Sunday, 16 June 2019


I've just started using Borrow Box from my library, and I'm in love. Borrow Box is an app that you use via your library to borrow eaudiobooks and ebooks. The app is super easy to use. Once was the first audiobook I listened to with Borrow Box. It was such a fab reading experience. I listened to most of it on a train trip, some whilst out walking the dogs, some driving the car to work. All so easy.

At this stage I'm only planning to use it for audiobooks (because I'm using it on my phone and I don't really like ebooks so much, especially reading phone size ebooks). I can borrow four audiobooks at a time (and four ebooks if I choose to), which is enough to keep me out of trouble I guess, although there are so many there that I want to inhale.

I'd been meaning to read Once for some time. It's a very well known book, and I've had a copy sitting about the house in the TBR for quite a while. Although I didn't know all that much about it. I knew that it was about a boy called Felix and set during the Second World War, but not really much more than that.

Felix is a nine year old boy living in a remote Polish orphanage in 1942. Although he isn't an orphan, or he wasn't when his parents left him there three years and eight months ago. As you might expect things are rather grim in a Polish orphanage during the war- watery soup, shared baths and bullying amongst the kids. But things change enormously for Felix when he leaves the orphanage one day to return home to find his parents.

Of course Felix's Jewish bookseller parents are no longer keeping their small town shop. They have been displaced by a Polish family, and Felix starts a larger quest to find them. We visit the Warsaw Ghetto, and witness so much brutality (and some kindness) at the hands of Nazi soldiers. I may have cried at times. It's hard not to.

As an adult reader it is impossible not to be aware of what Poland 1942 means as a setting. I guess as a child you would have less of an awareness, and less of an understanding of the historical and political context. When groups of people are being marched down a road or pushed onto a train you know where they are going. Felix doesn't.

Morris Gleitzman is such a prolific Australian author, who is just taking on his role as our fifth Australian Children's Laureate. I've seen him speak quite a few times. I've read a few of his books. Loyal Creatures, which I loved (see my review), and Two Weeks With the Queen, which I don't remember loving so much.

Once was tremendously successful and popular and has now grown into a series of six books. Once. Then. Now. Soon. After. Maybe. I'm planning on listening to all of them. Indeed I have Then all downloaded and ready to go next.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Speaking Up

I really have been straying out of my comfort zone lately. So much nonfiction! I saw Gillian Triggs speak at Newcastle Writers Festival recently, she was very impressive, and so when her audiobook Speaking Up popped on my BorrowBox I was there.

Because of my general head in the sand approach to life I only heard of Gillian and her work last year. She gave a keynote at a conference I attended, unfortunately I missed that session, but everyone there raved about it. Then I saw her in Newcastle April. Speaking Up was the overall best seller at the festival bookshop. Which is intriguing, as it's not a super easy read.

Gillian has had an extraordinary life and career. Born in the UK, her family migrated to Melbourne in 1958. Gillian remembers seeing refugees on the streets of London after the war, and feels her sense of social justice was forged by the war and her parents visions of freedom, non-discrimination and racial equality, "the values for which their war had been fought". She studied law at Melbourne Uni in the 60s and went on to have an international career specialising in International Maritime Law. She worked and lived in Texas, Singapore, Paris, London and Sydney. She has had two marriages, the first to the Dean of her law school, and with the second she became a diplomatic wife to the Australian Ambassador in Singapore then Paris. Yes I got a little bit jealous around that part. She had three children, the third of whom was profoundly disabled by Edwards Syndrome.

In 2012 Gillian Triggs became President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and "discovered her public voice and that she had something useful to say." She certainly has a lot of useful things to say. 
Human rights apply to everyone, all the time. Those whose human rights need protecting are not always socially worthy citizens. Human rights defenders do not pick and chose whom to protect and this is the point. Vulnerable people, usually minorities, and sometimes unpopular people all have the right to enjoy fundamental freedoms and respect as human beings. 
I really enjoyed these early, more biographical chapters, but the majority of the book is much more academic and scholarly. Law for the nonlawyer is quite often dry and boring. And how long can anyone really think about Senate Estimates? Gillian Triggs does her best to make this accessible for the average reader, but still my eyes and consciousness glazed over at times. Quite literally one day on a long distance drive.

