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!

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!

Five Feminist Books

Happy International Women’s Day! I thought I’d mark the occasion by recommending some feminist books. Social media has its uses and there are lots of interesting feminist blogs and online forums, but sometimes you just want a well-argued, well-edited volume written by someone who knows what she’s talking about.

I do try to keep up with the latest books from young feminists (for example, I’ve read Princesses and Pornstars by Emily Maguire, Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford and How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran), but I often find myself underwhelmed by these books. They tend to be memoirs, heavy on anecdotes from the lives of the authors and their friends, but skimpy on historical facts, scientific evidence and feminist theory. There is nothing wrong with books about the personal experiences of women, but when these authors are white, heterosexual and famous, their experiences don’t necessarily have universal appeal or relevance. Still, these particular authors aren’t writing for me. Hopefully, the young women (and men) buying those books find them thought-provoking and life-changing. And if those readers ever decide they want to learn more about feminism, they could try some of these feminist books from the last fifty years:

1. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)

'The Female Eunuch' by Germaine Greer

You cannot possibly claim to be well-informed about feminism if you haven’t read this book. Despite Germaine Greer’s scary reputation, this is really not a difficult read. It’s a clever, provocative, funny, infuriating argument about how and why women have been oppressed for centuries, backed up with hundreds of cultural references. It’s not her best book and it contains plenty of statements I disagree with, but it’s a great introduction to her work.

2. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem (1983)

'Outrageous Acts' by Gloria Steinem

While Germaine Greer was busy being a bolshy intellectual, Gloria Steinem was disguising herself as a Playboy Bunny in order to infiltrate the toxic world of men’s clubs. This book is a collection of some of her best-known magazine articles, including I Was a Playboy Bunny, If Men Could Menstruate and In Praise of Women’s Bodies, as well as essays on Marilyn Monroe, Linda Lovelace and Alice Walker. Ms Steinem’s focus is American political and social life, written in a warm, funny, inclusive manner, although there are also essays on international issues including female genital mutilation and the politics of food. Those who think intersectional feminism was invented in the last five years might find their beliefs challenged by this book.

3. Stiffed by Susan Faludi (1999)

'Stiffed' by Susan Faludi

Susan Faludi is an American journalist best known for her 1991 book Backlash, but Stiffed is a great read for those who falsely believe that feminism only benefits women. Ms Faludi began by investigating a group of male domestic violence perpetrators who’d been ordered to attend counselling. Her initial assumption was that “the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing unrelated to something being done to them.” What she eventually discovered, after years of interviews with male factory workers, athletes, military cadets, sports fans, porn stars, evangelical husbands and more, was that many men felt betrayed after losing jobs, skills and life roles in America’s post-war cultural upheaval, but were unable to work together to form a male equivalent of the women’s liberation movement. Her research is meticulous, but it’s the men’s personal stories that make this so fascinating.

4. Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine (2010)

'Delusions of Gender' by Cordelia Fine

This is a book to press upon people who believe that girls are inherently emotional and chatty and unable to read maps, while boys are innately superior at rational thinking, designing bridges and running the world. Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian cognitive neuroscientist, analyses the current research and produces a compelling argument that there is very little difference between male and female brains, with the small cognitive variations that do exist easily explained by the different social and cultural worlds experienced by girls and boys from birth. This is often a very funny and entertaining read, especially when she’s taking potshots at Simon Baron-Cohen, but there’s a hundred pages of footnotes and bibliography to back it up.

5. Bluff Your Way in Feminism by Constance Leoff (1987)

'Bluff Your Way in Feminism' by Constance Leoff

You probably won’t be able to find a copy of this, but it’s a little gem of a book, rocketing through five thousand years of feminist history, from Aristoclea and Sappho, through Aphra Behn and Susan B. Anthony and Simone de Beauvoir, to Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou. There are also lots of hilarious feminist quotes, useful explanations about the different types of feminism, and a handy glossary if you’re confused about terms such as ‘biological determinism’ and ‘parthenogenesis’.

You might also be interested in reading:

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

‘Lies Sleeping’ by Ben Aaronovitch

'Lies Sleeping' by Ben AaronovitchI’d been saving this latest installment of the Rivers of London series for the holidays, when I’d have time to enjoy it, and it was worth the wait. Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel about Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard – part of an ongoing series of novels, novellas, short stories and comics. Ben Aaronovitch has said that he’ll keep writing the books “till I die or people stop reading them”, and while the last few novels have been enjoyable, they have felt a bit chaotic, with concluding chapters that raised more questions than answered them. Fortunately, in Lies Sleeping, the author chooses to focus on one major story line that has been present since the start and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. There are still villains to be thwarted, but it’s good to see justice done.

