has aphasia, but is always depicted as a strong-minded person with a sense of humour and varied interests. He’s also shown as able to communicate effectively with his granddaughters, despite the challenges posed by his speech and language difficulties. (I did wonder why he didn’t have a communication board attached to his wheelchair or some sort of electronic communication aid, but perhaps it got lost in the tumult of the kidnapping.)

Something I really loved about this book were the vivid descriptions of the settings, from inner-city Melbourne apartment blocks to leafy outer suburbs to a rural ashram and a seaside town. I dislike it when children’s books have either generic settings (for example, Odo Hirsch’s novels, set in vaguely European cities) or else vast swathes of descriptive prose that read like creative writing exercises, but The January Stars gets it exactly right, for my tastes.

Kate Constable’s books often involve fantasy and in this one, Clancy begins to believe her dead grandmother is assisting their quest. There is also a short section involving a time-slip or possibly a parallel, pocket universe, which the girls decide not to think about too much because “if you can explain magic, it’s not magic anymore”. I mean, personally, I would not have been able to resist researching the magic bookshop and its owner, but some readers (and authors) prefer mysterious events to remain enigmatic.

Also, I don’t often pay attention to book covers, but I need to mention this one because it’s so eye-catching. It looks like a paper sculpture, but I believe it was done digitally by Debra Bilson. It’s a very appropriate image for a beautiful, layered story.

'The January Stars' by Kate Constable

'Cicada Summer' by Kate ConstableIf you like the sound of The January Stars, you may want to try Cicada Summer, for slightly younger readers. Poor Eloise, mute with grief over her dead mother, is dragged off to live in a drought-affected country town with her odd grandmother. Fortunately, there is an intriguing old family mansion to explore, as well as a mysterious but friendly girl who might possibly have slipped through time … This is a charming, poignant story with a genuinely surprising and clever twist.

'New Guinea Moon' by Kate ConstableI also really enjoyed New Guinea Moon, set in the 1970s, in which Australian teenager Julie visits her father, a commercial pilot working in Papua New Guinea. It reminded me a little of those Rumer Godden books in which a young white woman arrives in India, falls in love with it, gets into conflict with the old India hands over their racist views, blunders about for a while naively causing damage, then departs, sadder but wiser. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, but is rarely part of our literary world, especially in children’s fiction, so this novel was fascinating to read. In common with many Australians, I have a family connection to PNG — my father worked there in the 1960s — and I also grew up in Fiji in the 1970s, in and beside an expat community that sounds very similar to the one Julie finds herself in. The descriptions of that community — the insularity, snobbishness and racism — felt very true to life, in my opinion. I also wallowed in all the lush, evocative descriptions of tropical life in this book — the sudden downpours, the geckos falling off the ceiling, the bright bougainvillea against whitewashed cement walls, the tang of salty plums. I did marvel at Julie’s mother sending her all the way to another country to stay with a near stranger for a summer (particularly given what subsequently happens in this story!), but hey, it was the 1970s — they did things differently back then.

You can find more about Kate Constable’s books here.

‘False Value’ by Ben Aaronovitch

False Value is the eighth novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. I’ve enjoyed all the previous novels, but I’m sorry to say that I think that Ben Aaronovitch has now lost the plot. This book was a mess, and worse, it was a boring, unfunny mess.

'False Value' by Ben AaronovitchFalse Value opens with Peter Grant, wizard policeman, starting a new job in a company that does geeky stuff involving data and algorithms. Its owner, an Australian tech billionaire, appears to be involved in a secret project that has some link to the theft of a historical, possibly magical, artefact. Unfortunately, Aaronovitch decides to use a convoluted, back-and-forth timeline in the first part of the book to increase suspense, which is unnecessary and annoying. Even more annoyingly, the tech company is called the Serious Cybernetics Corporation and the book is filled with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references. I’m a Hitchhikers fan from way back but even I was totally over the jokes by the end of the first chapter — and they just kept coming. And this was just the start of the hard core sci-fi in-jokes, because ultimately, False Value is science fiction, or a mix of science fiction and fantasy. Which is fine! Ben Aaronovitch is a Doctor Who writer and this is clearly a genre he loves. The problem is that the Rivers of London series has a lot of fans who don’t often read speculative fiction but were initially drawn in by the humour, the London history, the well-researched police procedural bits and the diverse cast of interesting characters — and only some of these elements appear in False Value.

It also seems to me that Aaronovitch has lost control of his world-building. He keeps inventing cool bits of magic to throw into his story – talking foxes! humans ageing backwards! carnivorous unicorns controlled by militant time-shifting fae! — without following up on them in any meaningful, consistent way. So, for example, a talking fox appears for a paragraph to remind us of how awesome the concept is, even though this has nothing to do with the plot, then he disappears. Some new American magicians arrive in London, but there’s no reference to the two groups of American magicians introduced in previous books. The tech plot involves a type of magic developed by women, but where are Lady Helena and Caroline, the witches from The Hanging Tree? Aaronovitch is juggling a lot of elements and he keeps dropping them. This book also relies heavily on the reader being familiar with all of Aaronovitch’s novellas, short stories and graphic novels, particularly The Furthest Station, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect novel readers to keep up with all these associated stories (personally, I gave up on the graphic novels after all the gratuitous female nudity in Black Mould).

There is a bigger issue, I think. The first seven books had a long narrative arc involving the Faceless Man, which was mostly resolved in Book Seven, although Lesley remained at large. She doesn’t appear in this book. Are we meant to believe that Peter and the rest of the London police force would just forget about Lesley and move on? Is False Value meant to be the start of a new seven-book arc with a new villain? Is it possible to write a long-running, open-ended series of books while maintaining character development and the quality of the writing — especially when Aaronovitch is concurrently writing graphic novels, novellas and short stories, working on a Rivers of London television series and keeping up with a hectic publicity schedule?

