Thursday, 21 March 2019

The Song of Achilles - a poem

I'm currently reading and loving The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller and wanted to honour the story somehow. A Poem for Thursday seemed like the perfect way, especially when I discovered The Song of Achilles fanpage on Tumblr. Hannah has encapsulated the tone and feeling of Miller's story just so with this tender little offering.


Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. I'm enjoying sourcing poems from my recent reads to join in with her at the moment.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay

A couple of weeks ago I listed The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay on my post about books read but not reviewed in an attempt to remove the backlog of reviews bogging me down. But I always knew that I would have to return to this book. And thanks to Lenny's Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee winning the Indie Book Award for Children's Fiction yesterday and rereading my gushing review, that time is now.

So let me tell you about my journey with The Skylarks' War.


My rep gave me a lovely looking ARC at the end of last year. He knows of my love for historical fiction, but in the lead up to Christmas it got put on top of the pile by my bed...and forgotten. I confess the blurb, that reveals that this is yet another WWI story, turned me off a little. We've been inundated with war stories the last five years and I wondered how on earth something new and fresh could be said about this time.

So it languished.

In January, I then noted that it had not only been shortlisted for The Costa Children's Award, but had also won its category award. However, it took a hot, hot summer weekend in mid-Feb when I was feeling blah about everything, including all the books I had half-read on my bedside table, that I flicked through my kids TBR pile.

Over the years I have discovered some real gems on the Costa Book Award list, books I may not have turned to otherwise (Pure by Andrew Miller, the author Marcus Sedgwick and Andrea Wulf's, The Invention of Nature to name a few). So even though this was another war story, I decided it would be light enough to fit my weekend mood.

The first page changed everything though.

More than one hundred years ago, in the time of gas lamps and candlelight, when shops had wooden counters and the streets were full of horses, a baby girl was born. Nobody was pleased about this except the baby's mother. The baby's father did not like children, not even his own, and Peter, the baby's brother, was only three years old and did not understand the need for any extra people in his world....
Clarry was three days old when her mother died. Many things were said about this great calamity, and some of them were regretted later, when people had calmed down and there were fewer tears and more worried frowns in the narrow stone house where the baby had so inconsiderately arrived and her mother had so inconveniently departed

I quickly realised why this book had won The Costa and was amazed it hadn't won more - yet.

Clarry, Peter and their older cousin Rupert are characters to take into your heart forever. Told through the innocent childhood eyes of Clarry, McKay is able to tackle some heavy issues. Family dysfunction, bullying, sexism and feminist issues, homosexuality and the hardships of war are all in this book. McKay hints at stuff, leads us up to a point, but she never tells us or explains. She leaves us to work it out and make the connections ourselves, as all the best stories do.

The Skylarks' War will make you laugh and cry. I found myself hugging it to my chest several times and wondering how many people I could make read this book asap.


Part of the success of this story is Clarry's voice. She is believable and feels real.

McKay's writing is the other big plus. She does not condescend or talk down to her child audience. She writes intelligently and like all the very best children's writing (think Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Hobbit, The Silver Sword, Lenny's Book of Everything) it is a book that can be read by children and adults alike with an equal amount of pleasure and enjoyment.

The Costa judges described this “as perfect a novel as you could ever want to read." I think they may have understated just how extraordinary and wonderful this story really is.

McKay includes a bibliography in the back of the book and one of the books that informed the authenticity of this story was Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. Enough said really.

The bittersweet heartbreak is there, but so too is the hope.

The Skylarks' War is a keeper. You should read it now.
You can thank me later.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Twenty-Four Things

I'm constantly looking for ways to highlight the books on my TBR pile.
It's a great way of reminding me of what's actually there; to bring long forgotten books lingering on the bottom of the pile to the front of my mind again.

Twenty-Four Things was a meme that traversed the blog-o-sphere a couple of years ago.
I've adapted it into a TBR post.
Please feel free to join in.

Photo by Dustin Lee on Unsplash


4 Books On My Desk

+ The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne
Three-quarters read.
I'm loving this book but I only seem to be able to read it for Austen in August.
Hopefully I will finish it this August!

+ Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
I'm planning on hosting a Moby Dick readalong around August/September.


This is part of my prep.
Are you ready to have a whale of a time?


+ The Feel Good Guide to Menopause by Dr Nicola Gates
I'm almost there (the menopause part not necessarily the feel good part) and wondering what I still have to look forward to!!

+ Rice Noodle Fish by Matt Goulding
Purchased last year when we got back from our trip to Japan.
Have been meaning to dive into it ever since.


4 Books On The Bottom Of The Pile

+ Rites of Passage by William Golding
This award winning book has been sitting on the bottom of my pile for about five years now.
I enjoy 'nautical, relational novels', especially ones that fit in a visit to Australia, which this one apparently does.
It would also help me with my Nobel Prize and Booker Prize reading challenge.

+ The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
This book made it's way onto my pile prior to 2016.
It has stayed on my TBR thanks to my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die challenge.

+ G by John Berger
Another Booker Prize winner & 1001 Book challenge book, that is patiently waiting for me to be in the right mood to read an 'experimental, non-linear novel'!


+ The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
I've been meaning to read a book by Pamuk for years and years, but they're all so thick and never seem to make it to the top of the pile!
This would count towards my Nobel Prize reading challenge if I ever get around to it.


