Category Archives: Six Degrees

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ to…..

It’s the first Saturday of the month, so it’s Six Degrees of Separation time. This meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest involves Kate choosing the starting book (in this case, Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoots and Leaves) and then linking six reviews to books that spring to mind.

I have actually read the starting book Eats Shoots and Leaves, but I read it before I started this blog. So off we go… the links will take you to my reviews.

Eats Shoots and Leaves is a tirade about the parlous lack of knowledge about punctuation amongst “people these days”. A similar book is Don Watson’s Death Sentence where he bemoans the managerial sludge which has taken over public life.

Don Watson just wanted to string ’em up for crimes against clarity, but a retribution of a far more serious kind is in David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged . This is a history of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya between 1952 and 1960, which he describes as “a story of atrocity and excess on both sides, a dirty war from which no one emerged with much pride, and certainly no glory.”

Thomas Cromwell wasn’t hanged, but he was beheaded in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I just loved all three books, and I marvelled at how well Mantel brought her project to such a skillful end in The Mirror and the Light.

I read M.L.Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans years after everyone else had read it- they even had time to make the movie by the time I got round to it! It is set in the 1920s on a lighthouse off the Western Australian coast, with a sort of Jodi-Piquoltesque moral dilemma.

A different Australian coastline, a hundred years earlier, is explored in Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners, a history which explores the whaling and sealing industries of the Southern Oceans, an ethnically diverse industry with a strong representation of ‘coloured seamen’: African and Native Americans, Native Canadians, Pacific Islanders, Maori and Aborigines. She explores in particular the relationship between whalers and sealers, and the indigenous women who lived on the islands in the Bass Strait.

Those crashing waves take me to Elsbeth Hardie’s The Passage of the Damned which starts off as a journey of the convict-shpi, the Lady Shore, to New South Wales. Suffice to say, they never got there but ended up in a country far away. You’ll have to read the book to find out where.

I seem to have taken on some rather odd themes here in my links to four non-fiction and two fiction books. Death sentences, hangings, beheadings, damnation, – or more benignly, lots of ocean waves. Perhaps it’s because it’s winter and I’m missing the beach.

Six degrees of separation: from Bass Rock to….

First Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. To find out how it works, please check out Booksaremyfavouriteandbest where Kate hosts this meme. Basically, Kate chooses a starting book, then you think of other books that lead off from it.

This month Kate leads with Evie Wyld’s Bass Rock, which won the Stella Prize this year.

As usual, I haven’t read it, although I did read All the Birds, Singing which is set on a farm on a dour, dank, unnamed British island, and has the motif of birds running through it as the narrative switches between the island and outback Australia.

Another book with a bird theme running alongside another narrative is Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds, which I enjoyed much more than Wyld’s book. It, too, is set on a farm but this time in Cohuna in the 1950s with a soundtrack of magpies and kookaburras accompanying a story about neighbours. I described it in my review as quirky and sly.

Another quirky and sly book based on a ‘nature’ motif is Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, where an antipodean Scheherazade-like figure weaves stories from the landscape. Each story is named for one of the eucalyptus trees planted on a property. The first time I read it, I was underwhelmed: the second time I read it, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, both reads took place before I started my blog.

Speaking of trees, there’s Sophie Cunningham’s collection of essays, City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest. Each of the essays, many of which have been published elsewhere previously, is prefaced by a pencil sketch of a particular tree- the Coast Live Oak in America, the Giant Sequoia, the Ginkgo, Eucalyptus, Moreton Bay Fig, Coolibah etc. Then follows a short piece of writing about the tree, sometimes interwoven with personal reflection or historical anecdote. A more substantial essay then ensues, not necessarily closely related to the shorter preface.

Sophie Cunningham wrote about trees, but the mother in Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree climbed a tree instead, and there she received enlightenment, just as her son Sohrab was hanged under the instructions of the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Set in Iran, the book combines historical detail, magic realism and a family story.

Greengages are plums and that leads me to another even grimmer book, set this time in Ceausescu’s Romania. I found Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums oppressive and disturbing and rather unfortunately- very memorable, which is why it ended up on this list.