It’s difficult to discuss this book without giving away plot details, but here are my vague, spoiler-free thoughts.

Things I loved:
– I am not usually a fan of fight scenes, but I absolutely love all the bits where Nightingale unleashes his power, whether he’s blasting his enemy through the ceiling or ‘persuading’ a suspect to answer his questions.

– There’s plenty of fascinating London history, going back to the Romans, and it’s actually related to the plot, rather than simply being Peter getting distracted by architecture. Not that I ever mind Peter rambling on about history. The more history, the better.

– Peter’s narration is always so much fun (“I was pleased to discover that the patented acid-resistant soles of my Doc Martens were also vampire resistant”) and I love when his geeky fanboy knowledge comes in handy for interpreting, say, Dwarvish runes (“From the films, though, not the books”).

– Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja doing … what she does.

– That there was finally some acknowledgement of the immense psychological stress that affects anyone involved in Folly business. You know things are bad when both Seawoll and Nightingale are urging Peter to see a therapist.

– I also liked that there was some discussion of religion, with Peter discussing how he’s an atheist, even though his girlfriend is literally a goddess. I’d really like to hear Guleed’s thoughts on this.

– Seawoll co-operating with Nightingale! And Stephanopoulos being so heroic!

– That thing that happens involving Molly! The backstory was awful, but the end was so lovely.

– All the callbacks to previous books, which gives me hope that my still-unanswered questions will eventually be addressed in a future book.

And things that made me go hmmm:
– Abigail. For all the same reasons I didn’t like her characterisation in The Furthest Station. At one stage, Aaronovitch mentioned a spin-off YA series starring Abigail and I really hope he doesn’t go ahead with that. I know this is a fantasy series, but Abigail is meant to be a regular London kid and yet she’s turned into SuperPerfectAbigail.

– There are always plot holes in these books, which I usually ignore, but there were a few scenes when things obviously happened to create interesting conflict or prolong the narrative, not because they made any sense, and that’s annoying.

– I was also annoyed that readers need to have read all the related novellas, comics and associated works to understand everything in these novels. I’ve read three of the five (or six?) comics, so I picked up some references, but there were other bits where I felt I was missing something. For example, has there been an explanation of the foxes in one of the comics? (The foxes were great, by the way, just confusing.) And the religion discussion takes on a different meaning if you know that Max is an acolyte of Beverley’s, not just her handyman. The problem is that I far prefer the books to the comics, because the comics are the old-fashioned kind, full of Ladies With Implausibly Large Breasts Who Tend To Wear Skimpy Clothes Or Be Naked For No Apparent Reason, alongside a lot of Violent Gentlemen With Excessive Muscles. I don’t want to have to read more of the comics, but now I suppose I’ll have to, and that makes me grumpy.

– I cannot see how anything good can come of Nightingale’s offer to teach magic to that particular character whom Peter correctly labels “entitled”, although I suppose it could lead to exciting magical battles down the track.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to the next book, due in June. If you’ve read this and have any thoughts, please do comment below – just assume there’ll be spoilers in the comments.

My Favourite Books of 2018

Well, that was a year. A year in which a lot of my favourite reads involved escapism and humour, because the real world was not an especially fun place to be. I read 54 books that were new to me (I don’t count re-reads). About a third of these books were adult non-fiction, a third were adult fiction, and the remaining third were books for children and teenagers. Here are the books that I liked the most in 2018:

Adult Fiction

'Behind The Scenes At The Museum' by Kate AtkinsonBehind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson was a brilliantly funny account of a Yorkshire childhood, related by a not-entirely-reliable narrator with a lot of eccentric relatives. I don’t know how I managed to get this far in life without reading any Kate Atkinson novels, but clearly I need to read the rest of her work. I also enjoyed whimsical, meandering Winter by Ali Smith, another new-to-me writer whose work I need to explore. I have read most of Alan Hollinghurst’s books and The Sparsholt Affair was optimistic and heartwarming (not words I ever thought I’d use to describe a Hollinghurst novel), a beautifully observed story about the families that gay men and lesbians construct for themselves.

