What I’ve Been Reading: #OzMG

I’ve been reading lots of interesting middle grade novels lately and by an Amazing Coincidence, they’re all by Australian authors.

'The Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel' by Nicki Greenberg

The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel is by Nicki Greenberg, best known for her teen-friendly graphic novel versions of literary classics such as Hamlet and The Great Gatsby. Her latest book is a detective story for middle-graders, set in the 1920s on a real-life ocean liner, the RMS Aquitania. Pepper Stark, daughter of the Captain, is very excited to be allowed to sail to New York with him and she promises to be on her best ladylike behaviour. But when an American starlet’s diamond necklace goes missing, Pepper evades her governess and bands together with some new friends to solve the mystery and save her father’s reputation. This novel is full of vivid descriptions of the ship and its routines, with special attention paid to the elaborate meals prepared for the first class passengers. The author clearly did a lot of careful research. I did find the characters were flat and stereotypical and the mystery takes quite a while to develop. However, the concluding chapters are exciting and fast-paced with some clever plot twists. This will appeal to middle graders who are proficient readers, interested in history (particularly those obsessed with the Titanic) and who enjoy Agatha Christie-style mysteries.

'Huda and Me' by H Hayek

Huda and Me is a funny, lively debut novel by H. Hayek, based on her own large Australian-Lebanese Muslim family. Twelve-year-old Akeal, his mischievous little sister Huda, and their five siblings are left at home under the care of a family friend, ‘Aunt’ Amal, when their parents travel to Lebanon. Unfortunately Aunt Amal is completely horrible to all of them except their adorable baby brother, so Huda hatches a plan to escape and Akeal is reluctantly dragged along. Akeal is an endearing narrator — thoughtful, caring and able to draw on hidden reserves of strength when his family is in danger. This book is rightly being celebrated for showing some of the diversity of modern Australian life and depicting the challenges young Australian Muslims can face (for example, in one scene, an Australian boy tries to pull off Huda’s hijab and Akeal bravely stands up for his sister).

However, this book reminded me that diversity in publishing does not mean pushing one particular, progressive viewpoint, but rather, publishing a range of books that reflect all aspects of society, including conservative, patriarchal, religious viewpoints. There is nothing subtle about this author’s message. All the male characters — Akeal, his father, their elderly neighbour, the male flight attendant, a security guard at the airport, a taxi driver who offers the children his own home-cooked lunch — are strong, compassionate heroes who are good at their jobs and always do the brave, right thing, even if it sometimes means disobeying the rules. (The boy who abuses Huda rapidly repents when Akeal confronts him, then he helps Huda and Akeal escape.) The villains — deranged Aunt Amal and a belligerent female flight attendant — are all women who don’t have children. Girls can be as feisty as Huda until puberty, this book suggests, but after that they need to be excellent at cooking (like Huda’s twin sisters), proficient at hair, make-up and beauty treatments (Huda’s eldest sister), then get married and have at least half a dozen children (Huda’s saintly mother, who is so passive that when she finds out her beloved children are in danger, her response is to cry and leave her young son and husband to sort out the problem). According to this book, girls who don’t fulfil their God-given destiny to become housewives and mothers will either turn into crazy baby kidnappers or ice-hearted, child-hating career women. Do I agree with these anti-feminist messages? Obviously not. Would I give this book to young readers? Sure, it’s a fun, Dahl-esque read with good male role models. But I’d then give those readers one of the many middle-grade books that show that girls can also grow up to be strong, compassionate and competent, whether they choose to marry and have children, or not.

'Elsewhere Girls' by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman

For example, Elsewhere Girls by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman, an enjoyable time-slip adventure, in which thirteen-year-old Cat from Sydney finds herself in the body of a teenage girl in 1908, who just happens to be Fanny Durack, future Olympic swimming champion. There’s lots of amusement as Fanny, living in 2021 in Cat’s body, tries to make sense of mobile phones, microwave ovens and aeroplanes. Meanwhile, Cat is horrified by her new life as one of ten siblings living above a Surry Hills pub, where it takes an entire day to do the laundry and girls aren’t allowed to swim in front of men. The authors acknowledge their debt to classic time slip novels, including Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, one of my favourite books. There is some serious commentary in Elsewhere Girls on how much life has improved for girls and women, but this is aimed at middle-graders so it avoids the more grim, confronting realities of life in Edwardian Sydney slums (unlike Playing Beatie Bow, in which poor Abigail gets kidnapped and locked in a brothel). Elsewhere Girls is recommended for about twelve years and up, particularly girls interested in history and feminism.

