Friday, June 24, 2022

Mini Reviews

Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico

This was a quick weekend read in cold weather to indulge myself when I handed up all my assignments and started mid-semester break. My review of Coronation interested a few friends, so I was happy to start another Gallico book. 

I have empathy for Mrs Ada Harris, who should surely pronounce her own name 'Ida' since she says such things as, 'I syved some money to get me passport photo tyken.' Mrs Harris is a 'British char' and I've been an Aussie cleaning lady. She regards her profession as a creative effort in which she takes pride, which is possibly the best way to take domestic cleaning over the long term. (I only did it for a few years. You do get used to it, but it's notorious for repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and lower back trouble.)

Anyway, Mrs Harris spots two Christian Dior dresses in the wardrobe of a client and considers them breathtaking and heavenly. They totally slake her thirst for beauty and colour, so she sets a new lifetime goal on the spot. It isn't to stop putting her body under strain cleaning for other people, for Mrs Harris is a realist. It's to own a Dior dress of her own, for she's also a romanticist. Mrs Harris knows there will never be an event to which she can wear it, but the thrilling idea of storing such exquisite perfection in her own wardrobe drives her to scrimp and save until she can afford this sublime but essentially useless item. 

Next she heads across to Paris to choose her dress, where she's totally out of her depth in powerful circles of elegance. Yet this plucky heroine refuses to feel belittled by snobbery and spurs herself on with the reminder, 'Your money is as good an anyone else's.' Her arrival impacts several other people she brushes shoulders with, including Madame Colbert, the manager, who realises that her job with VIPs has blinded her to the reality of wider human needs. There is also Natasha, the most celebrated model and toast of Paris, who knows full well that she's being objectified and treated as a pretty prop to boost other people's public images. Natasha longs to quit her illustrious job and be absorbed back into bourgeois anonymity, but considers the price too high to pay, until honest little Mrs Harris walks through the door.

It's a lovely story all about the high price of being 'somebody' and the inherent dignity of being a 'nobody' and also encourages us to discover our own piece of beauty to boost our spirits in this world of toil. I find reading Paul Gallico's books is a bit like indulging in a super-sweet dessert though. Reading them back to back would be overpowering, but they're great for a quick indulgence here and there. 

And talk about the 1950s vibe! This decade was over long before I was born, yet I can almost smell the Brylcreem, not to mention the heady scent of big money. 


Devotion by Hannah Kent

I adored this book because the characters' story is taken straight from my ancestral background on my mother's side. They are devout German and Prussian Lutherans who make the huge sacrifice of migrating to South Australia on a grueling six-month journey by sea, for the freedom of worshiping God in their own way. And they end up in the lush and fertile Adelaide Hills where they build the township of Hahndorf (which is re-named Heiligendorf in this novel, but we all know where it stands for). 

The tale starts back in the Prussian village of Kay, and focuses on two teenage girls who form an extremely close and loving bond. Hanne Nussbaum, who narrates the story, is a gauche and awkward girl who suspects she'll never live up to the expectations of her austere father and tight-lipped, stoic (but ravishingly beautiful) mother. Her new friend, Thea Auchenwald, is the daughter of a pair of broader-minded newcomers who linger on the outer circle of village life. Indeed, Thea's mother, Anna-Maria, is rumoured to be a bit witchy because of her herbal remedies, although desperate people don't mind calling on her for medical emergencies. 

During the debilitating sea passage on board the Kristi, something drastic happens to Hanne that allows her true sprightly and whimsical nature to have free rein. (Major plot spoilers seal my lips.) Suffice to say it changes her whole way of relating to her parents, her good-looking and cheeky twin brother, Matthias, and her fractious baby sister, Hermine. Not to mention Thea, who she comes to realise she loves with all her heart.

Hannah Kent is renowned for her impeccable research, and this is authentic and polished. Perhaps Hanne and Matthias may come across with the mindsets of twenty-first century youths, the way they surreptitiously smirk at their father's radical piety behind his back. If so, I feel Kent couldn't write it any other way. I love those flashes of modern solidarity from the twins. If they shared their father's same soberness and severity, as may well have been the case in real life, it wouldn't be the same book at all. I think historical novels must have their share of up-to-date attitudes to make them palatable.   

There is plenty of wonderful lyrical tribute to their new environment, full as it is with strange, mobile and noisy new flora and fauna. Hanne also contrasts the colour, light and perfume favorably against the dense, dark, forest environment they came from, lovely as it was. Since their story and the setting is my very own (for I lived a five minute drive from Hahndorf for many years) I wonder if I'm biased to appreciate this book as much as I do. It certainly makes me cherish my local environment and spare a thought for the brave and desperate settlers whose blood runs through my veins. 

I can't even give genre heads-ups for other readers, since that in itself may be spoilerish. All I can say is read it, and tell me what you think. It's historical fiction, and that's all we need to know at the start. 

The theme of the novel may be said to be spoken by Thea. 'Owe no-one anything, only love one another, for she who loveth hath fulfilled the covenant.' 


Friday, June 17, 2022

'The Railway Children' by E. Nesbit

In this much-loved children's classic first published in 1906, the comfortable lives of three well-mannered siblings are greatly altered when, one evening, two men arrive at the house and take their father away. With the family's fortunes considerably reduced in his absence, the children and their mother are forced to live in a simple country cottage near a railway station. There the young trio—Roberta, Peter, and young Phyllis—befriend the porter and station master.

The youngsters' days are filled with adventure and excitement, including their successful attempt to avert a horrible train disaster; but the mysterious disappearance of their father continues to haunt them.

The solution to that painful puzzle and many other details and events of the children's lives come to vivid life in this perennial favorite, a story that has captivated generations of readers.


This was published in 1906, so belongs to the charming kid lit of the short Edwardian era. Three young siblings live a comfy life with their parents in a London townhouse until their father, a government worker, is roughly hauled out of the house one night. The reader gets enough hints early on to surmise that he's been unjustly imprisoned, although this fact is concealed from Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis for a very long time. 