I went back to read some of the earlier books in the series and was struck by how much I enjoyed them. Despite my familiarity with these stories, they felt fresh and funny. I’d encourage you to try the first book if you’re unfamiliar with the series, but I’m sad to say that I won’t be reading any more of Rivers of London. So long, Peter, and thanks for all the fish.

What I’ve Been Reading

Remember how I resolved to spend more time reading books and blogging about them in 2020? Hmm, that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? Other people may have spent lockdown reading War and Peace or the collected works of Anthony Powell or teaching themselves Italian so they could fully appreciate the original manuscript of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I’ve been getting up each morning to go to Day Job, then coming home and collapsing. I work as a hospital administrator in a large, busy public hospital — a job that is stressful and underappreciated at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I should note that I work with some lovely people dedicated to the well-being of their patients and colleagues, and that Australia has so far, through a combination of luck and good governance, avoided the terrible rates of infection, sickness and death that other countries have experienced during the pandemic. I also know how lucky I am to have a job, when so many others are now unemployed. But I’m still tired and stressed and I don’t feel much like reading long, complex books. Also, my library has closed down, so I’ve mostly been re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves. However, I have read a few new-to-me books that I liked.

'The Secret Place' by Tana FrenchI read The Secret Place by Tana French way back in February, in the Before Times, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a suspenseful murder mystery, cleverly plotted with some surprising twists, but along the way, it thoughtfully explores some interesting themes through vivid, authentic characters. The narration alternates between four Dublin schoolgirls and a young, ambitious detective who is investigating a murder in the grounds of their posh boarding school. The intense friendships between the girls felt true to me, although their fate is rather depressing. There is also a supernatural element that didn’t work so well for me. I don’t want to get into spoilery details, but the girls experience something occult and then there’s an outbreak of ghost-sightings in the wider school community. Mass hysteria in a school is believable, but what actually happens in the book isn’t. It’s possible that the author is critiquing Irish superstition and I’m missing some important context. Anyway, this was a riveting read and if my library ever re-opens, I’d like to borrow more of Tana French’s Murder Squad books.

'The Crown' by Robert LaceyI also liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle And The Years That Define Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, which provides a good summary of the actual historical events portrayed in the TV series, The Crown. The author of this book was the historical consultant for the series and he sets out which parts of the script actually happened (or occurred in a less dramatic manner than portrayed on screen). I gave up on the TV series at the end of the first season because the historical inaccuracies were driving me up the wall and I found Prince Philip and Matt Smith deeply irritating, but as Robert Lacey points out, “drama is not the same as documentary”. I would have liked more photos of real events, but there’s a good index and bibliography and I learned some interesting things. For example, did you know that Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and replace him with an unelected ‘Government of National Unity’, headed by Mountbatten himself?

'The Queen' by A.N. WilsonAs a companion read, I picked up The Queen, an eccentric extended essay by A. N. Wilson, a novelist and popular historian who doesn’t let facts get in the way of his opinions (apparently he wrote a scientifically-illiterate biography of Charles Darwin that argued against the theory of evolution). In this book, Wilson asserts that although Queen Elizabeth II is badly educated and dull, her steadiness and respect for tradition have been good for Britain, so hereditary monarchy is a logical and beneficial system of government. He thinks Prince Philip is basically a good egg and that his notorious gaffes are simply due to his tragic childhood; that Princess Anne would make a much better regent than Prince Charles, but at least poor Charles is earnest and well-meaning; and that Prince Andrew and the other young royals are beneath contempt (and this was published in 2016, before the depths of Andrew’s depravity were public knowledge). I can’t say I learned a lot about the British royals, but this was a quick, entertaining read.

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossHowever, the best book I’ve read recently was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. This is an intense, deeply affecting novella in which a history professor, his three students and Bill, a local expert in living off the land, spend a week emulating the lives of Iron Age hunter-gatherers in the north of England. Seventeen-year-old Silvie is dragged along on the field trip by her father Bill, along with Silvie’s long-suffering mother. Bill is a bigot and a bully, tyrannising his wife and daughter, controlling every aspect of their lives, keeping them in line with vicious verbal and physical abuse. He’s not a cartoon villain, though — we see glimpses of his pride in Silvie, it’s clear he’s hard-working and intelligent, and his frustration with his working-class life becomes more understandable when we see how patronising the professor and his students are. But there are no excuses for how Bill and the other men start to behave during the field trip and the tension ratchets up to nearly unbearable levels. I should warn you, this book is really grim in parts, but there’s a hopeful ending. I saw this as a powerful book about domestic violence, but I’ve since read reviews that discuss it in the context of Brexit and the rise of the far right in Britain, and that makes sense, too. It’s about how men use their own versions of British history, which may or may not be based on fact, to justify their oppression of less powerful people. It’s also really beautifully written, despite the dark, confronting themes.

I also read False Value, the latest Rivers of London novel by Ben Aaronovitch, and I’m sorry to say that I found it disappointing and I won’t be continuing to read that series. I’ll do a separate blog post about that if anyone’s interested.

What I Read During My Holidays

Yes, my holidays ended a fortnight ago and I’m only now getting around to blogging about the books I read.