4 Books New To The TBR

+ Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
An ARC recently acquired via work (lucky me!)
I adored What I Loved and have been keen to read another book by Hustvedt ever since.
Now to just find time to fit it in....

+ The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
An ambitious purchase as I still haven't read Frankopan's earlier book, The Silk Roads.

+ The Master by Colm Toibin
A stylish new edition has just been published by Picador.
This will no doubt sit on my pile until I come over feeling all Henry James-ish!


+ The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
This one comes highly recommended by my colleague who knows of my love for a good cosy crime wrapped up in historical fiction.


4 Books That Won Awards

+ The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer prize for fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award.

+ The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Non-Fiction prize.


+ Milkman by Anna Burns
Winner of last year's Booker prize.

+ Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
Winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.


4 Books I'm Keen To Read ASAP

+ Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
Twenty years in the making, hopefully not twenty years lurking on my TBR pile!

+ Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss 
I've been reading good things about this book & would prefer to get to it before it's 'old news'.

+ Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Two of my colleagues have read this - one loved it and one was 'meh'.
I'm the tie-breaker :-)

+ The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
This keeps garnering shortlist nominations and winning awards.
Given my fascination with the themes of death and grief in literature, I really should have read this when it first came out, but some of what I've heard about the trauma side of this book, makes me feel squeamish.



4 Books I'm Thinking Of Discarding Unread 

+ Every Third Thought by Robert McCrum

'In 1995, at the age of 42, Robert McCrum suffered a dramatic and near-fatal stroke, the subject of his acclaimed memoir My Year Off. 
Ever since that life-changing event, McCrum has lived in the shadow of death, unavoidably aware of his own mortality. 
And now, 21 years on, he is noticing a change: his friends are joining him there. 
Death has become his contemporaries' every third thought. 
The question is no longer "Who am I?" but "How long have I got?" and "What happens next?" 
This book takes us on a journey through a year and towards death itself. 
As he acknowledges his own and his friends' aging, McCrum confronts an existential question: in a world where we have learnt to live well at all costs, can we make peace with what Freud calls "the necessity of dying?" 
Searching for answers leads him to others for advice and wisdom, and this book is populated by the voices of brain surgeons, psychologists, cancer patients, hospice workers, writers and poets. 
Witty, lucid and provocative, this book is an enthralling exploration of what it means to approach the "end game," and begin to recognize, perhaps reluctantly, that we are not immortal.'


+ Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

'In a sweeping panorama, Weatherland allows us to witness England’s cultural climates across the centuries. 
Before the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Saxons living in a wintry world wrote about the coldness of exile or the shelters they had to defend against enemies outside. 
The Middle Ages brought the warmth of spring; the new lyrics were sung in praise of blossoms and cuckoos. 
Descriptions of a rainy night are rare before 1700, but by the end of the eighteenth century the Romantics had adopted the squall as a fit subject for their most probing thoughts.


The weather is vast and yet we experience it intimately, and Alexandra Harris builds her remarkable story from small evocative details. 
There is the drawing of a twelfth-century man in February, warming bare toes by the fire. 
There is the tiny glass left behind from the Frost Fair of 1684, and the Sunspan house in Angmering that embodies the bright ambitions of the 1930s. 
Harris catches the distinct voices of compelling individuals. 
“Bloody cold,” says Jonathan Swift in the “slobbery” January of 1713. 
Percy Shelley wants to become a cloud and John Ruskin wants to bottle one. 
Weatherland is a celebration of English air and a life story of those who have lived in it.'


+ White Mountain by Robert Twigger


'Home to mythical kingdoms, wars and expeditions, and strange and magical beasts, the Himalayas have always loomed tall in our imagination. 
These mountains, home to Buddhists, Bonpos, Jains, Muslims, Hindus, shamans and animists, to name only a few, are a place of pilgrimage and dreams, revelation and war, massacre and invasion, but also peace and unutterable calm. 
They are a central hub of the world’s religion, as well as a climber’s challenge and a traveler’s dream. 


In an exploration of the region's seismic history, Robert Twigger, author of Red Nile and Angry White Pyjamas, unravels some of these seemingly disparate journeys and the unexpected links between them. 
Following a winding path across the Himalayas to its physical end in Nagaland on the Indian-Burmese border, Twigger encounters incredible stories from a unique cast of mountaineers and mystics, pundits and prophets. 
The result is a sweeping, enthralling and surprising journey through the history of the world's greatest mountain range.'


+ Being a Beast by Charles Foster

'How can we ever be sure that we really know the other? 
To test the limits of our ability to inhabit lives that are not our own, Charles Foster set out to know the ultimate other: the non-humans, the beasts. 
And to do that, he tried to be like them, choosing a badger, an otter, a fox, a deer, and a swift. 
He lived alongside badgers for weeks, sleeping in a sett in a Welsh hillside and eating earthworms, learning to sense the landscape through his nose rather than his eyes. 
He caught fish in his teeth while swimming like an otter; rooted through London garbage cans as an urban fox; was hunted by bloodhounds as a red deer, nearly dying in the snow. 
And he followed the swifts on their migration route over the Strait of Gibraltar, discovering himself to be strangely connected to the birds.

A lyrical, intimate, and completely radical look at the life of animals—human and other—Being a Beast mingles neuroscience and psychology, nature writing and memoir to cross the boundaries separating the species. 
It is an extraordinary journey full of thrills and surprises, humor and joy. 
And, ultimately, it is an inquiry into the human experience in our world, carried out by exploring the full range of the life around us.'