Their mother is forced to remove the family to Three Chimneys, a rough country dwelling, and drastically cuts costs while she tries to support them by writing stories. She's one of those beloved, hero-mums with the weight of the world on her shoulders, and the poems she writes for family and friends during her more leisurely moments are a great embellishment of the book.

Rather than growing miserable because of their new spartan lifestyle, the three kids channel their energy into getting familiar with the local railway and canal systems. The railway is their favourite, because it's the first interest they discover, plus the people who work and commute along it are the most friendly. There were several railway workers back in my own family line, so I really appreciate that. 

On several occasions, at least three of huge significance, the trio happens to be on hand at crucial moments to prevent serious accidents. Yes, it's very convenient plot wise, but also most entertaining to read. Other themes include being bold enough to ask for what they need, since others can't be expected to guess. Their mother and other adults are often horrified when boundaries of pride and privacy are accidentally crossed, but Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis definitely get things done, making us question whether those boundaries should even be there. 

Bobbie, or Roberta, the eldest sister, is a stand-out character to me. For those of us familiar with 21st century terms, it's clear she's an empath, our modern label for a person with a sixth sense when it comes to perceiving the mental or emotional turmoil of others. This is quite fascinating, because Nesbit would never have heard of such a term, writing as far back as 1906, but Bobbie clearly has all the typical traits, including internalising others' emotions, willingness to help out, love of nature, and a certain delicacy of holding back her intuitive knowledge when she thinks it's most tactful. 

The book explains her character as one of 'silent sympathy, which is not as dull as it sounds and not always easy.' In other words, Bobbie won't reveal to people that she's even aware of their suffering, but just makes an extra effort to be nice and lighten the load. It's a rare and excellent talent to have but since it's so internalised it tends to go unnoticed, with no accolades. Because of this, Bobbie never comes across as a goody-two-shoes who's performing to earn brownie points, but rather as the treasure that she is. 

Besides, she gets into too many heated arguments with her brother and sister to be a goody-two-shoes.

Phyllis, or Phil, is just the sort of feisty youngest sister who stands up for herself that I like. And Peter is a great lad, hanging out with his sisters because his options are so limited, while the restless machismo and testosterone drive him to get a bit dissatisfied and impatient. In one cringe-worthy scene, Dr Forrest gives him a totally old-fashioned, condescending and utterly sexist lecture. 'You know, men have to do the work of the world and not be afraid of anything, so they have to be hardy and brave. But women have to take care of their babies and cuddle them and nurse them, and be very patient and gentle... Girls have to be so much softer and weaker than we are, because if they weren't, it wouldn't be nice for the babies.' 

I had to laugh when Peter paraphrases later to Bobbie and Phyllis,' Dr Forrest has been talking scientifically with me. It all comes to you girls being poor, soft, weak frightened things like rabbits, so us men have just got to put up with them.' Haha, we've come a long way. 

Overall, it's a heartwarming blast from the past about kindness, simple pleasures, straightforward honesty and things ending well simply because a few people dare to show a bit of initiative. And I'm sure I won't forget Bobbie's delayed reaction in the wake of a sudden landslide on the tracks.  


Friday, June 10, 2022

Trixie Belden series 19 - 21

19) The Secret of the Unseen Treasure

The Bob Whites stumble upon an arsonist preparing to set fire to the flower farm of long term family friend, Ethel Elliot. After some snooping, Trixie is convinced that somebody has been trying to sabotage this harmless widow's business. The question is, who wants her out of the way, and why? As well as trying to discover the answers, the Bob Whites aim to help this struggling pensioner make ends meet. 

* Ethel Elliot was Mrs Belden's babysitter when Helen was a little girl. Ethel married a horticulturalist named Sam who had a teenage son named Max. Now Sam is long dead and Max has grown up.

* Charles (or Charley) Hartman is a retired cop and ex-judo instructor who still has a very sharp edge. With such a combination, he's not a guy to mess around with. I admire his patience and respect for Trixie's work. Other elderly chaps in his position may well be too ageist and too sexist to take her seriously. Go, Charles!

* The cover of my oval edition is a little misleading. It gives the impression that the 'unseen treasure' of the title may lie deep at the bottom of a sea or lake. In actual fact, the Bob Whites' discovery in the Wheelers' lake is a total accident and red herring. It's a very cool and unexpected scene though, so not a bad choice for the cover. Because of the main setting and subject matter though, I might have preferred a riot of colorful cottage flowers. 

* Jim and Brian shoot off for two weeks to work at a boys' camp. Apparently they both shine like the models of young manhood they are. Jim performs a heroic rescue and then Brian delivers some crucial first aid. This is all totally off scene for a chunk of the book, just in case we forget how awesome they both are. They are still in the story though.

* Hmm, I reckon Peter Belden is a bit too chatty with his family regarding privileged information from the bank. Sure, he tells his wife and kids, 'What I say has to stay at this table and go no further,' but it happens more than once. I hope he doesn't start making a habit of these information leaks. At least he just does it in front of Trixie and Mart, and not chatty Bobby. 

* Kathryn Kenny does a brilliant job of describing a dodgy florist shop. There's just something about Manton's that's on the nose. 

* Hey, how about the outcome of the flower photograph contest? Did Mart's photo end up winning the grand prize for Mrs Elliot? Sure, it doesn't really matter anymore, yet it's still a thread that peters out and would have been nice to know. (By the way, this boy turns out to have another talent, along with music, general knowledge, research skills, furniture restoration, agricultural know-how and a super-dooper vocabulary. It turns out he can take terrific photos too.)

* Whoa, a hidden cannabis crop is a controversial discovery. Not to mention awkward when Dan, who wasn't along for the find, assumes the others have all been smoking pot! I mean, what the...? How well does he know his fellow Bob Whites? (Just in case you're wondering, this isn't the 'unseen treasure' of the title either, haha.)

* Dan is a bit sus and touchy in general in this book, because he's spotted Al Finlay, a gang leader he once knew, hanging around Sleepyside. After what happened to Dan in The Uninvited Guest when his old gang members turned up, I guess we can't blame him for being a bit paranoid. His past never seems to stop haunting him.