'Footprints on the Moon' by Lorraine Marwood

Footprints on the Moon by Lorraine Marwood is set in more recent history, in 1969. In her first year of high school, Sharnie is dealing with a lot — her best friend turning into a Mean Girl, the death of her beloved grandmother, and family conflict due to her elder sister Cas protesting against the Vietnam War. Sharnie makes a new friend who is grieving over the death of her brother, a war conscript, and the two friends join forces with Cas to celebrate the moon landing and protest against the war in a creative way. This is a verse novel, a collection of beautifully written poems with careful use of metaphor and moon imagery, arranged in narrative form. It’s well researched and has an important message, so teachers and literary award committees will love it, but I must admit I found it a bit dull and worthy. However, I’d recommend it for thoughtful young readers dealing with the death of a grandparent or those who are interested in the moon landing.

'Are You There, Buddha?' by Pip Harry

Are You There, Buddha? by Pip Harry also has a narrator in her first year of high school, also dealing with a range of problems, but this was a delight to read. Bee’s mother has abandoned her to live in an Indian ashram, her best friend Leon is showing worrying signs of having a crush on her, her well-meaning stepmum keeps meddling in her life, a Mean Girl at swimming practice is making life difficult … and worst of all, her body is changing, with stretch marks, new breasts and the dreaded start of periods. Bee is such a lively, funny, sweet narrator, always trying to do the right thing, although not always succeeding. I especially liked the realistic depiction of menstruation — cramps and blood stains and trying to insert a tampon for the first time and the inevitable bad timing of the start of a period (an especially annoying thing for Bee because she’s a competitive swimmer). The only odd thing about this book is that it’s described as a verse novel, but to me, it just seemed like a book written in clear, simple prose with odd punctuation, with sentences broken up to create more white space on the page and make it more appealing to reluctant readers. There’s nothing particularly poetic about the language:

“I open the door
and he tips
a pile of picture books
on the floor.”

So, I don’t think it’s a verse novel but it is an excellent read. I’d recommend it for girls (and boys) aged about ten years and up.

'Dragon Skin' by Karen Foxlee

Finally, Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee is an exquisitely written novel, a sad, gritty but hopeful story about a ten-year-old girl living in outback Australia in dire circumstances. Pip’s mother’s boyfriend is abusive and her only school friend has died. Then Pip finds a tiny, half-dead dragon by the waterhole and her quest to save ‘Little Fella’ and return him to where he came from changes her in profound ways. She makes new friends and ultimately moves on to a better life. The descriptions of Mount Isa are beautiful, each character is real and interesting, and the publishers have produced a gorgeous hardcover edition with lovely cover art, endpapers and line drawings. I’ve no doubt this book will win all the awards. However, it’s definitely for thoughtful, mature readers and is possibly a book that will appeal more to adult readers than child readers.

What I’ve Been Reading

My author website and blog have had major technical issues over the past month, but everything’s now restored with a new web hosting service, so hopefully there won’t be further problems. FitzOsborne Press is also back with a new website, for those who’d like to buy a copy of Dr Huxley’s Bequest for Christmas/New Year/winter vacation/summer holiday reading.

I’m also very relieved that my local library is open again and I’ve been reading some good books (also some not-very-good books, but I don’t blog about them).

'When the Ground is Hard' by Malla NunnWhen the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn was a fascinating YA novel set in a Christian boarding school in 1965 Swaziland. Sixteen-year-old Adele, the daughter of a Swazi woman and a white South African married man, is a sweet, rule-abiding student until she’s abandoned by her mean-girl friends and forced to share a room with angry, rebellious Lottie. The two girls’ growing friendship is beautifully portrayed as they face profound challenges, including a fire at school and the disappearance of a classmate. There are grim, constant reminders of how class, race and sex determine who has power in their society and there are no easy resolutions to Adele’s problems, but female friendship and family bonds are celebrated and Adele’s kindness and optimism are shown to be strengths. Malla Nunn is best known in Australia for her adult crime fiction, but she has another YA novel out now, Sugar Town Queens, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

'Room for a Stranger' by Melanie ChengI also enjoyed Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng. This is a thoughtful, empathetic novel about two vulnerable people — an elderly white woman living alone in her Melbourne house and a lonely university student from Hong Kong who is struggling with his studies — who are brought together through a homestay program. The writing is incisive but compassionate, the story is moving without lapsing into sentimentality, and even the minor characters are multidimensional. I read this in a single day because I was so invested in how things would turn out. I’d previously liked this author’s collection of short stories, Australia Day, but this novel, her first, is even better.

