Tag Archives: Rumer Godden

My Favourite Books of 2016

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2016 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I only read 46 new books this year (new to me, that is), fewer than I usually read. This was partly because I was studying for most of the year, plus I’d started a new job, both of which took up lots of mental energy. I also read a great deal of (mostly depressing) political news in newspapers, magazines and blogs. So when I wasn’t doing that, I escaped into the comfort of old favourites from my bookshelves, including a dozen of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s books and a re-read of all the Rivers of London novels in preparation for the release of Book Six in that series.

So, what type of new books did I read this year?

Type of books 2016

Author nationality for books read in 2016

It was the year of British literature, it seems.

Author gender for books read in 2016

And women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Slade House by David Mitchell and the latest installment of the Rivers of London series, The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

It was non-fiction that really captured my interest this year. Favourites included The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch, and two of Bill Bryson’s books, At Home: A Short History of Private Life and The Road to Little Dribbling. I’m only halfway through Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle, but I’m really enjoying it so far. However, my absolute favourite of the year was Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a brilliantly incisive yet accessible discussion of neurocognitive research into sex differences, which I realise I didn’t actually review on this blog because I was too busy writing assignments at the time. I will try to remedy that at some stage in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a good review.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

I loved Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I was also beguiled by the first book in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, Autumn Term.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

I was entertained (and occasionally enraged) by a collection of First Dog on the Moon’s political cartoons, A Treasury of Cartoons. I also enjoyed Night Witch, a graphic novel in the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch, Andrew Cartmel, Lee Sullivan and others (although it wasn’t as good as the prose novels).

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Memoranda in 2016. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2017 brings you lots of inspiring, informative and entertaining books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014
Favourite Books of 2015

What I’ve Been Reading

I have not been reading much fiction lately as I’ve been distracted by ALL THE POLITICS, but two novels I recently read did provide some insight into race and immigration, which seems highly relevant to current events.

'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieThe first was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a hugely ambitious, sprawling novel about the experiences of African immigrants, “none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty”. The author’s observations on race felt true-to-life and were often quite funny, and it was particularly interesting to read her thoughts on the vast differences between ‘African-Americans’ (that is, the descendants of the African slaves sent to America many years ago) and ‘American-Africans’ (people from Nigeria and other African countries who have recently migrated to the United States). I also loved the sections set in Nigeria, which were beautifully described.

However, I had two problems with this novel. Firstly, it was not really a novel. Structurally, it was a mess – although perhaps this was meant to reflect the chaos of modern-day Nigerian life? It is supposedly the story of two lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who are cruelly torn apart by circumstances, except the narrative quickly wanders off in a variety of competing directions and so I lost all interest in the love story (which is abruptly and implausibly resolved in the final chapters). There is a cast of hundreds of characters, most of whom are introduced and then quickly disappear, never to be seen again. There are long sections in which nothing much happens. There are a lot of blog posts, written by Ifemelu, which say the same things the characters have already said. The whole book is unashamedly didactic, which makes me think it might have worked better as a memoir or a collection of essays.

A greater problem for me, though, was Ifemelu, who narrates most of the book. Ifemelu is the biggest Mary Sue I’ve encountered since Bella in Twilight. Ifemelu – or, as I came to think of her, ★ IFEMELU ★ – is perfect. She is beautiful (but naturally beautiful, not like those vain girls who straighten their hair and fuss over their clothes to attract men). She is smarter and wiser and has better taste than anyone else. She wins scholarships and fellowships and everything she attempts is a great success. She starts a blog about race and not only does it quickly become famous, she makes so much money from it that she’s able to buy a condo. Everyone adores her, especially rich men and small children, even though she never seems to do anything to help anyone else. Her rich boyfriends fall over themselves to shower her with whatever she desires – jobs, money, expensive clothes, overseas holidays. Not that she asks for those things, not like those other girls do, which again shows how much integrity she has! (In fact, she gets bored when her boyfriends are too nice to her, so she cheats on them or dumps them without a word of explanation, no doubt to teach them a valuable life lesson.) ★ IFEMELU ★ is also the best at pointing out other people’s flaws. She despises well-meaning white liberal Americans for being ignorant, African-Americans for not understanding how privileged their lives are compared to Africans, and Nigerians for being lazy and corrupt. All of this would be bearable if Ifemelu ever showed any self-awareness or made any attempt to change, but that never happens. The author has said that Ifemelu is autobiographical and suggests her flaws are meant to be endearing. I was not endeared and would much rather have spent more time with some of the other characters – Obinze, for example, who becomes an ‘undocumented’ immigrant in Britain, or Aunty Uju, who has much less luck than Ifemelu when it comes to choosing male partners, or Dike, the depressed teenager caught between two cultures in America. Despite these reservations, I did find the book interesting and it would be a great choice for a book club because there’s just so much to discuss.