* I appreciate Trixie and Honey's innocence in being unable to identify the strange leaves. Even Brian, the future doctor who was credited with so much botanical knowledge in The Marshland Mystery isn't sure. Once again it takes Mart, the budding agriculturalist and general trivia buff, to figure out what the girls have stuffed in their pockets. And he ain't impressed.

* I'm not sure I'm a big fan of allowing Mrs Elliot to remain oblivious about the shenanigans going on under her own roof, and on her own property over the years. In her position I'd want to know. It might help her appreciate the true character of her stepson too. 

* But her assessment of him is still good enough to be the quote of the book. 'Max has too much of the city in him. With growing things you have to wait, to be patient.' That's a good life lesson for all of us, and no doubt includes kids, ambitions and dreams.

20) The Mystery off Old Telegraph Road

Trixie discovers that Art students at Sleepyside High are really badly funded, so she and the Bob Whites decide to host a bikeathon to raise money for art supplies. Serious opposition stuns them, especially from talented artist Nick Roberts, one of the very people they're trying to help. Why would he object? Who is behind the anonymous threats for them to stop their plans or else? And what's with the counterfeit German bank note Trixie finds blowing in the breeze? It all comes to a head when the Bob Whites are forced to consider whether persevering with their plan will jeopardize anyone's safety.   

* The notorious Ben Riker is back, staying with his aunt and uncle Maddie and Matt Wheeler. This 'poor little rich kid' was in with a bad crowd at boarding school, and his parents hope his cousins and their friends will rub off on him. Instead, he's fallen in with a new bad group at Sleepyside. Trixie finds him annoying as hell because he's monopolising Honey and Jim. She sure doesn't want to make Ben one of her personal help projects. He's where she draws the line. 

* Just for the record, Ben's uncouth friends are Mike Larson, Jerry Vanderhoef and Bill Wright. We'll know them if they pop up in the halls of Sleepyside High again. 

* Hmm, nothing much has really changed in the decades since this book was written. So often it seems to be the arts that miss out on support or funding. Sports get far more financial backing. That speaks volumes about people's general priorities, then and now. 

* Okay, times have changed dramatically in other ways though. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be considered ethical in our day and age, for an art student like Nick Roberts to sketch other people's houses and then sell them to the general public at his stall. Yet  in the seventies when this story was written, privacy and permission weren't such hot topics. Trixie and Honey are simply glad to come across his drawings of Crabapple Farm and Manor House before anyone else snaps them up. Come to think of it, does it strike you as slightly creepy to think of anyone else buying them?

* 'Kathryn Kenny' is as interesting and comprehensive as ever, when it comes to educating us readers more about the themes of the book. Nick Roberts gives the girls a good tutorial about pen and ink drawings, and later Mr Crider, the art teacher, does the same regarding silk screen printing. (It's Laura French's first look-in, I believe, who later became quite prolific in the series.)  

* Helen Belden, the one and only Moms, was in a similar position to these struggling Art students. It seems she was an Art major before she married Peter, but her life took a different turn when she had babies and could no longer afford art supplies. A lovely landscape on the wall of Crabapple Farm is her link to the past, painted back in the day. She never shows any signs of regretting the loss of that side of her life. I suppose she hasn't had time for much introspection.

* Ouch, one of Trixie's famous temper flashes puts her briefly into the bad books of her bestie Honey! And Honey goes so far as accusing Trixie of seeking attention! Yep, the same Honey who snaps at anyone else (especially Mart) who ever dares to suggest such a thing. Just for the record, it's clear that Honey was pushed just a bit too far, and was quite justified. Both girls deal well with their difference of opinion, without letting it fester too long.    

* Awww, I love it when Trixie and Mart have an honest heart-to-heart about Trixie's rift with Honey. In fact, Trixie shows up well in this book. I like her best when she's vulnerable and ponders her possible flaws and overbearing approach. 

* Trixie, in her effervescence, simply assumes that others will share her enthusiasm for the bikeathon project and agree to be 'in'. Lucky for her Mrs Vanderpoel and Mr Maypenny are both good sports when she 'volunteers' them for hospitality and food. But Nick Roberts makes it clear that she can't presume too much as far as he's concerned. 

* We get a hilarious Bobby moment, when he locks himself inside the house, then launches into full-on panic mode. Neither his mother's fruitless attempts to soothe him, nor Mart's wordy instructions to solve the problem do the slightest bit of good. It takes the future Dr Brian Belden to cut the Gordian knot. He knows the only solution is to forcibly break the door chain. And the dramatic Bobby thanks him for saving his life!  

* Whoa, Nick's a bit reckless toward the end, for a standoffish, deep thinking art student. But perhaps he was simply pushed too far. 

* Wow, good old Jimbo gets the chance to utilise some impressive strongman tactics again. What a guy! But our Jim is more than just an impressive bicep and six pack. He has a great heart too.  

* Both Ben Riker and Nick Roberts come across as angry young men throughout this book, and both eventually confess that they find the Bob Whites cliquey and feel excluded. What a flashback to Tad Webster in The Mysterious Code. On one hand, those inclusive Bob Whites haven't learned their lesson. But it's interesting because on the surface they're just a small group of out-of-town kids who bond because they feel geographically removed from other Sleepyside High students.  And they're sort of geeky, in their matching red jackets. Yet jocks like Tad and Ben and art nerds like Nick alike seem to feel and envy their mystique. 

* Overall, I wish I could have been at that bikeathon, peddling up Glen Road and through the Wheelers' game preserve, sampling Mrs Vanderpoel's famous cookies and Mr Maypenny's legendary stew. Oh well, bring on more stories instead.  

* Quote of the book. Trixie: I have a bad habit of assuming that other people know all the details of things I'm involved in, just because I spend all my time thinking about them. Mr Crider: That's a fairly common habit with us human beings, Trixie. 