'Lady in Waiting' by Anne GlenconnerLady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner was exactly what the title suggests — a memoir of Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting, who was married to Colin Tennant, one of those badly-behaved rich aristocrats who enjoyed hanging out with celebrities. Tennant had numerous affairs, enjoyed bullying his family, delighted in eccentric behaviour such as pulling off his own underwear and eating it, and spent most of his time throwing enormous ‘uncontrollable’ tantrums in public (yet, oddly enough, he was able to restrain himself in the presence of people more powerful than he was, such as the Queen). Lady Anne coped with his abuse by travelling the world with Princess Margaret and finding a boyfriend of her own. Meanwhile their eldest children were left in the care of various sadistic and incompetent nannies, then sent off to boarding school. Unsurprisingly, their eldest son developed mental health problems. He was a heroin addict by the age of 16, was disinherited by his father, then died of hepatitis. Their second son, unexpectedly finding himself the heir to the family title, dutifully got married and produced a son, then came out as gay, left his wife and died of AIDS. Meanwhile, their third son had been nearly killed in an accident caused by his reckless behaviour and spent years in rehabilitation re-learning how to walk and talk. (There were also twin girls, who were ignored because they were female.) I spent the book alternately despising Anne for being a doormat and feeling desperately sorry for her. It’s a fascinating, appalling look at some very privileged, very repressed British people. Mitford fans will adore this.

'The Weekend' by Charlotte WoodI’d wanted to read The Weekend by Charlotte Wood ever since I heard her speak about the process of writing it a few years ago. This is an engrossing novel about three older women who gather to clear out their dead friend’s holiday house at Christmas. There are a lot of sharp, funny observations about friendship, men, families and ageing, although there’s not much compassion in the author’s gaze. I expected to find the characters unlikeable, which they were, but they were always interesting enough to keep my attention. I can’t say the women and their experiences are ‘typical’ — one is a celebrity chef, one a famous actress and the other a ‘public intellectual’ whose books are international bestsellers. The characters all live in modern-day Sydney and yet everyone in the novel is white and middle-class (with the exception of a young priest who briefly appears at the end and is “Filipino, Wendy thought”). I also never quite understood why the characters remained friends when they seemed to dislike each other so much. However, my main issue with this book was the final chapter, which veers so wildly into melodrama and cliché that it seemed to have been tacked on from an entirely different novel. Book clubs will love this, because there’s so much to discuss.

'The Wych Elm' by Tana FrenchMy favourite holiday read was definitely The Wych Elm by Tana French, a crime thriller with a literary bent that reminded me of the novels Ruth Rendell used to write under her ‘Barbara Vine’ pseudonym. The twists of the murder mystery plot kept me turning the pages eagerly, but this was also an intelligent exploration of privilege, identity and memory. Golden boy Toby is handsome, clever and rich, with a loving, stable family and a devoted, beautiful girlfriend. He begins by saying “I always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person”, but his life changes in an instant when he’s the victim of a violent home invasion. Physically and psychologically damaged, he goes to stay with his dying uncle in the family mansion. And then a body is discovered inside an elm tree in the garden and Toby gradually learns just how privileged his previous life had been… Some fans of this author have complained that this was too slow and a disappointment compared to her earlier crime series set in Dublin. I haven’t read her previous books, but I thought Toby’s rambling, repetitious narration was characteristic of someone recovering from a traumatic brain injury and I tore through the nearly 500 pages in two days. It was a grim read at times, but a satisfying one and I’m keen to read more of this author’s work now. (I was also filled with horrified admiration for someone who could dream up the notion of a dead body in a tree until I discovered that this actually happened and the real-life mystery of Bella in the Wych Elm remains unsolved.)

Finally, two books that ended up being not what I expected or what I really wanted to read, but that’s not the fault of these authors, who have both written thoughtful, well-researched historical novels.

'The Fountains of Silence' by Ruta SepetysThe Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys sounded as though it would be exactly my cup of tea — a novel set in Fascist Spain in the 1950s. The story involves the ‘stolen children’, the tens of thousands of babies stolen from Republican families and other ‘enemies of Spain’, who were sent to orphanages and then adopted by the Spanish political elite and rich foreigners. Ana, from a poor and traumatised Republican family, is working at a hotel in 1957 when she meets Daniel, aspiring photojournalist and son of a Texan oil tycoon. A forbidden romance blossoms, but Daniel doesn’t understand just how repressive, corrupt and dangerous Franco’s regime is. The author’s research is thorough and wide-ranging, the setting is fascinating and I learned a lot about post-war Spain. However, I found the story too soap-opera-ish for my tastes, involving a lot of amazing coincidences and clunky dialogue. I think I would have preferred to read non-fiction about this subject, but I’m sure a lot of readers will find this novel engrossing.

'Exposure' by Helen DunmoreExposure by Helen Dunmore was also very well-researched. Set in England in 1960, the book jacket suggests it’s a fast-paced thriller about Cold War spies. It’s actually an extremely slow-moving account of a British civil servant accused of espionage and the effect of this scandal on his German-born wife and their three young children. There is a lot of fascinating detail about the grimness of English life and while none of the characters are particularly warm or likeable, they are carefully portrayed. It was just a bit of a slog to get through, because nothing very exciting happened until the final chapter. In fact, it ends just where I thought it should have started. I would probably have enjoyed this more if I’d begun the book with more realistic expectations. Note to publishers: write accurate blurbs on your book jackets!

Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy

'Funny Business' by Leonard S Marcus“A joke isn’t a joke if you need to explain it,” says Leonard S. Marcus, who compiled and edited this series of interviews with authors of funny books for children. “Even so, the hidden clockwork of comedy has long been considered one of the great riddles of life.”

When the world is literally on fire, being able to have a laugh now and then may be the only thing stopping us from succumbing to utter despair. I like reading funny books. In fact, all of my favourite books include some form of humour, however dry or subtle it might be. And while I don’t write comedies, my books do have amusing bits in them (or at least, I find them amusing). So I picked up this book at the library, eager to learn more about why and how humour works in books.

Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy includes authors whose work I love and find hilarious (Beverly Cleary, Carl Hiaasen, Hilary McKay, Judy Blume), authors I don’t find funny at all (Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket1, Anne Fine), authors I’ve never heard of (Christopher Paul Curtis, Daniel Pinkwater) and authors I’ve heard of but haven’t gotten around to reading yet (Sharon Creech, Norton Juster). They discuss their childhood experiences with books and writing and comedy, how they write, and what they think about humour in their work and lives.

I was surprised at how many of these authors don’t plan their books before they start writing (or who claim they don’t plan), although nearly all of them discuss how much revision they do and how important reading is for writers. While there isn’t much about the “clockwork” of constructing a joke, there are lots of interesting insights into comedy. Sharon Creech, who has lived in America and Europe, thinks that the need for humour and the impulse to use it is “universal”, but feels that different nationalities have different senses of what is funny (“some being more wry or more subtle or pun-based, for instance”). I think this is true. Australian and British humour is often more self-deprecating than American humour, in my experience. I had an American editor ask me to change a bit in the first Montmaray book, in which my heroine was making fun of herself, because the editor felt this was a sign of low self-esteem and was sad rather than funny. (I also recall another American copy-editor who failed to see any humour in my joke about ‘were-chickens’ during a full moon and who thought that ‘Goat Husbandry for Pleasure and Profit’ was a real book — although that could be an individual-sense-of-humour thing and not an American thing.)

Sharon Creech agrees with Mark Twain about a link between humour and sadness, that humour is stronger when “juxtaposed with sorrow”. Along similar lines, Carl Hiaasen thinks that “even though my books are supposed to make people laugh, they’re serious books”. Meanwhile, Jon Scieszka is convinced that there is “boy humour” and “girl humour”, with broad, slapstick comedy appealing only to boys. Really? (Mind you, Scieszka has five brothers and no sisters and spent all his high school years at a boys-only military academy, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t know what makes girls laugh.) Hilary McKay, like many of the authors interviewed, isn’t exactly sure why her work is funny, but says, “I think if you listen to what people say, exactly as they say it, and write it down, it’s pretty nearly always funny”, especially when it’s children, who are “fairly blunt and fairly direct”.

There’s also lots of general writing advice, ranging from the useless (you must get up at dawn to write for five hours straight, every day of the year, et cetera) to the sensible (read a lot). Carl Hiaasen is full of praise for some of his English teachers but says:

“Teachers can’t give you a voice, and they can’t give you a reason to write. That’s got to come from inside. And you’ve got to become your own toughest critic: brutal, persistent, never satisfied. That’s the only way to get better. You have to have some sort of fire burning inside … There are not a lot of blissfully happy serious novelists.”

Hilary McKay thinks that studying science and working in a chemistry lab helped her writing because she had experience at meeting deadlines and “noticing details”, while Louis Sachar, who loved maths, especially algebra, at school, says his books are “more math- or logic-based than most writing.”

This book includes photos of the authors as adults and children, examples of revised manuscript pages and correspondence with their editors, suggested reading lists of each author’s work and a handy index. There are no Australian writers, either because Leonard Marcus hasn’t read any or because he doesn’t find them funny. (Obviously, Australian writers are hilarious.) I found this book an enjoyable and fascinating read.

  1. I know the Lemony Snicket books are really popular, but I find the humour mean-spirited. Then again, I never really enjoyed Roald Dahl’s books, either.

Check Out These #AuthorsForFireys Auction Items!

#AuthorsForFireys

This week, Australian authors are running an online #AuthorsForFireys auction to raise funds for bushfire emergency services. There are so many amazing items and services and events to bid on. The auction has grown so large that it’s all become a bit overwhelming, so here is a small selection of auction items for you to browse.

Signed Books

Pretty much every Australian author you’ve heard of is offering personally signed books, so if you have a favourite author, search for them on Twitter to see if they’re part of #AuthorsForFireys. Here are some examples:

Simmone Howell
Kate Forsyth
Jaclyn Moriarty and her sisters Liane and Nicola

There are authors outside Australia, too – for example, Bloomsbury Australia is offering a deluxe, illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Writing, Publishing and Research Help

Want some feedback on a manuscript you’ve written? Need assistance applying for a writing grant? Would you love some personal mentoring sessions or would you like a specialist to do some historical research for you? These people all know their stuff:

Penni Russon
Kate Gordon
Pamela Hart
Leanne Hall
Margot McGovern
Kelly Gardiner
Lili Wilkinson
Dervla McTiernan
Sandy Fussell
Eleanor Limprecht
Judith Ridge

Want to name a character in your favourite author’s next book?

Lili Wilkinson
John Birmingham
R. W. R. McDonald
Gabrielle Tozer

Want a poem written especially for you?

Penni Russon
Maxine Beneba Clarke

Art

Have a look at some of the beautiful artwork being offered by Australian book illustrators:

Gabrielle Wang
Kylie Howarth
Jo Renfro
Kelly Canby
Nicki Greenberg

Food!

Clementine Ford is offering to cook dinner for you.
So are David Marr and Benjamin Law.
CakeandMadness will teach you how to make and decorate cakes in Melbourne.
Fiona Wood will take you out to lunch in Melbourne and answer all your questions about writing.

Other awesome stuff

Wouldn’t you love a private viewing of the treasures of the State Library of Victoria?

Or these enamelled pins based on medieval illuminated manuscript illustrations?

Or netball bib bags made to order, with your own personalised 2020 netballstrology chart? Wing Defence rules!

To bid on any of these items, click on the link and reply on the tweet with the amount you’d like to donate to bushfire services. You can find out how the auction works at the #AuthorsForFireys website. There are lots more auction items available – just search Twitter using the #AuthorsForFireys or #authorsforfiries tags.