'Breakfast with the Nikolides' by Rumer GoddenAfter that I read something very different, but also about cultural clashes – Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. This is a small, perfectly formed novel about the conflict between British colonials and Indians working and studying at an agricultural college in Bengal. The author drew strongly on her own life experiences and her view of Indian society is both compassionate and clear-eyed. The descriptions of places and people are wonderful. She’s particularly good at portraying sensitive, awkward, plain girls on the verge of adolescence – in this novel, it’s twelve-year-old Emily, whose feuding parents have been forced to re-unite due to the war in Europe. When Emily’s little dog appears to contract rabies, it sets off a chain of disasters that ends up involving the whole town. The plotting is very skillfully done and the conclusion is deeply satisfying. And considering this was written by a white British woman in the 1940s, it’s commendable for its lack of racism. What did make me wince was the depiction of domestic violence and marital rape. At one stage, the most sympathetic character is indignant that anyone should judge him harshly for smashing up his house and assaulting his wife – after all, both were his property to do what he liked with and anyway, she provoked him by being annoying. Of course, this is what most people believed at the time (and unfortunately, how some people still think), so it’s entirely plausible – just unpleasant to read. However, on the whole, this is a beautiful piece of writing and highly recommended for Rumer Godden fans. A good companion read would be Anne Chisholm’s excellent biography of Rumer Godden, so that you can see the parts of the novel that were inspired by real events in the author’s life.

What I’ve Been Reading

Australia Under Surveillance by Frank Moorhouse was an interesting collection of essays about ASIO (Australia’s version of MI5 and the FBI) and the conflict between national security and individual privacy within a democracy. Moorhouse himself was targeted by ASIO when he was a young man because he was briefly a member of his university’s Labour Club, which was believed to have “Communist influences”, and he eventually acquired a thirteen-volume ASIO file. In this book, he provides evidence that Prime Minister Robert Menzies used ASIO against political adversaries – for example, Menzies ordered ASIO to investigate Australian writers, to prevent Communist-sympathising writers from receiving any Commonwealth funding. (This was after Menzies’ legislation to ban the Communist Party was overturned by the High Court, and after the 1951 referendum showed a majority of Australian voters agreed with the High Court’s decision. It’s never been illegal for Australians to belong to the Communist Party.) But all of this happened during the Cold War, when paranoia about “Reds under the bed” was rampant. Surely things are different now?
'Australia Under Surveillance' by Frank MoorhouseWell, certainly ASIO’s target has changed. Instead of Communists, it’s Muslims suspected of being terrorists, or of supporting terrorists, or of attending a mosque or community centre at which someone discussed something that might suggest support of terrorist activities, and Moorhouse outlines a number of cases where ASIO and the police have interrogated and detained innocent people without charges ever being laid, often due to inaccurate information or mistakes on the part of the authorities. He then interviews ASIO’s Director-General, David Irvine, who downplays ASIO’s historical abuses of power and emphasises ASIO’s current need for more legal powers and resources due to the “terrorist threat” (even though “less than 1000” Australians have been killed in wars and terrorist attacks during the last fifty years, including the Vietnam, Korea, Gulf, Afghan and Iraq wars, compared to 134,548 people killed on Australian roads in the same period). I was also horrified to read about ASIO’s interference in the National Archives, with ASIO blocking access to or destroying decades-old historical records on the grounds of ‘national security’.
Moorhouse goes on to discuss privacy and censorship in Australia. He notes that the people fighting against censorship (Communists during the Cold War, Muslim fundamentalists now) are “often hostile to free speech in their own organisations, but need it to achieve other ends. Similarly, fundamentalist Christians are likely to advocate censorship of sexual and blasphemous material” but want free speech powers so they can attack Muslims. Moorhouse’s opinion is that even the most offensive anti-Western jihadist material should be freely available in Australia, because the public need to understand how terrorists think and exposing offensive material to criticism decreases its power. He has similar views on hate-speech laws (he agrees with Attorney-General George Brandis that people should have “the right to be bigots”) and privacy laws (he believes that keeping ‘private’ behaviour secret simply makes the behaviour seem more shameful and increases the stigma attached to it). He doesn’t seem aware that his perspective is that of a very privileged person in society – he’s not, for example, a domestic violence victim trying to hide from a violent ex-husband, or an employee who wants to keep his personal hobbies private from his employer, and Moorhouse is unlikely ever to be the victim of racist or sexist hate campaigns. Some readers may also be frustrated by the rambling, personal nature of the book – it’s certainly not for those who want a methodical, analytical approach (or an index) – but I found it a very interesting read.