21) The Mystery of the Castaway Children

The Beldens discover a tiny baby, apparently abandoned in Reddy's doghouse. It's a ready-made challenge to trace his family. Since he bears several bruises and scrapes, they must tread with caution rather than reunite him instantly with whoever caused them. Once the baby's identity unfolds, it appears his older brother is still missing and kidnappers are involved. It'll take some delicate probing to return both little boys safely to their parents, but can impulsive Trixie restrain herself? 

* I love the start of this book, with the six Beldens doing their best to cool down on a sultry summer night, culminating in that refreshing thunder storm and shock discovery in Reddy's doghouse. (I'd call it a kennel, but the story consistently says 'doghouse.' International differences.)

* Reddy is a hero. Not all dogs would simply stand back being hospitable, when an interloper has been placed in their domain. 

* It's a dramatic moment when Mart and Trixie discover the baby's bruises and wonder whether he's been battered by someone intentionally. But technically, these two aren't the first to reveal baby Dodgy's tiny torso. Their mother gives him his first bath the previous evening, and surely would have noticed the bruises then.  

* Once again, Brian and Mart have a ginormous responsibility of the running of the farm placed on their young shoulders. As their father heads off to his air-conditioned bank in the heatwave, he casually commands them to irrigate the raspberries. What a long, hot, sweaty and tedious job for two High School lads. They never once complain though. I tend to think Peter and Helen may be in for a rude awakening when their sons leave home. 

* Diana relishes the chance to help care for a three-month-old bub, and is a natural when it comes to hands-on care. Trixie tends to get a bit impatient and snappy with Di, as we've seen before.

* This story serves as a warning that little kids may have under-developed senses of humor, as poor David Dodge finds out. The conversation which young Davy takes at face value is astounding, but not at all implausible for someone his age. We must learn David's lesson and love our young relatives but never assume that they always cotton on to our jokes, haha. 

* We meet Ella Kline again; the wheelchair bound girls who does some sewing for a living and boards at the Glen Road Inn. She's the godsend who helped with Juliana's wedding clothes back in The Uninvited Guest. 

* When the Bob Whites come across Nancy the goat and her teenage owner, Brian confesses he's unable to milk a goat, even though he lives on a farm. Yet he and Mart both milked those Ozark cows in The Mystery at Bob White Cave with no hassles. Come on Brian, how different do you think it could be?

* Elmer Durham the wealthy, sorta-smarmy auctioneer, had teeth so perfect they were bound to be dentures, we're told. Haha, those days are over. Some elderly family members inform me that dentures are now made with intentional flaws to appear natural. 

* This novel is a bit of a tear jerker. I remember sobbing over the big family reunion near the end of the book in my teens. In fact baby Dodgy is a very sweet character, bringing the best out of all the Beldens and their friends. Peter and Helen could so have another one! (I'm pretty sure they'd say I have to be joking.)

* This was written in the 1970s, long before backward facing car capsules for babies were invented. 

* It's incredible that a boy Davy's age could escape attention for so long out on his own with his baby brother. You'd hope that in a similar scenario these days, that work crew would have intervened.  

* The way I see it, Trixie causes as much trouble as she solves. She, Honey and Jim make a rash visit to certain people against Sergeant Molinson's advice. Sure enough, she causes crooks to follow her. It's like stirring up a hornet's nest with a stick. Not only does she endanger the lives of her own loved-ones, but those of the small Dodge brothers too. Then Molinson shakes her hand in the aftermath. Does he not understand what just happened? If ever there was a time to rebuke her it's now. Perhaps he will when he has time to reflect.   

* For quote of the book, I've chosen a line from the narration, instead of a speech from a character. 'Sharing the work was the price each Belden paid for living a quiet, uncluttered life.' (And as I mention above, the two elder boys seem to shoulder a particularly hefty share.) 


Thursday, June 2, 2022

'Coronation' by Paul Gallico


 This was a strong recommendation from a friend who came into the secondhand book shed where I volunteered for a while. She pulled this one off the shelf and told me it's brilliant. Well, serendipitous recommendations are too few and far between for me to miss a single one. I agree it was a highly enjoyable story and I decided to time this review with the queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations, which begin this week. Now, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who got a bit confused by dates, since the queen was crowned in 1952 but her coronation didn't take place until 1953. A quick bit of research reveals her coronation was delayed for a year, as a mark of respect for her father, King George VI, who had passed away so recently.

Anyway, that big day in London is what this book is all about. It's June 2nd, 1953, and the Clagg family are off to the city to join the celebrations as the new young queen is crowned. Will Clagg, the dad, is a blue-collar steel worker who is delighted to have secured five tickets for a prime viewing spot along the procession route, that includes wonderful refreshments. Their day out will have to take the place of their annual fortnight holiday to the sea, but it's a big sacrifice they all agree on. 

Young Johnny is an imaginative boy who loves to mentally cast himself in a hero's role. He most looks forward to seeing all the fancy royal soldiers and cavalry. His little sister Gwendoline is obsessed with young Queen Elizabeth II because she seems like a fairy tale character in flesh and blood. And Prince Philip is so gallant and handsome. (I remember having similar feelings about Diana is the early eighties when I was quite young.) Granny Bonner, the critical, snappish mother-in-law, can't resist the thought of being present for a significant historical moment. And Violet, the careworn young wife, is just hanging out to try a sip of champagne. 

Well, it turns out crooks and frauds were as busy in 1953 as they've always been. The Claggs' tickets turn out to be absolutely worthless. But what strikes them as a disaster turns out to bring brilliant consolation for each family member as the day unfolds. I can't improve on how the dust jacket blurb puts it. 'Each learned how to relinquish his or her own ends and desires. Yet one and all returned home laden with gifts and riches far beyond their expectations which would remain with them for the rest of their lives.' In short, it turns out not to be a complete waste of a day. 

This story is a convicting example of how poor people may possess a short cut to happiness and contentment which rich people forfeit, because their standards of what should tick our boxes are set incredibly high. The Claggs may be no-names, but without saying so outright, Paul Gallico gives the impression that in the long run, they may well clock up many more moments of contentment and satisfaction throughout their lives than VIPs who are regarded as far more important. Especially if they keep on with the same resilient attitudes.

