What I’ve Been Reading

How can we be a quarter of the way through 2022 already? Is it the multitude of terrible things happening throughout the world that is causing me this difficulty with time perception? I have at least been reading a bit more this year, both for education and escape. Here are my favourites so far.

'Unfollow' by Megan Phelps-RoperUnfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper was an inspiring memoir by a young woman who escaped a notoriously homophobic, misogynist, anti-Semitic, anti-everything cult founded by her grandfather. From the age of five, Megan was an obedient and devoted Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) member, holding up ‘God Hates Fags’ signs outside the funerals of American soldiers, picketing outside her own school and college, then running the church’s social media campaign. It isn’t surprising that she followed the church’s beliefs, because nearly everyone in her large extended family was a member of WBC. What is surprising is how she managed to leave WBC at the age of 26, cutting herself off from the family she still loves, to become an activist and educator dedicated to combatting extremist beliefs.

There were two things that helped her leave. Firstly, WBC, unlike other American cults, allowed its children to be educated in the public school system and encouraged them to go to college, where Megan was often socially isolated, but was at least exposed to other beliefs and learned some critical thinking skills. WBC members were also encouraged to use social media to get publicity for the church’s bigoted preaching. Megan writes of her “profound gratitude to Twitter … Instead of booting me from its platform for ‘hate speech’, as many had demanded, it had put me in conversation with people and ideas that effectively challenged beliefs that had been hammered into me since I was a child.” In fact, she ends up meeting and eventually marrying a man who had spent years debating against her on Twitter. She despairs of the “division of the world into Us and Them” in the Trump era and points out that in the age of the internet, “we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of an idea, whether good or bad … the answer to bad ideas is to publicly reason against them, to advocate for and propagate better ones”. Megan comes across as a thoughtful, ethical person who, despite her traumatic upbringing, has a lot of compassion and empathy, and she argues convincingly against #NoDebate and Cancel Culture.

'The Edible Balcony' by Indira NaidooI also liked The Edible Balcony by Indira Naidoo, a guide to growing fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables for those of us who don’t have backyard gardens. Indira managed to produce 70kg of produce in her first year of balcony gardening and this is a good beginner’s guide, with great photos and illustrations, handy tips and some delicious-looking recipes. It must be noted that although Indira claims her Sydney balcony is “small”, it is 20 square metres (about five times the size of my own balcony), and is north-facing, with its own water supply and a building concierge who looks after her plants when she’s away. She also has the advantages of farming friends who provide her with fresh manure, a vertical garden system supplied for free because she’s a celebrity, and access to ABC TV’s gardening gurus. Still, this book provided me with inspiration as I was re-establishing my own balcony garden, following last year’s building reconstruction works. Here are some before and after pictures of my balcony:

Before: my balcony in April 2021
BEFORE: My balcony in April 2021 as reconstruction started and the scaffolding went up
After: My balcony in January 2022
AFTER: My balcony in January 2022. I’m growing mint, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, lavender, lemon thyme, spring onions, two types of chives, three types of lettuce and two types of basil.

The Edible Balcony provided valuable food for thought. For example, I’d always considered tomatoes to be too difficult to grow on a balcony, but Indira successfully grew tomato varieties in pots, so that could be a project for me next summer. Conversely, I now think a little lemon tree might be a bit too ambitious for me, after reading about all the pest problems Indira had. Still, her remedy for powdery mildew (diluted milk sprayed on leaves) worked a treat on my afflicted mint plant, so thanks, Indira!

'Sugar Town Queens' by Malla NunnIn fiction, I enjoyed Sugar Town Queens, the latest YA novel from Malla Nunn. This is a fast-paced story about a mixed-race girl growing up in poverty in a Durban township. Amandla’s mother is white and her father is missing; they live in a one-room tin shack but her mother regularly comes home with wads of cash; and her mother has strange delusions and gaps in her memory. Amandla, with the help of her friends Lil Bit and Goodness, discovers the truth about her mother’s wealthy family and tragic past. The romance seems shoe-horned in and the conclusion is unrealistically upbeat and Cinderella-ish, but I really liked the depiction of strong relationships between the girls and women in the story, with schoolfriends, neighbours and grandmother working together for truth and justice. (I think When the Ground is Hard is a much better book, though.)

'Cat Problems' by Jory JohnFinally, Cat Problems by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith, is a charming and funny picture book about the very difficult life of a household cat who has many problems, all of which he complains about loudly. He has to deal with a sunbeam that moves; a noisy vacuum cleaner; dry cat food instead of wet; and another cat that persists in sitting “in my spot … in my other spot … now you’re in my THIRD spot.” A squirrel outside the window explains how difficult life is for wild animals outside but Cat is unimpressed (“How can I eat this very talkative squirrel?”) Then he stalks off to complain about the paucity of sunbeams at night. The fuzzy illustrations and mimimalist backgrounds are very appealing. Recommended for anyone who’s ever lived with a cat.

My Favourite Books of 2021

I usually post about my favourite books of the year by Christmas Eve, but this week, I was somewhat distracted due to a) the hospital where I work going into Red Alert and having to evacuate our floor to make room for extra COVID beds, just after we’d finally moved back to our usual offices, at a time when most staff had gone on much-needed holidays or were in COVID isolation, why did I agree to work this week WHY, and then b) being identified as a COVID contact, developing symptoms and going into isolation on Christmas Eve.

This was a fitting end to a year in which my state experienced catastrophic floods, an earthquake, a mouse plague, our Premier resigning due to a corruption scandal, and of course, there was that ongoing pandemic with lots of exciting new viral variants. Also, the apartment building where I live needed urgent repairs that included demolishing and rebuilding all the balconies, so I’ve been living in a dark, noisy, dust-filled construction site for the past eight months.

Remember this time last year, when we were all looking forward to 2021?

At least I read some good new books. My favourite novels for adults were The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng. I also found Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody informative and helpful (although alas, I did not make much writing progress this year, see above). My favourite books for children and teenagers included When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn, The Cricket Term by Antonia Forest and Maddie in the Middle by Julia Lawrinson. I may have read some other good books this year. I can’t remember. I can’t even recall my phone number at the moment.

Fortunately, I have a pile of library books to keep me entertained during my COVID isolation period:

Library books Christmas 2021

I hope you’ve had a good reading year, despite all the challenges that 2021 has brought us, and that you’re having a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

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.