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith set me to wondering about how useful genre labels are. Is this book crime or literary fiction? Is it a thriller, or a psychological study, or a classical tragedy? I sat up far too late one night finishing it because I just had to see how the plot would play out, even though I was fairly sure how it would end (and was right about that), so it was certainly a success as a thriller, in my opinion. It is fairly typical of Highsmith’s novels, in that it features an American man, bold and shrewd but without much of a conscience, who has fallen into a life of petty crime, becomes involved in a murder, then spends the rest of the novel desperately trying to cover this up (and somehow the reader sympathises with him and urges him on, despite his lack of morals). This novel, set mostly in Greece, features two such characters, one older and out of his depth in a country where he doesn’t speak the language; the other younger, easier to like, but with murkier motives, which turn out to be related to his hated dead father. There is also a young, beautiful woman who doesn’t have a very large part to play in the book (also typical of Highsmith’s novels), some vivid descriptions of the European settings and a number of exciting chase scenes. Recommended for those who enjoyed the Ripley books (or the Ripley films, or Strangers on a Train, or any Hitchcock films, really).

'Haphazard House' by Mary WesleyHaphazard House by Mary Wesley was a strange, often beautiful, children’s novel about a family who move to a haunted house in a remote village where time proves to be “a bit askew”. The eleven-year-old narrator, Lisa, observes her mother and grandfather becoming younger; the family dog Bogus is recognised by a villager as Rags, the dog who’d lived in the house more than forty years earlier; someone is observed waving to them from the windows of a room that doesn’t exist; an invisible gardener supplies them with fresh vegetables, and an invisible maid rearranges the furniture, and the fire in the hearth never goes out. There is a lot of rich description of setting and character and some genuinely spooky moments, but the eventual ‘explanation’ is crammed into the last chapter and left a lot of my questions unanswered. The first few pages were also some of the most confusing I’ve ever seen in a children’s book, which I think was due to poor editing, rather than design. I suspect this would, unfortunately, put off some child readers who’d ultimately enjoy the book. I’d recommend it for fans of Diana Wynne Jones or those who’ve enjoyed time-slip novels such as Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Kate Constable’s Cicada Summer.

I picked up A Candle for St Jude by Rumer Godden mistaking it for The Kitchen Madonna, which I’d wanted to re-read, and then thinking it would be one of her lives-of-nuns books like In This House of Brede. It actually turned out to be the story of a small ballet school in London, celebrating the founder’s jubilee by putting on a grand performance. It was first published in 1948 and it depicts the shabby, war-battered reality behind the gilt facade very well. There are some lovely character studies, including those of the tempestuous ageing Madame, nostalgic about her once glittering career, now bitterly jealous of her talented pupil Hilda. Not being a ballet fan, I felt the passions and tumult leading up to the performance were somewhat misplaced, but I still found this an enjoyable read. I especially admired Godden’s technical skills as I read this – the way she managed to slip between Madame’s memories and the present day so smoothly, the adroit handling of multiple points of view, and how she ended the story at exactly the right place.