#AuthorsForFireys

Australia is currently in the middle of a bushfire catastrophe, with horrific destruction of human lives, property and wildlife. Like many Australians, I’ve been watching the news, seeing familiar places being burned to the ground, and feeling very sad, worried and helpless. For those of us not directly involved in rescue and emergency services, the most useful thing we can do right now is to donate money to appropriate organisations.

Emily Gale, Nova Weetman and other Australian authors are running a Twitter-based online auction this week, starting Monday 6th Jan 2020 and ending at 11pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday 11th Jan 2020. All proceeds will go directly to CFA (Country Fire Authority), a volunteer, community-based fire and emergency organisation that’s been fighting bushfires and helping fire-affected residents in Victoria. (International bidders can choose to donate via the Victorian Bushfire Disaster Appeal.)

As part of #AuthorsForFireys, I’m auctioning a signed set of all the books I’ve written – The Rage of Sheep, Dr Huxley’s Bequest and the three Montmaray novels, A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes in Exile and The FitzOsbornes at War. (The photo below shows the Vintage paperback edition of the first Montmaray book and the US hardcovers of the other Montmaray books, but the winning bidder can choose any edition of the Montmaray books they’d like.) I’ll sign each book with a personalised message and include a handwritten thank you letter.

Books for #AuthorsForFireys auction

How does the #AuthorsForFireys auction work? If you’re on Twitter (or you can borrow someone else’s Twitter account), simply reply to my tweet with the amount you’re willing to donate. On Saturday 11th January, I’ll directly message the person who posted the highest bid. The winning bidder will donate that amount directly to CFA and send me proof of the donation. Then I’ll post my package of books to them. I am happy to post to anywhere in the world and the auction allows international bidders.

Here’s a list of Australian Children’s and YA authors taking part in the auction, with links to each author’s Twitter: https://www.facebook.com/groups/the.knack/permalink/499228104059061/. (You don’t need a Facebook account to read it – just click on ‘Comments’ to see the list.)

If you don’t want to be part of the auction, but are looking for some way to help those affected by the Australian bushfires, here are some links to organisations accepting donations:

Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Appeal

NSW Rural Fire Service

WIRES Wildlife Rescue

RSPCA Bushfire Appeal

Thank you!

My Favourite Books of 2019

This year, I was in a reading slump and a writing slump (and a general dealing-with-life slump), so I finished reading only 31 new books. I did a lot of comfort reading of old favourites and I spent many hours online reading newspapers and journal articles and blog posts, trying to make some sense of the chaotic world we live in. I also got sucked into the toxic garbage fire that is Twitter. There are some good things about Twitter, but I’m not finding it very educational, entertaining or conducive to good mental health at the moment, especially since the recent ‘improvements’ that cause strangers’ tweets to keep appearing randomly in my Twitter feed. I might delete my Twitter account or I might work out a more constructive way of using it in 2020. But here are my favourite books from this year:

Adult Fiction

'Normal People' by Sally RooneyThis year, I failed to finish reading a number of novels that had received a great deal of hype. It is possible there’s something wrong with my literary tastes, but I feel life is just too short to waste a lot of time ploughing through pretentious waffle about uninteresting characters and situations. I did enjoy the latest Rivers of London novel from Ben Aaronovitch, Lies Sleeping, but I was underwhelmed by his new novella, The October Man. One book that did live up to the hype was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, although I do understand the criticisms of it and I think I am now done with novels about writers. Writers do not tend to live fascinating lives. Please, novelists, from now on, write about characters who do something else for a living.

Non-Fiction

I read a lot of 1960s non-fiction as research for the book I am currently trying (and failing) to write, but I can’t count any of them as 2019 favourites because they were re-reads. I did enjoy A Good School: Life at a Girls’ Grammar School in the 1950s by Mary Evans, which included some amusing commentary on the ridiculousness of school regulations and the ingenuity of school girls in getting around these rules. I am not sure I can truly call Growing Up Queer in Australia, edited by Benjamin Law, a favourite book, but I found it to be far more interesting and wide-ranging than I expected. I have issues with the term ‘queer’ and I was bothered by the apparent misogyny and ignorance of a few of the contributors, but I finished the book feeling that I had a much greater understanding of and empathy with younger Australians who identify themselves as living under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. And surely that’s why we read non-fiction – to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.

Graphic Novels

'Skim' by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian TamakiI really liked Skim, a graphic novel set in Canada in 1993, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. I presume it’s at least a bit autobiographical, because it feels so authentic. Teenage Kim is having a fairly bad year. She breaks her arm after tripping over her own home-made Wiccan altar; she falls disastrously in love with a female teacher with boundary issues; she sneers at her racist Mean Girl classmates; she observes her parents’ unhappy relationship with dismay; she grows apart from her best friend and makes a new unexpected friend. Despite the depressing themes, it’s often very funny and the art works very well with the story.

Children’s Books

'El Deafo' by Cece BellI read some great books aimed at middle graders. El Deafo by Cece Bell was an entertaining, endearing graphic memoir about a girl with acquired hearing loss growing up in 1970s America. Cece has problems that most children will relate to (finding and keeping friends, dealing with mean teachers and bullying classmates, having a crush on a boy in her neighbourhood) but she’s also the only child in her school who uses a Phonic Ear — which turns out to give her super powers. The author includes a helpful note at the end, explaining the different forms of communication used by people who have hearing impairments or are Deaf and explaining that she now views her deafness not as a disability but “an occasional nuisance, and oddly enough, as a gift: I can turn off the sound of the world any time I want.”

I also enjoyed The Terrible Two Get Worse by Mac Barnett, Jory John and Kevin Cornell, sequel to The Terrible Two. This time, the pranksters plot to oust their terrible school principal, but find his replacement is even worse. There are plenty of jokes, an inventive plot and fabulous illustrations, alongside some surprisingly sophisticated references (to Occam’s razor and Chekhov’s gun, among others).