Should I read or discard?
#24Things

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

I decided to read How Green Was My Valley for this year's #Dewithon for several reasons. The first, and most obvious reason, is the Welsh setting of the book. Secondly, the book was actually on my TBR pile. Thirdly, the author's surname is the same as my Nan's maiden name - it's weird how a shared name can make one feel a sense of kinship to a complete stranger.

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Huw and his large family. It's hard not to love the Morgan's. They're big-hearted, community-minded, salt-of-the-earth folk. But it quickly became apparent to me that there were a number of issues surrounding this work and the author.

My first alert was when Karen @Booker Talk mentioned (in a comment/post that I cannot now find) that Llewellyn was not a Welsh author after all. I googled.

Wikipedia discretely told me that Llewellyn was born in 1906 to Welsh parents. "Only after his death was it discovered that his claim that he was born in St Davids, West Wales, was false."
But Britannica.com still publishes his birth place as being St David's, Wales, not Hendon, London, where he was actually born.

The next controversy surrounds Llewellyn's claims about how he attained his knowledge to write this book. He claimed to have spent some time down the mines in Gilfach Goch, whilst visiting his grandfather, but there is no record of him ever having done so. It is now believed, that at best, he had conversations with miners from Gilfach Goch, but every bio site I checked had conflicting information around this.

It's quite possible for authors to research their topic and write a fabulous story, without actually experiencing it themselves. Authors do it all the time. The problem lies when you claim to have had that actual experience that you're writing about, that somehow there is an element of memoir in your story. The trust between writer and reader becomes diminished by the deception.

The other confusion, for a number of the websites I looked into, was around dates. Llewellyn wrote HGWMV in the late 1930's before publishing in 1939. A number of sites also claimed that the book was set during this period of time. However, the book was set much earlier, during the reign of Queen Victoria, which means the majority of the book was set during the 1890's. Given that several of Huw's older brothers were also instrumental in establishing a miner's union in their area, the time frame could be even a decade earlier as most of the South Wales unions were first established during the 1880's. I'm also sure I remember one of the characters referring to the Queen's Jubilee early on which would probably be her Golden Jubilee in 1887 rather than her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. In 1895 one of Huw's older brothers went to Windsor with the Welsh choir to sing before the Queen and one of the big moments towards the end of the story, centred around the disastrous miners strike of 1898. There were several passages describing the effects of the sliding scale on the community as well as the impact that the six month long strike had on the miners and their families.

My initial love for the story was tempered by these confusions and misconceptions. It was a case of google getting in the way of an entertaining, heart-warming tale.

Despite these reservations, I learnt a lot about the mining industry of southern Wales. The slag heap issues were particularly alarming, as the piles slowly, gradually, inevitably crept down the hills eating farms, rivers and homes, until entire villages were drowned in slag. I also loved Llewellyn's use of the local Welsh dialect throughout the book.

A sense of nostalgia oozed through the story from the kind-hearted, socially-conscious, politically aware Morgan family, to the scenery of the Welsh hills. Most of the time I happily went along for the sentimental journey, but every now and again it was so saccharine sweet, that I had to put the book down for a while!


Favourite character: Bronwen (of course)! She not only had a great name, but her sense of loyalty, generosity and courage were admirable qualities that never wavered.

Favourite passage
All along the river, banks were showing scum from the colliery sump, and the buildings, all black and flat, were ugly to make a hurt in your chest. The two lines of cottages creeping up the mountainside like a couple of mournful stone snakes looked as though they might rise up and spit rocks grey as themselves. You would never think that warm fires and good food would come from them, so dead and unhappy they were looking.
Our valley was going black, and the slag heap had grown so much it was half-way along to our house. Young I was and small I was, but young or small I knew it was wrong, and I said so to my father.
"Yes, Huw," he said, and stopped to look. "I told them years ago to start underground, but nobody would listen. Now, there are more important things to think about. That is something that will have to be done when you are grown up. there will be plenty for you to do, indeed."  

Environmental damage through human activity has been a known problem for over a century, and still we say, let's leave it to the next generation to do something. Wales is attempting to regenerate the old mining areas into tourist destinations, although, sadly, it looks like the South Wales Mining Trail, mentioned in the link, has yet to come into being.

Favourite or forget?

Normally this is a very easy decision for me. Due to the overwhelming amount of books in my house, I only keep the extra-special ones. The special editions, the much-loved favourites that have been read and reread or those books that I loved so much, that I just know I will reread them one day. The rest get passed onto family and friends or get book-crossed. How Green Was My Valley is one of the few that has me unsure about this process. And while I feel undecided, it will, therefore, stay on my shelves, for now. I might reread this one day; it's also hard to let go of one of the few books with my name in it!

Penguin Modern Classics 2001
First published 1939
448 pgs

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Stories and Shout Outs

During this pause in my writing reviews phase, I will use Stories and Shout Outs to list my week of reading, blogging and other bookish things.


List #1 What I'm Reading Right Now

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama - enough people were kind enough last week to convince me to keep on with book this when I mentioned that I had got a little bogged down in the 1980's.
  • How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn - #Dewithon19
  • Accidental Feminists by Jane Caro

List #2 What I've Finished - Short Stories

Meanjin A-Z 
  • Intelligence Quotient by Georgia Blain - not particularly memorable; made me feel lonely.