'The Girl Who Brought Mischief' by Katrina NannestadFinally, an adorable children’s book called The Girl Who Brought Mischief, by Katrina Nannestad. Set in Denmark in 1911, it’s the story of a ten-year-old orphan sent to live with her grandmother on the remote island of Bornholm, where nearly everyone is old and nobody is allowed to play or dance or have any fun. Inge Maria arrives with lopsided hair (a goat on the ferry ate one of her plaits) and a talent for attracting trouble, and she proceeds to knock out her grandmother’s turkey with a stray clog, pull a line of freshly-washed clothes into the mud, antagonise her stern teacher and scandalise the village churchgoers. I preferred the first half of the book, in which Inge Maria causes general mayhem. The second half, in which Inge Maria warms the hearts of all the grumpy old people, was far too saccharine for my tastes – but keep in mind, I’m a cynical grown-up! Children who enjoyed the film versions of Anne of Green Gables or Heidi but were daunted by the length and old-fashioned language of those books would probably adore The Girl Who Brought Mischief. And I did love all the descriptions of life on a Danish island a hundred years ago.

My Favourite Books of 2014

I know there’s still more than a week until the end of the year, but here are the books I’ve read in 2014 (so far) that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I finished reading 84 books this year, which doesn’t include the two awful novels that I refused to keep reading, the memoir I’ve just started or the small pile of 1960s non-fiction I’m hoping to get through before New Year’s Day.

Types of books read in 2014

Author nationality for books read in 2014

Although this doesn’t take into account the author’s ethnic background, simply where they were living when they wrote the book.

After that, I got a bit bored with pie charts.

Author gender for books read in 2014

Another year when women authors dominated my reading list.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books
'Ramona Quimby, Age 8' by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby! I hadn’t read this series by Beverly Cleary before, and it was such a treat, getting to hang out with Ramona and her family. Ramona tries to be good, but grown-ups are so confusing and unfair and just don’t understand how difficult life is when you’re the youngest . . . and yet, no matter how much Ramona sulked and lost her temper and created havoc, she was always an endearing, sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Totally Joe by James Howe, and Dogsbody and Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones (but loathed Fire and Hemlock – sorry, DWJ fans).

My favourite Young Adult novels

Does A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam count as Young Adult? It was probably my favourite book of the year. I also loved The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, about the differences that emerge between two sisters, one thirteen and awkward, the other sixteen and beautiful, when they’re left alone to look after their younger siblings on holiday in France. The characters are so real and interesting, and the setting so beautifully described. I didn’t have as much success with contemporary YA reads this year – I must have been choosing the wrong books or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for them.

My favourite fiction for adults

I continued to admire Alice Munro’s books, particularly her collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and I was highly entertained by E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. I don’t tend to read much crime fiction, but I did enjoy The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson (which, coincidentally, featured a fictional version of Josephine Tey).

My favourite non-fiction and memoirs
'Wesley the Owl' by Stacey O'Brien

I read so many interesting non-fiction books this year. My favourites included Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and two very funny books written by Americans about 1950s England – Smith’s London Journal by H. Allen Smith and Here’s England by Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten. I am such a sucker for Scientist-Adopts-Injured-Wild-Animal books 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' by Jeanette Wintersonand Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl by Stacey O’Brien was a good one – injured owlet Wesley grows up to regard the author as his ‘mate’, trying to push dead mice into her mouth at dinner time and viciously attacking anything that he sees as a threat to her (including her boyfriend and her own new bouffant hairdo). In the Depressing Lesbian Memoir category, I found myself engrossed in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (which definitely wins the year’s Best Book Title award).

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2015 brings you lots of wonderful books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013

Bookshelf Neighbours

I loved this article1 by Geraldine Brooks about her method for shelving her books, which even she admitted was “eccentric”:

“I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.

I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras . . .”

