What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

Yet More Of What I’ve Been Reading

'A Favourite Author' by Poul Friis Nybo

I tend to blog only about books I like1, because why would I want to draw attention to books I hated? But until now, I’ve avoided discussing books by contemporary Australian authors, even books I’ve loved. I was worried readers would think I was only praising the book because I was friends with the author. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, now that I think about it (especially as I don’t actually know many other authors). So I’ve decided that I will talk about these books from now on, but I’ll add a disclaimer explaining my relationship with the author, so readers can judge for themselves whether my opinion of the book is impartial or not.

(Note to self: Why am I bothering to go on about this? Hardly anyone reads this blog, anyway. And those who do are well aware that Memoranda is not The New York Review of Books.)

(Note to any Australian authors who may be reading this: If I haven’t written glowing praise of your latest work, just assume I haven’t read it, which is almost certainly true.)

On to what I’ve been reading:

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

DISCLAIMER: I’ve never met Simmone Howell, but she once asked me to write a guest post for her blog and we exchanged emails about this and we sent each other copies of our novels (this is like exchanging business cards, but involves a lot more reading). I loved her first novel, Notes from the Teenage Underground; I liked-with-reservations her second novel, Everything Beautiful.

I think her third novel, Girl Defective, is brilliant, and I’m predicting it’ll be on all the award shortlists next year (oh, I hope I haven’t jinxed it now). This is a smart, funny, warm-hearted novel about a flawed but loving family, made up of teenage narrator Sky, her odd little brother Gully, and their alcoholic dad, who runs a record shop2. Sky’s mother has abandoned them, and, as if Sky didn’t have enough to do looking after Gully, she’s worried she’s losing her only friend, a cute boy has started working at their shop, and mysterious graffiti art featuring a missing girl has begun appearing all over their suburb. There was so much I liked about this book. Gully’s detective work! The vivid portrait of St Kilda, which is almost a character in itself. All the great lines (“Sending Nancy texts was like sending dogs into space. Nothing came back.”) That Sky’s discoveries about love are as much about family and friendships as about sex. That the interlocking mysteries are revealed at exactly the right pace, without any implausibly neat endings. That it’s gritty and dark, but not without hope. In fact, it’s a testament to how good this novel is that it involves a variation of one of my least favourite YA tropes ever (Slutty Self-Destructive Teen Girl Dies So That Teen Boy Can Grow Up And Learn Stuff About Life) and yet I still loved it. A warning for SqueakyCleanReads fans: this book probably isn’t for you, given all the sex and drugs and rock-and-roll, some of it under-age. For other YA readers, Girl Defective is highly recommended. It came out in Australia earlier this year, and will be published by Atheneum in the US next year.

Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain

DISCLAIMER: I’ve never met, talked with or emailed Georgia Blain, but we were once meant to appear on the same panel discussing YA literature at a literary festival. The organisers inexplicably scheduled the YA talk for nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, then required bookings from anyone planning to attend, then were surprised at the subsequent lack of bookings and cancelled the event at the last minute. I was quite relieved about this because a) they’d neglected to tell me what, exactly, we were meant to be discussing (surely the existence of YA literature is not, in itself, a topic of discussion), and b) I didn’t really want to get up at dawn on a Sunday to trek across Sydney. So, that is the sum total of my connection to Georgia Blain, who, for non-Australian readers, is a well-known Serious Literature person who’s written one YA novel, which I didn’t like much3, plus some grown-up fiction and non-fiction.

