There are few things as startling as encountering an unearthly glow in the wild. Glow-worms. Ghost mushrooms. Fireflies. Flashlight fish. Lantern sharks. Vampire squid. Our forest floors and ceilings, our ocean depths and fringes are full of luminous things, creatures lit from the inside. And they have, for many centuries, enchanted us, like glowing missionaries of wonder, emissaries of awe.

Is there anything more beautiful than living light?

Julia Baird could not have known, while she was writing Phosphorescence, just how timely her book would be. Subtitled ‘on awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark’, it’s been a lovely counterbalance to the gusts of bad news that keep swirling around us.

It’s not really a memoir, nor is it self-help or a collection of essays or a book of nature writing –  but contains elements of all four. Some of the impetus to write Phosphorescence is Baird’s experience of pain and illness. In 2015, she was diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer, which recurred twice, needing surgery and rounds of chemo. Though Baird talks about her cancer experience, it’s not a blow-by-blow account. As Lissa Christopher wrote in her ‘Lunch with…’ interview in the Melbourne Age (‘Spectrum’, 13/6/20) illness is  ‘the dark background against which the rest glows’.

And glow it does. There are lyrical and lovely descriptions of swimming and walking and observing the natural world, along with excursions into the science of why such things are so very good for us. Who knew that forest bathing was a prescription? Baird urges us to pay attention; to embrace the soothing power of the ordinary; to seek nature; to experience awe whenever we can.

Awe makes us stop and stare. Being awestruck dwarfs us, humbles us, makes us aware that we are part of a universe unimaginably larger than ourselves…

Wonder is a similar sensation, and the two feelings are often entwined. Wonder makes us stop and ask questions about the world, while marvelling over something we have not seen before, whether spectacular or mundane.

Nearly thirty years ago, in mid-1991, I woke from a dream. We all have lots of dreams, and most of them vanish from our minds almost as soon as we wake, but this I’ve never forgotten. It was nothing Freudian or Jungian or fantastical, just a voice, saying something I still find deeply mysterious. It said, “In-dwelling light.”
Every now and then I think about that phrase. Where did it come from, what does it mean, was it a mantra, was it a message?  Phosphorescence has me wondering and pondering all over again.

Phosphorescence Julia Baird Fourth Estate 2020 $32.99

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When their parents leave for New Zealand to sort out a family emergency, sisters Tash (aged 12) and Clancy (who’s 14) are sent to stay with their aunt. When when she goes away for the weekend, what could possibly go wrong?

The girls impulsively bust their grandfather out of his aged care facility and go on the run, that’s all.

Pa has been living at The Elms since he had a stroke. He’s in a wheelchair, and he’s suffering from aphasia – which means he’s lost his words. But he’s still full of spirit, and a willing accomplice to his grand-daughters.

They want to find a better place for Pa. Anxious by nature, Clancy is at first hesitant, and tries to hold her older sister back. But they’re united by love for their grandfather and in the end, they’re simply carried along by the momentum of their adventures. The journey takes them from the empty family home in a leafy suburb, to a mysterious bookshop in a derelict inner-city arcade, to an ashram in the bush and a beach-house by the ocean. An elderly gent in a wheelchair doesn’t make for easy travelling, and the trio need all their resourcefulness and grit to manage. Which they do, with maybe a little extra help, as sensitive Clancy begins to suspect they’re being guided by the spirit of their dead grandmother.

This is a warm-hearted and heart-warming story. It encompasses many large and significant themes – such as the pull-and-push struggle between the family and the individual, the challenges of ageing and of caring for our elders – but these are wrapped up in the two girls’ endearingly shambolic quest. Over their time on the run, bold Tash and anxious Clancy develop a closer and more understanding bond as they come to see that though they have very different personalities, together they make a great team.

Road-trip novels are by their nature episodic, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cast of vivid and diverse characters – taxi drivers, shopkeepers, booksellers, public transport staff, messy apartment-dwellers, kind and helpful strangers –  who pop in and out of the adventure.

When I was a bookseller, I noted that there seemed to be a gap in the market. Middle-school children who read above their age level, but who want gentle realistic family stories – not fantasy, horror or gross-out humour – weren’t well catered for.  The January Stars is one book I’d have been delighted to recommend.