Yet the subjects that Gillian Triggs addresses are interesting, and clearly important. Family violence, economic empowerment of women, constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians, Aboriginal deaths in custody, refugees, mandatory detention, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, youth suicide, metadata, marriage equality. Gillian wants nothing more than for us to join her in speaking up for human rights. 
Australia is the only democratic nation in the world and the only common law country that does not have a bill or charter of rights to ensure the freedom of its citizens and residents. Australia is also the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people...
Gillian Triggs dates the decline of human rights in Australia from 2001. A lot of things changed around the world that year of course, but she sites particularly Tampa, Children Overboard and September 11 as causing Australia to change course. 
How is it that the sovereign nation of Australia, one of the architects of international human rights agreements following World War II and a globally recognised good international citizen has regressed so far in failing to respect human rights in the 21st century?
It is shocking that Gillian finds human rights to have regressed further over her five years at the Commission. 

It's fair to say that most Australians (myself included) know next to nothing about our Constitution, and indeed we would hardly ever consider it, unless wishing to quote The Castle. 
The Australian Constitution does not prohibit torture, slavery or racial or sexual discrimination. The rights of children, the disabled or aged are not mentioned.
I guess none of this is too surprising given that it was set out in the dying years of the 19th century. Our Constitution does not even grant us the right to vote! Which is interesting given we have compulsory voting. Oh dear, perhaps I'm going to have to read that book too... (From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage)

I was especially interested in the sections on Aboriginal deaths in custody, on the Northern Territory Intervention, and other factors affecting Australia's Aboriginal people. Gillian recommends Ali Cobby Eckerman's poem Intervention Payback.

Juxtaposing human rights with child protection is a false binary. Australia can both protect its vulnerable children and respect the fundamental rights of our First Nations peoples to dignity and to consent to laws that affect their lives. 
Sadly, Australia can't always protect our vulnerable children though. I am glad to have learnt about the Uluru Statement from the Heart. What apart from politics can stand in the way of a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution?
Indigenous deaths in custody are reported to have increased 150% since 1991 numbering 340 in 2017.
While this number is still shocking, this sentence is badly worded. I initially thought it suggested that 340 Aboriginal people died in custody in the year 2017 which stopped me in my tracks. What she means is that 340 Aboriginal people died in the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. An appalling number. 

Similarly, the section on refugees were enlightening, and damning. 

Road signs warned that the (Christmas) islands giant robber crabs had protected status, asylum seekers are not similarly cared for here. 
Currently there are 65 million displaced people in the world, 1/3 of whom are refugees.
Australia's responses to this global tragedy have been exceptionally harsh, illegal and inhumane attracting international condemnation. 
I was reminded that Mandatory Detention was started in 1992 by the Keating government. It is interesting that in 2016 the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found that detention of adult male refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island is in violation of its (relatively new) constitution. 

Naturally, Speaking Up gives us an idea of the work of the Human Rights Commission. I was most surprised that "Overwhelming people come to the Commission alleging employment discrimination." I had thought the day to day workings would be on more general social concerns, not specific complaints by individuals. But they do a lot of conciliation work. 

The protection of minorities is fundamental to our democracy. 
In the end Speaking Up is quite a lengthy argument for an Australian Charter of Rights. Gillian Triggs makes no secret of her opinion, she argues for it many times due the text and her final chapter is entitled The Time is Now, A Charter of Rights for Australia. Apparently it will help counter our "dysfunctional parliament and disempowered courts".
The real value of human rights acts lies in their symbolic, educative and informative roles restraining parliaments from passing laws that infringe fundamental rights and ensuring administrators do not impose policies that do so. When protections for human rights get legislative expression they form the scaffolding for a social structure that respects rights for communities and individuals. 
As a random fact I was fascinated to hear Gillian say that the UK had television soon after the war. I took that to mean that television started broadcasting there after the war, but the BBC actually started broadcasting regularly in 1936, and then British TV was shut down in 1939 at the start of WWII. Broadcasting then resumed in 1946. Television came to Australia in 1956 for the Melbourne Olympic Games. Not that I was there for that, but I didn't realise Australia at that time was a full 20 years behind.

Still young Gillian watched BBC documentaries on the liberation of concentration camps and recounts that her sense of social justice had its origins in her parents commitment to the values of freedom, non-discrimination and racial equality. "A choice is not binary in favour of one right or the other, rather as shown by amendments to the marriage act it is possible both to achieve marriage equality and to provide protection to those religious views that would condemn it."

