February 2009



Butterfly- Sonya Hartnett

Butterfly centers around the maturation of 14 year old Plum, who is so desperate for strength, courage and acceptance that she does something that seems strange and disturbing to her friends. Her schoolfriends hover between accepting and hating her throughout the book, and Plum is taken under the wing of her neighbour, Maureen. It is through Maureen’s four year old son, David, however that Plum finds her real voice. The contact with someone more innocent and in need of protection than her wrenches Plum briefly from the despairing self-centredness of her generation.

Thought the tone is immature in the sections which are from Plum’s perspective, there are also chapters which are very adult. Harnett manages the jump well, making this a good book for teens beginning to cross over into adult reading (from 14-18 depending on the sophistication of the reader). As usual, there is a poisonous undercurrent to the world Hartnett has created, and Plum is trapped in a series of bitter and angry relationships with friends, family and mentor. There’s not a lot of hope in this book, but a lot of it might help teenaged girls to understand both themselves at that stage of life and the adults that are dealing with them.

The writing is biting and fast, and even though there is not much happening action-wise, there is so much transformation occurring in Plum’s head, where it really matters.

The side story, which quickly blows up into the main complication is that of Plum’s much older brother, who is entangled in a relationship with married Maureen which is becoming more and more difficult to keep secret. There is something flawed about Maureen which insinuates itself at the beginning of the novel (when she tells Plum that to lose weight she should just throw her school lunches in the bin), but which only becomes truly apparent at the conclusion. There is a danger to her which threatens Plum more than her friends do, and which drives the tension of the story.

I really enjoyed Butterfly if only for an insight into an age group which I’ve almost entirely forgotten. It’s enjoyable for the same reasons that Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, or any other boarding school type novel is: you know the cattiness is coming, but not from which direction, or whether the protagonist will crumble or rise because of it.

The Unscratchables – Anthony O’Neill

Oh, the puns there are to be had in this book. The concept alone attracted me. The Unscratchables is a cop story, with all the twists, corruption, political conniving of your average Inspector Rex episode, but with a difference: The police are dogs. They live in San Bernardo, essentially the slums of the greater city of Kathattan. The cats of course, are the Fat Cats, the puppeteers, pulling the strings of every dog election, filling the bellies of the dogs with cheap, nasty canned food, and running psychological testing out of the back of a South American fish importer.

Several killings have occurred the like of which have never before been seen, and poor old Crusher the bullie is put on the case. He’s not the smartest detective in the force, but he does his job and does it with the kind of 1940s crime noir speak that was coined by Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep (although with ‘yap’ replacing ‘speak’, and dog slang peppered throughout). Until he’s put on the case of the dog killer with a slick Kathattan Siamese detective, Inspector Lap. Crusher has a history with the Siamese from the war in Siam, and it’s starting to affect his work. And who should he trust? His police Chief, who fought side by side with him in the war? His sidekick Bud? Or Lap, a cat well versed in dog psychology, who lets Crusher in on far too many cat secrets for a cat.

The Unscratchables is the most joyous thing I’ve read this year apart from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. It’s not afraid to make puns, and to lead up to them with gusto. It treats its reader with surprising respect, and it took me a few minutes to click with some of the gags, but when I did they were well worth it. It has a more serious side however, as it is, more than anything a mirror held up to Western society. It explores the dumbing down and ownership of the media, capitalization, control of hegemonies, treatment of minorities. Brilliant for lovers of Douglass Adams, Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde. Comedy, noir, and all the cat hair you could cough up, Unscratchables has it all.

A Small Free Kiss in the Dark – Glenda Millard

Last night I started A Small Free Kiss in the Dark and was blown away. This is the teen equivalent of a mash-up of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. And I don’t mean this to demean the book’s originality at all, because its evocation of homelessness in a bustling city which soon turns to mass homelessness in a war-torn city, is brilliantly done to evoke the reader’s own city. Skip is a slightly aspergian kid who’s moved from foster home to foster home after the death of his war veteran father. At the beginning of the book he is making his escape from school and a family that is not a family, to the city. He has nothing but his father’s old overcoat, his colorful view of the world through art, and his own talented artistry to help him out. Once there he meets Billy, a homeless, funny and kindhearted man, who helps Skip buy chalk to make murals on the cement around libraries and churches. For me, this evoked the Eternity Man, Arthur Stace who gave hope through his graffiti medium in post WWII Sydney. When war suddenly hits the city, Skip is sleeping in a dumpster, and can’t find his friend Billy. What ensues is an account of utter chaos, which, through the eyes of Skip can sometimes seem eerily beautiful.

“Behind me, a building erupted like a volcano, spewing red hot lava onto the streets. I turned to run and saw the church spire of St Mary’s, only it wasn’t where it used to be…The bells had buried themselves in concrete, and if you didn’t know anything about concrete, you’d think it was soft as butter.”

Skip’s sometimes halting, imagery-filled, sometimes quick-changing narration is very readable, and his character is beautifully drawn through the words he uses, and the often abstract ideas that he has. Although these ideas are not often realistic, they contain, almost without him realizing it, a lot of hope for the future.

I’m very much looking forward to finishing the book. I think Millard’s done a wonderful job and that this will make a very engaging and thought provoking book for young adults and late teens.


Her Mother’s Face – Roddy Doyle and Freya Blackwood

(picture book)

This is the most gorgeously illustrated picture book. The cover looks like a framed picture, with the bright colours and geometric patterns of Amelie – even the streets in this book are colourful and architecturally beautiful. There is something so soft about the bright watercolours that Freya Blackwood uses that fits beautifully with the story line about the huge gap that the loss of a loved one creates, and how one goes about filling it (with a little help from a conker tree and a mirror). Siobhan can’t remember her mother Ellen’s face, although she can recall things that she said, and her father is withdrawn and sad, and refuses to talk about Ellen. The story is so poignant, and yet so hope-filled, and the character of the dead mother Ellen is so full of life and cheekiness, that the book is more happy than sad. This is a nourishing book in so many ways, it shows a way to live life after a loss, and the colours reflect this amazingly. In the beginning Siobhan’s father is painted all in greys and whites even while everything around him, including Siobhan, is brilliant red, and green and orange. As Siobhan has a child of her own, named Ellen also, he begins to be coloured with dull blues and tans, but his face is still grey. When Siobhan finally gets him to talk about his dead wife, his cheeks pink up, and he recalls the happy memories that bring Ellen to life for Siobhan.


Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie,

Who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?

(‘The Art of Cookery’, William King, quoted from ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ by Alan Bradley’)



I must admit my relationship with reading has been not so good recently as it ought to have been. Considering that I am a bookseller and writer (of once-published renown), books should be my food, my delight, my sweetness at the bottom of the pie. I’m not saying I don’t still enjoy them, just that I have more difficulty in tearing myself away from adult life to visit the proverbial Faraway Tree.

I remember when I was young that feeling of absolutely losing myself in a world that was not mine but which I quickly adopted. I recall the feeling I had for days (sometimes weeks) after finishing the book that I was still living in the story. I’m sure I misheard or didn’t hear at all many a conversation with friends when I was in this state. I realised it was escapism at the time, but it was something I craved like a drug.

I still crave that feeling but I get it more from writing these days, and the high is never so long lasting (unless I have a raging fever, that’s when it gets really fun in my head but awful on the page). I feel guilt about reading which I can only explain with the fact that I have middle class guilt about just about everything. Why should I be reading this book when I could be out doing something useful like saving the world or something (my brain tricks me, while I’m feeling reading guilt into thinking that there’s something amazing and fast that I can do to solve hunger or alcoholism or literacy). It’s kind of like reading under the desk in class. I can never properly relax into the book because there’s some stockinged teacher looking over my shoulder asking – what is it teaching me that is useful to my development (which will help me save the universe), or which will aid my understanding of the cultures and psychologies around me (which may one day help me save the universe)? What is the world gaining from my ability to read ungainly quantities of books?

Ahah. But I’ve discovered the loophole.  Loophole thy name is “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This is a book I can feel and touch and taste. It navigates through Ayaan’s childhood in Muslim, clan oriented Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, and her  escape to Holland and a freer way of thinking. Its conversational style openly discusses so many questions surrounding extreme faith, equality, responsibility and so many more topics which are so relevant to anyone who breathes.  The writing is so accessible and sets forth so much about humanity, politics and ethics clearly, but without losing sight of all of their complications. This is a book I can, strange to say, disappear into. Ayaan is such a generous narrator, giving so much detail of several different ways of life in different countries which I will probably never experience, but now feel that I have.

Another book that has soaked itself into the crevices of my brain recently is “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” by Alan Bradley. It’s absolutely fictional, set in rural 1950’s England, and the narrator is a chemistry obsessed 11 year old girl, Flavia. As she slowly unravels a murder of a man who she discovered dying in the cucumber patch at her grand old English home, Flavia also treats us to wonderful information about compounds and poisons (she has a chemistry lab in the bottom of the house and hangs a picture of Mr Bunsen of Bunsen burner fame in her closet). The language is colourful in the way that kindergarten children’s wax pictures are. And the facts and figures that add to this wonderfully quirky girl are wonderfully informative and humorous, “Odd, isn’t it, that a charge of lipstick is precisely the size of a .45 calibre slug”(pp10).

Though I haven’t yet finished ‘Sweetness’ I am thoroughly enjoying it without any of my usual pangs of guilt. Now I feel guilty about spending time away from ‘Sweetness’ writing this!  I come anon Alan Bradley!

(PS. Please let me know if you get reading guilt too? Maybe it’s a case of the 20’s, wanting to do something that matters and all that. Lots of people I know have been catching it. Maybe we can organise a reading guilt convention)