'The Apothecary' by Maile MeloyFinally, The Apothecary by Maile Meloy was an enthralling, fast-paced fantasy set in Cold War England in 1952. Fourteen-year-old Janie has been forced to leave her Hollywood home because her screenwriter parents are under suspicion of being Communist sympathisers. Arriving in London, Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his teenage son, and soon she’s caught up in an international conspiracy to save the world from destruction, led by a secret society of alchemists who can freeze time, become invisible and transform into animals. It did seem as though the publishers weren’t sure whether this was young adult or middle grade fiction – the main characters are fourteen, there’s romance and kissing, and there’s a lot of discussion of Cold War politics, but the illustrations make it look like middle grade and the serious moral dilemmas aren’t explored in any depth. I also must point out that despite enjoying most of this book, the final few pages really annoyed me. Without being too spoilery, the good guys do something to Janie that completely removes her agency and is a terrible invasion of her privacy and dignity, so that they can escape the bad guys. Worse, when Janie finds out what they’ve done, she isn’t angry — she giggles. I can understand why the author thought this was a neat magical ending. But why on earth didn’t her editor point out that this destroyed the Girl Power message of the rest of the book and suggest some changes that gave Janie some choice in the matter? It bothered me enough that I’m not inclined to read the next two books in this trilogy, but if anyone has read them and liked them, please do let me know. This was otherwise a really engrossing adventure with an interesting historical setting.

My Favourite Books of 2020

I didn’t read many new books this year. This was a year of re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves, partly because I was craving familiar, comforting reads, but mostly because my beloved local library was closed for most of the year. I did acquire Clara, which allowed me to read ebooks, but I’ve decided I prefer paper books, given a choice.

Favourite Novels for Adults

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossI began the year engrossed in Tana French’s The Wych Elm, an inventive thriller about privilege and identity. I also enjoyed The Secret Place, by the same author, a cleverly constructed murder mystery set in a posh Dublin boarding school, and I liked Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, a typically compassionate and thoughtful depiction of a flawed man. However, the most memorable fiction I read this year was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a tense, affecting novella about men using their dubious versions of history to strengthen their hold on power.

Favourite Non-Fiction

I liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, about the actual history behind the TV series, even though I gave up on watching The Crown after the first series. I didn’t seem to read many non-fiction books this year, which is unusual for me. I think it was due to the lack of access to my library, but also because I was reading so much depressing pandemic-related non-fiction online.

Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

'Liar and Spy' by Rebecca SteadI enjoyed Kate Constable’s new middle-grade novel, The January Stars, as well as an older novel of hers, Winter of Grace, about a contemplative teenage girl who explores spirituality and religion in a way that isn’t often seen in Australian Young Adult literature. I also liked Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, about a middle-grade boy who bravely faces up to unpleasant reality and devises a clever plan to defeat some school bullies. As always, I enjoyed her depiction of children’s lives in Brooklyn – I have no idea how accurate it is, but she makes New York seem so appealing. I was also entertained (and often confused) by Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which is full of plot twists and surprises. I’m not sure it is truly a children’s book and it lacks the warmth of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was very clever and intriguing. 'Dragonfly Song' by Wendy OrrHowever, my favourite children’s read was, unexpectedly, a novel told partly in verse about a girl living in a Bronze Age Mediterranean culture ruled by superstition. Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr was an engrossing story about a lifestyle completely unfamiliar to me, told in simple but descriptive language. It has deservedly won a number of literary awards and there’s a good interview with the author about the book here.