This sent me off to examine my own bookshelves. As organised as I am in many other aspects of my life, I have never attempted to shelve my books alphabetically, or by any other method recognised by librarians. I do tend to arrange books about similar topics in the same general area. For example, here is part of my ‘Indian fiction’ section, containing Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rumer Godden (well, her biography) and Meera Syal, with Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie lurking just out of sight:

Bookshelf One

(Mind you, Vikram Seth and the remainder of my Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collection sit on various shelves below this. I have no idea why.) I also have a ‘YA fiction’ section, a ‘dictionaries and other reference books’ section and two shelves of 1930s and World War Two books. I also try to shelve books by the same author together:

Bookshelf Two

Oh, I seem to own a lot of Anne Tyler’s books. I’m not sure how she’d fare if seated next to Nancy Mitford at a dinner party (Nancy was not very fond of Americans), but perhaps Elizabeth Jane Howard, on the other side, could draw Nancy into a discussion about Paris fashions. I’d be more interested in eavesdropping on a dinner conversation between these three women:

Bookshelf Three

Especially if they were talking about writing historical fiction. I also have Germaine Greer sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and Stella Gibbons beside Mary Renault.

But the rationale for the shelving of other books may be less obvious. For example, what do Frances Hodgson Burnett, Curtis Sittenfeld, Gerald Durrell, Andrea Levy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris and Alison Lurie have in common?

Bookshelf Four

They’ve written books that are the same height, of course!

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  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy

'The Fishing Fleet' by Anne de CourcyI’ve enjoyed Anne de Courcy’s previous social histories and biographies, so when I saw her latest book was about India, I was keen to read it. As usual, her subject is posh English people, circa 1850 – 1950, but this time she has focussed on the young English women who sailed to India to find themselves husbands. The first such ‘Fishing Fleet’ arrived in Bombay in 1671, the women having been paid generous allowances by the East India Company. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no need to provide incentives to prospective brides. The only respectable career for a Victorian ‘gentlewoman’ was that of wife and mother, but there were far more unmarried women than eligible bachelors in England. Women who were neither rich nor pretty enough to snare a husband knew they’d have a much better chance in India, where white men outnumbered white women by four to one and were forbidden (by their terms of employment and social custom) from marrying females with any tinge of ‘native blood’.

Anne de Courcy uses memoirs, letters, diaries and interviews to provide fascinating details of these ‘husband-hunters’. First, there was the arduous sailing trip (all the way around Africa before the Suez Canal opened in 1869), the poor women having to contend with cramped living space, sea sickness, limited fresh food and other inconveniences:

“Fresh water for washing clothes was in such short supply that many women who knew they were going to travel saved their most worn underwear and then discarded it overboard on the voyage, leaving, one imagines, a trail of dirty, threadbare nightdresses across the Indian Ocean.”

Arriving in Bombay or Calcutta, the young woman was often overwhelmed by the heat, the dust, the smells, the “teeming mass of people”. She was then flung into India’s version of ‘the Season’, attending (depending on her social rank) Viceregal balls and banquets, dinner parties, tea dances, picnics, tennis parties and tiger-hunts. Couples often became engaged after only one or two brief meetings, the men desperate for companionship after years of celibacy, the women anxious to avoid the mortification of being sent home as a ‘Returned Empty’ (that is, a failed husband-hunter). Most military and Indian Civil Service men weren’t permitted to marry until they were at least thirty, which meant bridegrooms were often several decades older than their teenage brides and could be unwilling or unable to change their bachelor lifestyles. One beautiful and cosseted young woman, who wed in 1932, found herself living on a remote tea plantation, miles from her nearest white neighbour, with no transportation, no electricity and nothing to do. Her much older husband spent all his time working or hunting with his hounds and horses and forgot her twenty-first birthday, and her child was delivered by the local vet because there was no doctor available. Still, “Sheila was a true daughter of the Raj, brave and uncomplaining” and later told her daughter that she always dressed in an evening gown for dinner because “it was felt that one must keep up standards and not let oneself go native.”