The January Stars Kate Constable Allen&Unwin RRP $16.95


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It’s counter-intuitive, but there’s something so calming about old school detective fiction. It’s often been said that it’s all about the ‘moral universe’; these are stories with a certain outcome in which the good prevail and the bad are punished. I’m not sure it’s just that. I like the process, too, the problem solving, the working out of motive and opportunity, the separation of red herring from genuine clue and the patient untangling of knots and snarls until it all comes out in the end.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve continued my Wimsey crime spree on Kindle. It’s coincided with (and I hope it hasn’t caused) a bout of insomnia. So, midnight reading has been Whose Body?, The Nine Tailors, Clouds of Witness, Murder Must Advertise and Unnatural Death. But enough is enough, and especially enough of Lord Peter with his monocle and silly-ass pose –  and the unquestioned hilarity of the lower and middle classes. Ow, t’ funny way they do talk!

I have a trial membership of Kindle Unlimited – around $15 a month, and any book you want from the dedicated list – so after exhausting Dorothy Sayers, I decided to cross the Atlantic and move up a couple of decades.
I tried searching for an old favourite, Ross McDonald. There were none available on Kindle Unlimited, but what I did find was a fascinating book called Hard Boiled Anxiety by Karen Huston Karydes.

It’s Freudian literary criticism, zeroing in on three masters of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre –  Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and Ross McDonald – and the twisted origins of their fiction. Behind the tough-guy private eyes are three seriously messed-up writers. Each of these men had complicated relationships with their parents and with women, so Karydes’ Freudian interpretations are an easy fit. And of course, what is the underworld but the subconscious? McDonald is a particularly apt subject, because he’d had extensive psychoanalysis and was perfectly aware that his clingy, demanding women and their sons or younger lovers referenced Oedipus. Even more revealing were the excerpts from McDonald’s confessional memoir. It seems that McDonald used his detective hero Lew Archer to heal himself.

This is lively, entertaining and illuminating lit crit. And what a great cover.

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Every time I go to see my chiropractor, there’s a little ritual.  After the half hour drive to Daylesford, a pot of tea. Of course. There are two Op Shops right across the road from the clinic. And afterwards, since I have to walk around for twenty minutes or so before getting in the car again, there are the shops. The bookstore in Vincent Street – Paradise Books, new and second-hand –  is great for browsing. And there are oodles of places selling dreamware. Dreams, as in ‘my impossible perfectly curated life’. Silk scarves, French cookware, alpaca throws. Hand-crafted jewellery and chocolates and gin. Soap made by artisans in Sicily from virgin olive oil which look like large lumpy baseballs of snot…
In one particularly beautiful shop, Frances Pilley (also in Vincent Street), I buy these spiral-bound notebooks with a beetle on the cover.

I’ve been keeping a journal (and I mean actually keeping it up for any length of time) this year and so far, I’ve filled two of these notebooks. I have three more, which should last me to the end of 2020.  I’ll be onto my next one by the end of the week. and I suppose if I’ve had a summer book and a coronavirus book, this next one will be my winter book. Right on cue, the season has changed. I am looking out of the window right now, and rain is falling and the last bright leaves are shaking on the wind-tossed quince tree. A poor, wet grey shrike-thrush is sitting on a bare branch right only three or four metres away through the glass. Oh! He must have felt my gaze, because now he shook himself and flew away.

Apart from the mundane and daily and ephemeral, the Summer Book is about heat and smoke and fires. Some anger, but mostly grief, that in this country we can’t seem to get past politics and just do what’s needed to cut our emissions. And Coronavirus Book contains a fair bit of uncertainty and fear and obsessive checking on the figures, as well as sorrow and sadness and a selfish nostalgia my old life, including those lovely and indulgent trips to Daylesford which seem like something from a fairy tale past.

The notebook also contains what I could call  my Covid-19 Epiphany.
After 24 years as a bookseller, I decided that I need a change. So I have finished up – goodbye Bookroom! –  and I’m hoping to start a Cert III in Aged Care in mid-July. As well, at almost the same time, I’ll be sending the first draft of my new novel to the wonderful freelance editor Janet Blagg. She worked with me on “How Bright” and she’s very kind, but it’s always a racking process. Is this book rubbish? Does it make sense? Did it achieve any of what I wanted it to achieve?
Maybe Winter Book should actually be Scary Book.  Or “Are You Mad?” Book.

Or just New Book.

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“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that tell true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.

And that is why we write.”

From Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Newbery Medal, which was awarded to The Graveyard Book.

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After finishing Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, I decided to look up some of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I remembered Gaudy Night was one of my mother’s favourite detective novels so I decided to start there, near the end of the series and not at the beginning.

