I promised myself to read more new books this year (new to me, I mean), and so I have been trawling through the library catalogue and earmarking any titles that take my fancy. I have 21 books on reserve at present! My fancies seem to coincide with lots of other borrowers, so that there’ll be a week or two with no books and then three or four come in all at once. Feast or famine.

It was famine last week. Since we were heading off to the Grampians/Gariwerd for a holiday, I needed something riveting to read in case it rained all the time. So I took with me a couple of James Lees-Milne’s wartime diaries,  Ancestral Voices (1942-3) and Prophesying Peace. (1944-5). James Lees-Milne? Who? He’s sometimes called ‘the man who saved England’. But we’re talking architecture, not military strategy – he was employed from 1942 to 1947 to inspect and assess historic buildings offered to the National Trust.
At that time, the National Trust was mainly concerned with preserving notable landscapes; it owned 75,000 acres but had less than ten historic houses open to the public. These houses weren’t seen as a vital part of the country’s heritage; consequently if the owners didn’t have the funds for upkeep, they were demolished or left to decay. Requisitioned for wartime use, some of them were being severely damaged. Into the breach leaped a small, amateurish but committed band of National Trust employees. Lees-Milne had an insatiable passion for architecture and the old and often dilapidated great country houses of England. It sounds as if, with his love and enthusiasm and tact, he often charmed the owners (who were often old and dilapidated, too) into passing their precious family seats into the care of the Trust. But not always.

I had a horrible day with Colonel Pemberton at Pyrland Hall near Taunton. He is a fiendish old imbecile with a grotesque white moustache. When I first saw him he was pirouetting on his toes in the road. He has an inordinate opinion of himself and his own judgement…  Having hated me like poison he was nevertheless furious when I left at 4pm. I conclude he has to have a victim on whom to vent his spleen.

The last time I read these diaries must have been pre-Internet. With a a few clicks now I can bring up an image and see for myself what Lees-Milne is talking about. This is Kelmscott, the home of Arts and Crafts artist and designer William Morris.

The old, grey stone, pointed gables are first seen through the trees. The house is surrounded by a dovecote and farm buildings which are still used by a farmer. The romantic group must look exactly as it did when William Morris found it lying in the low water meadows, quiet and dreaming… The garden is divine, crammed with flowers wild and tangled, an enchanted orchard garden for there are fruit trees and a mulberry planted by Morris. All the flowers are as Pre-Raphaelite as the house, being rosemary, orange-smelling lilies,, lemon-smelling verbena. The windows outside have small pediments over them. Inside are Charles II chimneypieces, countrified by rude Renaissance scrolls at the base of the jambs.

Pediments? Jambs? Rude scrolls? Now it’s easy to find out what they are.
The diaries aren’t just about driving in unreliable cars to visit eccentric aristocrats in remote mansions.  These first volumes take in the worst days of the Blitz and he often found himself cleaning up bomb damage, watching for fires or sitting all night in a shelter. In one entry, he helped a crowd of people to make a chain of hands in order to rescue rare books from a bombed-out library. And he always found time to socialise. He was friends with all sorts of artists, writers, historians and cultured celebrities –  with literati like Nancy Mitford, Vita Sackville-West and Ivy Compton-Burnett – and a crew of glittering but now-forgotten socialites such as Emerald Cunard and Daisy Fellowes. They all seemed to manage to wine and dine and spout witticisms amongst the death and destruction.

These diaries wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste – he’s a snob, and his comments about ‘the lower orders’ are a bit hard to take – especially since I would have been one of them! But for all that, Lees-Milne’s mixture of people and places, historical and architectural knowledge, description, philosophy, religion, anecdotes, gossip, opinions, complaints, doubts and fears and failings is addictive reading. He was candid about his personal life and curious about other people’s. Often malicious or waspish, but at times surprisingly compassionate. In one entry, he’s conscience-stricken that he unintentionally “cut” a working-class fire-watching colleague, and berates himself for hurting the man’s feelings. All in all, a good companion to take on a holiday.