Favourite Read That Was Not A Book

When life felt really dismal this year, I escaped to Hedgehog Moss Farm, a small farm in the south of France, owned by a young woman who works as a translator and lives with her Eeyore-ish donkey Pirlouit; her llamas, well-behaved Pampelune and escape-artist Pampérigouste; some photogenic cats and chickens; and a gentle giant guard dog called Pandolf. She describes interactions with her animals and her neighbours in such a droll manner that each blog post is a delight. There are beautiful photos and videos of rural life, interspersed with artwork and literary quotes. Her writing style reminds me a little of Gerald Durrell – if she ever decides to write a book, I would happily buy it.

I don’t know what I’m reading these holidays, but I am planning a chapter-by-chapter discussion of Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term, with the first post up this week (probably). I hope all you Memoranda readers manage to have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday season, after a year we’d all like to forget, and that 2021 brings better news for the world.

The Mystery of the Dashing Widower: A FitzOsbornes Story

I’d planned to publish this for Love Your Bookshop Day, to say thank you to all the Australian booksellers who have worked so hard to keep us supplied with books during the pandemic. Unfortunately, Love Your Bookshop Day was two weeks ago. I would have known the correct date if I was still on Twitter. But not being on Twitter meant I had lots more spare time to write this. Swings and roundabouts. So, here, belatedly, for booksellers and book readers, is a fluffy FitzOsbornes short story. I’m afraid it won’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve read The FitzOsbornes at War.

The Mystery of the Dashing Widower

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Miss Lancaster’s job at the bookshop — apart from the unlimited access to books, of course — was contemplating the hidden lives of the customers. Such mysteries! There was The Major, a gruff elderly gentleman who always had a Mills and Boon romance concealed in the stack of military history books he brought up to the counter each month. (“For the wife,” he’d muttered, when he saw Miss Lancaster’s glance snag upon Desire is Blind. She wasn’t sure if it would be more endearing if this turned out to be the truth or a lie.) There was the tall, thin lady who was slowly making her way through a badly-foxed copy of The Interpretation of Dreams in the dimmest corner of the shop, marking her place each week with a red cotton thread. There was The Brunette in Blue, who always contrived to be in the shop at the exact same time as The Shy Accountant, although Miss Lancaster had never managed to catch them exchanging a single word, let alone touching.

However, her favourite mystery by far was the Dashing Widower, whom she’d first encountered two years ago when he’d rushed in and begged for book recommendations.

“It’s for my sister,” he’d said. “She’s very clever and has read absolutely everything but we must keep her in bed, doctor’s advice, you see, first baby and all, and magazines and newspapers simply aren’t working anymore.”

“Ah,” said Miss Lancaster, brightening. It had been a very dull afternoon and the young gentleman had blond curls and sparkling blue eyes and a charming smile. “Well, what interests her?”

“The human condition,” he said solemnly, then laughed. “Let’s see. She likes Austen and Trollope and the Brontës and there’s a novel she’s just finished, I wrote down its author — Davey, I have to put you down for a moment while I find that note.” He’d been carrying a dark-haired child, perhaps two years old, who grumbled quietly as he was lowered to the floor. “Look, old chap, a book about yachts, you’ll adore that. Here we are — Rumer Godden. Can that be right? Is that really someone’s name?”

Up close, the gentleman was older than she’d first thought, with scarred flesh running down the side of his face and neck. He limped, and later she realised he had a wooden leg. The war, she supposed. What a tragedy, and then to have lost his wife, too — because surely he was a widower. Why else would a man spend so much time looking after his small children? Because soon after that, he began to visit the shop every couple of weeks or so, sometimes with a baby in a fancy silver perambulator, more often with his son on their way back from sailing toy boats in Hyde Park. He mostly bought books for the children, Ladybirds and Dr Seuss and a beautiful leather-bound collection of fairy tales. Sometimes he accepted further recommendations for his sister (“The Grand Sophy! Oh, yes, that’s perfect.”), but he always claimed he didn’t read himself.

“You do, Daddy,” corrected Davey. “You read about aeroplanes.”

“Yes, maintenance manuals,” said his father, and Miss Lancaster filed that away. Ex-RAF? Former fighter pilot? Current pilot? Except he didn’t ever seem to go to work.

“We had a box of Biggles come in this morning,” she offered. “Excellent condition.” She picked up Biggles Sees It Through and handed it over. A curious expression came over his face and he went very still.