Non-Fiction

'Girt' by David HuntThe Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the hilarious story behind one of the worst movies ever made, was a truly fascinating read. I also enjoyed Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt, a very silly and mostly accurate history of the first decades of colonial Australia, and How Not To Be A Boy, Robert Webb’s funny, thoughtful memoir about a boyhood spent absorbing toxic messages about masculinity.

'Depends What You Mean By Extremist' by John SafranI also liked John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Safran gets to know Muslims who support ISIS; Muslims who hate ISIS but also hate Jews, Christians and gay people; Jews who hate Muslims; white supremacists who aren’t as white as you’d expect; anarchists who hate racists but think anti-Semitic violence is okay; and conservative Christians who hate Muslims even though there doesn’t seem to be much practical difference between their belief systems. While most of these extremists come across as confused attention-seekers with no real ability to threaten society, Safran makes the serious point that most Australians – secular, rational, democratic Australians – don’t understand “the mindset of the devout: magical thinking, seeing patterns in the world, a sense that there are no coincidences, a determination that friends and strangers must be saved, karma and providence”. This was a timely read, full of Safran being his usual annoying but hilarious self.

Children’s Books

'The Terrible Two' by Jory John and Mac BarnettFor some reason, none of the Young Adult books I read this year captured my interest. I’m sure it was me, rather than the books, which were mostly well-reviewed and award-winning. I had more luck with books aimed at younger readers. I liked The Endsister by Penni Russon, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest. I also enjoyed the first book in The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell, with well-drawn characters, a clever plot and lots of humour.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on Memoranda posts this year, with special thanks to the Antonia Forest fans who make such thoughtful contributions whenever I do a Forest read-along. I haven’t been blogging much lately due to um, life, but I hope to get back into it now that I’m on holiday. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and Happy End of 2018 to everyone else!

‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang

“I used to think being successful meant having enough to eat, but now that I was getting free lunch at school, I wondered if I should set my standards higher.”

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (Australian cover)

It’s 1993 and ten-year-old Mia Tang has migrated from China to America with her parents. They’d hoped for a better life in the Land of the Free, but they’re reduced to living out of their car and taking whatever badly-paid casual jobs they can find. It seems like a miracle when Mr Yao, the owner of a motel near Disneyland, offers them accommodation plus wages if they’ll manage his motel. There’s even a swimming pool! But ‘coal-hearted’ Mr Yao exploits them mercilessly, penalising them for infractions of his ever-changing rules (and he definitely doesn’t want Mia or anyone else actually swimming in the pool). Mia’s parents exhaust themselves with the constant cleaning, laundry and repairs, while Mia appoints herself front desk manager, dealing with missing keys, stolen cars and belligerent drunks. Things are even worse for her at school, where her teacher criticises her English and Mr Yao’s nasty son encourages the class to laugh at Mia’s cheap clothes. Mia’s only schoolfriend Lupe, a Mexican immigrant, is convinced the two of them are stuck on a “rollercoaster” of poverty that they can never get off, but Mia, with the help of the motel’s permanent residents, finds a way to improve the lives of her family and friends.

The author does an admirable job of addressing some heavy topics – including racism, immigration and poverty – in an accessible way for middle-grade readers, but Front Desk is also an engrossing and entertaining story featuring a smart, creative heroine. Mia is far from perfect, but she has a good heart and she learns from her many mistakes. The other characters are similarly nuanced. Mia’s mother loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but her ambition combined with their desperate circumstances can make her ruthless. Mia’s father is more sympathetic, but he’s fairly inept. Mia’s teacher, though well-meaning, is clueless about Mia’s struggles. Both Mr Yao and a Chinese-American security guard hold appallingly racist views about African-Americans. And even Mr Yao’s horrible son, bullied by his own father, finds the courage to be compassionate when Mia needs his help.

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (US cover)It’s especially nice that books and writing (and an enormous thesaurus) are the key to most of Mia’s eventual successes, whether she’s penning a threatening letter to the exploitative boss of an illegal immigrant friend or she’s writing down her family’s story to win a class competition. I must admit that the novel’s conclusion seemed implausibly optimistic and saccharine to me, but by that stage, I was so happy to see good triumph over evil that I didn’t mind too much. The author, Kelly Yang, provides useful notes at the end of the book, explaining that Mia’s story is based on her own experiences helping her migrant parents run motels in California in the 1980s and 1990s. She notes that these immigrants were “particularly vulnerable to exploitation and hardship. No group of Chinese immigrants before or since came with quite so little and gave up quite so much.” Front Desk offers a strong argument in favour of #OwnVoices, because it rings with authenticity. Its messages about immigration and racism are sadly relevant today, but don’t be put off, thinking this is all Serious Discussion of Worthy Issues – it’s simply a good, fun, heartwarming story.