'Catch a Falling Star' by Meg McKinlayCatch a Falling Star by Meg McKinlay was a warm-hearted, gentle exploration of grief, set in rural Western Australia in 1979. Twelve-year-old Frankie is busy looking after her eccentric little brother Newt while her widowed mother works overtime as a nurse. Frankie’s father died in a plane crash several years before, just as Skylab was launched into the atmosphere. Now Skylab is about to plummet back to Earth and Newt is acting very strangely — and Frankie is the only one able to figure out what’s going on. The child characters are realistic and endearing and the historical research is thoughtfully incorporated into the story. And yes, books set in 1979 are now regarded as historical fiction. I feel so old.

'Wed Wabbit' by Lissa EvansFinally, I absolutely loved Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans. Ten-year-old Fidge finds herself stuck in a surreal world that bears a twisted resemblance to her little sister’s favourite book, ‘The Land of the Wimbley Woos’. With the dubious assistance of a plastic carrot on wheels that dispenses psychological advice, a giant purple elephant with a passion for community theatre, and her awful cousin Graham, Fidge must solve a series of clues to rescue the Wimbley Woos from an evil dictator and return to the real world. There’s plenty of fast-paced adventure, hilarious jokes and a great deal of heart, with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. As with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz books, some of the satire may be more amusing to adults than to child readers; on the other hand, there’s a recurring joke involving the word ‘fart’ that made me laugh like a drain every time, so I’m probably not the best person to discuss levels of sophistication in text-based humour. My only issue was that the map in the front of the book didn’t seem to bear much resemblance to Fidge’s travels in Wimbley Land so was rather confusing, although that could be part of the joke.

I am hoping next year will be a more successful year for me in terms of reading and writing books. Here is the pile of books I brought home from the library for holiday reading:

Holiday Reading 2019

I’ve also noted that Girls Gone By are publishing another of Antonia Forest’s Marlow books early next year, although they’ve decided to skip Book Seven, The Ready-Made Family and go straight to Book Eight, The Cricket Term. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE, GIRLS GONE BY? I’M TRYING TO READ THEM IN THE CORRECT SEQUENCE. Although of course, I’ve ordered The Cricket Term.

Thank you to everyone who visited Memoranda this year. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and happy end-of-December to everyone else!

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Seven

Chapter Thirteen: The Flyaway

Patrick and Jukie race off in the stolen car, heading for Ireland where the Boss Man has a hideout. Patrick feels a “mounting exhilaration at the sheer speed” and is amused by Jukie’s attempts to blackmail Patrick into helping him. Jukie wants Patrick to tell the police that Kinky’s death was an accident. Supposedly Patrick will go along with this to stop his father’s reputation being damaged by his son’s involvement in drugs and knifings.

Poor Jukie. He hasn’t realised Mr Merrick is a “strictly amateur” politician who has no interest in being Prime Minister:

“You mean he doesn’t need it. He’s got it all already.”

Patrick is gracious enough to admit that’s true and Jukie says Patrick reminds him of Jukie’s grandparents, who “dig the integrity rave”. Jukie then reveals his sad story – the illegitimate child of a teenage mother, his father abandoning them, then his mother getting killed when he was a baby, brought up by his grandparents who physically abused him and didn’t give him much money. Patrick claims to understand about the lack of money:

“Because there are plenty of people at school with a sight more pocket money than my pa would dream of handing me. It can be very crushing sometimes.”

Jukie, understandably, is furious:

“You got cars ’n hosses ’n butlers ’n a rafty great house ’n loot stacked in the vaults […] ’n I’m starting fr’m scratch.”

But Patrick is “convinced he really did know how it could be”. Honestly, are we meant to feel sorry for Patrick only having “a middle-aged Rolls” for transport?

They pull up at a garage for petrol, where Patrick goes to the toilet, after promising not to escape. (Why does Jukie care whether he escapes or not? He could just drive off.) Patrick doesn’t alert the garage attendant or phone the police, but he does write a message on the dusty glass window. Make up your mind, Patrick! Are you helping Jukie or not?! Meanwhile Jukie has used his “best Culver” voice to convince the attendant they’re just a couple of posh boys who’ve borrowed their uncle’s car.

So the boys drive off and we hear more of the Jukie Clark autobiography. He stole his grandparents’ money to buy clothes, his grandfather beat him up and burnt the clothes, so Jukie embarked on a life of petty crime. He was caught by the police due to his grandfather’s tipoff, then his grandfather refused to take him back and Jukie was sent off to an Approved School. It was a “highly civilized cage” and Jukie was a model pupil for a month, except the Top Brass required not just shallow obedience to rules but true repentance. And Jukie did not want to humble himself before God and repent, so he escaped and thereby damned himself. The sermon is not quite that explicit, but it’s there.

While this is going on, Patrick is reaching into Jukie’s pocket for cigarettes and lighting them and sticking them between Jukie’s lips and staring into Jukie’s eyes. I take back what I said earlier about there being no Patrick/Jukie sexual tension.

Anyway, by an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, after Jukie fled the school, he ended up outside the Culver place just as Maudie had put an ad in the paper for a pigeon helper, and as he was so eager and cheap, Maudie organised for more troubled boys to work for her (“top-class social do-good ’n likewise practically free labour”). Then Espresso’s Da arranged for Jukie to meet the Boss Man and the drug smuggling started.

At this point, Marlene Dietrich comes on the radio singing Where Have All The Flowers Gone? and Jukie is panic-stricken when he realises Kinky is actually dead. There’s a lot of “mutual, exasperated incomprehension” between the two boys as Patrick gives a confusing explanation of the Catholic rituals of death and whether the absence of a priest and holy oil means Kinky is destined for eternal hellfire. Patrick is feeling a bit guilty about being responsible for the knife being at the scene, which made me sympathise with Jukie’s exasperation, because honestly, how could Kinky’s death possibly be Patrick’s moral responsibility? There’s also a bit of theological discussion about how to live their lives if they’re all going to get blown up by the H bomb any moment now.

Chapter Fourteen: The Homing Instinct

Jukie is having second thoughts about going to Ireland, because maybe the Boss Man will either lose him in a bog or hand him over to the police. There’s no way Jukie wants to spend twelve years in prison, but he can’t go to his grandparents. Patrick comes up with the idea of Jukie leaving on the drug-smuggling boat. It means they have to send a signal by six o’clock, then Jukie will hide out in the Merrick’s priest room. Patrick will have to pretend Jukie dropped him off and then drove on to Liverpool, but although Patrick is willing to help a murderer evade the law, he refuses to tell an outright lie to the police. Jukie is justifiably baffled.

“But for why? Like man, it’s not logical.”

Jukie has some baffling notions of his own. Although he’s an atheist, he thinks the afterlife could consist of whatever an individual believed in life. He pulls up at a phone booth and tells Patrick to ring a priest and find out exactly how to save Kinky’s Catholic soul. Patrick usually laughs at “do-it-yourself theology” like this (Patrick, stop being so smug, ALL theology is made up by humans), but he agrees to try. But then Jukie, remembering Patrick left a message at the garage and is not entirely on Jukie’s side, stops him.

“…I never trust no one. Mind Herbert, I don’t expect no one to be so simple as to trust me neither.”

I think they both need some sleep. Which they are forced to have, because Jukie is getting a migraine and can’t drive. Then they oversleep, argue about whether it’s Patrick’s fault, speed off into the sunrise and reach a roadblock at Culverstone Bridge, with Tom Catchpole blocking their way. Jukie puts his foot down, Patrick tries to reason with him, realises Jukie won’t stop and grabs the wheel. There is a very dramatic car crash. Jukie dies in flames. Patrick is thrown clear of the car and is unharmed. Oh, what a surprise.

Poor Mr Merrick. As if it wasn’t bad enough for him when Patrick fell off that cliff and nearly died. Patrick blatantly takes advantage of the situation to tell his father that Regina is back, then he gives the Inspector a mostly true account of events. He has no moral problem with lying that Jukie was going to turn himself in and swerved the car to avoid Tom. This is supposedly for the sake of Jukie’s grandparents. Then Patrick and Peter catch up with events. Espresso has spilled the beans (the coffee beans, get it?) and it turns out the Boss Man was actually Espresso’s Da and that Maudie was in on the whole thing, but Jukie didn’t know about any of this. Poor Jukie, betrayed even by his Thugs. Also, the remaining Thugs got into a vicious fight before they’d even left Culverstone, although I’m not sure if they’re dead or just badly wounded. Also, Mrs Marlow called the priest when she saw Kinky’s rosary beads so Kinky’s soul is saved. Mrs Marlow was “rather moved” by the ritual. She’s not going to convert to Catholicism, is she?

Oh, and Patrick remembers the drugs he’d hidden from the Thugs and shows Peter:

“Even the police weren’t likely to want it now.”

WHAT?! It’s evidence! So, the boys keep the drugs? After all the trouble they went to bring down the evil drug dealers? What are they going to do with it, throw a coke-fuelled party?

I suppose if they sell it to their school mates, they can buy Ann a new bike.

THE END.

Well, that was a lot better than I expected. I mean, the plot was absolutely ludicrous, but the story rocketed along and there were some genuinely interesting bits, especially the relationship between Patrick and Jukie at the end. I enjoyed Lawrie and Peter’s chapters and if this had been the first Marlow book I’d read, I’d probably conclude that Patrick was a fascinating and sympathetic character. I didn’t even miss Nicola – I can see that it wouldn’t have worked to have a brave, sensible character like her in this story. Mind you, I’d have quite happily read a book about Nicola and Miranda wandering around London having deep and meaningful conversations…

I’d hoped the next book would be a school book, but it’s The Ready Made Family.

You might also be interested in reading:

The Thuggery Affair, Part One
The Thuggery Affair, Part Two
The Thuggery Affair, Part Three
The Thuggery Affair, Part Four
The Thuggery Affair, Part Five
The Thuggery Affair, Part Six

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Six

Chapter Eleven: The Dovecote at Monk’s Culvery

Patrick is on his way to Monk’s Culvery, via the secret priest tunnel. Presumably the Culver family were also Catholics in the “penal times”, allied with the Merricks, hence the tunnel and the monk reference in the estate’s name. And did you know that “culver” means dove (“Middle English from Old English culufre from Vulgar Latin columbra from Latin columbula, diminutive of columba, dove”)? So Maudie Culver comes from a long line of pigeon people.

Patrick feels “bold and gay” to be trespassing and possibly stealing pigeons, but “the cause was irreproachable”. Still, he can’t help hearing in his head Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s poem about Gallipoli:

“I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die:
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.”

Just to make things even more dangerous, Patrick’s brought with him a throwing knife owned by his dodgy eighteenth-century cousin. Hmm, and we already know that a corpse (or possibly just a badly-wounded person) is going to appear soon on the storeroom floor…

Patrick very courageously climbs the high Dovecote wall (it’s a good thing Peter didn’t take on this task) and manages to break in through a tiny door. He climbs down to the floor and unfortunately falls asleep, which is not surprising given he was up before dawn. Also unfortunately, his watch has stopped working (“as it invariably did when he forgot to wind it”) so who knows how long he stays asleep. When he wakes, he doesn’t find any drugs, but does find a number of Scandaroons, who are most unhappy about a stranger messing around in their house.

