17.1.18

Richard Hittleman's Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan

Something a bit different today. I've had this book for 20 years and returned to it many times, but it's been neglected for the last three or four years -- but I pulled it out again 26 days ago and I'm back, baby!

I'm not a great one for signing up to classes; I prefer to learn things from a book, privately, and work at my own pace. Richard Hittleman's 28 Day Yoga program is perfect for that. It leads you gently, step by step, through 38 basic yoga positions over a month, building steadily and carefully to ever-greater challenges, and leaves you with three basic daily routines to practise at the end. I followed those daily routines for many years -- not always daily, but regularly. But it's been great to go back to the start and ease into it again. Having not done yoga at all for a long time, I can really feel the difference in my body -- I feel looser, lighter, fitter and more supple.

A word of warning: the book was first published in the 1970s, and it shows. Each day's program (taking about 20 minutes to complete) ends with a 'Thought for the Day' on topics like nutrition, smoking, the benefits of gentle stretching etc. There is much wisdom here, but also much dated hilarity. The reader is assumed to be a 'housewife.'
If the activities of housework (cleaning, shopping, child care) constituted true exercise we would not see the housewife tense, irritable, overweight, flabby, depressed and complaining of many aches and pains.
There is also an unhealthy emphasis on how yoga will make you beautiful! So take all that with a pinch of salt. But the exercises themselves are fantastic, and the program is so carefully structured, it's a wonderful introduction to yoga.



12.1.18

La Belle Sauvage

From the snow and thunder of The Dark Is Rising, to another flood engulfing the landscape -- and once again it's the Thames that bursts its banks and sweeps away everything in its path.

This long-awaited prequel to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy was one of my Christmas presents, and we are also reading it for the Convent book group, where our next theme is Water. I must confess to ambivalent feelings about His Dark Materials. I think the trilogy is a magnificent achievement, brimming with imagination and big ideas: the animal daemons, the subtle knife that cuts into parallel worlds, the armoured bears, the alethiometer (which was always going to appeal to an occasional tarot card reader like myself!)

And yet I have never gone back to re-read them. I admired the books, but I didn't love them.

Maybe I'm just too old to fall in love with books like that any more? Perhaps it's partly because, as a lover of Narnia, I was slightly resentful of Pullman's deliberately anti-Narnia project. But reading La Belle Sauvage, it occurred to me that the difference between the two series for me was not whether they were pro- or anti-Christianity. For me, the difference is that the Narnia books were written out of a deep and almost incoherent love, an emotion that could sweep along talking beasts and Greek gods and the figure of Christ transformed into a lion (to return to the flood analogy). But Pullman's books seem to have been written from the intellect more than the heart. However brilliant they are, however clever and carefully constructed and layered, for me that crucial element of love is missing.

I enjoyed La Belle Sauvage and I will read the rest of the sequels when they appear. I might even, finally, return to the original books. Perhaps my analysis is wrong, and it might be fun to find out.

6.1.18

The Dark Is Rising

A terrible muddy image, but the only one I could find of my beloved copy of Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books in one volume. I reckon I haven't read The Dark Is Rising for about thirty years, though it always occupied a treasured place in my reading memory. But then I was alerted to a special event taking place on Twitter, and all at once I was catapulted back into the snowy, enchanted world, menacing and strange, of Will Stanton, Merriman Lyon, the Signs and the Old Ones, and the Rising of the Dark.

Late last year, Rob MacFarlane and Julia Bird decided to host a communal reading event via Twitter: The Dark Is Rising, read in 'real time' (is there any such thing?) over the days when the action of the book itself occurs, from Midwinter Eve to Twelfth Night. This idea snowballed into a wondrous collective reading experience, #TheDarkIsReading, with readers sharing their own insights, favourite moments, quotes and memories. A parallel group spontaneously sprang up to accompany the reading, #TheArtIsRising, where people posted artworks, drawings, paintings and photographs which beautifully expanded the reading experience. Spookily, the weather in England began to echo the events of the book, with unusually heavy snowfalls, storms and floods appearing as if on cue. And as we shared our immersion in this wonderful fantasy, it was as if a circle of Old Ones joined hands around the world to recreate our own magic and drive back the Dark together.

Though I am far from the cold and snow of this quintessentially wintry story, I was pulled back into the atmosphere of a northern-hemisphere Christmas -- a wonderful, magical way to end one year and begin the next.