What I’ve Been Reading: Novels by Women

'The Gathering' by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright was an engrossing novel about a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and specifically, about the terrible consequences of covering up abusive behaviour. It was often frustrating to read because the narrator was so unreliable – how can we hope for justice when we can’t be sure of the truth? – but this is entirely consistent with how a child’s memory of trauma works. The back-and-forth timeline was effective, if occasionally confusing, and the prose was visceral and vivid. It gave me nightmares, but I’m glad I read it and I think it was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

'Winter' by Ali Smith

Winter by Ali Smith was even more confusing, but provided a more pleasant reading experience. It’s a meandering, whimsical piece of writing about an elderly woman who is being followed around her Cornish mansion by a disembodied head. Sophia and Head then find themselves hosting some unwelcome family guests at Christmas. It’s not a conventional narrative, but it’s often very funny and the author has a lot of thoughtful things to say about politics, art, feminism, climate change, family relationships, social media and much, much more. I was struck by how contemporary this book was – it was published last year and contains references not just to Brexit, but Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts, the Grenfell Tower fire and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

'Clock Dance' by Anne Tyler

I don’t think Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is her best novel, but it’s enjoyable and thoughtful and ultimately satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. Much like Ladder of Years, it’s the story of a middle-aged woman with a horrible husband and unappreciative offspring, who travels to a new community where she makes friends and is valued for her kindness and home-making abilities. It has a few too many self-consciously quirky Baltimore characters and is a little too willing to avoid some dark topics, but I liked it very much.

'Bluebottle' by Belinda Castles

Finally, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles was an intriguing read. It’s another dysfunctional-family-forced-to-confront-past-trauma story (Are there any happy families in novels? Would there be any point in writing about them?), but this one is set in the northern beach suburbs of Sydney and contains some beautifully vivid descriptions of the sea and beach. The cover suggests it’s a thriller, but while there is tension in the narrative, it builds slowly and the Big Revelation is not exactly a surprise. I was more interested in the skillful depiction of some believably flawed characters doing their best to cope with a terrible situation. (Although I do think the author let Tricia off too lightly. I despised Tricia.)

‘How Not To Be A Boy’ by Robert Webb

'How Not To Be A Boy' by Robert WebbI really liked How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb, a funny, thoughtful and moving memoir about a boy who absorbed a lot of toxic messages about masculinity – and what happened when he grew up to be a man. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but he’s an English comedian and actor who was in Peep Show and lots of other shows (I also discovered he does a very amusing impression of Mr Darcy). What sets this book apart from most celebrity memoirs is that Robert Webb can actually write and he has much more interesting things to write about than the usual How I Became A Famous Person On The Telly stuff.

He grew up in a dysfunctional working-class Lincolnshire family, with several older brothers and a violent, philandering, alcoholic father. Robert writes with a great deal of insight and humour about the ‘rules’ of boyhood – boys are loud and boisterous, boys don’t read, boys love sport, boys are brave and reckless, boys hate school, boys don’t cry, boys don’t fall in love with other boys – and how terrible he was at following any of these rules. Eventually, his mother threw his father out and married another man who was still fairly useless, although not actually violent or drunk. But then Robert’s beloved mother died of cancer when he was in his final year of school. Despite being suicidally depressed, Robert managed to become the first person in his family to attend university, became president of the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club and began his successful career as a comedian and actor.

But inside, he was a mess, and he took out his feelings of unacknowledged grief, shame, guilt and insecurity on his friends, colleagues and family. Despite being determined not to be like his father, he drank too much, he lost himself in work, and he was emotionally and physically unavailable to his wife and children. Fortunately for him, his wife didn’t give up on him and he was intelligent and introspective enough to go to therapy, cut down on the drinking and eventually, write this book.