It's one of those novels that takes place within one single day. Whoa, the overwhelming noise and bustle of that big day in London comes through the pages loud and clear. Through the medium of TV beginning in 1981, I've watched four royal weddings and Prince Philip's funeral. And now, through the medium of this little novel, I feel I've also been at the queen's coronation, although I didn't really catch a glimpse of Liz or Phil in person. And when the Claggs finally get home, I felt my ears were ringing with the sudden silence. I think this might be a nostalgic read for anyone who really was around at the time.  

I'm glad the Claggs were satisfied with how things played out, although I'm not convinced I would have been in their place. Maybe I still have a bit to be desired in the art of letting things roll. 



Friday, May 27, 2022

A Patron Saint for Fans


We’d arranged to help my mother do her shopping, but leaving the house is no simple matter for my family. My older son had to submit his AFL footy tips which takes deep reflection. My daughter insisted on watching the most recent episode of Stranger Things to avoid accidental spoilers on social media. My younger son loitered over a repeat episode of Master Chef to laugh at the contestants’ cooking techniques under pressure. But time is of the essence, since they’d also arranged to meet friends at the cinema later that afternoon for the latest Marvel movie.

As for me, I’m an avid reader and classic novel buff. I wanted to check in with a cool Facebook group who are discussing Anne of Green Gables to see if any new provocative questions had been posted. I had my own swirling impressions about Moby Dick to anchor onto paper. And I badly wanted to jot down ideas for a fan fiction spin-off to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities which I’ll surely write someday.

A niggling inner voice sometimes asks me if I’ve been a bad influence on my kids. Perhaps these activities should be postponed because they aren’t important but simply self-indulgent.

Do you enjoy an immersive soak in a good story too? Or watching movies, listening to podcasts, or buying tickets to live concerts? Do you save up for your favourite sports team’s merchandise? Perhaps the pleasure of adding a new favourite character to your list of literary crushes makes your day. My daughter collects hundreds of vinyl figurines she loves from books and screen. Their beady eyes seem to follow you whenever you step into her room. At one stage, hearing the name ‘Harry Potter’ could make my ears twitch across a crowded auditorium.

 Maybe you’re just dying to know who’ll get married by the end of your novel, or who the villain turns out to be. And you've covered the backs and fronts of several scraps of paper with scribble, so you won’t forget plot details. Hey, maybe you’ll even figure out the mystery before Poirot.

‘But what’s the point of all this?’ a motivated medical missionary friend once asked me.

A tight, knotty feeling constricted my throat. It always happens when I panic. ‘Because it’s fun’ didn’t seem to cut it, so I didn’t say it. I’m not smart enough to add anything great to the world of science, engineering, politics or education. I don’t do anything important. The glint in her eye signified that she saw through me. I can't pinpoint a single soul who benefits from my love of reading and daydreaming. After all, it's not practical like the healing, helpful work she’s involved in. I’m merely a super passionate fan, but so what? Benefiting from someone else’s creative work isn't a skill, but a luxury.

I mumbled something about this sort of thing being mostly for downtime and escaped before she could ask, ‘Downtime from what?’ The brief exchange lingered like smog in my mind. Am I the ultimate parasite, wasting my life, by taking in without the means of giving much out? I wanted to dodge the next logical guilt trip of a question, but it wormed its accusative path into my conscience. Am I pulling my weight on this planet?

I tell you, I’m no fan of curly existential questions. Instead I’ve become a great fan of another person, who was also a wholehearted fan herself.

Let me take you back over two thousand years ago, to a fangirl who knelt in the desert sunset by the feet of a great visiting storyteller, captivated by every word he spoke. But her frazzled older sister poked her perspiring face out of the kitchen and pointedly cleared her throat.

‘Ahem, excuse me but has anyone noticed I’m doing all the work around here?’

Their guest’s raised eyebrows invited her to elaborate.

‘What I mean to say is this. I’ve been cooking, scrubbing and pot stirring, while Mary here has been sitting around doing nothing. Don’t you think she should give me a hand?’

The fangirl’s cheeks flamed. She was used to hearing her sister scold her to do something ‘useful,’ but never dreamed she’d draw their houseguest into their tense family dynamics. Whoa, I’ll be in for it later.

The great sage simply smiled. 'Martha, you're stressed out with many things on your plate, but if Mary has chosen the best one of all, who am I to deprive her? She isn’t doing nothing. I’ve nearly finished telling this story. Won’t those falafels keep for a moment? Why not stay and hear the end?'

The fangirl realised she was gaping, and snapped her mouth shut. Wow, what did he just say? Did he mean that being a fangirl was an acceptable use of her time after all?

We never find out just what was interrupted. What was he talking about to captivate her so? Was it one of his signature stories or something entirely new? Was it worth risking a tongue lashing for? Since Mary was so spellbound, wouldn’t you love the inside scoop?

But we never find out, because it's not the point. The spotlight is taken off the famous storyteller and shone on his listener. Her attitude strikes him as totally praiseworthy, to the point where he calls it a perfect use of her time. And she never appears to go away and do anything mind-blowing with whatever she takes on board. There's no 'Book of Mary' in the Bible where this story takes place. Her receptive, passionate heart was enough. She prioritised time for fun and fascination. Maybe when a receptive, passionate heart is the best we have to offer, it's enough from us too.

'Yeah, well somebody has to cook the meal and wash the dishes,' my busy, practical friend points out.

Well, duh, of course it’s self-evident that hard, tangible work is a huge benefit. Sometimes people in Martha's shoes are quite right to speak up. But hard workers often get the pats on the back they deserve, because the results of their industry are clear. This incident makes another point. Could it be that those of us who simply relish fandom may deserve kudos too?

What if our happy, preoccupied grins as we curl up with our books, switch on our screens or poke in our earbuds are lighthouse beacons, signalling others not to drift far from what brings them joy. It’s incredibly easy to get caught in riptides of duty and purpose. Maybe the danger is that this drift from pleasure doesn’t necessarily feel alarming. Just normal. Perhaps our passionate activities do have a point. Ours is the delightful duty of reminding others that it is vital to put aside time for whatever makes our hearts sing.