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Ten years ago, when I met my friends, we talked about our teenage children and our ageing parents. Now we talk about our own health. Most of us have something to whinge about and it seems we all have our pet theories. It’s the gut or the adrenals or the immune system. Maybe hormones. Diet –  take your pick from sugar, dairy, wheat, gluten, animal protein. Pesticides. Pollution. Plastics.

As for me, I suppose there could be an element of all these things, but I’ve always been puzzled by the way some people get sick and others don’t. There are our genes, of course, but what about attitudes, personalities, temperaments? How we learn, think and feel. Our childhood experiences. They make us who we are, and influence how we respond to life’s challenges. In his 2003 book, When the Body Says No, Dr Gabor Mate explored the body/mind connection and the role of our emotional lives in the development of a range of diseases such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes and auto-immune diseases. In The Myth of Normal (written with his son Daniel Mate and published last year), Gabor Mate goes further and sets his sights on the tsunami of chronic disease and mental illness engulfing the Western (and Westernised) world. The subtitle is Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture. It’s so obvious, it’s scary; the way we live now is making human flourishing increasingly difficult. Addictions and mental illnesses are the ways in which we adapt to our crazy culture; diseases and disorders are the ways our bodies say “no” to the perpetual cycle of stress, hurry and worry. The authors emphasise that although the suffering is personal, the causes are culture-wide. At 500 pages, it’s a bit of an epic, but wide-ranging, ambitious and illuminating.


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In 1991, aged 32, I went overseas by myself for the first time. I felt both bold and scared as I headed off on my Grand Tour with a round-the-world fare. Air travel was expensive then – it cost me $4,000 (which is about $9,000 in today’s money) and you can buy a similar ticket right now for less than that. So it was, as they say a big ticket item and I was resolved to make the most of it. I’d just received a property settlement, and all cashed up, I
I planned to make use of my 6 stopovers and the full 12 months.

But in the end, I only visited Canada, the UK and France – and of the six months I was away, nearly five were spent in  Canada. Because?

Because I found I just loved Canada. Adored the place. I went from coast to coast, travelling on trains, buses and ferries, seeing more of that huge country than I’ve seen of Australia. I’ve been there three times now, and I am planning to go again sometime.
I had the great good fortune to have someone to stay with at the start of my solo adventure. David was an actor, and lived in Montreal. I scarcely knew him, but he was a good friend of my older brother. And he loved showing off his country (and he loved to drive), so we took off on lots of road trips, tootling around Quebec and the Maritimes in his beat-up and chronically unreliable van. I remember a Mohawk pow-wow, a spooky ancestral mansion set all by itself at the mouth of the mighty St Lawrence, a gannet colony on a rocky island, a thousand-strong Indian religious gathering, icy white landscapes of frozen lakes and rivers, a ceilidh in a seaside village in Nova Scotia.

But some of the best times were spent at home. In Montreal, or at his cabin at Sutton near the Vermont border in an area known as the Eastern Townships. It’s a place of many little towns and villages with English names like Hatley, Dunham, Orford and Sutton. That’s because in the late 18th century, during and after the American revolution, there was an influx of  British, Irish and Scottish Americans who remained loyal to Great Britain.

All of this is by way of introducing the crime novels of Louise Penny. Her hero (and he is indeed a hero) is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. After investigating a crime in the Eastern Township village of Three Pines, he finds himself repeatedly drawn back to the place. Me too. That’s because Three Pines is a fictional version of Sutton. It’s where Louise Penny lives. And when I read, I can see the landscape, hear the English-accented French and the French-accented English, smell the croissants and pastries at the bakery, browse in the bookshop, walk through the pine woods, gaze at the lakes and mountains, shiver in the snow, watch deer and squirrel, and keep a close watch out for bears.

Thankfully I never had to worry about murderers.

The Armand Gamache novels are not only cracking reads (there are 18 so far, and I only have 2 unread) but for me, full of nostalgic Quebec pleasures.