“What’s that?” said Davey, peering closer.

His father shook his head and smiled down at the boy.

“Sorry, lost in thought. Your aunt loved these books. Oh, look, Davey, The Adventures of Wonk: Going To Sea! Shall we get that one?”

Miss Lancaster stayed well away from aeroplanes — indeed, anything military — after that. Her standard recommendation for men who claimed not to read was a collection of humorous short stories, but she didn’t dare suggest P. G. Wodehouse, not after all the fuss about his broadcasts during the war. Nazi propaganda, they’d called it. Sometimes it felt as though the war would never be over…

Months later, Miss Lancaster spied the Dashing Widower by The Serpentine with a pretty blonde who looked so much like him that she could only have been his sister. Davey was hurling bread at the ducks, his sister had by then grown big enough to stand on her own legs and the lady was fussing over a smaller baby in the now-familiar perambulator. Her baby? Presumably. She did not, Miss Lancaster had to admit, look like a Biggles fan, but appearances could be deceiving.

However interesting this sighting was, it was nothing compared to the momentous afternoon the following year. Miss Lancaster had been walking through Belgravia. This was not, strictly speaking, on her way home, but sometimes she couldn’t resist the lure of those grand old mansions, so imposing, so intriguing. Since the war, some of them had been turned into embassies — mostly for tiny countries no one had ever heard of, but still, imagine all the fascinating people inside, the diplomats and press officers and spies… She turned a corner and there, across the road, was the Dashing Widower with little Davey, talking to one of the most beautiful women Miss Lancaster had ever seen in real life. She looked like a film star, except she was dressed in a sensible navy trouser suit and her only makeup was a slash of scarlet lipstick. The three of them were standing on the steps of the grandest house on the street and the resemblance between Davey and the woman was striking.

Miss Lancaster did some hasty editing of her mental file. Not a widower, then? Perhaps his beautiful wife was one of those modern career women and he’d agreed to take care of the children? Because his injuries were so serious that he knew he could never work again? Although she suspected that no one who lived in a house like that would ever need to worry about working at any sort of ordinary job. Old money, as her boss had said that morning when he’d returned from that deceased-estate auction in the country. Miss Lancaster sidled rapidly across the road to the neighbouring house and arranged herself behind a marble pillar, where she spent some time with her head bent over her handbag, carefully adjusting and re-adjusting the leather strap.

“I must go,” said the lady. “Meeting Daniel for tea at Westminster.”

Could she be a lady MP?

The woman climbed into a rather battered-looking motor car and Davey waved vigorously as she drove off.

“Bye, Aunt Veronica!” he cried.

Ah. Not his mother, then. An aunt, and this one looked even less like a Biggles reader. Miss Lancaster was just wondering whether she could stroll ahead now, perhaps nod hello and get a glimpse of their foyer as they opened their front door, when a far more impressive motor car pulled up and Cary Grant stepped out.

Well, not Cary Grant, because he was in Hollywood, but close enough, double-breasted pin-striped Savile Row suit and all. Davey ran down the stairs and threw himself at the man.

“Oh, you just missed Veronica,” said the Dashing Widower.

“Good,” said Not Cary Grant, hoisting up Davey. “How’s my boy?” he asked with obvious affection, and now Miss Lancaster could see the family resemblance between those two as well. “Is Julia back yet?”

“Yes,” said the Dashing Widower. “And the meeting went exactly as you predicted. But never fear, she’s plotting her next move.”

“You were away for two days,” said Davey accusingly, holding up two fingers.

“Yes, and I missed you,” said Not Cary Grant.

“Did you miss Mummy?”

“Yes.” He put the child down so that he could pull his suitcase out of the car.

“Did you miss Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“Did you miss Mr Simpkins?”

“Who’s Mr Simpkins?”

“The cat with three legs.”

“The one that chewed up my favourite silk tie? No, I did not miss him. And I wish your uncle would stop foisting all these defective animals on us—”

The three of them disappeared through the glossy red front door, which shut firmly behind them before Miss Lancaster could catch a glimpse of the interior.

Miss Lancaster pursed her lips. This was getting very confusing.

She had progressed no further with solving the mystery of the Devoted Father, as she’d re-named him, on an icy winter’s afternoon a few months later. Anyone who had any choice in the matter would have been tucked up by the fire at home with tea and crumpets. Davey, however, had birthday money to spend and was taking this book-buying expedition very seriously.