He doesn’t actually call himself a feminist, but says he agrees with what feminists say and he quotes from and recommends Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender, so top marks from me for that. He also has a lot of sensible things to say to Men’s Rights Activists, who “tend to make a series of valid observations from which they proceed to a single, 180-degree-wrong conclusion.” Men’s documented problems with high suicide rates, alcoholism, imprisonment and premature death are not due to women or to feminism, he points out. These problems are due to the toxic rules of masculinity. Men turn to drugs and alcohol and self-harm because the rules say they can’t admit weakness or ask for help. They die younger than women of preventable diseases because they refuse to take their health seriously and go to the doctor. They’re violent because society tells boys and men to be aggressive and bottle up their emotions. “Feminists are not out to get us,” he says. “They’re out to get the patriarchy. They don’t hate men, they hate The Man. They’re our mates.”

As you’d gather from those pronouns, this isn’t a book aimed at women. It’s aimed at the men who grew up with the same sort of male role models as the author. It’s about and for the men who were similarly unable to follow the impossible rules of masculinity and are suffering the consequences of this. Of course, feminists have been banging on, for a very long time, about how society’s rigid gender rules harm men as well as women, but the men who need to hear this don’t listen to women. In fact, they viciously attack women who say this sort of thing. Still, Robert Webb is pretty good at acknowledging how privileged he is and how some of his unpleasant experiences (for example, being awkwardly chatted up by a gay man on a beach) are fairly mild compared to the constant and sometimes life-threatening harassment of women. How Not To Be A Boy would be an excellent book for teenage boys and men, but women may also gain from reading this insider’s view of masculinity. Apart from anything else, it’s often very funny.

What I’ve Been Reading: Non-Fiction

At the end of last year, I resolved to blog more about books I’d enjoyed. Mmm, that’s been going well, hasn’t it? Anyway, I have been reading more this year, but for some reason, I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of the fiction I’ve read. Fortunately, I’ve had more success with non-fiction books.

'The Disaster Artist' by Greg Sestero and Tom BissellThe most intriguing and entertaining book has definitely been The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. I have never seen The Room, a cult favourite “revered for its inadequacy and its peerless ability to induce uncontrollable laughter”, although this collection of scenes gives some indication of its er, unique qualities. The Disaster Artist is narrated by Greg Sestero, a handsome young all-American guy who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. At one of his acting classes, he meets Tommy Wiseau, who speaks largely incomprehensible sentences in a thick Eastern European accent and has a burning desire to be the next James Dean, despite being a very weird-looking middle-aged man with dyed black hair and no discernible acting talent. Tommy latches onto Greg like Tom Ripley attaching himself to Dickie Greenleaf, and the two become unlikely friends, roommates and (eventually) co-stars in a movie that Tommy decides to write, direct, produce and finance himself. The Disaster Artist describes the process of making a movie with no coherent plot, full of dialogue that no real person would ever speak, designed and shot according to Tommy’s bizarre and inept direction.

Interspersed with the film-making melodrama is an account of Greg and Tommy’s strange relationship, as Greg tries to figure out why Tommy is the way he is. Tommy gradually reveals something of his background, although the more we learn, the more confusing his story becomes. Is he suffering from PTSD caused by his experiences when escaping from behind the Iron Curtain? Did the near-fatal car accidents he claimed to have been involved in cause brain damage that has left him unable to remember and recite the simplest lines of dialogue (which he wrote himself)? Is he a deeply repressed and unhappy homosexual? Is he simply a refugee struggling to belong in a foreign land? At times, it seems Greg is being a bit mean, making fun of a man with such obvious problems – but Tommy is more often a bully than a victim, manipulating others to get his way, throwing massive tantrums, humiliating the young actress who plays his on-screen love interest, screaming homophobic abuse at the one crew member who calls out Tommy for his blatant lying. And Tommy, far from objecting to Greg’s account, has welcomed the attention the book and its recent movie adaptation have brought to him. He’s still friends with Greg – in fact, they’ve just made another movie together (in which Tommy plays an eccentric mortician, which seems more appropriate than the all-American hero he tried to portray in The Room). The Disaster Artist is a fascinating psychological study of a very strange man, but it’s also an interesting look at creativity, ambition and the American Dream.