More at Louise Penny’s site

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It starts with a can of paint.
13-year-old Rowan, helping her older sister Ash redecorate her bedroom, shifts a bookcase and finds a silver ring set with a sea-glass stone. The chance-found (or was it?) ring has the power to transport the two sisters back in time, and they find themselves at a party in 1999. Ash dances the night away, but eventually Rowan falls asleep. Rowan, on waking, returns to her present-day life…but Ash does not, and Rowan must go on a high-stakes quest back into the past to rescue her. But perplexingly, time seems to take on the ability to slip and slide and shift. Even in the present day, things are not what they should be. What has Rowan done? And how will she bring Ash back?

I’m not going to give any spoilers, but basically, all my favourite story ingredients are here. There’s mystery, history, magic and intrigue. An old house full of secrets and stories. A rescue mission needing imagination, courage and tenacity. A wise woman (I love the name Verity, of course) who can help but not intervene. All sitting on a firm foundation of family life and love.

This is beautifully written, thought-provoking junior fiction – with a twist.

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A lot of reading lately, but no writing. Exactly three years after the original covid lockdown in Victoria, I finally caught the virus. That was three weeks ago, and I’m only just emerging from the illness. I have to say, it’s no fun. Aches, chills, fevers, the worst headache. I’ve still got the cough. But thanks to antivirals, promptly prescribed, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been and I am well and truly on the mend. Having seen a close family member with pneumonia in the ICU, in an induced coma on a ventilator, looking like a little broken doll, I know how bad it can be. And I feel so grateful to Medicare – imperfect though it may be. Long live socialist medicine!

My sickbed entertainment was watching gardening shows (Monty Don, I love you!), cooking shows (baking is so soothing) and British crime on my laptop. And reading, of course.

Cook books, because I didn’t feel like eating.

Crime novels, because they take me into a different world, a world of fantasy where justice is done – which cheers me up.

Georgette Heyer regency romances, cheering also, as (fantasy, as above) love conquers all.

A stack of current Vogue magazines, from my sister-in-law, which were interesting to look at…but I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t understand today’s high fashion aesthetic. Which is OK, I’m old, I’m probably not meant to. In contrast, I have some 1950’s English Vogue and these are fashions I can appreciate and understand. Impractical, mostly, and probably uncomfortable (corsets, stockings, high heels) but so elegant.

Luckily, I had borrowed a pile of books from the library just before I got ill. The literary fiction didn’t work for me.  The non-fiction went a little better, although I skimmed and skipped and therefore can’t really remember how to have a beautiful mind, the science and secrets of memory, the ultimate guide to household budgeting, and radical science fiction from 1950 to 1985. The one that really defeated me was The High Magic of Talismans and Amulets: Tradition and Craft by Claude Lecouteux. Not Now, Not Ever: Ten Years On From the Misogyny Speech, edited by Julia Gillard, had me alternately cheering and seething at how so much has changed, but not enough. Watching footage of the speech, I wondered once again how Tony Abbott ever became Prime Minister.

One book I’d like to read again was The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood and the Mind-Baby Problem by Julie Phillips. She looks at the ways in which creative women who are also mothers face the challenge of meshing the two identities of mother and artist. Her subjects are varied – writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, Alice Walker and visual artists such as Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois and Barbara Hepworth. There’s a long-held idea (or prejudice) that you can’t be a mother and an artist. Both are all-consuming: something’s got to give. Women have to choose between maternity and ambition because a “real” artist needs solitude, an oasis of freedom tucked away from domestic life and especially the tasks and cares of parenthood. However, these women had the courage to stake a claim for their art –  that it mattered, that they mattered – and they devised ways of combining care with their vocations. It’s both inspiring and depressing.
And made me remember (proudly) the time when I finished a book, typing one-handed, with a newborn held in my other arm.