I seem to have alternated between darkness and light a bit here, and travelled from Scotland, the outback, Iran and Romania.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Beezus and Ramona’ to ‘Another Brooklyn’

First of May; First Saturday in the month, and so Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme, hosted on BooksaremyFavouriteandBest involves Kate choosing a book and then participants suggest other books that they have read that spring to mind. You can learn more about it and join in here.

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book which this month is Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary. Haven’t read it: haven’t even heard of it.

But I do know Beverly Cleary from her book Fifteen. When I was probably thirteen or fourteen myself, I borrowed this book again and again from the school library. This is the paperback edition that the school library held. I was surprised to see that it was published in 1956, and so the book itself would have been about 15 years old when I read it. It was a very American boy-meets-girl story, with cheer squads and soda fountains as I remember it. For the purposes of this Six Degrees, it set me off thinking about similar coming-of-age books about adolescent girls that I loved either at the time, or have come to love as an adult. So that’s the theme I’m going to follow

Another book that I loved and reborrowed continually was Dodie Smith´s I Capture the Castle. I really can´t work out why my parents didn´t actually buy the book, given that I had it on almost continual loan! I now have two copies of it, although I haven’t got round to re-reading it. There´s a young girl narrating this story, too, set in England in a decaying castle where she and her older sister become obsessed with the American family who move in next door. (That’s interesting- these were the front covers that I remember, and they’re both Peacock Books, the Penguin Young Adult imprint).

Another book- or rather, series of books – that I became obsessed with probably forty years later was the Neapolitan Quarter, by Elena Ferrante (my review here). I think that Ferrante captures so well the ambivalence of girl-on-girl friendship and the pain of infatuation. I’m not particularly obsessed with who the actual author is, but I really cannot believe that it would be anyone other than a woman. I’ve really enjoyed the television series as well.

Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry (my review here) was her first, highly autobiographical book, with many parallels with her later autobiography that was filmed by Jane Campion as ‘An Angel at My Table.’ This fictional account has an interesting narrative structure, starting off with a description of the Withers family’s straightened circumstances and the tragedy that defined them, then splitting off into three very different narrative threads tracing through the lives of the three children. I read it while I was over in New Zealand a few years back, when I visited Janet Frame’s home town Oamaru, which she fictionalized as Waimaru in this book.

A more recent coming-of-age book is Emily Bitto’s The Strays (my review here). It reminded me a bit of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between or Ian McEwan’s Atonement in that you have an adult narrator, looking back to their adolescence, when they became embroiled in adult betrayal that they didn’t understand at the time. In this case, young Lily, an only child of very quiet, middle class parents, is fascinated by her friend Eva’s artistic family, very reminiscent of the real-life Heide group of artists. I loved the exuberance of the Trentham family- their loudness and transgressiveness- and the mounting tension as you realized that things were not going to end well.

August, the African-American narrator of Another Brooklyn (my review here) has been taken to Brooklyn by her increasingly-religious father, after her mother’s death. At first she is forbidden to leave their flat, and she observes, and later joins, a group of girls. Each of the girls in this group of four friends has to negotiate her own way through parental demands and inadequacies and each has to find her way into adulthood.

So- all fiction this month, and each one of them a coming-of-age story from a young girl’s perspective.

Six degrees of separation: From ‘Shuggie Bain’ to….

This month I have actually read Shuggie Bain the book that starts off this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Look at the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website but essentially, Kate chooses a starting book, then you link other titles that spring to mind.

I know that Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize, but I found it reminding me a lot of Angela’s Ashes. I read Angela’s Ashes long before I started blogging and it was certainly a best-seller when it was published in 1996. It wasn’t eligible for the Booker Prize at the time because the author was American, and I don’t know if it would have won it if it were. However, it’s one of the few books that I have read twice, drawn in when flicking through the pages one day.

A similar book is Kevin Kearn’s Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History. In my review, I likened it to ‘Angela’s Ashes: The Documentary’ because many of the same themes emerge. There are some introductory chapters that explain the rise of the tenement and a chapter that encapsulates many of the themes that are repeated in the oral histories that follow. The book was a bit repetitive, but it was interesting social history.