Griffith Review 63 Writing the Country
  • Crossing the Line: Unknown unknowns in a liminal, tropical world by Ashley Hay - where I learnt for the first time that "current calculations suggest that the tropics are moving south at around 85km each decade." OMG! Really!?
  • Lost and Found in Translation; Who Can Talk to Country? by Kim Mahood - lots of interesting stuff about songlines, stories, belonging, time and memory.

Desire by Haruki Murakami
  • The Second Bakery Attack - odd little story about how hunger can drive you to crime or is that how an unfinished crime drives you to hunger?
  • On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning - or how you think of the perfect pick up line hours after the event!

List #3 Books in Books

Kim Mahood's essay (see list #2) was full of book references: 
  • DH Lawrence, Kangaroo, Sons and Lovers & The Lost Girl
  • Patrick White, Voss
  • Randolph Stow, To the Islands, Tourmaline, Midnite, The Merry-go-round in the sea and Visitants
  • Robyn Davidson, Tracks
  • Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
  • Nicolas Rothwell, Belomor
  • Philip Jones, Ochre and Rust.

List #4 New to the Pile

Islands by Peggy Frew
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
The Feel Good Guide to Menopause by Dr Nicola Gates
Literary Places by Sarah Baxter (very excited about this one - just look at that cover!)

List #5 Shout Outs

  • Cirtnecce @Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices has decided to read WOMEN ONLY authors during March in honour of International Women's Day on the 8th. Except for Richard Llewellyn, which I've already committed myself to read this month, I will endeavour to read as many women authors as I can, for the rest of the month.
  • Thanks to #Dewithon19 I've just discovered that Chris @Calmgrove has another blog dedicated to all things Arthur called Pendragonry. It looks delightful.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Love's Coming by John Shaw Neilson

Your Love's Coming Down Like Rain by Lorette C Luzajic

Love's Coming (1896)

Quietly as lovers
Creep at the middle noon,
Softly as players tremble
In the tears of a tune;

Quietly as lilies
Their faint vows declare,
Came the shy pilgrim:
I knew not he was there.

Quietly as tears fall
On a wild sin,
Softly as griefs call
In a violin;

Without hail or tempest,
Blue sword or flame,
Love came so lightly
I knew not that he came.

John Shaw Neilson
(1872 - 1942)


I came across this poet in McGirr' s book, Books That Saved My Life. McGirr described his poem as 'pure angel dust'.
'It is one of the most tender love poems, written by someone who had missed out on romance.' 
'The poem is blind. Love is felt and heard, but not seen. It was published in a time when Neilson's eyesight was going from bad to worse.'

Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. I'm enjoying sourcing poems from my recent reads to join in with her at the moment.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Where I'm At Right Now...

You know those phases when writing and blogging don't seem to gel? I've been in one of those funks all year. I'm reading like mad, choosing books I want to read, for pleasure. And if I'm not enjoying it, I stop and move onto something else. But the though of writing about them, makes me want to go 'meh'.

Writing, the thought of it and the doing, is driving me spare. I'm not inspired or feeling creative.

Every now and again, I have a nice little writing run, like when I wrote my recent response to The Death of Noah Glass. I enjoyed writing and researching it and I felt satisfied when done, but it has been quite a while since I've had that feeling.


So in an attempt to tidy up my thoughts and desk, I thought it was time for a list or two.

List #1 - What I'm Reading Right Now

My main read is How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, interspersed with chapters of  Accidental Feminists by Jane Caro. Loving both.


List #2 - Books I'm Struggling With - Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Don Quixote - This is my chapter-a-day readalong book but I'm just not finding it funny or even amusing. It's absurd, ridiculous and convoluted. I had heard that Part 2 was more interesting than Part 1, but so far the first few chapters of it are not inspiring me either.

Sad to say, but Becoming by Michelle Obama has now hit a wall. I loved hearing about her younger years growing up, going to school, family life, meeting Barack, but her work life dilemma's are not so interesting to me. I'm reluctant to pick it up now.

The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart by Rainer Maria Rilke
Not as inspiring as I had hoped it would be. Too intellectual, not enough heart.

List #3 - New to the Pile

Writing the Country - Griffith Review 63
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
The Complete Stories by Anita Desai
This is not a Border - Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature
Curiosities and Splendour - An Anthology of Classic Travel Literature (Lonely Planet)

List #4 - Books I've Finished But Haven't Reviewed

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.
I loved this quirky Japanese story and will try to respond more fully here, since it's my book club book for April, but for now all I want to say is how much I enjoyed it.

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay.
Fabulous historical fiction for kids and adults. I couldn't put it down last weekend. This will win more awards I'm sure.

The Novel of the Century by David Bellos.
A fascinating insight into all things Les Miserables - glad I saved it for the end days of last year's readalong though - lots of spoilers.

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor.
Interesting, somewhat angry discussion on the lingering history and after effects of English colonialism. A book that came about when Tharoor's 2015 Oxford Union speech about "Does Britain owe reparations to its former colonies?" went viral.

Narrow Road to the Interior by Basho.
This is the starting paragraph that has been sitting in draft since May last year:
Oku no Hosomichi is the title of Matsuo Basho's classic travel journal (奥の細道, originally おくのほそ道). In translation it can be either Narrow Road to the Interior or The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It's a genre called haibun, a Japanese literary form blending memoir, prose and haiku. According to wikipedia, Richard Flanagan's Man Booker prize winning book took it's title from Basho's work. 

I read this whilst travelling by train in Japan last year, in the northern region that Basho walked through. I've had all sorts of plans since then, about writing a post that used my photos and Basho's haiku, but it's time to release myself from this commitment.

Phew!

That feels better.

A load off my conscious...and my work desk.

Now back to the books :-)

Friday, 1 March 2019

Happy St David's Day

The 1st March is St David's Day in Wales - the day we celebrate all things Cymraeg (Welsh). It is also the start of Paula's month-long #Dewithon19 event @Book Jotter. Simply read and blog about books set in Wales or written by Welsh authors.


I have had a copy of How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn on my TBR pile for years. I've been saving it to read this month and am quite excited about getting stuck into it.

Now you may be wondering why someone on the other side of the world, in NSW, Australia is getting excited about #Dewithon19. There are oodles of very good reasons.

The NSW part, mentioned above, is the first give away. When Captain Cook sailed to Australia over 200 years ago, and spotted the green hills and rugged coastline of this huge eastern land, they apparently reminded him of the coastal areas of South Wales, especially the Vale of Glamorgan.

When the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1788, it contained six Cymreag - four men and two women - convicts.

That's how most of the Welsh ended up in Australia, including one of my great, great, great grandfather's, Robert Llewellyn, for stealing a copper furnace. That is, until the gold rush era in the late 1800's, when a large number of Welsh, Irish, Scottish and British young men, including my great grandfather, Stephen Ball, made their way to Australia via the Californian goldfields.

My mother embraced her Welsh heritage by naming her eldest daughter, Bronwyn, an Anglicized version of the Welsh name Bronwen.

I then, had the pleasure of visiting my third cousins, on the Ball side of the tree, who still lived around the Pendoylan, Llantrissant area of Wales, 30 years ago. We visited family graves, the old family farm and had a fabulous time marvelling over family resemblances three branches down the tree. I had hoped to finally find my name printed on mugs, key rings and pencils whist in Wales, but it turned out to be an old-fashioned name, no longer in favour in Wales. There are probably more Bronwyn's in Australian than in Wales these days! So no Welsh key ring with my name on it.

Ever since, I've been meaning to read more about Wales.

Over the years, I've found a few books with a Bronwen/Bronwyn protaganist. Testimonies by Patrick O'Brian (although this particular Bronwen came to an untimely end if I remember correctly) and Bronwyn's Bane by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (which featured a cursed, giant-like Princess Bronwyn) spring to mind. Each time it gave me a ridiculous thrill to see my name in print. But to say I was delighted last night, when just a few chapters into How Green was My Valley, I discovered that one of the brothers had married a lovely, lovely Bronwen from the neighbouring valley, would be an understatement!

The perfect way to start #Dewithon19.


Also on my TBR pile as possibilities for this month are On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, The Mabinogion and Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas.

Monday, 25 February 2019

The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones

Sometimes a reading experience is not as straight forward as you might first think. There are some books that demand more of the reader. The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones was one of those books for me.

I feel a little guilty about confessing that this was my first Gail Jones. One of my former colleagues (who is very arty and whose book tastes often, but not always, match my own) loves Jones' ouevre. It has taken this year's Stella longlist nominations to finally get me there though.

The Death of Noah Glass could simply be read as a tender, moving story about the sudden death of an elderly, but still physically active and able father in mysterious circumstances. Martin and Evie struggle with their grief and memories, although, ultimately, it is these memories that provide them with solace and connection.

I quickly felt, though, that there was more going on here. There was a lot of Italian art history and art theory being thrown around (as you might expect when one of the characters was an art historian and one an artist) and the discussions on time, space and memory felt layered and purposeful.

So after about 50-60 pages, I googled.

Piero della Francesca was the obvious place to start, as he was the Florentine artist that Noah Glass studied. I quickly discovered that Weng-Ho Chong, the cover designer, had used part of one of the frames from Piero's The Legend of the True Cross for his stunning book cover design. This frame is titled, Dream of Constantine and features a sleeping figure (Constantine) and a relaxed servant in the foreground. The servant, dreamily sits in the left hand corner of the cover, whilst the angel, prophesying victory, has been moved to the other side of the cover.


The Legend of the True Cross 1454-1458, Bacci Chapel, Church of San Francesco, Arezzo

I've also thought many times in the past year, that the blue cover was a nod to Brett Whitely's, The Balcony 2. Given the very Sydney setting of the story, the choice of this particular blue on the cover feels deliberate and significant.

And then I discovered Robert Dixon's article in the Sydney Review of Books, September 2018.

My brain almost exploded with art references and philosophical debates way beyond my ken! However I did take on a few new-to-me terms, and thanks to wikipedia, managed to grasp their meaning:


In Western art history, Mise en abyme is a formal technique of placing a copy of an image within itself, often in a way that suggests an infinitely recurring sequence. In film theory and literary theory, it refers to the technique of inserting a story within a story.
A type of frame story. Sometimes a story within the main narrative can be used to sum up or encapsulate some aspect of the framing story, in which case it is referred to in literary criticism by the French term mise en abyme.
Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.
In this way, a painting may represent a sculpture, and vice versa; a poem portray a picture; a sculpture depict a heroine of a novel; in fact, given the right circumstances, any art may describe any other art, especially if a rhetorical element, standing for the sentiments of the artist when they created their work, is present.

