‘The Book That Made Me’, edited by Judith Ridge

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with several of the people involved with the creation of this book. But I wouldn’t be writing about it here if I didn’t like it – I’d just pretend I hadn’t read it.

'The Book That Made Me' edited by Judith RidgeThe Book That Made Me is an interesting collection of personal stories by thirty-one authors and artists (mostly Australian, mostly writers for children and teenagers) about the books that “made them” – made them think, feel, laugh, made them want to create their own books. As with most anthologies, there’s a wide variety of pieces and I found some more compelling than others. Shaun Tan contributes a thoughtful essay about books that disturbed him, starting at the age of seven or eight with his mother reading him Animal Farm as a bedtime story, under the mistaken impression that it would be a charming fairytale (he decided it was “no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school each day”). His charming, whimsical illustrations can also be found throughout the book.

Other favourite pieces were those which had something in common with my own experiences. Simmone Howell writes about how she tried (and failed) to become a proper teenager using the wisdom contained in the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series. Catherine Johnson explains how she “never expected to see [herself] in a book … everyone back then knew only white people lived in books and had adventures”. Jaclyn Moriarty discovered, aged six, how her secret rage at the injustices of life had been transformed into a book called The Magic Finger. I also enjoyed Fiona Wood’s discussion of the helpful life lessons contained in Anne of Green Gables; Emily Maguire’s description of how Edith in Grand Days encouraged her to take risks and celebrate her teenage mistakes; and Julia Lawrinson’s entertaining account of her obsessive identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of these writers were already familiar to me, but I’d never heard of Catherine Johnson and now I feel a pressing need to read some of her children’s books, in which she says she “made sure to put children like me [that is, mixed-race kids] right in there, riding horses, wearing those amazing frocks, and mostly having adventures, just like everyone else.”

There was plenty of book nostalgia for me to wallow in (Dr Seuss! Little Women! Trixie Belden!) and I’ve added some recommended books to my To Read list, including Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book contains potted biographies of all the contributors and I was pleased to see a thorough index. The Book That Made Me is published in Australia by Walker Books and will be published in North America this year by Candlewick Press, with all royalties going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

YA author Simmone Howell, who recently taught a course on writing for young readers, has written a series of blog posts about aspects such as character, structure, voice and place, and why you probably won’t be able to make a living from your writing, with lots of useful links.

Over at The Paris Review there’s an interesting interview with Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and then Knopf, who edited books by Jessica Mitford, John Le Carré, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing and many other writers. He discusses the role of the editor and publisher (“you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor . . .You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill”) and how much the publishing industry has changed in recent years.

Something I’ve been pondering lately is the distinction between ‘middle grade’ and ‘young adult’ fiction (mostly because I’ve just finished writing a book that falls somewhere in the middle of those two publishing categories), so I was pleased to see this article about the topic at Publishers Weekly (especially as it mentions A Brief History of Montmaray – thank you, Meghan from BookPeople in Austin, Texas!). Other interesting blog posts I’ve come across include Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask, Where are the books for 13-year-olds? and Middle grade saved my life (the last written by Jeanne Birdsall, author of the wonderful Penderwicks books).

Finally, I’m tickled that the Montmaray books have appeared on TV Tropes. For those who haven’t encountered TV Tropes before, it’s an enormous and quite addictive website devoted to discussing the tropes (that is, the stereotypes, clichés and overused ideas) in popular TV shows, movies and books. Tropes identified in the Montmaray books include Micro Monarchy and (slightly spoilery) Kissing Cousins and Never Found the Body. But come on, TV Tropers, you’ve missed a few! What about Ace Pilot, British Stuffiness, Everything’s Better with Llamas, I Was Beaten by a Girl and Upper Class Twit? And I’ve always thought of the Colonel as a bit of an Agent Peacock . . .

My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

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

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.

Anatomy Of A Novel: A Brief History of Montmaray

The Alecton attempts to capture a giant squid off Tenerife in 1861. Illustration from Harper Lee's 'Sea Monsters Unmasked', London, 1884.
The Alecton attempts to capture a giant squid off Tenerife in 1861. Illustration from Harper Lee's 'Sea Monsters Unmasked', London, 1884.
Simmone Howell has very kindly invited me to be part of her Anatomy of a Novel series, in which “authors (mostly Australian, mostly YA) dissect their own books for your delight”. It’s a really fascinating set of blog posts, by authors such as Melina Marchetta, Michael Pryor, Kirsty Murray and many more. I’ve written about the fictional and real-life inspirations for A Brief History of Montmaray here (and yes, one of those inspirations may possibly be the Giant Squid).

At the moment, I’m still stuck in my Editing Bunker, but I hope to emerge next week with some new blog posts.