'The Durrells of Corfu' by Michael HaagI also enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, about the family who produced two celebrated authors – Lawrence Durrell and his even more famous younger brother, Gerald Durrell. I was especially interested to read about the Durrells’ life before and after Corfu, which turned out to be far less amusing than Gerry implied in his books. Both parents and all the siblings were born in India, where the eldest daughter died of diphtheria, choking to death in her mother’s arms while four-year-old Larry watched. Then, when Gerry was still a toddler, their father died and their mother decided to ship the family ‘home’ to England, which proved to be cold and unwelcoming. Their subsequent escape to Corfu wasn’t a whim, as Gerry depicted in his books, but a desperate attempt by Larry to save his mother, who had fallen into alcoholism and a deep depression.

Fortunately, life improved somewhat in the sun. This book has lots of excerpts from the siblings’ books, letters and journals, as well as fascinating family photos, but the author also sorts out fiction from facts. For example, while Gerry portrayed all his tutors as bachelors, most of these men were actually husbands and fathers – in fact, Theodore’s daughter, Alexia, was Gerry’s best friend and both families hoped they’d get married (they didn’t). Larry himself was married to Nancy Myers, a beautiful English artist, and there are descriptions of visits from their famous bohemian friends, including Henry Miller, which caused local outrage due to naked sea-bathing and other scandalous goings-on. Sadly, war broke out in 1939 and the family’s carefree life was over. Gerry and his mother left for England immediately, but Larry, Nancy and their baby daughter ended up fleeing from the Nazis in an overcrowded boat to Egypt; Margo married a pilot and ended up in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Ethiopia, where she “gave birth by Caesarean section, without anaesthetic, to their first son”; and Leslie, having impregnated and abandoned their Greek maid, went on to a life of depravity. This book is a good introduction to the real story of this fascinating, unconventional family of mythmakers.

‘The Endsister’ by Penni Russon

'The Endsister' by Penni RussonI really enjoyed The Endsister, a thoughtful and beautifully composed ghost story for young readers. The Outhwaite family decide to uproot themselves from their comfortable semi-rural Australian life when they inherit a large, dusty house in London. Of course, this house turns out to be haunted, although the two girl ghosts, Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, drift about harmlessly, noticed only by the youngest Outhwaite, four-year-old Sibbi. But there’s something far more malevolent lurking behind the locked attic door: “a cobwebbed thing, tattered and dusty, so long forgotten, so long forgetting.” This dreaded Endsister seems to be sucking the life out of poor lonely Sibbi and feeding on the unhappiness of the older Outhwaites, especially teenage Else, trying to discover who she is now that she’s abandoned her once-beloved violin, and Olly, their mother, who’s left behind her friends and teaching job and is toiling fruitlessly at her PhD thesis.

All of the characters are vividly drawn, with the story told mostly from the perspective of Else, Sibbi and their stoic, nature-loving brother, Clancy. The descriptive prose is lovely and the family’s squabbles are both funny and sadly true to life. I was interested to read that this story was initially conceived as a weekly serial, because the narrative is complex and cleverly constructed, neatly looping back on itself – as Clancy concludes, it is “a story that ends where it begins: a story about coming home.” The revelation of the Endsister’s mystery is poignant and deeply satisfying, and there’s a lot to contemplate in this book about memory, creativity and belonging.

In fact, this novel is so intricate and ruminative that it won’t be for all young readers. It’s also quite spine-chilling in parts (the scene with Sibbi in the study gave me the creeps, although admittedly, I am easily spooked). The publisher says it’s for 10-14 year olds – I’d recommend it for readers in that age group, and older, who enjoy thoughtful, character-based stories.

As I was reading The Endsister, I was reminded of Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes, a very spooky children’s book written in the 1970s that I’d thought no one (except for me and presumably Pamela Sykes) had ever read, although I have just discovered that it was made into a terrifying-looking television series and that there was a sequel novel called Lucy Beware! (because apparently Lucy didn’t learn anything from her first experience of being haunted). Here’s my beloved Puffin paperback copy:

'Come Back, Lucy' by Pamela Sykes

Lucy is an unhappy orphan sent to live with her youthful aunt, uncle and cousins, who are renovating a large Victorian-era house in London. Up in the dusty attic, Lucy encounters ghostly Alice, who at first seems to be the only one who truly understands and cares for Lucy. Alice, though, is gradually revealed to be capricious and self-centred, with sinister plans for Lucy … But does Alice really exist? Are Lucy’s experiences actually due to repressed grief and loneliness? Come Back, Lucy would be an excellent companion read for The Endsister, if you can get hold of a copy. As added incentive, the Puffin edition has lots of fab 1970s illustrations by Tessa Jordan:

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan