• Books and reading

    Memory lane: ‘The Boys’ by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

    If you were a child of the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, chances are you watched some or all of these TV shows and movies: The Andy Griffith Show, Gentle Ben, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Star Trek, Lassie, MASH, Flipper, Daniel Boone, The Mod Squad, The Music Man… If so, you will have seen either Ron Howard’s or his younger brother, Clint’s, on-screen performances.

    Reading this book uncovered many forgotten TV and movie memories for me. The brothers describe their memoir as ‘an acknowledgement of our love and appreciation for our parents’, but it is also an engrossing ramble down memory lane, taking in their parents’ love story, their own childhood and adolescence on film sets in Hollywood studios, and the ups and downs of a career in the entertainment industry.

    It’s such a personal account, with a chatty conversational style, and their alternating viewpoints result in the sense of being on the sofa with the Howards, as they tell the stories of their lives. They discuss their own personal impressions of key people and events in their lives, including the challenges and the highs.

    They don’t shy away from difficulties, including Clint’s struggle with addiction, and Ron’s efforts to leave Opie, his childhood alter-ego from The Andy Griffiths Show, behind him as he moves into adolescence and tries to forge a career as a film director.

    The theme running throughout is the crucial role their parents played in the success of their acting and directing careers, but also in their development as human beings. The Howard family lived a modest lifestyle relative to many of their contemporaries in the Hollywood scene. Ron comments that:

    As possibly the most ethical talent managers in the history of show business, they were significantly underbilling their clients, Clint and me… Dad felt that most of what he and Mom did fell under the rubric of parental responsibility rather than professional management. They found the idea of taking anything more than 5 percent to be immoral, though Clint and I would not have objected in the least.
    Mom and Dad were concerned about the damage it might do us boys if we were taught to think of ourselves as the family breadwinners. And they simply didn’t hunger for a flashy life or a Beverly Hills address. They were sophisticated hicks. They had all that they wanted.

    The Boys p 167

    Ron’s insights into the joys and challenges of film directing are of great interest, as are the behind-the-scenes glimpses the brothers give of their various experiences from a child’s, teenager’s and adult’s perspectives.

    The Boys is a trip down memory lane, certainly; but also offers a lovely tribute to the key people in the Howard family’s successes – most especially, ‘Dad and Mom’, or Rance and Jean Howard.

    The Boys is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Living treasures: ‘Living Planet: The Web of Life’ by David Attenborough

    In my view naturalist, author and broadcaster David Attenborough is a living treasure. For decades he has brought the astonishing stories of our natural world to living rooms across the globe through his beautifully produced television documentaries. Now there is a narrative version in his trilogy of books Life. Living Planet: The Web of Life is the second in the series.

    I admit that I am usually more drawn to stories about people in my non-fiction reading. However, Attenborough’s fascinating insights into the ways in which organisms, insects, plants, animals, reptiles and birds adapt to the many different environments on our planet drew me in. There is plenty of drama, humour and mystery, told in the author’s infectiously enthusiastic style.

    The book answers intriguing questions such as:

    Why do elephant seals stop their battles with each other once a year, while they grow new hair?

    How do seagulls perch on icebergs without their featherless feet and legs freezing?

    How do giant worms with no mouths or gut, survive in jets of hot water, deep on the ocean floor?

    Why are holes in trees of the northern forests fought over like Sydney houses at an auction?

    Why are ants like dairy farmers?

    Why is a sparrow’s heart twice the size of a mouse’s?

    How can a female cichlid fish be likened to a pastry cook icing a cake?

    The text is supported by sections of stunning photographs in the style we have come to associate with Attenborough’s work.

    Attenborough’s deep concern for the future of our planet and its amazing biodiversity underlies the narrative and his final statement sums it up:

    As far as we can tell, our planet is the only place in all the black immensities of the universe where life exists. We are alone in space. And the continued existence of life now rests in our hands.

    Living Planet: The Web of Life p292

    Living Planet: The Web of Life is published by William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Old but new: ‘Death at Greenway’ by Lori Rader-Day

    I love the idea of ‘falling into’ a novel – the image of plunging straight into another world, meeting the characters and their emotions and thoughts. That’s what happened to me with Death at Greenway. The world of this novel is WWII England: first London, where trainee nurse Bridget Kelly is receiving an ultimatum after a serious error on the ward; then to south Devon and the house of famous mystery writer Agatha Christie.

    Bridget goes there unwillingly, as one of two nurses hired to care for a group of ten children under five: they are evacuees, sent from at-risk London suffering under the Blitz, to country areas considered safer. For Bridget, it is her last chance to save her floundering career. She also nurses terrible grief and trauma, the result of a well-aimed German bomb, and this follows her to her new posting.

    The other nurse travelling with the group is Gigi, a glamorous young woman who has secrets of her own, one of which threatens the tenuous safety of their country refuge.

    I love stories that weave real-life people and events into the plot, and Death at Greenway does this. It is an homage to the world of thirties England, the works of writers like Christie, and the often heroic actions of so many ordinary people during wartime. Greenway really was a temporary home for two nurses and ten children during the war. The author has drawn on the names of some of the people who populated the home at this time, including Doreen, one of the young evacuees, who shared her memories of that time.

    All the tropes of British mystery novels of the era are there: a (nearly) invisible mistress of the house; gothic folk stories told by the locals; a muddy footprint on the front step; crying foxes and other unearthly noises; a butler and housekeeper with their own opinions about the newcomers; a growing body count and a disappearance. Suspicions rise and Bridget starts to think that no one is who they seem to be. I liked the dry tone of much of the narrative, reminiscent of an author like Kate Atkinson.

    Alongside the mystery, though, is the real theme of the novel: the toll taken by war and loss on the people living through such times:

    It was a thin thread that kept them tethered to the earth, a single strand of her embroidery floss, easily snapped. No one keeps us. They were all small lives, nowhere near the center. Tossed about by the gale of history and hardly noted for having endured.

    Death at Greenway p245

    The web of deception and intrigue becomes complex at times and I had to concentrate hard to follow the threads; but that was not to the detriment of my enjoyment of this satisfying novel.

    Death at Greenway is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cold War deceptions: ‘Our Woman in Moscow’ by Beatriz Williams

    The cover of this new title by best-selling US author Beatriz Williams is emblematic of the deceptions she writes about. A glamorous woman in a snowy city, walking towards her fate… The thing is, this is a story of two women, sisters Iris and Ruth, neither of whom (despite initial impressions) are people who passively await what the future might bring.

    The story plunges us head-first into the murky world of post-WWII espionage, via Iris and Ruth’s very different pathways out of the war. Loyalties, family bonds and assumptions are all put to the test when Iris sends a message to her sister – after nearly a decade of estrangement and silence between them. She needs Ruth to come to Moscow, where Iris lives with her husband since his defection to the Soviet Union. She is about to give birth to her fourth child, and with a history of difficult, dangerous childbirths behind her, she pleads for Ruth’s support.

    Ruth’s journey to the Soviet city sets in motion a complex series of events and uncovers layers of deception and of course, dangers. I was immediately invested in the fate of Iris and Sasha, Ruth and Fox, and the novel was, for me, an absolute page-turner.

    What I enjoyed most was the focus on the relationships, rather than gun battles and car chase scenes as in a James Bond spy story- which can get, frankly, yawn-worthy. Rather, we witness two sisters realising new truths about each other; a crumbling marriage and a new, unlikely, relationship; and the unravelling of long-held beliefs. Ms. Williams borrows certain famous Cold War era episodes and characters to weave her own story around, but there are echoes of truth that are as relevant now as in 1948:

    “It’s all these chaps, you know, bright young things who radicalized at university in the thirties, when the capitalist economies went to pieces. They very fashionably joined the Community Party as students and ended up recruited {by} the Soviet intelligence service.”
    “But surely they all shed their illusions as they got older?”
    “Most of them, of course. I daresay the Nazi-Soviet pact did for a great many. Stalin’s thuggery, the famines. But it’s like a religion, you know. To the true fanatic, everything and anything can be twisted around to prove what you believe in.”

    Our Woman in Moscow p169

    The characters are complex, believable – and damaged, all of them, by conflict and deception. I enjoyed this novel very much and will be on the watch for future titles by this author.

    Our Woman in Moscow is published by HarperCollins Publishers in Australia in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Finding an ‘after’ trauma: ‘Here in the After’ by Marion Frith

    As I read this debut novel by Australian Marion Frith, TV, print and broadcast media were saturated with the shocking news of the Taliban taking over Kabul and huge swathes of territory in Afghanistan. A reminder, if I needed one, of how devastating, cruel and ultimately pointless that protracted war has been.

    The two protagonists of Here in the After are both connected to violence emanating from that part of the world and the roles played by Western nations there.

    Nat is an army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He has returned to his wife Gen a broken man, unable to take the steps needed to heal from his complex PTSD and the things he saw and did during his tour of duty.

    Anna is middle aged, a grandmother who has been grieving the death of her beloved husband. One day during her lunch break from work, she sees a brochure in the window of a travel agency and impulsively goes in to check it out, because she’d made a promise to her husband not to stop doing the things they enjoyed together, like travel. Wrong place, catastrophically wrong time for Anna.

    She ends up as the only survivor or a shocking terrorist attack in which eleven other people – including a child – are murdered in cold blood. Anna is rushed to hospital and faces a long physical recovery, all the while wondering if she will ever recover from the trauma. She is now in the ‘after’ – and it seems that she will never recover her life ‘before’ the shocking events that she somehow survived.

    Nat seeks out Anna because he suffers from crippling guilt for everything that happened in Afghanistan. He has realised that he and other soldiers were sold a lie, when they believed that they were fighting there to keep Australians at home safe. The attack on Anna and the others in the shop are proof that they failed in that mission.

    At first wary, Anna comes to see Nat as someone who understands her turmoil because he is experiencing something very similar. A friendship develops as the pair meet, talk, challenge and reassure each other.

    Told in alternating viewpoints, the novel plunges the reader into the horror of Nat and Anna’s experiences and the tormented emotional and mental loops that each are now suffering. Their confusion, rage, guilt and sorrow are well described.

    Despite the darkness of their experiences, each person offers something profound and important to the other; most especially the possibility of hope.

    It really did take one to know one as he’d joked on the beach about their battle scars that day. It was true. That was the core of their connection, but it was more complex than his having been a soldier and her a victim of the perverted ideology he had fought… Anna had said she thought he understood her, but he realised now it was she who understood him. Nat had never believed anyone would ever understand him again.

    Here in the After pp170-171

    Here in the After is a sensitively written story of appalling trauma, the slow rocky path to recovery, and a different type of friendship. As we witness the tragedy in Afghanistan, the story is a timely reflection on the scars that violence leaves on its survivors – some visible, others less so.

    Here in the After is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Fractured lives: ‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

    This memoir by New Zealand born- now Melbourne resident – Michelle Tom is already one of my standout reads of 2021. It cleverly, poetically, blends her story of family violence, love, and bitterness with the devastation of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011. She uses geology and seismology as metaphors to drill down into the strata of her family; its patterns of behaviour and unrest over generations.

    I had some initial confusion in the opening chapters, with their leaps across multiple timeframes, before I realised this is also a metaphor: for memory, and the way past events and feelings come to us in a mélange of seemingly unconnected scraps and layers.

    The book is divided into five sections, each one reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks of the title. And for each of these stages, she identifies a corresponding period or event in her family’s life. It is such a powerful way of looking at family and individual trauma.

    As children, she and her siblings were burdened with adult secrets they should never have had to hear. Regarding her sister Meredith, she says, in a passage reminiscent of the Victorian idea of dying from a broken heart:

    Some days the weight of daylight was too much, as she hid away in her darkened flat. She fought to carry the secret of her beginning from each day into the next, and several years before she died I realised that she was not really living. Her spirit was fractured, and she possessed no energy for anything other than mere existence.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks pp56-57

    The legacy left for successive generations by parents and grandparents who are emotionally immature, manipulative and volatile is laid clear.

    The descriptions of the earthquake itself and its aftermath are visceral and horrifying. My husband and I visited Christchurch in 2012 and saw evidence of the destruction it had caused, including mounds of strange mud that were left after the liquefaction that can happen during a major earthquake. Even this becomes part of the family metaphor:

    What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks p278

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is a profound and beautiful memoir, one I cannot recommend highly enough.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by Fourth Estate in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Courage and conflict: ‘Sisters of the Resistance’ by Christine Wells

    I remember being in Paris, on a much-anticipated trip in 2015, falling in love with this amazing city (of course!) and imagining Nazi boots tramping the beautiful cobblestoned streets. I could almost hear the tanks rumbling through the city. I wondered: what would it have been like for Parisians, experiencing the fear and humiliation of German occupation?

    Sisters of the Resistance, by Aussie author Christine Wells, is a novel that plunges the reader into that experience, but also allows us to imagine how cities such as Paris were, straight after the war. How did Parisians survive the relentless assaults on their beautiful city and their lives? How much did rationing and fear impact on everyday experiences and for how long, after peace finally arrived?

    Paris was bleak in the winter with the plane trees leafless and grey. While the bombings had not touched the part of the city in which Yvette now hurried along, the place had the air of a beautiful, damaged creature still licking its wounds. Now that winter had come, all its scars were laid bare.

    Sisters of the Resistance p8

    The novel moves between 1947 and 1944, which was a time approaching the end of the war but still a dangerous one, as the Nazis grew ever more desperate and vicious.

    The sisters of the title are Yvette and Gabby, young women of very different personalities and approaches to their wartime experiences. Gabby is the eldest; sensible and cautious, just wanting to survive the war as best she can. Yvette is more impulsive, driven by a need to do something to help her city and country in its struggle against Nazi oppression. I enjoyed the contrasting characters: one accidentally and reluctantly drawn into resistance work; the other eager, if naïve about the dangers involved.

    As with many good historical fiction novels, this one was inspired by the true story of Catherine Dior, the sister of the more famous French fashion icon Christian. She worked and fought for the Paris resistance before her arrest, torture and incarceration in a German concentration camp. I had been introduced to her story before, via another novel about WWII, The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester. Hers is a remarkable story and in this new novel, Christine Wells has woven a moving and exciting tale about other women who contributed in their own ways to the cause of French freedom.

    The murkiness of the world of the resistance is explored as the characters navigate their way through the difficult (sometimes impossible) choices they are faced with:

    “At what point does it become collaboration? At what point treason? Do we judge by someone’s actions or by their intentions?”

    Sisters of the Resistance p102

    There are hints and glimpses of intrigue, betrayals and danger that kept me turning the page, and prompted me to wonder what I would do, if faced with similar situations and dilemmas that called upon every atom of strength I possessed.

    Sisters of the Resistance is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Fun new graphic novel: ‘Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian’ by Tim Probert

    The first in a new series of graphic novels for younger readers, Lightfall is all about Bea, who lives with her adoptive grandpa, the wise (but forgetful) Pig Wizard. On a day when Bea is in the forest collecting ingredients for Gramps’ next batch of potions, she meets Cad, a Galdurian, a race of frog-like people thought to have been extinct.

    The two strike up an unlikely friendship and Cad accompanies Bea home as he wants to ask Gramps for advice about how to find his missing people. But when they arrive at Bea’s home, Gramps is missing. He’s left a note to say that he is off an important magical errand, and Bea is not to follow him.

    What Gramps has not told Bea is that the light in the jar he has given her, along with warnings NOT to lose it, is the last light of the sun. The light of their world has been fading and an ancient force is set on extinguishing the light forever. Bea and Cad must save the jar with its precious magic flame at all costs. And they need to find Gramps.

    The story follows the setbacks and dangers they face along the way. What I enjoyed most is the friendship of two opposites: Cad is big, adventurous, optimistic and outgoing, where Bea is small and often anxious about doing the right thing or letting people down. The characters balance each other nicely and Bea must step out of her comfort zone many times on their journey.

    Graphic novels are terrific for reluctant or early readers as the text load is lighter and readers can absorb a good chunk of the story through the artwork. I can see the Lightfall series becoming a popular addition to children’s bookshelves.

    Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian was published by HarperAlley, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Joyous, beautiful read: ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman

    Have you been to Italy? I haven’t, although I did come close early on in 2020 when preliminary plans were afoot for a trip. A loved one’s uncertain health, and then of course Covid, put a stop to that.

    If you are anything like me, a book set in a place you’ve not been, can often make you long to go there. This happened when I read Heather’ Rose’s Bruny: on a recent trip to Tasmania, I made sure to include Bruny Island in the itinerary, as I’d never had the opportunity to visit before.

    Still Life is set in both Italy and England – Florence and the east end of London, to be precise. It’s a big joyous hymn to love, passion, art, beauty and family (both birth families and the families we create for ourselves). In some ways, it reminded me a little of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet: like that much loved Australian classic, Still Life sprawls across decades and follows a disparate group of people as they travel through life. And, one of the shining strengths of the novel is the way those characters are captured with apt description, humour and wonderful dialogue. Here’s a couple of examples, about Peg:

    She’d have done anything to have had a mum like Nora. Nora was all soft angles and kindness. Peg could be kind, but there wasn’t enough of it to be a regular thing with her. It was like her wage. Always ran out by Thursday.

    and:

    Peg slunk out bare legs and heels first followed by a belted midi short-sleeve dress in emerald green. Sunglasses hid the ten years older and the sun high-lighted the ten years blonder.

    Still Life pp98 & 311

    Ulysses (a young British soldier in Italy in the last years of the war) and Evelyn (an art historian in her sixties) meet by chance in Italy and talk through one night about truth, beauty and Florence. We follow both of these main characters through the decades after the war, from the wreckage and hardship of London to the great flood of 1966 in Florence and into the 1970’s, years of tumult and dissent. Ulysses has moved to live in Florence, that city at the centre of Renaissance art, and has gathered around him a close group of friends – family, really – both Italian and English. Evelyn continues her stellar career as an art historian and teacher, always remembering a maid in Florence with whom she had her first love affair at the age of twenty-one.

    I fell a little in love with these two main characters, though the novel is peopled by many others: complex, funny, three dimensional humans whose convivial dinners in a Florentine piazza had me longing to join them. And there are touches of magical realism, as well, including a Shakespeare-quoting parrot and trees that commune with humans.

    This passage encapsulates the themes of this book:

    This song’s called Angeli del fango, he said. Mud Angels.
    It was a ballad. About the young men and women who’d come to the city. About good rising out of need, about love in all its forms, about kindness and looking out for one another, and only the third verse was about art, but even that was about the paradox of meaning…

    Still Life p355

    I feel certain that Still Life will be one of my standout reads for 2021. It’s such a joyous book; rich with love of life, art, beauty and what makes humans, human.

    Still Life is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Amusing, troubling, insightful, and occasionally annoying: ‘Should We Stay or Should We Go’ by Lionel Shriver

    Lionel Shriver (US born, now based in the UK) is a controversial author. She picks up on contemporary social themes and preoccupations and interrogates them with razor sharp wit, in the process holding up a mirror that reflects modern society back to itself, mostly with less than flattering results.

    Kay Wilkinson and her husband Cyril are middle class Londoners with respected careers in the NHS – she as a nurse and he a doctor. When in their fifties, she and her husband are both appalled at the possibility that they will suffer from dementia (as both Kay’s parents did before they died), or become disabled by a stroke or another debilitating health condition. So they make a pact that when they have both turned eighty they will suicide together. In the discussion leading to this decision, Kay says:

    Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them… They value quality of life. Somehow they’ll do something so their ageing will proceed with dignity... Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out the miserable end of their lives like everyone else…

    Should we stay or should we go p12-13

    Okay, so some of these arguments touch on tender points for me just now. My mother is 92 and suffers from dementia and several other long term illnesses, and there have been plenty of times when my best wish for her is to close her eyes peacefully in bed and not wake again. Also, I have had discussions with friends and family about voluntary assisted dying which sounded very like another of the arguments put forward in the novel, this one by Cyril:

    You said everyone imagines they’re exceptions and they’ll surely arrange an early and merciful exit before submitting to the intolerable, And then they do submit to the intolerable. That’s because, in order to retain agency over your own end of life, you have to be willing to give up some small portion of it that’s not particularly rubbish. Otherwise, you go downhill, doctors and relatives take over, and you’re apt to lose the very part of yourself that makes judgements and takes action. We have a very narrow window in which to exercise control.

    Should we stay or should we go p30

    So, the couple seem united and sure of their decision. And then, as the book cover blurb says: they turn eighty.

    What follows is a twisting, circular, whirlwind of a time travel novel which explores and expounds on multiple final outcomes for Kay and Cyril, and indeed the whole nation and humanity more generally. The scenarios played out are by turns horrific, fanciful, eccentric, far-fetched, almost believable, idealistic or depressing. Scenes, sentences, characters appear and re-appear in different guises and surroundings as ‘sliding door moments’ take the characters one way and then another. It’s almost a grown-up ‘choose your own adventure’ story. I admit to feeling breathless a few times as I was carried away on the author’s imaginative tide of possible outcomes.

    There are plenty of darkly funny moments, and it’s hard not to admire the wicked ways in which the author has made national and global preoccupations at the time of writing – Brexit, climate change, ageing populations, the Covid19 pandemic – symbolic of so much that Kay and Cyril are grappling with.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is a clever novel that skewers and taunts as much as it poses serious questions. There are laugh-out-loud moments but a word of warning: if you are already by nature or mood pessimistic, worried about your own future and old age, or dealing with themes of death and illness in your own life: be careful. This novel could either shake you up with a good belly laugh at its audacity, or leave you deeper in the gloom.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.