Another social history/memoir is Lynsey Hanley’s Estates: An intimate history, written by a woman who grew up in the Birmingham housing estate at Chelmsley Wood in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though It is mainly a historical approach, interwoven with her own experience, with closing chapters that bring us up to the present day.

A more frightening aspect of living in an apartment tower is found in Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas. Set in present-day Venezuela, a young journalist who has returned to Caracas after her mother dies, finds her apartment taken over by a female-led gang. It is poignant and frightening to see a formerly-wealthy country spiralling into collapse and lawlessness.

At least the people in The Death of Vishnu by Mani Suri could leave their apartment building in Mumbai. But in doing so, they had to encounter their aging, alcoholic houseboy who lay dying on the steps. We move from apartment to apartment as the residents bicker over what to do with the dying Vishnu.

Now, could you get further away from a Mumbai apartment building than a grand old English house? (Well, actually, possibly the grand old English house was purchased with money made in India, as William Dalrymples The Anarchy shows us). But it’s not the building, but the idea of an old servant, Stevens, that makes me mentally link these two books. The book won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

I started with one Booker Prize winner, and finished with another. I’ve gone from Scotland to Ireland to England, to Caracas, to Mumbai, and back again to England. What an exhausting trip!

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Phosphorence’ to….

I haven’t read the starting book for Six Degrees of Separation in March. It’s Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and it’s sitting beside the bed unread. In fact, I had to look up what phosphorescence actually IS and I find that it is a sort of light. So, for the March Six Degrees, I’ll go with the theme of ‘light’. You can read the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website but essentially it’s a form of trigger association based on the books that you have read. So, thinking of light….

I really like John Banville’s intelligence and the way that he makes you work hard as a reader. In Ancient Light, he effortlessly handles two narrative lines, while expanding your vocabulary. I must confess that I didn’t realize that it was part of a trilogy – and a trilogy that I had read, no less!- and I felt rather foolish when I realized that the books were all related.

I was rather less impressed by Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a collection of short stories arranged around three themes: Heat, Water and Light. It was a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’ of a collection- very good in parts, but some stories made less of an impression.

I read Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark before I started writing this blog. Set on a lighthouse on Bruny Island, it is a story within a story where an aspiring author returns to the lighthouse once tended by her great-great-grandfather and decides to write about her great-great aunt. There are lots of descriptions of landscape and reflections on history.

M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is set on a lighthouse, too, but this time in the 1920s on the Western Australian coast. A husband returns from the war a changed man, and his wife Isabel cannot understand the existential changes that have been wrought on her husband. Their marriage is wracked by tragedy and loss. There’s a Jodi-Picoult-esque ethical dilemma, which was concluded a little too rapidly for my liking.

There was no rushed ending in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The third of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, it’s the brilliant culmination of a marvellous work of historical fiction. You know how the story is going to end (not well), but Mantel keeps you engrossed right to the last page.

And finally, someone who could barely remember seeing light: Helen Keller. Light in My Darkness is her compilation of autobiographical writing. Originally called My Religion, it’s pretty turgid in places and I found it easier to skip the chapters on Swedenborgianism. Frankly, I wouldn’t bother reading this and instead read Dorothy Herrman’s Helen Keller: A Life.

So, mainly fiction this month and a rather crabby collection of reviews. Rather ironic really, given that the theme I had chosen for myself was ‘light’!

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ to…

Once again, I have not read the book that starts off the Six Degrees of Separation meme on the first Saturday of each month. You can read the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website. This month the starting book was Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road.

I might not have read this particular Anne Tyler book but I have read several others. Before starting this blog I would have nominated her as one of my favourite authors, but I think that after a few books I had begun to tire of the Americanness and everyday-lifeness of her books (I don’t know if either of those words exist!) and I haven’t read anything of hers in the last ten years. I know that I really enjoyed Ladder of Years, where the middle-aged female main character decides to just walk out on her family, adopt a new identity and start a new, stripped-down life. Perhaps my enjoyment of this book says more about me as a middle-aged female reader, than the book.