Actually, Sheila had it relatively easy. Other women were shot at by mutinous ‘natives’, while some were caught in avalanches and earthquakes. Women died of cholera, smallpox, malaria and even bubonic plague. Infants were particularly vulnerable to diseases, and those who survived were routinely sent off to boarding school in England from the age of six, so their mothers had the agonising choice of being separated for years at a time from either their husband or their small children. And then there was the wildlife – panthers that snatched pet dogs from gardens and golf courses, snakes that slithered up through drainage holes into bathrooms, scorpions hidden in shoes, rats under the bed and monkeys that stole silver spoons from the table. One young woman awoke to find a civet cat drinking from her bedside glass of milk.

What I found most interesting was how British India was far more patriarchal and snobbish than Britain itself. By the twentieth century, it was possible for a working-class man with a great deal of intelligence, talent and luck to rise as high as Prime Minister, and for a well-born woman to become a Member of Parliament. This was impossible in India, where women had no status at all and “the hierarchy of the Raj position was fixed, according to service, rank and seniority in an unalterable grading . . . within which there was room for petty nuances that could be painful and damaging.”

Everyone was obsessed with their own and everyone else’s social precedence, and in a small society where nothing was private, it was thought essential to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Those who could barely afford it still kept polo ponies, paid expensive subscriptions to clubs and held elaborate dinner parties, and there was little tolerance for those regarded as ‘intellectuals’.

The stories in this book are mostly of upper-class British women, rather than, say, the women who went to India as teachers, nurses and missionaries. There are also few mentions of Indians, apart from some anonymous, silent servants and the Maharajah of Patiala, who married Miss Florence Bryan in 18931. The author clearly feels that Britain’s colonisation of India was a very good thing – after all, most of the Indian rulers prior to colonisation were cruel despots (true, but so were the rulers of most countries in the eighteenth century) and the British “left India, after independence, with an enviable infrastructure, a democratic Government and a common language”. (The book makes only passing mention of the terrible famines that resulted from the British forcing Indian farmers to grow jute and cotton, rather than food2, and of the violent suppression of pro-independence Indians3.)

'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaDespite these reservations, the book is recommended for those interested in reading about British women’s experiences in India. But I think novels can be just as useful for this purpose, so here are some of my favourites:

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The Jewel in the Crown and other novels in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden4
Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
(Actually, read all of Rumer Godden’s India books, because she’s brilliant. Anne Chisholm also wrote an excellent biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life.)
– And for a slightly different look at Europeans in India, there’s also Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai.

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  1. It was a “brief and unhappy” marriage. She was shunned by both Indians and Europeans, her infant son was poisoned, and she died of pneumonia three years later.
  2. Up to ten million Indians died in the famine of 1876-8, and a similar number in 1899-1900.
  3. For example, hundreds died at Amritsar in 1919, when British troops fired on unarmed protesters.
  4. Black Narcissus was made into a hilariously bad film in 1947. In one memorable scene, the mad nun flees through a Himalayan ‘jungle’ inhabited by kookaburras.

Top Ten Girls in Fiction

Earlier this year, CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus listed their “top 10 female protagonists in recent Australian YA literature”, to mark the occasion of Australia’s first female Prime Minister being sworn in to office. I was chuffed to see my very own Sophie FitzOsborne make the list, and it got me thinking about my own favourite fictional girls.

I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with ten of them, though. There are a lot of great girl characters in my favourite books, but often they had some fatal flaw that kicked them off my list. For example, Hermione in the Harry Potter series is clever, hard-working and loyal to Harry – but has an inexplicable fondness for Ron Weasley, a boy who spends six books mocking her intelligence, forgets to ask her to the Yule Ball and shows a complete lack of regard for her feelings (I pretend that the epilogue to Book Seven doesn’t exist). Here’s my final list, although I didn’t restrict myself to “recent”, “Australian” or “YA” fiction.

1. Myra in Apple Bough (Traveling Shoes in the US) by Noel Streatfeild

Myra broke my heart when I read this book as a ten-year-old. Myra, a “funny, solemn little thing”, is the eldest child of the Forum family, and the only one without any discernible artistic or musical talent. Her brother Sebastian is a musical prodigy touring the world and earning millions; Wolfgang is a child actor; Ettie is a celebrated dancer. All Myra wants is to live at Apple Bough, the family home, with her dog Wag, but both of these are taken away from her by Sebastian’s career – yet she still unselfishly looks after Sebastian, Wolf and Ettie for years. Myra finally starts to realise how important she is to her whole family after her perceptive grandfather tells her,

“You have a trouble which is unique in your family. You underestimate yourself.”