Knowing this, gave my reading of The Death of Noah Glass a little extra depth. I could see, and enjoy the various layers that Jones was exploring, even if I didn't completely understand why she wanted to, or needed to do this.

After finishing the book, I found Caroline Baum's review in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6th April 2018, which helped me to understand Jones' intentions a little more,

Acknowledgments are handy for literary snoops: they provide invaluable clues to a book's emotional undertow, especially when the writer is as private and reticent as Gail Jones....
"I'm a novelist of ideas," she continues, as if slightly insulted by the notion that she might entertain even for a moment switching allegiances from the literary side of the fence to populist genre fiction. 
"Novels are machines for thinking as well as feeling. Plot points are really engines for dispersed, unstable ideas about art, family and time. Especially time, and the way it folds and crumples, its patterns and repetitions, how it stops in front of a painting."
 ...Perhaps in spite of herself, Jones' novel reveals her own feelings about what it means to lose those we love. "There is no closure and that is a good thing," she says with certainty. "Other people live on in us, as a kind of secular afterlife. Art consoles us. That is its power."

As someone who has experienced that profound stopping and folding of time in front of certain paintings and in certain historical sites, I honour and admire other people's revelations. I certainly found some consolation in The Death of Noah Glass and hope that Jones did to in the writing of it.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Stories and Shout Outs

It has been a while since I sat down to write a housekeeping post, and certainly this is the first time this year that I've considered my reading plans for 2019. Up until now I've had a lovely time, free-reading as the time and mood takes me. Which is actually how I read most of the time, but I do also enjoy reading along with others and keeping up with some of the book award nominations.

I have a number of reading events fast approaching, so I decided it would helpful to have them all listed in one place. So bear with me, as this IS that post!


Paula @Book Jotter is hosting Dewithon throughout March, which is where we spend the entire month soaking up all things Welsh. Paula is hosting a readalong of The Autobiography of a Super-tramp by W.H. Davies, however I'm going to use this event to help me read 2 Welsh books on my TBR pile. My choices are How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, The Mabinogion and Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas.

April is Fanda's Zoladdiction, when I plan to read the next book in the Rougon-Macquart series - Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris).

In May I have my next IMreadalong book with Liz, The Sea, The Sea. Followed by the final Murdoch on my TBR pile, The Book and the Brotherhood, in September.

July, of course, is Paris in July with Tamara, when I hope to read another Maigret and maybe a George Sand novel. November will be the time to catch up on my non-fiction reading with Katie, Sarah, Kim, Julie and Rennie.

I'm saving Oct/Nov/Dec for my foray into Shakespearean territory with Rachel & Erica's Year of Shakespeare. My plan is to read the tragi-comedy, The Tempest, then tackle Margaret Atwood's modern adaptation, The Hag-Seed.

Somewhere in there, I promised/planned to host a Moby Dick readalong. It now looks like August will be the best time to get this kick started. The plan will be to read a chapter of the book, then listen to that chapter on the Moby Dick Big Read before moving onto the next chapter. Although I do not plan to read it a chapter-a-day, I would give myself a healthy time frame (at least 2 months) to complete this leviathan task. Who's in?


Recently a blogger friend was surprised to discover that I had other blogs on the go. So I thought I would remind everyone about my other blogs.

I have a travel blog, Exploring the World that came about after our trip to Cuba two years ago. Mr Books and I both wrote a few posts about our time there...and we had lots of grand ideas about future travel and posts. But time, changing jobs and family life got in the way (for now) and it has evolved (for now) into a travel photography blog. Every Thursday we host a #ThursdayTravels photographic meme.

The rules are simple:
  • Pick just ONE photo that shows something unique, unusual or quintessential about your travels.
  • You can label it, write a story or do a travelogue piece about your photo if you so desire.
  • These photos are about the place, the environment (man-made or natural), panoramas, macros – whatever captures your eye.
  • All photos must be your own.
  • NO selfies or family pics please.

I also have a blog that features my excursions to art galleries, museums and other cultural events. Mixed in with the photos are recipes (so I can join in sporadically with Beth Fish Reads Weekend Cooking) and my journey with a healthy lifestyle. The blog is called Four Seasons.

Earlier in the year, I also felt the need to start a new blog. A more personal journal that explores philosophical, ethical and lifestyle choices. I've called it (This) Authentic Life and have no idea how I'm going to find time to do it justice, but it felt like something I had to do.

Can you match me or join in with my crazy reading and blogging plans this year?

Thursday, 21 February 2019

The Love Song of J. Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

I've just finished and reviewed A New England Affair by Steven Carroll, one of his four planned books about the relationship between T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale based loosely on the Four Quartets. It would have been the easy and obvious thing to do to share Dry Salvages with you this week, as it was the third part of the quartet that A New England Affair was written around. However, a number of times throughout the book, Hale referred to Prufrock - Eliot's debt to Jules Laforgue for it's creation - the strange choice of name etc.

According to Carroll, Eliot also left all sorts of hidden messages for Emily scattered throughout his poems. I wonder if her letters and journals will reveal these secrets in 2020?


The Love Song of J. Prufrock
T. S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.


In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.


The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.


And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.


In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.


For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?


And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?


Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...


I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.


And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.


And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”


And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”


No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.


I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.


Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.


I do not think that they will sing to me.


I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. I'm enjoying sourcing poems from my recent reads to join in with her at the moment.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

A New England Affair by Steven Carroll

In close to one of the worst book cover choices I've ever seen, A New England Affair by Steve Carroll is a classic case of a book that should not be judged by its cover!


Yes, a woman heading out to sea (to the Dry Salvages) is a central part of the story, but the woman (Emily Hale) is elderly and is meant to be carrying a satchel, stuffed with letters and journals (detailing her life long love affair with T. S. Eliot), slung over her shoulders. I'm sure that pink dress was fashionable once, but nothing about that cover says 'pick me up and look inside'. Fortunately Steven Carroll's name is in large print, and that is now enough to make me look twice.

I adored The Lost Life, Carroll's first story in his planned T. S. Eliot quartet and admired A World of Other People. Curiously I didn't feel anywhere near as passionate about AWOOP, as I did about TLL, although I remember far more about it.

The premise of the four stories is loosely linked to Eliot's Four Quartets, which had the potential to make the books too clever for their own good, but the link is loose and you could read all of the books in any order, as stand alone stories, without any knowledge of the poems. Which is how I started off.

Of course, I couldn't stay out of the loop for long!

I sourced a copy of Burnt Norton during my reading of The Lost Life, then hunted down Little Gidding for A World of Other People. Naturally I also printed off a copy of Dry Salvages as soon as I started A New England Affair. I now also have East Coker ready for the final book in the series.

My memory of The Lost Life is passion. The early, heady days of a young love, a new love, a moment in time, suspended by heightened emotions. Two young lovers wander the grounds of Burnt Norton and spy an older couple - lovers of a different age, a different time - acting secretly in the distance. The older couple are Tom Eliot and Emily Hale. I remember the intense emotions, the secrets and the garden. It was sumptuous and delicious.

It was hard for A World of Other People to live up to the high expectations I had set it. Carroll jumped in time to the start of WWII and once again we view Eliot through the eyes of another. A young poet, Iris, who shared the firewatch during the Blitz with Eliot. This book was heavier on the poetry as Iris observed how Eliot turned their nighttime duties into a poem. Intertwined is the story of an Australian pilot, the only survivor of a crash that Iris and Eliot observed from atop their building. It was a memorable, moving story, but didn't capture my emotional state as much as The Lost Life.

With the third novel, A New England Affair, I'm realising that we have only ever seen Eliot through the eyes of others. I wonder if the fourth book will finally be Eliot's story?

This time it was Emily Hale's story. Although we also get to see Emily via the eyes of one her 'girls'. Carroll enjoys playing with time and how we (Eliot and Hale) look and how our lives appear to younger generations.

I confess that by the end of this book, I came to the conclusion that Eliot was a bit of a dick. Selfish and self-important. I guess it takes a certain kind of bravado and bravura to live a complete creative life.

I felt for Emily's lonely plight, but ultimately wondered if she didn't buy into the whole T. S. Eliot thing to suit her own agenda. Her search for meaning and belonging was almost as desperate as Eliot's need to be loved and adored.

The various time frames and perspectives were a little confusing at the start, but I ended up enjoying seeing Emily through the eyes of young Grace and Ted. Their mid-60's sensibilities provided a midway point from which to judge the relationship. They saw themselves as being a modern couple, and Grace was able to live a more adventurous, independent life than Emily ever could have. But our 21st century gaze saw both couples as being dated, old-fashioned and of their time. Just like our kids and grandkids will one day view us. On and on it goes!

The 'girls' that Emily shared her love letters with, reminded me of Miss Jean Brodie and that need both women had to have someone observe their lives and give them purpose and a sense of specialness.

How accurate Carroll's depiction of this lop-sided love affair is/was, will not be fully resolved until 1st January 2020 when Hale's collection of over a thousand of Eliot’s letters to her will be opened by the current caretakers at Princeton. But for now, we can sit back and enjoy the wonder of Carroll's considerate, thoughtful imaginings.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Shell by Kristina Olsson

I wanted to love Shell so much. I thought it would be easy.


I adored the beautiful pearlescent cover on the hardback edition. It's dreamy quality felt nostalgic and apocalyptic at the same time (rather like Sydney last week during the dust storm)!
I love historical fiction. The building of the Opera House combined with Vietnam War issues should have been fascinating for me.
But most importantly, I was utterly mesmerised by Olsson's earlier memoir, Boy, Lost. I still think about how graciously and generously she explored her own family story within the context of 1950's Australia politics and culture. It was moving and powerful stuff.

I had heard from other bloggers, who raved about Shell, that the story was a slow burn, so after picking it up, then putting it down after about a dozen pages last year, I decided to try again recently, now that I have a bit more slow time up my sleeve.

But the same problem confronted me.