Someone working as an undercover agent would be adopting new identities all the time, I should imagine. But what happens to the family they leave behind? Berta Isla by Javier Mariás explores the scenario of a wife whose husband disappears ‘on business’ for increasingly lengthy periods of time.

If you say “spy” to an Australian, probably the first names that will occur to them are those of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov (in fact, there’s a good chance that the Petrovs will be the only names that most Australians will be familiar with). The image of Evdokia Petrov being manhandled along the tarmac to an aeroplane is one of the iconic images of the 1950s. Andrew Croome has fictionalized the Petrov Affair in his Document Z.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies was able to take advantage of the Petrov Affair during the 1954 election campaign- a timing which many thought was too convenient. I grew up during the 1960s believing that Robert Menzies was the only possible Prime Minister: a bit like the Queen, he just was. Judith Brett wrote an excellent biography of Menzies and the middle class in the post-war years in Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which I read prior to staring this blog.

Another historian who captured twentieth century Melbourne middle class life very well is Janet McCalman in Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920-1990. She takes as her narrative vehicle (literally) the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle St St Kilda to Cotham Road Kew, picking up the students of four private schools: Scotch, Trinity, Genazzano and MLC (Methodist Ladies College) and traces the experience of middle class, Melbourne life in the suburbs through which the No. 69 travels.

The other major denominational rival to MLC was Presbyterian Ladies College, whose most famous alumni is Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, better known by her nom-de-plume Henry Handel Richardson. She famously wrote about her school days in The Getting of Wisdom, but I much preferred her wonderful three-part work The Fortunes of Richard Mahony which is probably one of my favourite Australian novels.

Hah! Four Australian books this time- and three of them by women!

Six Degrees of Separation: from Hamnet to….

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is described at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest . There is a starting book (for January 2021 it’s Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet), then you think of other books that you have read that are somehow and usually tenuously connected. In this case, I start off with Shakespeare’s son and end up with Dante Rossetti’s muse. As is often the case, I haven’t read the starting book but I have downloaded it, which is half-way to reading it (isn’t it?).

Shakespeare- such a famous surname for a writer- and so I jump to Nicholas Shakespeare, a recent immigrant to Australia, who writes about his search for two ancestors from his family tree in his book In Tasmania (2004). One was the army officer and merchant Anthony Fenn Kemp, and the other Petre Hordern, an alcoholic from a wealthy family who drags his family into poverty.

As part of his search for Kemp descendants, he visits a newly-found Kemp cousin who brings out a shell necklace supposedly owned by Truganini, supposedly “the last full-blood Aborigine” (or so we were told at school back in the 1960s). Cassandra Pybus gives a much more rounded view of Truganini, and her agency across the British colonies of Van Diemens Land and the Port Phillip District of New South Wales in Truganini: Journey through the Apocalypse. (2020)

One of my favourite books about Tasmania -indeed, one of my favourite Australian books full stop – is Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) , a beautifully illustrated and imaginative, magical realist book, based on the life of convict artist William Buelow Gould but going far beyond the historical character. I read this book before I started blogging. Flanagan has written many wonderful books since, but this is my favourite.

Speaking of fishing, Vicki Hastrich spends quite a bit of time messing about in boats in her Night Fishing (2019), a collection of essay-length memoir pieces tied together with the theme of boats and fishing, but with reflections on other things as well.

A boat – or rather a merchant schooner called ‘The Ibis’ runs through Amitov Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy starting with Sea of Poppies (2008). Within the 468 pages of this book, first we have the arrival of a boat, its provisioning and then its slow movement down the river towards the open sea, collecting characters along the way. There’s no sign of it here, but the trilogy is going to end up embroiled in the Opium Wars as part of the economic model underpinning British imperialism.

At the other end of the opium trade were the British users, although in this case the opium was marketed as laudanum. Elizabeth Siddal, model for artists from the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood and lover of Dante Rossetti, eventually succumbed to her laudanum addiction in Lucinda Hawksley’s Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel (2004).

Well, that turned rather dark, didn’t it?- both the title characters, loved by famous writers, end up dead. On a lighter note, I’m pleased that I’ve been able to include some ‘older’ back-catalogue books, with a good sprinkling of Australian authors.

Six degrees of separation: from ‘Are You There God? It’s me Margaret’ to…

How could the start of the month come round so quickly? The December Six Degrees of Separation meme (see Books are My Favourite and Best for an explanation) starts off with Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret. I was a little too old for Judy Blume’s Young Adult books, which started off in the mid 1970s, and the whole Judy Blume phenomenon passed me by. But it did start me thinking about the book that I loved most as an adolescent, and how that book has been reflected in my later adult reading.

The book that I loved most in early secondary school was Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s a story of a young girl and her older sister living in a racketty old Big House, with their author father suffering from writer’s block. In my own family, we never bought books, and so I reborrowed this book from the school library again and again. Now that I actually do buy books, I have not one but two copies on my bookshelves, but I’m a little apprehensive about re-reading it in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. It was the start of my love of Big House books, which is the ‘degree of separation’ that joins all my books.

I read L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between when I was in H.S.C. (i.e. Year 12). I just loved the summer 1900 setting of this book where a young boy, sent for the summer to a friend’s Big House, becomes an intermediary in an illicit love affair between his friend’s sister and a nearby tenant farmer. There’s a similar feeling of a young adolescent out of his depth emotionally, entangled in other people’s affairs and the feeling of impending doom.

These same themes came up in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which was made into a lush film starring Keira Knightley. Again, we have a young girl in another Big House, and another illicit love affair. The same feelings of summer, emotional immaturity and guilt come through in this book, too. This book, though, has three separate time periods, although the implications of an innocent but erroneous childhood action reverberate through a lifetime.

There are a number of similar books that I have read since writing this blog. Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday is only small, at 132 pages, and dealing with just one day – Mothering Sunday – when the hired help in post WWI Big Houses are allowed to go home to visit their families. But housemaid Jane is orphaned, and so spends the day with her lover, Paul, the son of a neighbouring Big House family. It’s a perfectly formed, tightly told little story.

Big Houses, tied as they are to the arcane inheritance arrangements of the aristocracy tend to elicit manipulative relationships and long-held grudges on the part of the disinherited. Clare Clark’s We That are Left is set in a postWWI Big House, once again with the outsider child brought into the midst of messy upper class family arrangements. We learn in the opening pages that the outsider child ends up owning the Big House and the narrative thread of the novel is just how he achieved it.

For me, Big House novels are inevitably set in England, although there are probably plenty of Big Houses in other countries too (all of a sudden Gone With the Wind or The Leopard spring to mind). What about Australian Big House novels? The houses may not be so big, and certainly not of similar antiquity, but Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is set in a Big Enough House, where two adult children return to their mother’s affluent house, intent on putting her into a nursing home so that their inheritance is not gobbled up by her in-home-care nursing arrangements. I really don’t know if I even understood this book, which is often the way with me with Patrick White.

And so, I find myself laughing at the idea of starting off with Judy Blume and ending up with Patrick White. Could any two authors possibly be more different from each other?

Six degrees of separation: from Every Secret Thing to…

The first Saturday of the month seems to come around very quickly! We are usually given a starting book by Kate, who hosts the Six Degrees of Separation meme on her blog Books Are My Favourite and Best. But this time, she instructed us to start from the last book on last month’s chain, which for me, was Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing.

So, thinking of ‘secrets’, there’s Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, set in Ireland, where during the process of deinstitutionalization, a woman is discovered who has been incarcerated in an asylum for 60 years. The book explores how, and by whom, she came to be placed in the asylum- but I didn’t like the ending at all (and after 12 years, I have no memory at all of what the ending even was!)

But I do remember the ending of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which is a book about secrets too. Roth’s books are often swaggering, male and very American, and this is no exception, telling the story of Coleman Silk, a successful, white Jewish professor who is accused of using a racist term in his classes. Narrated by Nathan Zuckerberg, who appears in several of Roth’s novels, it’s infuriatingly conservative but also incisive about sex, race, and Americanism.

Speaking of stains, there’s some really gruesome stains in Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner, the biography of Sandra Pankhurst, who runs an agency that does cleanups after a crime scene, a death or where hoarding has become perilous. Sandra Pankhurst, born Peter, has her own story of abuse and emotional deprivation before her gender reassignment surgery. It’s a fantastic book.

David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl explores the marriage of two artists, Einar Wegerer and his American wife Greta Waud in the 1920s and 30s.  It was at Greta’s suggestion that Einar first cross-dressed within their marriage, and his increasing excursions as ‘Lily Elba’ culminated in the world’s first sex-change surgery.

Also set in Denmark is Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love, the story of the author’s Jewish grandparents who had emigrated from Hungary to Denmark after their terrible experiences during WWII. We learn in the opening sentences that they decided to commit suicide together in 1991, and in this book their granddaughter reconstructs the lives that they rarely spoke about later.

Thinking of grandparents and great-grandparents and aunts and great-aunts brings to mind The Eighth Life (For Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili. This was one of the big fat books I read during COVID lockdown and it was wonderful: a family saga, set in Georgia (near Russia, not in America) during the 20th century with various branches of the family tree sprouting off in all directions, but with such well-defined characters that you didn’t need a genealogical chart.

So look at that- all fiction this month!- and set in Australia, Ireland, America, Denmark and Georgia. Who said we couldn’t travel during these coronavirus days?

Six degrees of separation: From ‘The Turn of the Screw’ to….

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. The rules of the meme are here. In October the starting book is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw which I confess to not having read. But I gather that it’s about a governess – and I have read about governesses, so off I go!

The first governess I thought of was Caroline Newcomb, who shifted across from Hobart to Port Phillip in 1836 to act as governess for the (in)famous John Batman’s family in the very early days of Melbourne’s settlement. She ended up in Geelong, where she met Annie Drysdale, and together the two women formed a partnership to run sheep on the the 10,000 acre Boronggoop property on the Barwon River as women squatters – certainly a novelty at that time. Their lives are described in Miss D. and Miss N. where Bev Roberts edits and annotates Anne Drysdale’s diaries.

Sometimes I’m a bit of a purist with my historical fiction, but I love it when a novelist does the research then subverts it completely. This is the case with Peter Mews’ Bright Planet, which takes its name from a real ship that often appeared in the Port Phillip Shipping News columns. It’s set in a Melbourne known as Bareheep in the early 1840s, complete with a mixture of historic and fictional characters, and like Robyn Annear’s Bearbrass , it’s a real hoot.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries uses astrological principles as an organizing structure for her sprawling (and too long, in my opinion) book about the New Zealand gold rush in Hokitika. It’s a bit like a great big Victorian door-stopper of a book with myriad characters. I thought that it was technically clever, but just too long-winded.

Think New Zealand, and think Janet Frame. Owls Do Cry was her first novel, a thinly disguised autobiography, and it is often considered to be New Zealand’s first modernist novel. It’s a startlingly original book, dealing with mental illness and it still packs a punch after more than 60 years.

Speaking of owls, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a quiet, meditative book about a young priest who, unknown to him, has only a few years left to live. He is sent to minister to a small Indian village, where Christianity, commercialism and the outside world are encroaching on the traditional myths and practices that the villagers share with him. It’s a beautifully written book, but a bit ponderous.

Not at all ponderous is Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing. It is a series of tales set around an Aboriginal mission in far northern Australia with the Mission mob, the Catholic clergy, trying to convert the Bush mob who lived just outside the Mission. The Bush mob move back and forth between the arbitrary strictures and efforts of the clergy and their own more grounded life outside. They are clear-eyed about the hypocrisy and smallness of these white priests and nuns, but they are also painfully aware of the degree of control that the mission has over their lives. It is imbued with a quick, cutting, deft wit that overlays anger and sorrow.

And so that brings me to the end of my chain. It seems that with the exception of one book, I’ve stayed mainly in the Southern Hemisphere this time!