It’s the mid-1930’s, and detective novelist Harriet Vane arrives in Oxford for a ‘gaudy’ (a college feast or reunion) at Shrewsbury, her old college. Scarred by the publicity and scandal of her murder trial (see Strong Poison), she’s reluctant to go…but once she’s there, she finds herself back under its familiar spell. Harriet rediscovers Oxford; the mellow old buildings, the river, the streets and shops. She also renews her love for the university, the institution; the traditions of scholarship and learning and ‘the life of the mind’. She wonders if she could insulate herself from the worries of the world, and become a scholar…
But (since this is a detective novel) she also finds herself in the middle of a mystery. Someone in this all-female community has been sending poison pen letters and committing minor acts of vandalism. Is it a member of the staff (‘scouts’), a student, an academic?
This book was written in the 1930s, when women’s demands to participate in higher education still met with resistance. Female academics and intellectuals were commonly caricatured as unlovable and unfeminine, if not downright bitter and twisted. (Well, why not be bitter? Oxford did not admit women to full academic status until 1921 and Cambridge – can you believe it? – not until 1947!). It soon becomes clear that Shrewsbury College’s female intellectuals are the targets of an anti-feminist who wants to cause a scandal in the academic community. With the attacks becoming nastier and more frequent, Harriet is asked to investigate. Eventually, she turns to Lord Peter Wimsey, her friend and unsuccessful suitor, for assistance. In its final pages, the mystery is tragically solved and Harriet and Peter find each other at last.

Back to my mother. As I’ve aged,  I’ve come to see her in a different light (like, she was a person!). Yes, she was strong, stoic, intelligent, self-disciplined, brave – quite the feminist icon. She was also – if I read her rightly –  a raging romantic. In my youthful self absorption, I’d missed that. Gaudy Night is both a mystery and an achingly romantic love story.  It’s the book where Harriet (at last!) realises that Peter is her soul mate. And he, after years of fruitless courtship, gets his heart’s desire. The scene on the riverbank, where Harriet studies Peter’s face as he sleeps, had me reaching for my (metaphorical) fan. Hot! and yet with nothing explicitly sexual.

I can imagine that for my mother, as a fiercely intelligent young woman in the early 1940s, the fiercely intelligent Harriet might have been a heroine. Not bitter, not twisted. Successful, capable – and lovable, too.

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Last year, as part of the Castlemaine State Festival, large format posters of local artists, writers, performers and other creative types were plastered around the town. Despite rain, wind, sun and the work of random rippers and taggers, I am still there. Thank you to my lovely sister-in-law Lyndell for sending me this smile.

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This group biography explores the lives of five extraordinary women who all lived in secluded Mecklenburgh Square,  on the fringes of Bloomsbury, between the two world wars. The women are H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) a modernist poet: Dorothy Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels: Jane Ellen Harrison, classicist and translator: Eileen Power, historian, broadcaster and pacifist: and Virginia Woolf who  needs no introduction. The unusual title actually comes from Woolf; in 1925 diary entry, she wrote of the pleasures of “street sauntering and square haunting”.
Each of these women claimed, to use Woolf’s words again, “a room of one’s own”, and a life of  their own. It’s a fascinating and often moving study of five very different women who were  united in their intelligence, curiosity and creativity. It makes me sad, nearly a century on, to read how convention and male authority constrained their ambitions; how difficult it was for them to reach their potential and achieve recognition.
At the end of the book Wade writes:
…the legacy of these women’s lives lives on…in future generations’ right to talk, walk and write freely, to live invigorating lives.
I’m sad too because I know that as women we still don’t always feel that we have the right to the lives we want.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade Faber&Faber $39.95







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Recently we drove to the coast, to Port Fairy for a few days holiday, just before the full coronavirus emergency hit.

Late autumn, harvest-time, and semi-trailers loaded with hay constantly roared past. The recent rain meant that paddocks looked dry but not drought-stricken; sheep and cattle grazed; majestic river red gums – emblematic of the Western District –  stood surrounded by their ‘widow-maker’ dropped limbs; and grand houses, far from the road, could be glimpsed here and there through trees or down long drives.

We arrived, settled in. Before long I was relaxing on the veranda of our cottage, looking at the pictures and reading this beautiful book.

The Western District of Victoria. Even the name conjures up establishment families, history and grandeur. This area…has some of the most productive land in Australia and some of its most renowned homesteads and gardens…
Through their early histories we follow their fortunes and see the splendour of these great homes.
It is a tribute to the past, when fortunes built elaborate mansions and grand gardens, and to the present owners who have so lovingly preserved their properties’ architectural heritage.

That’s from the blurb of Great Properties of Country Victoria: The Western District’s Golden Age by Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker The Miegunyah Press 2015.