Once, my daughter and I stepped into a shop while she was wearing her Games of Thrones T-shirt. An employee stacking shelves nearby beamed broadly and called out, ‘Hey, do you think Jon Snow is really dead?’

A refreshing chat followed, which turned out to be one of the highlights of my daughter’s day. A shared fandom is a feast that makes friends out of strangers. Enthusiasts like my daughter, who are willing to wear their hearts on their T-shirts, can spread grace and joy wherever they go. And best of all, it’s freely bestowed, with no consideration for compensation or payback.

Another of my favourite role models, author Elizabeth Gilbert, says, ‘You may end only with the satisfaction of knowing you passed your existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness. That should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.’

So please read on, my fellow nerds! Watch the documentary, learn how that game works, tell us your favourite novel from any specific series and explain why. When I'm feeling a bit fruitless, I sometimes remember that ancient fangirl Mary, who was never officially dubbed the Patron Saint of Fans but arguably should have been.

The last time we saw a nephew of mine, he said, ‘I love it when I get to hang out with you guys, because you all rave on about fictional characters as if they’re real people.’ I choose to take that as a real compliment. For if that’s truly what he loves, then he’s come to the right place.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Trixie Belden Series 16 - 18

16 The Mystery of the Missing Heiress

Jim discovers he has a cousin named Juliana from Holland who has just inherited a prime strip of land in Sleepyside. The Bob Whites eagerly await meeting Juliana when she arrives in town to board with Mrs Vanderpoel, yet is she all they hope Jim's cousin will be? Meanwhile another young woman known as 'Janie' is involved in an accident and wakes up with total amnesia. Janie is invited to recuperate with the Beldens but it seems she's the target of ruthless crooks. Can Trixie and the others stop the criminals in their tracks and figure out Janie's identity?

* Yay, we have a story taking place entirely in Sleepyside at last! It's been far too long. I enjoy their visits to far-off destinations, yet we've just had five holidays back-to-back and I do miss Peter, Helen, Bobby, Regan and others who are closer to home. It's great to see Mrs Vanderpoel again too.

 * Sadly, Spider and Tad Webster are no longer living with Mrs Vanderpoel because Spider was offered a higher position in the White Plains police force. However, it seems they're both homesick, and Spider feels the new job isn't all it was cracked up to be. 

* The Bob Whites are overjoyed because Mr Wheeler gives them his second hand station wagon. Their rule of not taking what they haven't earned doesn't seem to come into play. Not so long ago, Trixie told Di they'd have to turn down a mere lamp her father offered them (pun intended). Now they have no qualms about accepting a whole car. 

* As a kid, this story gave me a fascination with amnesia and the mysterious workings of the human memory. Janie's thread shows that a lovely person is lovely to the bone, with or without her identity intact. 

*  Jim is in fine gentlemanly form in this book. His delight to have traced a living blood relative, when he'd assumed he was the last of all his family lines, is heart-warming. 

* Trixie points out that Jim's corrupt stepfather, Jonesy, hasn't been seen around Sleepyside for the past two years. Although I've given up keeping chronology, it's only meant to be one year, in the compressed timeline we're given. Two years makes far more sense, but then the authors would have to adjust the Bob Whites' ages, and they're loath to do that. It may be partly because they want to prevent Jim and Brian turning 18 and heading off to college for as long as possible. But hey, surely the duo could commute! They live close enough to New York City. I think more to the point, they've decided Trixie's identity is a 14-year-old! That's all there is to it. She must stay 14, to remain relatable to her target audience. (Honestly, I'm sure it got to the stage where her audience would cheer if she turned 15, but there we have it.) 

* Diana used to want to be an air stewardess, but now she's not sure what she wants to be, unless it's a mother. Honey sweetly agrees that they all want to be that, and refers to Mrs Belden as their perfect role model. It's a lovely conversation, although Helen's occupation really stretches beyond stay-at-home-mom. She's running a small farm or cottage industry, of course, with her chickens and garden produce. She also grows prize winning banksias, which surprised me since I'd assumed they were Aussie flowers.

* Trixie and Honey volunteer at the local hospital as 'candy stripers' which turns out to be young teenagers in candy striped uniforms who help with odd jobs, such as a bit of cleaning or amusing patients. 

* Mart develops a passion for playing music. He strums away on guitar and can also play quite reasonable keyboard. Janie teaches him several ballads that linger in her memory banks, and he's keen to learn. Music is a powerful tool because unsurprisingly, Janie has flashes of memory return while she's playing or humming along with Mart. 

Mrs Belden gets a bit flustered and talks too much around intimidating people like Juliana. I can so relate. 

* Reddy is permitted in the zoo!!! How times have changed. Friends, I don't recommend trying to take your dog on your next zoo visit.

* Ooh la la, there might be a romantic liaison between Mr Lytell and Miss Trask after all. At least Mart suggests this might be the case, and although Honey shoots him down, she doesn't deny it. (Part of the conversation goes like this. Honey: Of course they like one another and they have for a long time. What of it? Mart: Not a thing. If she doesn't mind how cranky he gets and thinks he looks like a Greek god, it's okay with me.)

* Dan's elderly horse Spartan can dance. It's an accidental discovery. I can't shake off the hilarious image of Dan trotting along on his rounds for Mr Maypenny, listening to his radio, when Spartan suddenly breaks into a waltz beneath him. And there's a good reason for it. Spartan used to be a circus performer in his more coltish years. These left of field happenings are partly what make the series so cool. 

* But how about the Turf Show? That thread sadly peters out, unless it's picked up in the next book. The kids were practising so hard for it. It was such a big deal to Regan, but apparently not as big a deal to Kathryn Kenny. 

* Blue Heron Marsh is to be demolished to make way for the International Pine furniture company. I feel my memory banks being stirred. I reckon this thread will be taken further down the track. Brian and the others mourn the loss of all the precious herbs that grow and bird life that hangs out there.   