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I guess you would call me a ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ voter, so I felt a surge of joy when the results of the last federal election were announced. I was elated, not because Anthony Albanese is some kind of visionary saviour – I confidently expect Labor to stuff up – but because the Liberals under Scott Morrison were just so awful. Cruel. Stupid. Smug. The First Dog on the Moon wrote, “Good riddance you jabbering ghouls. History will remember you as the worst of us.”
Widely published political commentator and award-winning author Niki Savva is a conservative – indeed, a former staffer to John Howard and Peter Costello – and so I imagine that makes her views on the current state of the Liberal Party all the more acute. And she does not hide her loathing for Scott Morrison. So we’re on the same page there, which makes Bulldozed: Scott Morrison’s fall and Anthony Albanese’s rise irresistible. I haven’t read the other books in her political trilogy, but they are now on order from the library. So I am going to be reading backwards –  about the hideous, embarrassing Abbott rule (The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government) and the disappointing Turnbull years (Plots and Prayers: Malcolm Turnbull’s demise and Scott Morrison’s ascension).

But first, Morrison. Savva starts with the election that should have turfed the Liberals out – the “Morrison miracle”. I remember spending election night in disbelief. The only thing to be glad about was that Peter Dutton wasn’t leader.
But according to Savva, even loyalists Peter Dutton and Josh Frydenberg knew that Morrison was “…a deeply flawed personality, a duplicitous, damaged leader with limited horizons and appalling judgement even they were not certain they could trust, who rarely understood what Australians expected of a prime minister.”
She goes on: “Morrison used, played and deceived them, as he had so many others, in ways that were both obvious and beyond even their imaginings. He left them with a pile of rubble, feeling wounded and betrayed… He was petty and vindictive. Few dared challenge him, worried that if they did they would bring the show down. Their reluctance ruined them, and left the Liberal Party in its sorriest state since it was founded by Robert Menzies in 1944.”

I loved this book. I gobbled it up like a box of chocolates, unable to stop because all the pleasure centres of my brain were buzzing, humming and zinging. Yes, yes, yes!
This excoriating account of Scotty from Marketing’s political demise is a thing of joy and beauty. And The First Dog on the Moon is fantastic, too.



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I’ve had mixed success with Barbara Kingsolver’s books. I liked The Laguna, gave up on Prodigal Summer half-way through and bailed on the audio book of Flight Behaviour after ten minutes. But the friend who loaned me this book told me I’d love it. And I did. It’s long and sprawling, rich in characters and events and told in a voice that’s unforgettably moving and funny and tragic and real. It’s a re-telling of Dicken’s David Copperfield, and like Dickens, Kingsolver is unashamedly polemical about what poverty and abuse does to children. Is it too soon to say this is the best book I’ve read all year?

Damon Fields is born to a drug-using teenage mother in Lee County, Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachians. There’s poverty – and then there’s destitution; with Damon’s mother in and out of rehab and no family to help, he’s on his own. But he’s not. The warm and generous Peggott clan, who own the trailer Damon and his mother live in, take him under their wing and in spite of everything, his childhood is almost happy. But when his mother marries, Damon gains a merciless stepfather and his life takes a dive. As does his mother’s. Controlled and abused, she overdoses, and Damon is shunted into the care – I should write ‘care’! – of the welfare system. He becomes part of the underage labour crew of an elderly farmer, and then is used as a source of income by a fecklessly poor middle-class family. As Damon says, ‘a kid is a terrible thing to be’.

The catastrophic failings of the services and individuals meant to protect and care for children are Kingsolver’s initial targets; in the next stage of Damon’s life the American medical system comes under fire. He finds a home with Coach Winfield and his daughter Agnes – who goes by ‘Angus’ – and becomes a high school football star. He’s badly injured, and predictably, given the profit-driven nature of medicine in the US, he falls between the cracks and becomes addicted to OxyContin. I happened to have recently read Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, so I was aware of the ruthless exploitation with which Perdue Pharma deliberately targeted poor communities in places like Lee County.

At the end, however, there’s happiness for Damon. Rarely for me (I don’t usually like a tome) I wished Damon Copperhead was longer.  I missed him!