Births, Deaths, Marriages is a thoughtful and moving account of the author’s childhood, which looked perfect from the outside (a bright, pretty child with rich and famous parents, living in a lovely house in a beautiful part of Sydney) but was actually riven with conflict. Her father seemed to have some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder and was verbally and physically abusive (“it was the threat of what he might do that kept us tiptoeing, scared, around him”) and her elder brother got caught up in a life of crime and drug abuse, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and died of an overdose. Her mother, the writer and broadcaster Anne Deveson, was a talented, strong-minded individual and a passionate feminist, but it took her years to decide to leave her abusive marriage, and this book is particularly good at describing the conflicting loyalties and societal pressures that turn us all into hypocrites: “I had absorbed my mother’s success, her ideological beliefs, and her years of appeasing my father in equal measures . . . we are all capable of holding many selves in argument with each other.” Not surprisingly, given the chaos and trauma of her early years, the author turns into a perfectionist adult, over-analysing everything, including her happiness. Her relationship with her loving partner is fraught; when she achieves her longed-for pregnancy, she spends the whole time panicking about how she’ll cope with the birth, then is overwhelmed by the reality of caring for a helpless infant. I was really impressed with both the quality of the writing and the brutal honesty involved in this memoir, although I couldn’t help wondering how those close to the author felt about being the subject of her gaze. (Of course, she wonders about this at length, too: “How can I write about the people I know? What gives me the right to expose them?” But then she does it anyway. Although she’s much harder on herself than on anyone else still alive.) Recommended for those who like memoirs, especially those interested in the lives of Australian women.

Oh, good, I don’t have to write any more disclaimers, because the writers are all either dead, or living on the other side of the planet.

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

This was a great coming-of-age novel set in post-war England, about three Yorkshire schoolgirls who win scholarships to university. One is a Jewish refugee who escaped Germany in 1938 and has no idea if the rest of her family survived the Holocaust. Another is a doctor’s daughter wondering how to sustain her relationship with a working-class boy. Meanwhile sweet, innocent Hetty, who never expected to get into university, worries about her academic ability, struggles to become independent of her smothering, tactless mother, and falls in love with a very unsuitable aristocrat. Really, there’s enough in any one of these girls’ stories for an entire novel, and so the author resorts to leaving some very big gaps in the narrative, which didn’t always work for me. However, I loved the emotional honesty in the descriptions of the family relationships and enjoyed all the clever, sharp descriptions. For example, Hetty, holidaying on a farm, observes “a brindled cat and kittens [which] lay in a cardboard box by the fender, the kittens feeding in a row like a packet of sausages . . . Their eyes, still shut, bulged under peanut lids.” But this is Jane Gardam, so you know not to expect sentimentality, and sure enough, two paragraphs later, a lamb has died and “the cat started eating it. Still warm, but they know. It’s Nature. Now, what’s wrong with Hetty? . . . She’s gone white.” Poor Hetty. Anyway, this is a very good read, as is Bilgewater, another coming-of-age novel by the same author.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

Yes, I do actually read books written by men. I picked this up because I recently watched (and liked) the film by Tom Ford. This novel was beautifully written, with a lot of insightful commentary on relationships, ageing, death and grief, as well as some sharp satire targeting American consumer culture and 1960s homophobia. Unfortunately, there was also some really vile misogyny, and I wasn’t sure whether this was purely the opinion of the protagonist (a clever and endearing man, whom we’re meant to admire) or of the author as well. I suspect the latter. The writing was otherwise wonderful – lucid and often very funny – so I will probably read some more of this author’s work – perhaps the book that inspired the film, Cabaret. I must say, though, the film version of A Single Man had so little in common with the book that I’m surprised the film-maker gave his work the same title. (The film, for those who haven’t seen it, looks like a glossy fashion advertisement, so I’m not sure Tom Ford noticed the anti-consumerist message of the book at all. The film also gives the main character an entirely different story – the main character plans his death, which focuses his attention on all the beauty and love that remains in his life, despite the loss of his partner.)

The Works of Emily Dickinson

She goes on about God and Death a little too enthusiastically for my tastes, but she really could pack a punch into a quatrain, couldn’t she? I hadn’t read many of her poems before, and I was knocked sideways by the power of the images she conjured. Some of my favourite poems in this collection were The Inevitable, Childish Griefs, A Thunder-Storm, Apocalypse and Loyalty.


  1. The exception being my Dated Books series.
  2. Yes, records. Those dusty round vinyl things full of music that people used to play in the olden days. Actually, the shop reminded me of Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity.
  3. Darkwater, which involved one of my least favourite YA tropes ever (see above), a bland protagonist with almost nothing at stake, a mystery so obvious that even I’d figured it out within the first few chapters, and some really clunky expository dialogue. However, it also contained some beautiful descriptive writing and a great depiction of a mother-daughter relationship. And lots of readers loved it, and it was a CBCA Notable Book, so check it out if you think it sounds like your sort of book.