There is no hierarchy of rights. One freedom does not trump another.
I had to rush towards the end to read this book. Borrowing e-audiobooks is a rigid process. You can't hang onto it for a day or so if you haven't finished with it. An e-audibook just vanishes from your phone (or device) at the allocated time. So I had to find 6 hours in a few days. I wasn't sure that I'd make it- especially when I have many other draws on my time (as we all do). I'm also halfway through the Aussie Noir thriller Scrublands, and trying to watch Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale before June 6 when Series 3 starts. Plus living a life from time to time. I tried speeding it up to 1.25 but Speaking Up is dense, and you need to concentrate properly so that didn't work for me at all. I made my deadline with a few hours to spare.

Monday, 27 May 2019


Wundersmith is the second book in a series, spoilers to the first book will inevitably follow.

Quite recently I finished the audiobook of Nevermoor (see my review). I loved it so much that very soon after when I was tucking earphones into my ears to go out with the dog I found I was listening to the sequel Wundersmith. Very soon after that, I was turning to it when doing the dishes, or the ironing, or when out tending the garden... you get the idea. My listening pace accelerated rapidly throughout the book. Today, I listened to some in the car, and then realised I was very close to the end, only had a few chapters more to go really ... so I listened some more whilst doing more menial household tasks, and then was only two chapters from the end, so I plonked myself on the bed to finish it off. 

Wundersmith tells the story of Morrigan Crow's first year at the Wundrous Society. Morrigan and her eight fellow classmates form Unit 919 of Wunsoc. They are the most junior scholars, split into students of either the Mundane or Arcane Arts. Starting at a new school is full of much excitement, and many details,  how to get there, the buildings, the classes you'll take, and this is all brilliantly set up in Wundersmith. 
Morrigan didn’t like the sound of the Goal-Setting and Achieving Club for Highly Ambitious Youth, which met on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and all day Sunday. But she thought she could probably get on board with Introverts Utterly Anonymous, which promised no meetings or gatherings of any sort, ever.
I get that a magical school story will draw comparisons with Harry Potter, but school novels were written well before Harry Potter, and well before Enid Blyton even. Some sections of this book reminded me much more of Roald Dahl's Matilda, but naturally I won't point out why. You'll know if you've read them both. 

Amongst all this action are great themes of friendship, loyalty, treachery, suspicion, doubt and evil. How do you know who to trust really? There are mysterious disappearances and secrets abound. There are once again bigger themes that are so important in the real world - slavery, death, dying and compassion. There are great twists and turns and glimpses of the stories still to come.

And just so many wondrous fantastical elements. Jessica Townsend has an extraordinary imagination.  There are so many delicious, delightful details. It's all so imaginative. I particularly loved the building made of water. The Museum of Stolen Moments. Genius. And the Skeletal Legion- skeletons cobbled together from body parts! Wow. 
The “Skeletal Legion”, they’re also called.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Proper bogeyman stuff. Supposedly they used to emerge from dark, lonelyplaces where carcasses were plentiful – graveyards, battlefields, you know – spontaneously assembling themselves from the jumbled leftovers of the dead.’
I think Wundersmith has even more plot and action than Nevermoor. I've never been much of a series reader, but maybe Nevermoor will change that? 

Now that I've listened to Wundersmith I'm in a rather unusual position. I'm up to date with a series, and so now I'm waiting with bated breath for the publication of the third book in the Nevermoor series! I think it's coming in October 2019, but there's very few clues about it online at this stage. Bookdepository says it's due October 29. I'll hope that's true for  now.

Once again I listened to the brilliant audiobook narrated by Gemma Whelan. I do hope that she's doing the narration for the whole series, I can't imagine it without her considerable vocal talents. 

Teacher's Resources

Monday, 20 May 2019

Pulse Points

I'm not much of a short story reader. I don't know how best to read them. I don't know how best to think about them, and I don't know how best to blog about them. But I want all of that to change. I'd like to become an experienced, accomplished short story reader. My interest in the short story emerged in 2017 when I accidentally came across Ryan O'Neill's amazing The Weight of a Human Heart (see my review). Since then I've bought quite a number of short story collections- some anthologies, some single author collections. It's time I start actually reading them. Naturally enough then I borrowed Pulse Points from my library, it's not from my shelves. 