Meanwhile, in the storeroom attached to the pigeon lofts, Jukie is talking with Espresso, the Thug’s “premier flutter propagator”, who is feeding a chick half-cooked egg from his own mouth, ugh. Espresso has “skin the colour of milky coffee” because his father, a pigeon expert, is from the Persian Gulf. Jukie mentions he’s grateful that Espresso’s Da put the Thuggery in contact with the Boss Man, allowing them all to make money from drug smuggling, but Espresso says that no, Jukie and the pigeons at Monk’s Culvery were the way his Da “eased in with the Boss Man” and the “big loot”. This is a disquieting surprise to Jukie. I should mention that Espresso appears to be hiding something from Jukie, but he does seem like a nice kid, as far as the Thugs go.

Then Skidskid arrives. He was supposed to be watching Patrick’s house but got spooked by mysteriously moving trees, “woody weirdies ’n they don’t shift while you’re watchin”. Jukie tells him to stay off the drugs. (Clearly none of them is familiar with Macbeth. Jukie, your reign is almost over.) Jukie also explains to the others how the Boss Man put two of his addicted thugs in the “boneyard” – just in case the threat of violence isn’t menacing enough in this chapter.

The Thuggery realise, via a nifty electronic landing-board indicator, that someone or something is disturbing the pigeons in the Dovecote. And as they go to investigate, they’re met by Kinky and friends with their own tale of woe. The Thuggery, thoroughly alarmed, run on towards the Dovecote. Watch out, Patrick!

Chapter Twelve: “Who Do Not Wish To Die”

Ominous chapter titling here. Jukie enters the Dovecote alone and Patrick does pretty well in hand-to-hand combat with him, even managing to grab the harness and drug capsule Jukie had just taken from a pigeon. Patrick bolts out the door and only gets caught because he trips and The Thuggery catch up. Jukie stops them stomping Patrick to death (“We need him conscious cause we need to quiz him”) and they march him back to the storeroom. Patrick does manage to conceal the drugs in his waistband and lie about this convincingly and the Thuggery waste some time trying to find the drug capsule in the dusk.

They also take Patrick’s knife off him and “Patrick thought it had probably not found itself in such congenial company since Cousin Ambrose was turned off at Tyburn”. (I only know the significance of Tyburn due to The Hanging Tree. Thanks, Peter!) Jukie starts to offer his captive a cigarette, but then decides Patrick is too square to smoke:

“You wouldn’t, do you, noddy-boy?”
“No,” agreed Patrick. In fact, he did, occasionally, depending on whom he was with. But this time he wasn’t sure he might not be being offered reefers.”

Ooh, Patrick, you’re so cool! “Depending on whom he was with”! Does he even have any friends, let alone smoking friends? He does know what a reefer is, maybe from eavesdropping at the coffee shop. Although I just looked it up and Reefer Madness came out in 1936, so I suppose the term had been around quite a while by the mid-sixties:

They also have a very disturbing conversation about Lawrie while waiting for Red Ted aka Rigid to return. Apparently Rigid is a ladies’ man:

“…mebbe he’ll give the chicklet a real live whirl. If she’s willin’ of course. ’N then again mebbe even if she’s not.”

They’re talking about raping a thirteen-year-old girl there. Patrick is horrified for a moment:

“Then it occurred to him that even Lawrie would hardly be fool enough to let herself be picked up by a Thug; and even if she hadn’t sense enough she’d still be too scared.”

Firstly, Lawrie was foolish enough and secondly, the Thugs don’t care about consent so it wouldn’t matter how scared she was, and thirdly, she’s a very naïve child, years under the age of consent. This is horrible to read, made bearable only because we know that Lawrie is safe.

Then Rigid returns with the news that Lawrie escaped him and is at the police station. When they ask Patrick what she could have told them, he “politely, insufferably” explains she would have showed them the pigeon, harness and “more truly than he supposed”, the drug capsule.

Panic among The Thuggery! Kinky leads the others in rebellion against Jukie. Jukie will stay to loose the birds the next morning; the others will flee, taking their share of the loot. But Kinky wants Maudie’s share as well, which Jukie refuses to give him, and Mr Luke reveals Kinky’s plan to overthrow Jukie as Top Boy. In the mayhem, Jukie flings Patrick’s knife at Kinky’s back and Kinky collapses. Patrick is the first to reach him:

“[Patrick’s] hand found an inexplicable thing to do. It went into his pocket and found his rosary … He put the rosary into Kinky’s hand and Kinky grasped it and his hand together … Patrick swallowed, crossed himself and stayed beside him, crouching.”

The others drag Kinky’s body into the storeroom, realise he’s dead and freak out. They rush off on their motorbikes, while Jukie takes the time to remove Kinky’s money from his wallet (“He can’t never use it”) and leads Patrick out to the garage to his own beloved motorbike. Sadly for Jukie, it’s been “most exquisitely taken apart”, then put back together, with the nuts thrown in the compost heap, according to a note the Thugs have left him. (What, they managed to disassemble and re-assemble a motorbike in five minutes?) So Jukie steals Maudie’s car and tells Patrick to get in.

AND PATRICK GETS IN THE CAR.

Why? Jukie doesn’t have time to coax or force him into the car. All Patrick has to do is walk away, then call the police or wait for them to arrive. But no, Patrick gets in the car with the drug-dealer he’s been trying to bring to justice, due to a “maverick sense of sympathy”. Or due to Antonia Forest wanting Patrick and Jukie to have a deep and meaningful conversation before Jukie’s inevitable demise.

Oh, it also turns out Espresso has stayed to let the pigeons free the next morning and he disobeys Jukie’s order to get in the car. So at least Espresso will be around when the police arrive and hopefully he’ll explain whatever secret he’s been concealing.

Next: The Flyaway