(Yes, Myra is finally re-united with Wag. Thank goodness.)

2. Claudia in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Claudia is imaginative and sensitive enough to want to escape the “injustice” and “monotony”of her suburban life, but she’s smart and organised enough to plan her running-away down to the smallest detail. She’s also absolutely hilarious in her attempts to control her uncontrollable little brother. I love how Claudia grows up (with some help from Mrs Frankweiler and ‘Angel’) at the end of the book.

3. Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra can be an infuriating snob (for example, see her horrible treatment of Stephen), but she’s so honest and curious about life, and so charming and articulate, that most of the time, I can overlook her flaws. It helps that she loves books as much as I do, and that she has a couple of adorable pets in Heloise and Abelard. And that she lives in a castle.

4. Nona in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden

I just adore Nona. Despite feeling shy and miserable and lost, she devotes herself to building a dollhouse for poor, homeless Miss Happiness and Miss Flower – an authentic Japanese dollhouse, even though Nona initially knows nothing about Japan. By the end of the book, Nona has drawn together not only her new family, but half the neighbourhood. She’s such an inspiration.

5. Madlyn in The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

Madlyn is a “very pretty” blonde who loves shopping (which is usually enough to stop me liking a girl character), but she’s also smart, sensible and caring, particularly when it comes to her eccentric little brother:

“She soothed him when stupid people asked after his skunk instead of his skink; she stopped the cleaning lady from throwing away the snails he kept in a jar under his bed; and when he had a nightmare she was beside him almost as soon as he woke.”

Madlyn doesn’t really want to spend two months at gloomy old Clawstone Castle, but she doesn’t complain about it, and she comes up with an ingenious plan to save the threatened Beasts. She’s also very brave during the terrifying showdown with the villains.

6. Brownie in The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park

Another elder sister (I am sensing a theme here), who’s smart, responsible, and practical. Brownie’s also quietly courageous – for example, when necessary, she grits her teeth and walks along a ledge under a gigantic waterfall, even though she’s terrified of heights. At the start of the book, her father says, “Good grief, you kids of today have no more initiative than a jellyfish”, but by the end of their adventures, he’s forced to eat his words. Go, Brownie!

7. Jo in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Is there anyone who actually prefers Meg or Amy or Beth? Okay, Jo should have married Laurie instead of that old German guy, but in every other way, Jo March is awesome.

8. Sophie in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Only a girl as thoughtful, inquisitive and imaginative as Sophie could possibly make sense of all those mysterious letters and postcards that arrive in her mailbox (or in her hedge, on her bedroom floor or stuck to the kitchen window). She’s not afraid to question her teachers and her mother during her search for philosophical truth, and she has a great sense of humour. I also really like Sophie’s real-world ally, Hilde.

9. Anaximander in Genesis by Bernard Beckett

All right, I’m taking some liberties with the definition of ‘girl’ here, but as Anaximander is described as young and female, I think she counts. Her compassion, intelligence and determination to uncover the truth is inspiring – or it would be, if we didn’t slowly realise where it was leading her. (Oh, that book’s conclusion!)

10. Agatha in Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Agatha is possibly my favourite Anne Tyler character ever, which is really saying something. She’s another eldest child, left to look after her siblings by hopeless parents, but unlike Madlyn, “Agatha never concerned herself with appearances”. She’s bullied by her classmates, but by high school, she’s “supremely indifferent, impervious” to them (“You could tell she thought prettiness was a waste of time”). However, the main reason I love Agatha is her ferocious intelligence. She’ll take on anyone in an argument – even God. Here she is having a theological debate with her Uncle Ian, who’s getting rather flustered because he’s losing:

“‘Agatha,’ Ian said, ‘there’s a great deal in the Bible that’s simply beyond our understanding.’
‘Beyond yours, maybe,’ Agatha said.”

She ends up becoming an oncologist, marries a handsome, charming doctor, and earns piles of money. I just wish there’d been a final scene where she attends a school re-union.