I quite enjoy reading an actual short story, but I really don't really know how to read a collection of them. I find that I can't read one after the other, they all just become a blur, and my brain becomes confused. I find reading one or two, depending on length, between other reads seems to be a better way to go about it, although I'm hoping I will refine this process as I rack up a few more short story collections.  

The fourteen stories contained within Pulse Points really have a global reach, with a range of settings - Australia naturally enough, but also America, England, Paris. I was annoyed initially when I realised that quite a number of them were set in America, noting American vocabulary and terms (one of the largest and noisiest bees in my bonnet) before I noticed the setting.  Although of course I loved that Convalescence is set in Paris... and while I delighted at the mention of the string section that plays in the labyrinthine tunnels of  Châtelet as I've seen them several times, I wondered why was that story set in Paris, and not in Melbourne?

Oddly enough it was probably the stories set in America that ended up being my favourites! Vox Clamantis - a West Coast road trip to see a dying mother. Coarsegold - the last and longest story which is hard to sum up really - a lesbian couple move to central California and events ensue. 

It was the saddest sound I ever heard in my life. There were no words, just him with the pain in his lungs, bellowing out smoke from the grief in there. It seemed to me as if all the world, the redwoods and the cliffs and the ocean and whatever birds were out there, was recoiling from him. (Vox Clamantis)
The first, titular story Pulse Points is set in Australia and has such a dichotomous plot, I wasn't sure what to make of it- or what would be coming after it. Many of the stories deal with illness and death- dementia, cancer, unwanted pregnancy, miscarriage, addiction, domestic violence - but I often found humour in the details. 

A sturdy nurse pushed through the door. An acrid puff of shit and vegetables followed her. (Pulse Points)
I've seen Jennifer Down speak twice. First at Melbourne Writers Festival when she did an electrifying reading of a short story. I thought I'd recognise it when I got to it. I think it was Dogs, but can't be sure now. Last year I saw her at Sydney Writers Festival and she gave a fabulous talk On How to Disappear, a subject I'd never given any particular thought too. Some of it was similar to this article from The Lifted Brow

You can listen to a conversation with Jennifer Down talking about Pulse Points on the Readings Podcast.

I'm going to try and have a book of short stories always on the go from now on. We'll see how that goes.

Saturday, 4 May 2019


Oh, isn't it just so great when a really hyped book lives up to that hype? And Nevermoor certainly does. Nevermoor made a huge splash when it was released in late 2017. I was a bit interested at the time. I liked the cover initially, but shrank away a bit from the Harry Potter-esque buzz. I've only ever read the first Harry Potter, way back when- gasp! about 20 years ago I guess, but never continued on with the series (and I'm a really, really bad series reader). But then recently I came across the audiobook of Nevermoor narrated beautifully by Gemma Whelan, and on a bit of a whim I picked it up for #MiddleGradeMarch. I didn't finish in March, but I did manage to finish it in April, and so can call it an #AussieApril read. Although now of course I'm blogging about it in May....

Nevermoor is the story of Morrigan Crow. Morrigan is a cursed child, born on Eventide, and due to die on her 11th birthday. I was in from the very first words of the prologue. 

The journalists arrived before the coffin did. They gathered at the gate overnight and by dawn they were a crowd. By nine o'clock they were a swarm.
Morrigan's father Corvus Crow is the Chancellor of Great Wolfacre, and as such her death is big news. The main story then starts three days earlier in the final days of Morrigan's doomed life. As a cursed child Morrigan has been blamed for every unfortunate incident, near and far, over her lifetime. 
Morrigan hurried into the house, hovering for a moment near the door from the kitchen to the hallway. She watched Cook take a piece of chalk and write KICHIN CAT - DEAD on the blackboard, at the end of a long list that most recently included SPOYLED FISH, OLD TOM'S HEART ATTACK, FLOODS IN NORTH PROSPER and GRAVY STAYNES ON BEST TABLECLOTH. 
Morrigan has been seen as a burden by her family, brought out for photo opportunities to aid her father's career, an only child unloved within her own family. The cursed child is not quite the classic orphan of children's literature but Morrigan feels alone, and her fate is sealed. Her mother is dead, and her pregnant stepmother Ivy is already growing her replacement sibling.
Morrigan sat up straight. This should be good. Maybe Ivy was going to apologise for making her wear that frilly, itchy chiffon dress to the wedding. Or maybe she was going to confess that although she'd scarcely spoken a dozen words to Morrigan since moving in, truly she loved her like a daughter, and she only wished they could have more time together, and she would miss Morrigan terribly and would probably cry buckets at the funeral and ruin her makeup, which would streak ugly black rivers all down her pretty face - but she wouldn't even care how ugly she looked because she would just be thinking about lovely, lovely Morrigan. 
Morrigan manages to cheat The Hunt of Smoke and Shadow on the date of her scheduled death (this bit is actually quite scary!) and escapes from Jackalfax to Nevermoor, the city. Nevermoor is somewhat based on London, as Jessica Townsend was living in London when she wrote a lot of this story in her early 20s. Morrigan makes a new home at the Hotel Deucalion, a fantastical residence complete with a talking cat who just happens to be the Housekeeper, and a Smoking Parlour- not a Victorian style saloon with old men smoking on overstuffed lounges, but a room that generates different coloured, scented smokes to evoke different moods and atmospheres. 