There are so many adjectives I could use to praise this book – absorbing, entertaining, shocking, tear-jerking, hilarious, and more… But I think perhaps the best thing I can say is that it enlarged my heart and mind, which I guess is what reading is supposed to do.  Kingsolver’s novel is generous and attentive to a group who could be dismissed. Who often are, called called white trash or trailer trash or hillbillies. Here, in Australia, rednecks or bogans. She doesn’t shy away from ugliness, but embraces the loveable, the complex and the human.



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Lately I’ve been noticing old people in ads on TV and in the media. Not what I’d call ‘properly old’ people; these actors are impersonating active retirees, perhaps in their early 70’s, to promote resort-syle living, massage machines, insurance or luxury cruises. They are usually white, slim and silver-haired, with great teeth; dressed in expensive casual clothes (linen? cashmere?), they ride bikes, stroll along beaches or gaze at the sunset together. Often, they toss their silvery heads and laugh. Ha, ha, ha. It’s such fun to be us. I guess these imaginary seniors are chortling because they’ve won the financial and genetic lottery. Attractive, healthy, wealthy ageing! Such a lovely fantasy.

For what I’d call properly old people – and by that I mean from the late 70’s on – it’s not all fun and games. My parents both died in their early 80’s, and neither had a long decline. Last year, I lost three beloved older (90, 93, 98) friends. All women, all intelligent and funny and articulate, they talked openly with me and it was a privilege to hear about their long and eventful lives. But sadly their last years were (and here’s a euphemism for you) ‘challenging’. Losing a spouse, losing independence with transport or activities of daily living. Losing bladder control. Loneliness. Falls. Loss of confidence. With increasing ill-health and frailty, having to move into care. Despite the best efforts of carers, loss of dignity. Little or no say in the daily routine. Horrible food. And being so very, very tired. Not a lot of fun, but there was still the occasional spark. We could laugh at the black humour of it all. I was moved by their bravery and stoicism. As Bette Davis said, ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies’.

Though I gave up my short-lived career in aged care in 2021, I retain a keen interest in the topic. I am still at the strolling along the beach stage (though my hair remains stubbornly dark) but I’m on my way – as we all are.
And when I am there, I would love to have a doctor like Dr Lucy Pollock, a British geriatrician. She is realistic, warm, compassionate and totally patient-centred. She discusses the topics you’d expect –  independent living, falls, driving, dementia, capacity, drugs, treatments and interventions, end of life care, advance care plans. Enlivened by many anecdotes and stories from her years of practice, this book isn’t by any means a grim read; occasionally, it’s surprisingly funny. She writes:

This book is for anyone who is living with some of the problems my patients have. It’s for people who are getting very old, and for those who love them. It’s for all of us, who will, if we are lucky, become old. It’s about what I have learned from skilled, kind colleagues from families and from my inimitable patients, about how to ask delicate questions, and what to do with the answers, and what to do when the going gets tough – it explains what I have learned about how to be old.

Some of the content is of greater relevance to British readers, as it references the NHS and aged care in the UK, but most of it is informative, illuminating and inspiring. More than anything, Dr Lucy wants us to have those essential honest conversations about how the very old want to live, and to die.


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Pachinko is a Japanese arcade/gambling game, and pachinko parlours sound a lot like poker machine venues; huge busineses with the games essentially rigged against the gambler. A few winners, but mostly losers. A bit like life?

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is an epic family saga, spanning four generations of a Korean family in Japan. My 26-year-old son recommended it to me a couple of years ago, and I’ve only just got around to reading it, but I devoured it in a couple of days. Actually, in the final third, I deliberately tried to slow my pace. I didn’t want it to end. When I spoke to my son yesterday, I thanked him for telling me about it. We agreed that not only is the book about a time and a place and a people we know little about, it’s immersive and human and so moving.

Even more moving, my son thought, because there is no sense of manipulation, of heart-strings being pulled by the writer. The style is plain and often understated. At times the result is devastatingly sad; sometimes unexpectedly dramatic.