3.1.18

End of Term

Is it terrible of me to confess that I own not one, not two, but three copies of Antonia Forest's End of Term? I bought the first, a Puffin edition, in 1991, in an op shop in Scotland, and it reminded me just how wonderful Antonia Forest's books were (I had discovered some, but not all of them, in my school library). The second copy, pictured above with a very ugly cover, was ordered from Girls Gone By last year. And then I found another, less battered Puffin edition in my local secondhand shop -- probably discarded by someone who had also upgraded to a GGB edition!

But I don't care, because I love this book. I didn't re-read it when my GGB copy arrived, but waited for Michelle Cooper's read-through on Memoranda. I've read it so many times that I almost didn't need to refresh my memory, but revisiting it was a pure pleasure.

In this fourth Marlow book, and the second of the school stories, the action twists between two plot strands -- the netball team, which Nicola is inexplicably left out of (thanks to the machinations of her nemesis, Lois Sanger) -- and the Christmas play, which Lawrie, the fabulous actress, is inexplicably left out of (thanks to the dubious judgement of the headmistress, Miss Keith, who has her own ideas about casting this particular piece and feels that reverence and religious feeling should be more important than talent). These twin disappointments are the backdrop against which various friendship dramas play out (see what I did there?), with Nicola finding herself isolated from her sister and her former bestie, Tim, and making two new friends in spiky Miranda and shy Esther.

There is another strand woven skilfully and unusually through this book, which is religion. Miranda is Jewish, therefore also excluded from the play. And Nicola's friend from home, Patrick, is Catholic, and a sincere believer, who still feels passionately grieved about the Reformation and the martyrdoms of 500 years ago. Nicola is a puzzled agnostic, who tends to think that people used to believe 'properly' in the distant past, but that 'science changed everything.' And her twin Lawrie is a cheerful and unabashed heathen who thinks the whole Christian story is completely imaginary (and there are plenty of readers who would agree with her!) Their various viewpoints are inserted subtly into the story -- much more subtly and entertainingly than in later books (I'm looking at you, Attic Term).

Antonia Forest is at the peak of her powers in this, and the next few books in the series. An absolute delight.



31.12.17

Reading Round-Up 2017

Time for my annual reading round up! This year I read a total of 109 books. I feel like that's more than usual. So a good year for reading!  Now for the breakdown:

Children's & YA v Adult

Wow, I read more adult books than children's and young adult! Has the tide turned? Am I growing up at last? I must admit that I enjoyed more adult books than kids' books this year -- and the books I hated were all YA (not naming any names...)

Female v Male authors

As usual, the ladies have it -- but not by much. I read two books with a mixture of male and female contributors. I might need to start a non-binary category, if I can find some books by non-binary-identifying authors.

Fiction v Non-fiction

Quite a bit more non-fiction this year, though fiction is still clearly dominant. I had a couple of binges which might account for the swelling of the non-fiction ranks: I read a lot of Oliver Sacks books early in the year, and then later on I had a binge on WWII and post-war memoirs and non-fiction. I also read a handful of books about the English language.

Sources

Oh my God!! My secondhand book spending habit is clearly out of control! I knew it was bad, but I've been in denial about how bad it actually is... The red part is taking over the whole pie! I cannot let my husband see this. Clearly I have a major problem. And this was supposed to be the year when I didn't buy any more books till I finished the ones I had!

Nationality


Okay, I may as well move to the UK and have done with it. I seem to have a British reading-soul. Must be all those English children's books I grew up with that I've never managed to shake off. Thank God for Elena Ferrante and Tove Jansson or this chart would look even worse.

Publication date


Clear majority of books were published in this century, so maybe my addiction to antique books is not as bad as I feared. I caught up with some late 20th century children's books that I was too old for when they were first published, so I'm filling in some gaps there. I'm happy to say that most of the newest publications were by Australian authors, and mostly YA and children's books. #LoveOzYA!

Favourite books of 2017
Perhaps the single book that made the greatest impression on me this year was Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, a scholarly, enlightening and convincing examination of the possible astrological pattern behind the Chronicles of Narnia.
I was delighted to discover the books of Kate Atkinson, and thoroughly enjoyed both the Jackson Brodie series and Life After Life. There are still titles of hers I haven't read, and she has a new novel out next year.
Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu made me angry.
Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight made me laugh.
John Lanchester's Family Romance made me cry.
Michelle Cooper's Dr Huxley's Bequest taught me loads about the history of medicine.

I had two extraordinary reading experiences this year. First was Alan Garner's Boneland (so good I read it twice) and the accompanying Guardian blog, and my subsequent delving into Garner's back catalogue.
Second was the on-going Twitter read-through of Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, #TheDarkIsReading, which is being held over the actual time frame of the book, from midwinter's day to Twelfth Night. More about this later.

Happy 2018 to you all and may your year be filled with books!


24.12.17

Walk Two Moons

'Don't judge a man till you've walked two moons in his moccasins.' Sharon Creech's classic novel Walk Two Moons is all about judgments and preconceptions, about grief and memory and misunderstandings.

Salamanca Hiddle has lost her mother and her father has moved them to a new town. But when Sal begins to tell the story of her own new friend Phoebe (whose mother also disappears) to her grandparents, she begins to understand her own story better.

Creech's adept weaving of these three strands -- Phoebe's story, Sal and her parents' story, and the story of Sal and her grandparents as they take their cross-country trip -- builds a layered narrative which is never difficult to follow, and the ending is very moving.

I didn't love this book unreservedly; there were elements that made me uncomfortable, like the slightly stalkery relationship between Sal and Ben, and the part where their English teacher reads extracts from their private journals to the class. I was also annoyed that Creech uses a saying that I was planning to use in my own WIP -- about the birds of sadness/worry flying overhead but not nesting in your hair... Damn it!

But overall this is a beautiful little book with a deceptive depth of feeling and a sort of naive poetry.



20.12.17

The Lacuna

Just look at that beautiful cover. I think that's the reason I picked up The Lacuna at the library book sale, even though I knew nothing about the novel. I had read The Poisonwood Bible many years ago but couldn't remember much about it. So I put The Lacuna next to my bed, and there it stayed. I'm ashamed to say how long it loitered there before it went into hiding in the wardrobe... three years maybe? But finally it's seen the light of day, part of my 'yellow' quota. It counts as a 'yellow' book because its spine is the same colour as the frilly bits at the top of the cover. Apart from that I knew not one thing about it. It was a complete mystery.

I was about a hundred pages in before it dawned on me that Kingsolver was doing something very technically interesting -- she was writing a first person narration without using the word 'I.' And doing it very effectively, since it had taken me that long to notice!

Harrison Shepherd is a character who seeks to blend in, not stand out. But he finds himself in the centre of some riveting events -- shuttled between Mexico and the US due to his mixed parentage, never feeling entirely at home in either country, he becomes a plaster-mixer for Diego Rivera, no less, then a cook for the Rivera-Kahlo household, and eventually a cook and secretary for Leon Trotsky. I didn't know that Trotsky and Rivera knew each other, or that Trotsky and Kahlo had an affair! After Trotsky's murder (spoilers), Shepherd flees to the US and becomes a best-selling author, before getting tangled in the McCarthy-era Un-American Activities witch-hunts...

I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy The Lacuna but by the end I was utterly absorbed, and now I want to know more about Rivera and Kahlo and Trotsky, and the Incas and Mexico (I already know enough about the McCarthy trials, thanks). And coincidentally, I was reading about Frida Kahlo just when Salma Hayek published her article about the making of Frida, which now of course I am desperate to see!

18.12.17

Teens

Teens is a funny little book, the first fiction title published by Angus & Robertson, a YA book before such a thing existed. The title makes it sound as if it might be a contemporary of The Outsiders, but in fact it was first published in 1897!

The author, Louise Mack, later became the first female war correspondent and a war lecturer, mixed with the bohemian set of Sydney and London and by all accounts was quite the flamboyant eccentric. She was a school friend (and sometime rival) of Ethel Turner, and indeed the close friendship between Lennie and Mabel described in Teens is partly based on their relationship at Sydney Girls High School.

Despite being first published 120 years ago, Teens is a fresh and lively read, often very funny, and with a welcome lack of moral preaching that can mar even the greatest of antique children's books (I'm looking at you, Little Women, and even you, Anne of Green Gables!) Lennie and Mabel play pranks, squabble, are fired with inspiration, slump and triumph and grieve like all young adolescent girls.

Teens may not aspire to the heart-wrenching emotional heights of Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians, but it is still a delightful peep into a lost world, and deserves not to be forgotten. Thanks to Suzanne, for passing it on.

15.12.17

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I have no memory of reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child; I think the first Alan Garner book I read was Red Shift. I do remember picking up a copy a few years ago at a library book sale, opening it at random and hastily putting it down again -- not for me. Should I admit, as an author of several High Fantasy books, that it's a genre I find more fun to write than to read?

But since I've been on something of an Alan Garner bender lately, and I've read both Boneland and The Moon of Gomrath, when I stumbled across another copy of Weirdstone in a secondhand bookshop, it seemed like a sign to go back to the very beginning of the trilogy -- or the ennealogy, as Garner has said that his nine novels all form one story.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a beloved part of many people's childhoods, as witnessed by the disappointed outcry in some quarters when Boneland appeared and didn't fit the same pattern of elves and svarts and high-flown language. I must admit, the satisfaction for me lay mostly in seeing the links with Boneland. Of its type, The Weirdstone is not bad -- the story is full of tension and atmosphere. But the two children are barely distinguished as characters, and in the latter part of the book they have no agency at all, just tagging along with the adult farmer Gowther and their two valiant dwarf companions for the final pursuit and confrontation.

Alan Garner has described this as 'a fairly bad book'. I wouldn't go that far, though it is certainly the book of a young writer, still developing his subject matter and working out a style to go with it. I'm very thankful that he didn't get stuck in this groove. Perhaps today, having had one massive success with this book, he might have met with greater pressure to produce more of the same. I have the feeling that The Weirdstone was very influential on later writers. Garner didn't need to write more books like this; other authors did it for him.

11.12.17

Family Romance

I scored this book in a book club lucky dip (thanks, Sian!), and what a great score it was.

It wasn't until after his parents' deaths that John Lanchester realised how little he knew about their lives. In the case of his mother, her name, her birthdate and her past were all lies. In this terrifically readable memoir-cum-family history, Lanchester examines the lives of his mother (born in Ireland, former nun and school principal in India, shaved a decade off her age in a breathtaking act of identity theft before marrying John's father, and lived with this secret all her life) and father (born in Hong Kong, grew up in Australia while his parents were interned in HK during the war, worked all around the world but still thought of the UK as 'home' despite never having lived there). I found many resonances with my own family history, especially the post-colonial upbringing and the yearning for a mythical 'home,' as well as some shrewd observations about the generational effects of alcoholism.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book (and the reason I've decided not to give it to my mother to read after all) is the final, shortest part, where Lanchester examines his own childhood and his ongoing battle with anxiety. Given his family history, parts of this story come as no surprise, but they are still difficult to read.

Family Romance is a fascinating personal history, a love story, a meditation on the nature of narrative, a history of the late colonial period and the Second World War, and much more. Highly recommended!

10.12.17

Dark Emu

This remarkable book has won multiple awards, and deservedly so. It's been on my to-read list for a long time but I finally got around to reserving it at the library (thanks for the nudge, Judy!) and got my hands on it last week.

Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu will be, I hope, just the first step in a thorough re-examination of pre-settlement Australian history. It's profoundly shocking to realise the extent to which we have been lied to, and remain in ignorance of, the sophistication of the Aboriginal nations before the European invasion. The evidence is there in the words of the white explorers themselves, but their testimony has been systematically ignored, to preserve the shameful myth that the Aborigines were primitive savages, wandering the country aimlessly, hunting and gathering when they got the chance.

The truth is very different. The First Australians maintained a highly developed land management system, involving periodic controlled use of fire. They built complex fish traps and netting, and far from squatting in simple 'humpies', many lived in villages with large stone and thatch dwellings. They stored large quantities of food and seed (plundered by whites). The idyllic grasslands observed by the first Europeans (ideal, so they thought, for grazing sheep and cattle) were no accident, but had been carefully created. And within a few years they were destroyed.

I became so angry reading this book. So much precious knowledge thrown away, an ancient heritage trashed. But Pascoe ends his book on an optimistic note. Perhaps the native species that sustained a continent for tens of thousands of years can be revived -- the yam daisy, native rice and others -- far better suited to Australian conditions than the imported rice and potatoes we insist on growing here. Perhaps we can learn from the sustainable practices of this country's first inhabitants just how to live in sync with the land, rather than fighting it.

But I have to say I'm not holding my breath.

7.12.17

A Candle For St Jude

Rumer Godden wrote many, many books in her long life (thank heavens!) and it's almost reassuring to find one which is not quite a masterpiece. Which is not to say that A Candle For St Jude isn't a good book, or beautifully written -- it is both -- but just not quite at the level of Godden's very best work.

My edition of A Candle for St Jude says it came out in 1973, but apparently it was first published in 1948! Truthfully, it doesn't really matter, because the novel takes place in an enclosed world, over a mere 24 hours, in a London ballet school during the night and day before Madame Holbein's important anniversary concert, a celebration of her life's work. The first half of the book is rather melancholy and despairing, as it seems the concert is going to fail -- there is jealousy and regret, fear and anger. But in the second half, Madame has a last minute inspiration, and her crackling energy and determination come to life, infecting everyone around her. Now we get to see the love and passion and whirlwind fire that have made her so successful, and the book ends on a note of triumph after all. As always with Rumer Godden, her characters are drawn with delicate precision and depth.

READING NOTE: I have so many books hiding in my wardrobe that I've devised a random system to get through them all -- first I pulled out half a dozen with blue-ish covers, then a handful with reddish ones (scroll down and check if you don't believe me!) Now I've embarked on my yellow phase... I know colour-coding books is so last year, but I'm finding it surprisingly satisfying.

6.12.17

Take Three Girls

We are blessed in Australia with some of the most gifted YA authors in the world -- and here is a chance to enjoy three of the best in a single volume! Individually, Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood have written some of my absolute favourite Australian YA books, so the opportunity to grab this collaboration between them was way too good to pass up.

Take Three Girls, as the title suggests, entwines the stories of three girls (each strand written by a separate author -- and yes, I guessed correctly who wrote which, but I'm not telling...) at a private boarding school in Melbourne. Clem used to be a star swimmer but now she's not sure what she is, apart from being crazy in love. Kate is facing the biggest choice of her life: follow her life plan or throw it away for music? And Ady seems to have everything, but in the background, her family is falling apart.

This is a novel about reinventing yourself -- or discovering who you really are. It's a novel about friendships: how they spark, how they build, and sometimes, how they die. Clem, Ady and Kate are in Year 10, and though they make dumb decisions and take stupid risks, in many ways they are more mature and self-aware than some twenty-somethings I used to know.

Collaborations can be hugely fun, paradoxically liberating, and with a built-in feedback loop of reward as you build a story together. But it can be difficult to establish distinctive individual voices, especially when your characters share a single background setting and many of the same experiences. I confess I struggled at the beginning of the book to keep the three girls clear in my mind -- but that passed quickly, and once I was absorbed, I stayed that way right up to the final page.

4.12.17

Dr Huxley's Bequest

Michelle Cooper, the award-winning, best-selling author of The Montmaray Journals has blogged about her experience of writing and publishing Dr Huxley's Bequest at her blog, Memoranda. I've been looking forward to reading this book ever since Michelle first mentioned it was on its way, and I was not disappointed!

Dr Huxley's Bequest is fiction, but it contains a lot of facts -- it's a short history of medicine wrapped in a palatable mystery/quest/friendship narrative, just like a sugar shell disguising a pill... but that's a poor analogy, because in this instance, the pill is just as tasty as the wrapping. Via thirteen mysterious objects, short, chatty chapters lead us from ancient Egyptian medicine, through the classical era to medieval plagues, vaccines, scurvy and much more, right up to the ethics of genetic testing, the fight against malaria, and sexism in science.

Our guides, Rosy and Jaz, are a pair of smart (and very well-informed!) thirteen year olds who naturally emphasise the quirky, the peculiar and the fascinating in their historical-scientific treasure hunt. I learned something new on every page, but this was such a fun read, I never felt preached or lectured at -- this is a massive achievement for such an informative, educational book -- it never feels too educational! It's just like a very clever, funny person telling you loads of really interesting stories about medicine. (Favourite thing I learned: treatment with foxglove can make you see the world in shades of yellow. Guess who was treated with foxglove? Vincent van Gogh!)

This book would make a wonderful read-aloud (I accidentally read some to my sixteen year old and she begged for more) or an equally great read-alone for younger readers (it's already been noted eagerly by a librarian friend looking for recommendations for a student who can't get enough to read about medicine and science). Highly recommended.

29.11.17

Shadows of the Workhouse

Jennifer Worth's second book, Shadows of the Workhouse, was her follow-up to the immensely popular Call the Midwife, and this particular cover is obviously trying to trade on the success of the BBC series. However, for this volume, it's actually quite misleading! There is not ONE baby or birth scene in Shadows of the Workhouse, despite the smiling midwives and bonny babes pictured on the front.

There was more to Worth's work in London's Poplar in the 1950s than delivering babies, and in her second book she tells the stories of people she visited as a home nurse (intercut with a poignant episode involving Sister Monica Joan, a ninety year old nun accused of jewellery theft). Worth departs from her personal memories (which is why I hesitate to call this book a memoir) to narrate the experiences of a brother and sister who grew up in the grim environment of the workhouse before rediscovering one another in their teens, and an old soldier with whom she forms a touching bond.

If the popularity of Call the Midwife shines a light on this forgotten and horrific element of social history, that can only be a good thing. In some ways the shadows of the workhouse still fall on social policy -- the notion that poverty is a sign of moral failing or laziness, the disregard for human dignity, the ignorance and disdain of those more fortunate, have all crept back into public discourse. Shadows of the Workhouse is a good reminder of where that path ultimately leads.