While Nevermoor is aimed at middle grade readers there is much here for adult and teenage readers. Nevermoor is such a generous, warm and beautiful story, told with delightful humour. You have to love an author who describes Santa as "a morbidly obese home invader and enslaver of elves"! As an adult reader you can see Jessica Townsend taking shots at the world of politics and commerce. There are some great Mean Girls vibes but also obvious references to more serious current world problems. 

' ..... The Free State has strict border laws, and if you're harbouring an illegal refugee you're breaking about twenty-eight of them. You're in a lot of trouble here, sonny. Illegals are a plague, and it's my solemn duty to guard the borders of Nevermoor and protect its true citizens from Republic scum trying to weasel their way into the Free State.'
Jupiter turned serious. 'A noble and valiant cause, I'm sure,' he said quietly. 'Protecting the Free State from those most in need of its help.'
I don't like Adult Fantasy as a rule, but I'm quite content in the magical, fantastic worlds of middle grade fantasy. I'm not exactly sure why that should be, but it is. I know enough of Irish folklore to know that (the) Morrigan is a famous figure of Irish mythology. This can be no coincidence. I don't want to know more at this stage, and have resisted googling Morrigan, for fear of spoiling the story to come. Also, Corvus is the genus name for crows, ravens, rooks etc, so I'm attuned to the many references to black clothing and circling birds. 

I listened to the audiobook so masterfully narrated by Gemma Whelan, who I've never heard of before given my prodigious aversion to Game of Thrones. Gemma did such an incredible job with the voices and accents of Nevermoor that I found myself taking the dog on very long walks to keep listening to her reading. A beautiful experience. 

Nevermoor is Jessica Townsend's debut novel. The first of a series sold as a trilogy, Nevermoor had such a long incubation period that Jessica has the plot of nine Nevermoor stories up her sleeve. I'll definitely be continuing on with the audiobook series, and already have Wundersmith ready to go on my phone. Thankfully Gemma Whelan is again our narrator. I can't imagine anyone else doing it. 

Teacher's Notes

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

100 21st Century Novels to Love

It's been a while between Listmanias here but I was very inspired after coming across this list thanks to Eric Karl Anderson and his wonderful booktube channel. 

The Times created this list of favourite novels of the 21st century so far. Sadly it is behind a paywall (at least for those of us outside the UK, not sure if it the same for everyone). But Eric discussed all the books, so I can here too. I'm not sure if there was any particular reason for the order, but I've chosen to alphabetise it. 

As always there's a few books I've read. Many I've meant to read. Some I've bought. And quite a few where I've not heard of either the author or sometimes that particular book. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan (see my review)

All Families are Psychotic - Douglas Coupland

All my Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews

All That Man Is - David Szalay

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie

Any Human Heart - William Boyd

Arlington Park - Rachel Cusk

An Officer and a Spy - Robert Harris

Atonement - Ian McEwen

Breath - Tim Winton 

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent (see my review)

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

Conversations with Friends - Sally Rooney

Darkmans - Nicola Barker

Daughters of Jerusalem - Charlotte Mendelson

Digging to America - Anne Tyler

Disobedience - Naomi Alderman

Dissolution - CJ Sansom

English Passengers - Matthew Kneale 

Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

Gilead - Marilynne Robinson

God's Own Country - Ross Raisin

Golden Hill - Francis Spufford

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter

Harvest - Jim Crace

Home - Toni Morrison

Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie

Hope: A Tragedy - Shalom Auslander

How to be Good - Nick Hornby

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things - Jon McGregor

I'll Go to Bed at Noon - Gerard Woodward

Late in the Day - Tessa Hadley

Legend of a Suicide - David Vann

Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

Midwinter Break - Bernard MacLaverty (see my review)

Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones

Mothering Sunday - Graham Swift

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

Notes on a Scandal - Zoë Heller

NW - Zadie Smith

Old Filth - Jane Gardam

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

Small Island - Andrea Levy

Spies - Michael Frayn

Star of the Sea - Joseph O'Connor

Stay with Me - Ayobami Adebayo

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

The Book of the Heathen - Robert Edric

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Was - Junot Diaz

The Constant Gardener - John Le Carré

The Corrections - Johnathan Franzen

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

The Forgiven - Lawrence Osborne

The Green Road - Ann Enright

The Interestings - Meg Wolitzer

The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst

The Little Red Chairs - Edna O'Brien

The Noise of Time - Julian Barnes

The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

The Road - Cormac McCarthy (see my review)

The Secret River - Kate Grenville

The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry

The Siege - Helen Dunmore

The Son - Philipp Myer

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead

The We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

The Year of Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers

The Zone of Interest - Martin Amis

Train Dreams - Denis Johnson

True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

West - Carys Davies

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

You Don't Have to Live Like This - Benjamin Markovits

Novels in Translation

All for Nothing - Walter Kempowski

Alone in Berlin - Hans Fallada

Austerlitz - W.G Sebald

Flights - Olga Tokarczuk

Frog - Mo Yan

Limonov - Emmanuel Carrère

Lullaby - Leila Slimani

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante

Submission - Michel Houellebecq

Suite Francaise - Irène Némirovsky

The Explosion Chronicles - Yan Lianke

The Great Swindle - Pierre Lemaitre

The Unseen - Roy Jacobsen

The Yacoubian Building - Alaa Al Aswany

War & Turpentine - Stefan Hertmans

Your Face Tomorrow Trilogy - Javier Marias



Did I Love those 21st Century Novels that I have read? Pretty much yes. I certainly loved, and remember loving English Passengers, Burial Rites, We Need to Talk About Kevin, True History of the Kelly Gang, The Road, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (and I saw the totally amazing stage adaptation in Sydney last year).  I had forgotten that I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. And I really, really hated The Life of Pi. Well I loved it until the end, and then I think I literally threw it across the room. 

15 isn't a bad effort for me, but I've shamefully not read any of the works in translation. Several of them are of course waiting for me on my shelves. So much more work to do...

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

A bad birdwatcher's companion

I listened to this very delightful audiobook recently after I saw Aimée Anders talking about it on her lovely book tube channel. Aimée is Dutch, and we often have quite similar interests including bird books. I was soon seeking this book out on Audible. I'm so glad I did. 

Simon Barnes is nothing like a bad birdwatcher to my mind, despite his best efforts to deny it. 

A bad birdwatcher is me, a bad birdwatcher is you. A bad birdwatcher is anyone who looks at birds and feels a lift of the heart - but doesn't have to do anything about it. If you don't take accurate field notes; if you don't keep a bird diary; if you are a mite hazy on the differences between a first winter lesser black-backed gull and a second winter herring gull; if you don't know what a rachis is, still less a supercilium; if you don't own a telescope and above all if you don't keep lists then you are a bad birdwatcher. 
I certainly feel that lift of the heart, and I certainly am a bad birdwatcher- by anyone's definition, not just Simon Barnes'. My name is Louise and I am a bad birdwatcher. I didn't know what a rachis was, or even how to spell it- I had to go to Amazon and Look Inside a text copy of this book to work out how I might even try to spell it. I did know that supercilia had something to do with eye brows. 
We are drawn to birds because above all else they can fly. 
The subheading .... or a personal introduction to Britain's 50 most obvious birds, gives a more obvious clue to the actual content of the book beyond the foreword. Simon Barnes gives us a bird a chapter for 50 chapters, helpfully divided in to section as to where you might find them - Garden, City, Sky, Seaside etc. The final section is Pilgrimage Birds, those birds that are worth travelling to the "cathedrals of wild Britain" to see - avocets, Bewick's swan and bittern amongst them. Each chapter begins with a little handy guide to help bad birdwatchers see each bird. 