“I could get this one about sailing ships and this quite small book about a fireman or I could get this very, very good book about how to defend a castle from invaders…”

'Girl Reading' by Emil BrackMeanwhile, his little sister was sitting on the rug in the children’s section, her stout legs stretched out in front of her. She was the most angelic-looking child, all golden curls and enormous blue-green eyes, but her rosebud frock had mud smeared down the front. (“Toni fell in a puddle,” Davey had said disapprovingly. “On purpose. And she just laughed.”) Her father was holding up a book for her approval.

“I want bunny,” she said.

“We say please when we want something. And we do not need any more bunny books,” said her father. “Now, who’s this? Look, he’s grey and has floppy ears!” He handed her The Story of Babar, which she examined dubiously. “You sit here quietly and look at this for a moment. Davey! Have you decided yet?”

The little boy was frowning at two books. “I decided, but I don’t have enough money. This one costs two shillings and two pence and this very, very good one is three shillings and nine pence.”

“So how much are they, when you add them up?”

“Five shillings and eleven pence. But I only have five shillings and eight pence.” He held out a palmful of coins.

“So how much more money do you need?”

“I’m only four, Daddy,” said Davey. “I can do adding up, but I can’t do adding down.”

“It’s called subtracting and yes, you can. You were doing it this morning. Here, I’m going to lend you thruppence and you can pay me back from your jam jar when we get home. How much do you have now?”

“Five shillings and eleven pence!”

“So if you subtract three pence from five shillings and eleven pence, you get—?”

“Daddy, Toni is climbing the wall.”

Miss Lancaster, distracted by the arithmetic lesson, had also failed to notice the little girl, who had tucked her dress into her bloomers and scaled the bookshelf in the Natural History section as far up as Alpine Flora and Fauna.

“Good Lord, I leave you alone for thirty seconds!” said her father, who’d dashed over to rescue her. “No climbing, Toni! That’s very naughty. You could hurt yourself. And look, now you’ve torn your new dress—”

“Excuse me, I would like to pay for these books, please,” said a firm voice somewhere below the counter.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Miss Lancaster, leaning over to take the books and handful of coins from Davey. “Thank you, that’s the exact amount. Shall I wrap them for you?”

“No, thank you. I will put them in my bag.” Davey was carefully stowing them away in his satchel when his father came up, carrying the little girl.

“Give the book to the lady, please,” said the Devoted Father, rather wearily.

“No!” Toni clutched the book and shook her head. Then she suddenly changed her mind and thrust The Bunney-Fluffs’ Moving Day at Miss Lancaster, with a dazzling smile that showed off two new pearly teeth.

“Ah, a bunny book. How nice,” said Miss Lancaster blandly. “That will be 2/6, please. Shall I wrap it for you?”

“Put this in your bag, please, Davey,” said the Devoted Father. “Right! Have we got everything? Toni, where are your mittens? Let’s go or we’ll be late for tea. Remember, we’re going to see Elizabeth this afternoon.”

“Princess Elizabeth?” said Davey, and Miss Lancaster’s eyes widened.

“So we’ll be on our best behaviour, won’t we, Toni?”

“Bunny book,” said Toni.

“Yes, you can share your bunny book with her. I’m sure she’ll love that. Good afternoon,” he said, nodding to Miss Lancaster. “Terribly sorry about the mountaineering. Won’t happen again.” He herded the children out and the bell clanged behind them.

Miss Lancaster propped her elbow on the counter and her chin on her hand. She was considering getting some cushions for the children’s section and perhaps a Winnie-the-Pooh to sit on the windowsill. Her boss said she should not encourage children in the shop because they were noisy and smelly and had sticky fingers, but Miss Lancaster had pointed out that this also applied to a significant number of their grown-up customers. She very much enjoyed observing the various children who visited the bookshop and remained hopeful that one day, little Davey would let slip enough information to enable her to solve the mystery of the Devoted Father. In the meantime, she was going to put the kettle on. She was planning to have a nice cup of tea and an arrowroot biscuit. And then she had a box of Margery Allingham detective stories to sort through. Miss Lancaster really did adore her job.

© Michelle Cooper 2020

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.