I was leafing through the beautifully illustrated pages, full of smothered envy for the lawns, the old trees, the gravelled drives and stone walls and towers and return verandahs… And suddenly, I realised. Damn. Shit. Double damn. I can’t enjoy this book in good conscience. Because? Because Aboriginal people. This is not me saying, how good am I. How woke, how virtuous. Because I’m not, I’m saying damn! I really wanted to enjoy this!

Great properties? Yes, but whose? The fact is – and it’s one I can’t any longer escape – that the beautiful gardens and stunning architectural heritage displayed in this book can only exist because of the dispossession of the local Aboriginal people. Dispossession? A sanitized word for violence, up to and including massacre. It’s the untold story of these architecturally significant mansions and the pastoralists who commissioned them. I’m surprised that a book so recent has no mention of those who were there first.

And as if to impress the lesson of history, when we went for a walk that evening, right near the Port Fairy Tourist Information Centre, the site of the old railway station, is the memorial stone pictured above.

Which brings me to another book. I read Inheritance by Carole Wilkinson earlier in the year, around the time that I read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. I had no intention of thematic reading, so it was just chance, but they seemed to fit together.

Carole Wilkinson, author of the award-winning Dragonkeeper series, has written a thought-provoking novel about Australia’s shameful hidden history.

Nic finds herself living with her grumpy old grandfather at the family home, Yaratgil, when her musician father goes on tour.  Her mother, Veronica, died when she was born and there are no other friends or relatives who can take her in. Yaratgil was once a magnificent Western District property, with a huge homestead and extensive gardens. Now, it’s run down and falling into disrepair.

Isolated and bored, Nic begins to explore. She finds a strange locked room. Inside it, she discovers some mysterious stones. Which have magical properties…

There are multiple meanings attached to the title, Inheritance, and one of them is that through the stones, Nic finds she has the ability to go back into the past. This gift runs in her family through the female line.  Inheritance also refers to what she finds in the past; her family’s involvement in the massacre of the local Aboriginal people.

I enjoyed Inheritance and applaud Carole Wilkinson for dealing with this confronting subject matter without lecturing. The elements of fantasy (the mysterious, plant-filled locked room, the stones, the time-travelling women in the family) and realism (Nic’s boredom and isolation at Yaratgil and at school,  her tentative friendship with local boy Thor, the conservative small town atmosphere) meld together well. My only reservation is the fluffy cover. It just doesn’t seem to do justice to what’s inside.

The drive home, back through the beautiful Western District again, took us through Lake Bolac, where some of my forebears farmed in the 1840s and 50s, before the gold rushes. My mother once told me a family story. An orphaned boy from somewhere (I’m not sure where) in my family tree was sent from Warrnambool to Lake Bolac to work as a shepherd and station hand. The local Aboriginal people had been spearing sheep and there’d been reprisals. The boy had retired for the day with the other men in a stone hut when there was some kind of an attack.  The men fired their guns out into the night until there was no more movement, and in the morning there were nine or ten bodies on the ground. So – though there’s no mansion or acres of gardens – this story is a part of my inheritance, too.


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Comfort reading. Like comfort eating, it can be addictive and feel a little shameful. Shouldn’t I be reading the latest, grimmest memoir or book on current affairs? What about that great tome of literary fiction that’s been on my shelf for months?
I know I’m not alone in this, but sometimes I just need to read something gentle and undemanding. At the suggestion of a friend, I’ve been devouring the Isabel Dalhousie novels of Alexander McCall Smith. They’ve proved both soothing and charming, though after five in a row I realise you can have too much of a good thing. And though perhaps it’s a stretch to classify books containing brutal and premeditated murders as ‘kind and gentle’, the Sarah Kelling mysteries of Charlotte McLeod are obviously meant to be parodies and I’ve found 1980s Boston just as cosy as any village in Midsomer.

Beloved books from childhood sometimes hit the spot, too. I had a credit from a wonderful local antiquarian and second-hand book shop, Mount of Alex, so I bought a few old favourites.The first of these is The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright.

It’s 1941 in New York, and the motherless Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – decide to pool their weekly allowance money so that each Saturday, one of them can afford a really special treat. Randy chooses an exhibition of French paintings at an art gallery; Rush goes to a matinee at the opera; Mona has a haircut and manicure at a beauty salon, and Oliver, the youngest, sneaks off to the circus and is brought home by a policeman on a horse.  On each expedition the children have a mild adventure, make a friend or learn something about another person’s life and they get to explore their home city of New York. There’s always their father and the wonderful housekeeper/cook/nanny Cuffy to come home to. And like many of these older children’s books, it’s really beautifully written.

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