Where to look: gardens, spade handles, Christmas cards
When to look: all year
What to look for: red breast
What to listen for: thin, pretty song

Then because of the magic of audio were are treated to a snippet of their bird song. This quite often alarmed my dog if I was listening to it at home. I was most excited to hear the whoom, whoom of the booming bittern. I so need to hear that for myself. Australasian bitterns boom too, but it's a bit different.

Even though this an English book about English birds, I was actually familiar with a goodly number of them at the start. Many of these very common English birds - blackbirds, sparrows, pigeons and starlings etc - were introduced into Australia, brought by English settlers in the nineteenth century to bring a piece of home with them. That goldfinches were popular cage birds in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is most certainly why I have been able to watch them out of my kitchen window in Australia. 

Simon Barnes is a skilled journalist and author and a wonderful English sense of humour flows through the whole book. 

Where to look: any bit of water, once seen in trios over mantlepieces, now almost extinct in this environment
When to look: all year
What to look for: green head, orange feet
What to listen for: quack, quack

That's not to say that there are not some serious discussions, on the distressing nature of nature, and human activities. I realised a number of years ago that pretty much every living creature gets eaten by some other living creature. It can be rather visible with birds. 

I have received many a heartrending letter from nice people who put out food for the birds and then feel guilty when a sparrow hawk bursts in and takes a blue tit just as he's tucking in to the peanuts. I sympathise with the distress, but blue tits eat caterpillars which is not all that pleasant for the caterpillars. It's not nice, no, but then as I've said before the fact is that nature is not nice. Beautiful, thrilling, challenging, enthralling and altogether wonderful yes, but nice no. 
Sparrow hawks eat nice birds just as lions eat nice antelopes. Both sights can be distressing I know, I've seen both in extraordinary detail. It is all the sadder when the sparrow hawk fails to kill the bird with his first attack, as is quite often the case. His victim must then die a piteous and protracted death during the plucking and the eating. Still, that is the way that life works and anyway the blue tit whatever else you can say has certainly lead a better life than a battery chicken. Humans are much crueler than sparrow hawks. 
The chapter on pheasants is particularly fascinating in this regard.  
Pheasants are ground birds by inclination, they run well and forage on the grounds for seeds and insects, they're not fussy feeders and they'll take a wide range of food. That makes them relatively easy to keep and means that the wild and semi-wild birds don't find it hard to survive.... They might have evolved to please a man with a shot gun. They get up to fly with great reluctance and when they do they keep low because they have heavy bodies and do not have huge stamina. Thus a flushed pheasant becomes an instant target for what some people refer to as sport. Personally, I can't see the pleasure in blasting fat, half-tame birds to bits, especially when they're incompetent flyers.
Pheasants are of course an introduced species in the UK, introduced before the Normans, and the preference of pheasants for sheltering in copses and small woods has meant that these areas have been left to break up the farmland of rural England, helping preserve biodiversity. 
.... without the blood lust for the lovely ungainly pheasant we would have a greatly impoverished countryside. 
I had no idea that pheasants were reared artificially and released to the wild for this sport. "Pheasants are perpetually doomed birds, and they have given the countryside life."
I also had no idea that there are (incorrect) theories that magpies are responsible for the decline of song bird populations in the UK. Hint- "it's mostly to do with changes in farming practice".

Nature does not exist in order to seek the moral approval of humankind. It is about surviving, breeding, and the ultimate goal of becoming an ancestor. 
Or that the Great Crested Grebe was known as Arsefoot in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because of the relative placement of their feet to their um, arse. 

Picture source

Simon Barnes is endlessly encouraging for us bad birdwatchers to get out there and look at birds, and I greatly enjoyed his enthusiastic narration.

A growing interest in birds is rather like looking for stars at dusk on a frosty night. The more you look, the more you see.... The birds were always there, but when you become a bad birdwatcher the world is made new again.
Learn to listen and there will be so many more birds in your life. 

Peregrines are perhaps the ultimate pilgrimage bird, and they are an inspiration. An inspiration to carry on, to see more birds, to enjoy birds more, to enjoy life more.
To write this post I got what I thought was the physical book of this audiobook from my library, but it turns out it was an earlier, related Simon Barnes book - How to be a bad birdwatcher. I will of course need to read that now too. I am becoming more and more convinced that actually finishing a book does nothing whatsoever as to actually decreasing the reading you have ahead of you, instead it actually increases the number of books you want to read. 

I expect that I'll listen to A bad birdwatcher's companion again, hopefully before a trip to the UK sometime soon.