The start is not only a slow burn, but I also found it clunky with truncated sentences and phrases. This choppy sentence structure doesn't stop. I never felt a sense of rhythm or flow. It felt like Olsson was trying to hard to be poetic and clever. The effect didn't grab my attention or suit my mood. As she herself said about the Australian language (through the voice of Axel, the Swedish glass maker),

Its sentences were without rhythm, flat, featureless....He wondered if it was a matter of sophistication or history or even weather, this difference. This leaning into or away from another's sentences, or into or away from landscape, or surroundings. The things you were willing to reveal, what you were willing to hear.
Sometimes he would stand on the quay and let the streams of people part around him like water, and he would listen. Words, phrases, perhaps a whole sentence....what was in the words that made these people. Did their language make them feel a different way

But my biggest disappointment was my lack of affection or connection to the two main characters - Pearl and Axel. I never really felt like I was inside their heads or their hearts. I struggled to care for their issues or dilemmas.

I persisted past my usual stopping point of the 50 page mark, thanks to the number of comments about the slow burn, but by page 122 I realised that Shell simply wasn't working for me. I had given enough time to a book that wasn't getting under my skin, into my head or heart.

It's disappointing to anticipate a book so much only to find that you've fail to find a way in. Normally not finishing a book doesn't worry me too much - life is too short and there are too many other books I could be reading, but this one has left me with a sense of failure. What have I missed that so many others got? Why was I not able to appreciate the writing style or connect to the characters when so many other bloggers have?

Because I loved Boy, Lost so much, I feel the need to be fair to Shell and Olsson and share some of the reviews that rave about it so that you can make up your own mind.


Thursday, 14 February 2019

Eve Song by Dame Mary Gilmore

I reviewed Michael McGirr's Books That Saved My Life a week or so ago. It was a delight of much loved (by me and Michael) books and poems as well as an introduction to many more that I have yet to read.

One of those was by Mary Gilmore. Her second volume of poetry, The Passionate Heart, published in 1918, reflected her feelings and thoughts about WWI.

McGirr waxed lyrical about one of her poems within, called Eve Song.

There is more to Mary Gilmore than nostalgia. She gave voice to the pain and neglect suffered by women who were required to accommodate the wild dreams and poor behaviour of menfolk...The poem surely reflects the sense of abandonment experienced by women in time of conflict and violence. But it also captures the ambivalent feelings of someone entwined in a relationship which is liberating for only one of the people in it.... 
The real success of a The Passionate Heart is its ability to bring darkness to light. Mary Gilmore is, to my knowledge, the first Australian writer to deal in and open and fearless way with the challenge of living with depression.

Mary Jean Gilmore (1865-1962) by Adelaide Perry

Eve Song 

Dame Mary Gilmore


I span and Eve span
A thread to bind the heart of man;
But the heart of man was a wandering thing
That came and went with little to bring:
Nothing he minded what we made,
As here he loitered, and there he stayed.
I span and Eve span
A thread to bind the heart of man;
But the more we span the more we found
It wasn't his heart but ours we bound.
For children gathered about our knees:
The thread was a chain that stole our ease.
And one of us learned in our children's eyes
That more than man was love and prize.
But deep in the heart of one of us lay
A root of loss and hidden dismay.

He said he was strong. He had no strength
But that which comes of breadth and length.
He said he was fond. But his fondness proved
The flame of an hour when he was moved.
He said he was true. His truth was but
A door that winds could open and shut.

And yet, and yet, as he came back,
Wandering in from the outward track,
We held our arms, and gave him our breast,
As a pillowing place for his head to rest.
I span and Eve span,
A thread to bind the heart of man!


Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. I'm enjoying sourcing poems from my recent reads to join in with her at the moment.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright

The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright is a difficult book to review. It's a personal collection of Wright's essays, anecdotes and snippets. They are revealing and specific, almost like reading someone's private journal. Yet, all these sketches are written with such emotional intelligence and compassion that they become universal, finding their own connection with each reader.


I underlined so many sections and googled so many poems so that I could read the whole after being tempted by the snippet (one example being Aubade by Louise Gluck) which is always a sign that a book has affected me or moved me deeply. Wright has a lot to say, from her perspective as someone who has anorexia nervosa, about our bodies, how we perceive ourselves, space, environments, nature, food, habits and rituals.

We only half notice the truly extraordinary landscapes, places and situations that we move through

I learnt a lot about the complex nature of anorexia. As someone who derives as much pleasure from food and eating out as I do, it was challenging to hear of how complicated all this gets when you have an eating disorder.

Our days are consumed by making choices about food, by worrying over the things that we might eat or have just eaten.

Yet, most of the women I know have had body issues at varying points in their life. It is hard to escape societal expectation, (false) media images that become the norm and all the conflicting guidelines about how much, how little, what, when and where.

Behaviour, despite what fiction would have us believe, cannot tell us everything, or even very much, about a person.

I enjoyed her observations about the changing face of Sydney suburbs and found a lot to compare about her time in China, where it's 'hard to feel significant' amongst the overwhelming crowds, with my own time there 20 years ago.

But there were also times when I felt incredibly old and maternal towards Wright. I wanted to bundle her into my now, much older arms, (along with my younger self), and plead with them not to be so hard on themselves, to let go the angst and conflict and insecurities that absorb(ed) their days. This time feels like it crawls by at a painfully slow pace, yet it's gone in the blink of an eye. And suddenly you find yourself in your 50's, calmer, at peace, comfortable and secure, in a way that your (my) younger self would have scorned and envied at the same time.

It is complicated, but most of the time we make it more complicated than we need to. It's a journey we all have to go on, at our pace in our own way. I believe it's possible for everyone to eventually feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. You just have to give it time. And be kind to yourself along the way.