* Trixie has her stomach turned on several suspicious occasions by the lingering scent of Jonesy's nauseating tobacco. For a smart and crafty crook, he's pretty careless about cleaning up his crime scenes. If he's going to be sloppy enough to leave pipes or whole tobacco tins behind, he deserves whatever he gets. Furthermore, it's surprising that Jim doesn't instantly identify that sickening scent on these mysterious occasions. It's Jonesy's signature odour after all, and Jim has lived with him for long enough.      

* One of the biggest mysteries of this tale may be why Jim's foreign aunt from Holland happened to own such a prime slab of real-estate in Sleepyside of all places. The Bob Whites never seem to even speculate about that.  

* Quote of the book goes to Trixie. 'Don't you wish the Bob Whites could go on and on as we are now, just the same age as we are now.' Well, with the help of these Kathryn Kenny authors, her wish seems to get granted. 

17) The Mystery of the Uninvited Guest 

Wedding bells are in the air, as Jim's cousin Juliana prepares to marry her sweetheart Hans Vorwald, before moving back to live in Holland. The friction of preparing for it takes its toll on everyone, and a spate of robberies adds to the tension. The Lynches' lounge room is stripped clean, all the district bikes are stolen and even Juliana's gorgeous engagement ring goes missing. Meanwhile Trixie is barely tolerating a visit from her cousin Hallie, who she fiercely resents. And a strange lady phones out of the blue to request a wedding invitation. What will happen if everything comes to a climax on the special day?

* The Beldens are hosting their cousin Hallie from Idaho. To call Trixie's grudge against her ginormous is an understatement. It turns out to be based on jealousy and insecurity. Hallie has dark, Indian princess looks, and is totally self-confident with drawling mannerisms. The way Trixie blows up at Hallie, for no real reason at all, is inexcusable and atrocious. 

* Aha, it turns out Trixie frequently feels upstaged by Hallie. A shadow side of Trixie's character is revealed. Solving mysteries is more than just a generous impulse. She does seek credit and attention, to boost her own importance. She even admits that getting positive feedback makes her feel as if she matters in the world. When Hallie steps forward to do some sleuthing of her own, Trixie is so disgruntled because she feels sidelined. She's addicted to praise and acclamation. We fans of Trixie wouldn't go so far as to say it's all about her, but it clearly is a lot about her.

* We are directly told 'Trixie was not used to sharing the limelight and she didn't quite know how to make room for a cousin in this fun time.' (Refer back to my observation at the end of Book 14, The Mystery of the Emeralds, when Mart comments that Trixie doesn't want her thunder stolen; Trixie attempts to pulverize him on the spot, and Jim asks him to apologize to her.) She's a good detective but also a spoiled brat.   

* It's weird that Moms doesn't mention Hallie's visit in the week leading up to it. Trixie only knows about it because she overhears a phone call, and Brian and Mart have no idea at all until she's there. Perhaps it was meant to be a pleasant surprise. It sure backfires on Trixie.  

* Hallie is the daughter of a third Belden boy named Harold, brother of Peter and Andrew. I imagine she was named after her dad. I wonder if it's short for Harriet or if Hallie simply stands alone.  

* It turns out Mrs Vanderpoel was married straight after World War One. This continues to date the series. If she married in her twenties and is now in her eighties, this story must be the 1970s at the latest. Mrs Vanderpoel is possibly in her sprightly seventies though, in which case it's set in the sixties, which matches the 1962 publication date. 

* There's nothing quite like wedding preparations to bring everyone's deepest character flaws to the surface. Madeleine Wheeler is adept at dodging responsibility and leaving all the details to Miss Trask. And we get the feeling Miss Trask is just about on the edge of her last nerve. She's decidedly shirty at times, to be saddled with all the work. 

* Trixie is not the only one whose insecurities are stirred by wedding fever. Diana almost reverts to her old, touchy self as a result of having her wedding invitation swiped from the letter-box. It dredges old feelings of being left out. Sure, her sensible self can reason that there was obviously some mistake. She's in the wedding party, after all! But her sensitive self demands why it had to be her invitation. And Mart virtually admits that he makes a Herculean effort to assert himself as a distinct personality from his virtuous older brother, Brian. He's talking about his male cousins (Hallie's brothers) but we know he's thinking of himself.   

* Di's small twin sisters are included in the wedding ceremony, to their great delight. The names of these two are never divulged throughout the whole series, unlike their brothers, Larry and Terry.

* We are told the Lynches re-hired Harrison the butler, along with nannies for the younger kids. Apparently coping with the demands of a rich couple's lifestyle became too overwhelming to manage alone. But Mr Lynch is a fun guy, so why not look for someone a little less anal retentive than Harrison this time round? I get the feeling Mrs Lynch veers to the compulsive, control freak side of the scale, and Harrison is more on her wavelength. 

* It's cheeky of a stranger like Miss Ryks to make a phone call, asking to be included on someone's wedding guest list! Did anyone ever really do that, even in the primitive seventies? Whether she's on the level or not, behaviour that pushy crosses an etiquette line in my books. So the title of this book turns out to have a double meaning. Hallie is an uninvited guest at Crabapple Farm as far as Trixie is concerned, and Miss Ryks is an uninvited guest at Hans and Juliana's wedding.

* Circumstantial evidence looks really bad against poor Dan for a while. 

* There are a few romantic sparks between Hallie and Dan, or at least the suggestion of them. I get the feeling these could grow stronger if these two get to see more of each other. However, I don't know how well sparks fly across a large continent. Long distance relationships are rough. 

* Di catches Juliana's wedding bouquet. Look out, Mart. 

* The Turf Show which doesn't take place in the last book is mentioned again. And.... doesn't take place again. Are they really going to prolong it until the next book? 

* Juliana and Hans are off to start their lives together in Holland. And all the wedding planners no doubt breathe sighs of relief.  

* Quote of the book goes to Mr Lynch. 'My wife is a nut about having things match. Even the children.'