The saga begins in 1911. The Japanese have just annexed Korea. In a small  fishing village, a marriage is arranged between 15-year-old Yangjin and the older, disabled Yoonie. The match is unexpectedly successful; the couple love each other and their surviving child, a daughter, Sunja. When Hoonie dies, Yangjin and Sunja continue to run the family boarding house. Under the Japanese regime, times are hard.
Then Sunja falls for a captivating stranger, Hansu, and becomes pregnant. But he can’t marry her, because he is already married. He is also a yakuza. It’s a disaster.
A Christian minister, Isak, who has been nursed back to health by the family, offers to marry her. He will take her to Japan with him. It’s 1933; they will start a new life there, with his brother and sister-in-law, in Osaka.

In the decades that follow, the extended family struggles with poverty, illness, imprisonment, death. There are happy family times as well, though hard work is unrelenting. The deep friendship between Sunja and her sister-in-law sustains them both. Sunja’s builds a business selling kimchi and sweets, so the family manages and even prospers. She makes sure her two sons are educated, but university for her oldest, Noa, seems out of reach – until Hansu, who has been watching over the family, steps in.
The story of the younger generation continues into the late 1980s.

The changes wrought by history – the war, the bomb – destruction and chaos and poverty – followed by the reconstruction and prosperity – form the background to the character’s lives, but it’s by no means a history lesson. However, the prejudice and social and legal barriers that affected the daily lives and aspirations of Japanese Koreans pervade the story and provoke some of the most tragic episodes. Koreans seem to have been regarded as an underclass, possibly criminal, certainly inferior to the Japanese even though so many were born in Japan and were often indistinguishable from Japanese people – except for their ‘alien’ identity papers, which they had to renew regularly.

And pachinko? It was one of the few lucrative industries where Koreans could succeed – several of the characters find employment and good fortune. And, of course, it’s a metaphor for the game of life.

I could talk about resilience and endurance but there was no hokey uplifting finale. I think survival is the best word to use.
And love.



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I have known  Alan Garner’s books since I was small. My big brothers had the Puffin paperback of The Weirdstone of Brisengamen and even before I could read, I loved the mysterious, evocative cover. As soon as I was able to read it, I was sucked in to the world of Alderley Edge, where Garner’s family had lived for centuries. History, myth, legend and folklore intersected with the present-day in a wild, swirling fantasy. I loved it.

And I loved the idea that our modern, everyday landscape has another, ancient and potent one barely hidden under the surface. The adventures of Colin and Susan seemed quite possible.

I think I stopped reading Garner after I studied The Owl Service for my degree in 1981. His later work seemed darker, not really for children. And, in its bare-bones and stripped-down style, challenging and difficult to read. I liked my fantasy a little softer and more accessible.


So Treacle Walker is my first Garner for more than 40 years; I was alerted to it by Kate Constable.  And what can I say? It’s unique.

Eccentric, mysterious, understated. No need for all that exposition, all that explaining and describing that most of us do. The elements of the story are spare. Joe Coppock, a lonely boy with a lazy eye. An old house, and Joe’s collections of comics, birds’ eggs, marbles. Treacle Walker, who arrives one day in the guise of a rag-and-bone man. A strange, fantastical, mythical struggle involving birds and eggs, comic book characters, marbles and stones and a yearning ancient spirit of place who’s been aroused from sleep, but needs to return to it.

It’s a short book (152 pages) but powerful for all that. And scary!

The passage below is a lesson for writers on ‘scary’.

The alders swung and the land lurched. Above the house, the sky cracked. And in the rack was a claw. The claw rent down, and the gap was blackness moving, mirror cold, with snow.
‘Hold fast,” said Treacle Walker. ‘This is no hurlo-thrumbo. No lomperhummock, this. This is Winter. This is night.’
Again the sky was torn. And in the gap was a bird, huge, wings spread, claws open to clench the house.
Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo…

The blackness surged. It flowed from the sky, across the embankment into the yard. It seethed up the house, the roof, the walls, the windows and the door. It was an ivy of black climbing the pear tree. It bulged against the hedge and spilled out onto Big Meadow and down the field towards Treacle Walker and Joe.
And thunder with no pause. Joe shut his eye against the lightnings and the dark.


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