18) The Mystery of the Phantom Grasshopper

Trixie loves her mother's old tradition of calling a greeting to Hoppy, the grasshopper weather vane on top of Sleepyside town hall. It's said to bring good luck, so she gets Honey and Di on board too. But poor Hoppy disappears the night after an intense storm. If he was blown off the roof, he's nowhere to be found. When a $1000 reward is offered for the irreplaceable antique weather vane, it begins to look as if thievery might have taken place. Could Miss Lawler, the super-anxious teacher's aide, have anything to do with it? Or her erratic friend Sammy, who seems to have a split personality? How about the tall guy in the strange car who keeps hanging around?

*This book was published in 1977. I believe it can still be dated like earlier ones, but now back to the mid-seventies. The Bob Whites catch a movie at the Sleepyside cinema together, and when they emerge, the boys discuss the giant gorilla climbing a big building. I suspect this unidentified movie was none other than the 1976 blockbuster King Kong, which hit the cinemas around the time this book was published.

* Diana Lynch can be a bit of a quiet stirrer when she chooses. I'm convinced she draws attention to the missing button from Trixie's Bob White jacket just to set Mart off. And it works, of course. Sneaky retribution for all the times Trixie bosses her around, or leaves her out of plans with Honey perhaps. You got to watch the quiet ones. 

* We meet kindly Mr Perkins, the owner of Sleepyside radio station WSTH which plays a wide variety of music pleasing listeners across generations. The moms and dads are said to love a whole heap of moldy oldies from the jazz and swing era which not even grandparents listen to anymore. (Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers and George Gershwin.) Thankfully the story doesn't identify what the young people listen to. That would be too big an anchor to the era. We are just told it includes 'all the current rock and pop hits'. I suspect that if we were told what they were, they would sound like dinosaurs too.   

* WSTH obviously didn't limit the number of times a request could be played on the radio. So listeners were bombarded with earworms such as 'Meet me in St Louis' and 'St Louis Blues' several times a day. That would be enough to make a former listener out of me. I'm relieved times have changed. I mean, gee whiz, how about time restraints? Wasn't anybody else requesting anything at all?

* Regan has been caring for a friend's Shetland pony and quietly teaches Bobby how to ride him, to surprise the Bob Whites. Regan is a legend, especially if he manages to conceal something as big as a Shetland pony while the kids have been coming and going. That's no mean feat.  

* Mart gets the wrong word! The Bob Whites walk into Wimpy's and he says he's positively bulimic, when he really means he's starving. The weirdest thing is nobody picks him up on this. 

* The Bob Whites walk in to the police station to discover Sergeant Molinson enjoying a coffee and doughnut. That's regarded as stereotypical storybook cop food now. I wonder if it was back then.

* Trixie proves herself to be great detective material once again, fearlessly doing things without a qualm that would daunt most people. She may be a bit full of herself at times but she sure does venture where nobody else dares to tread. 

* Just like Trixie, Honey and Di, I grew quite fond of Hoppy the town hall weather vane by the time the story finished. What a cool local icon. Especially his glass eyes. You can bet I'd be calling hello to him too. 

* Quote of the book is from Di. 'We're going to say hello to Hoppy until we're old, old ladies.' 

Do join me next time for Books 19 - 21

And catch up on Books 13 - 15

Friday, May 13, 2022

'Running Scared' by Susan J Bruce

What if the boy you love is hiding a dark secret?

My name is Melinda and this has been the worst
year ever … We had to leave our family farm,
Mum is in hospital, Dad is losing it and my
freak-out-and-run arachnophobia is getting worse.

The one good thing in my world is Rory.
Maybe he sees things differently because he’s
been in a wheelchair for the past eight years,
but Rory always knows how to make me laugh.

Problem is, Dad doesn’t want me anywhere near
him. He doesn’t trust Rory or his family,
especially as Rory’s brother is wanted
by the police.

And now I’m scared Rory is hiding something ... 


This is an edgy and fast-paced young adult novel which is still brimming with Aussie flora and fauna. I'm not sure how the author, Susan J Bruce, gets us to take in the sensual environmental detail while high stakes action scenes are happening all around us, but somehow she aces it. The theme is all about the illusory nature of fear and building mindsets to disarm it, and it's easy to take on board.  

Melinda Green is a teenager forced to move with her father to a city suburb after they lose their farm. Her mother is in hospital, suffering trauma of her own, and the mean Sartell siblings have taken a dislike to Melinda at school. Her safe spot and haven is their next door neighbour's yard. Rory is a school friend who doesn't let being bound to a wheelchair hold him back from anything. He is a keen athlete and keeps a fascinating menagerie of wild critters in his garage. But although these two are in sync with each other, Melinda's dad warns her to steer clear of Rory, because his brother Luke is a fugitive wanted for murder.      

Everyone Melinda cares most about has vulnerabilities of their own, which can't help impacting her. Her parents, Neil and Jill, are emotionally frail folk who have dealt with some harsh experiences and are trying to stay strong. The book really shows that when one member of a family unit takes a severe blow, everyone suffers and the repercussions are felt months, even years later. They are living with reliable Aunt Lynn, who tries to help heal the hurts in her brother's family using every means she can, including her infamous vegan cooking which nobody likes. And living nearby is Melinda's best friend Thali, a big-hearted but chatty girl whose mouth is a bit of a loose cannon. 

There is even something for those of us with arachnophobic tendencies. Melinda turns out to have a perfectly watertight reason for her intense dread of spiders. It's one of the book's mysteries which comes to light in its proper time, but she still wishes to overcome it. Rory's pet spider, Lucy, steals every scene she's in (unsurprisingly just by being herself). Even if this story doesn't make spider lovers of us all, I'm pretty sure no reader can make it to the end without at least liking Lucy and wishing her all the best.   

I have to say as I was reading, this story really put me in mind of one of my favourite Aussie books of the last few years; Trent Dalton's Boy Swallows Universe. It has that same pulsing underworld of danger beneath the seemingly colourful and innocuous Australian suburban setting. Both Melinda Green and Eli Bell are young adults living in Brisbane, but Running Scared is set in a far more up-to-date, tech savvy era than Dalton's eighties. If you're like me and loved one of these books, I can heartily recommend the other.

Disclaimer: Thanks to the author, for sending me a copy to review. All my opinions are genuine and honest.