These Wonderful Rumours, by May Smith

15727458In my previous post I mentioned how Trevor Shearston’s Game was set in familiar territory, with many of the book’s events taking place near to my current home.

May Smith’s These Wonderful Rumours is also set on well-known ground, however this time it took me back to my childhood. The book is the war time diary of a teacher from the English Midlands. She lived and taught in the area where I grew up until my family migrated to Australia in 1971. Therefore many of the places are familiar to me, and I know a little about some of the war time events that are the background of the book.

My favourite parts were those that evoked a sense of what it was like to hear air-raid sirens, and German planes flying overhead, and the sound of bombing and anti-aircraft fire coming from nearby cities. My parents were children at the time, living in the same town, and would have heard the same sounds.

My dad has told me stories of seeing searchlights illuminating the skies, seeking out enemy aircraft’ and how he and his sister were made to sleep under the stairs, where it was assumed there would be a degree of safety should the worst happen. May Smith’s account tells of spending nights at her grandparent’s house nearby, where there was a cellar for shelter – and how things became so familiar that the sirens were later ignored, and she’d stay in bed rather than make the trek downstairs, listening to bombing in nearby Derby, about 12 miles away.

The title’s significance is a reference to the stories and gossip that filled in the gaps of official news, some of which had an element of truth, but mostly had no substance.

While the time covered by the diary spans the period of World War Two, the heart of her book is everyday life, which despite some inconveniences caused by the war, continues with as much normality as possible. She tells of frequent shopping trips for clothes; of her evenings of tennis, and of the men who continued vie for her affection despite her attempt to keep them at a distance.

The diary makes it clear she had a difficult time as a teacher, a job she seems to have disliked immensely. One incident in her class affected me quite a lot when I read it. She revealed how she tore up one boy’s cigarette cards* after he (presumably) had been causing trouble. I could feel his dismay. I could imagine myself experiencing something similar and how I’d feel afterwards; and despite her contrition, I didn’t get the impression she understood how devastated a young boy of that age would be, owning very little of value, and having something important to him destroyed by an adult in authority.



* Collectable cards given away inside packets of cigarettes featuring photos related to a variety of popular topics. During my childhood similar card were enclosed in packets of tea. Also, for a time, empty cigarette packets could be exchanged for larger collectable cards. I remember getting packets from my grandad and uncles to exchange for cards featuring football players.

Posted in Diary, May Smith, War | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Game by Trevor Shearston

GameGame is a novel imagining the last months of bushranger Ben Hall.

Structured around real events, Shearston’s book tries to see the man behind the legend. Throughout we are taken to imagined meetings between Hall and his son who is being brought up by Hall’s estranged wife.

Those meetings help to humanise Hall, who in the past, depending on the source, has usually been turned into either a wronged farmer driven to a life of crime, or demonised as a ruthless callous thug.

The former view attributes his waywardness to persecution by local law enforcers (the traps), who through wrongful imprisonment and by burning down his home, contributed to the breakdown of his marriage, the loss of relationship with his son, and drove him to crime as a way to survive and fight back against the injustices done to him.

The latter sees him as a willing participant in an audacious robbery that still rates as one of the most profitable crimes in Australia’s history; after which he was briefly jailed, but soon released without charge.  His wife DID leave him. His home WAS burned down. But that was after he’d already chosen the criminal path that saw him join forces with a progression of accomplices to conduct robberies, take over towns and eventually led to murder (though Hall himself reportedly killed no none).

Edmund Parry's grave. Gundagai NSW

Edmund Parry’s grave. Gundagai NSW (photo by Onesimus)

This book starts in the last year of  the Hall gang’s short but prolific crime spree, when a coach robbery goes wrong and one of the police guards (Edmund Parry) is killed. Therefore some of the major and quite spectacular incidents of Hall’s career don’t get a mention in Shearston’s novel.

But the book isn’t intended to be a catalogue of increasingly audacious exploits that could glorify the man and his accomplices. Game presents a sad image of a man longing for change: leaving his life of crime,  winning the love of his son and regaining a life free of pursuit.

It shows the grim reality of a life continually on the run, of hiding out in the bush, in caves, or on occasion in the homes (or barns) of sympathisers.
The latter increasingly rarely, as rewards for Hall’s capture increase, combined with heavier penalties for those giving aid make it harder to know who can be trusted.

At times I felt sections of the book were clumsily constructed. Here and there I had to back track through a sentence or two because the first reading didn’t read “right” – the words didn’t immediately flow. That might have been the outcome of trying to give the  language a period relevance, with a cadence suited to the era.

But despite that difficulty, I really enjoyed the book. Some of that enjoyment came from the familiarity of the settings. Many of Hall’s crimes were carried out around my local area and I know the towns and landscape referred to in the book quite well, so it was easy to picture it all.

In fact, when Gloria and I were planning to move from Sydney out into the country, it was partly Ben Hall that drew us to our current home town. I’d been reading about his life, and wanted to see some of the places he’d frequented. Our current home is in a town we discovered during that trip.

Posted in Historical, Trevor Shearston | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Baghdad Burning by Riverbend (Clashes and Churches).

I’ve now finished reading the first volume of Baghdad Burning, by Riverbend; the blog of an Iraqi woman published in book form.

The blog is still available on line at

Whether in book form or the blog itself, I feel it should be essential reading: even compulsory reading for anyone who thinks the 2nd Bush war against Iraq was justified. However, anyone who takes that view, would be unlikely to have their opinion changed by the words of someone who was on the receiving end of Bush’s “crusade” who saw the effects it had on what was once a thriving nation (albeit one ruled by a malignant dictator).


baghdad burning

Last week churches were bombed- everyone heard about that. We were all horrified with it. For decades- no centuries- churches and mosques have stood side by side in Iraq. We celebrate Christmas and Easter with our Christian friends and they celebrate our Eids with us. We never categorised each other as “Christian” and “Muslim”… It never really mattered. We were neighbours and friends and we respected each other’s religious customs and holidays. We have many differing beliefs- some of them fundamental- but it never mattered.

It makes me miserable to think that Christians no longer feel safe. I know we’re all feeling insecure right now, but there was always that sense of security between differing religions. Many Iraqis have been inside churches to attend weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Christians have been suffering since the end of the war. Some of them are being driven out of their homes in the south and even in some areas in Baghdad and the north. Others are being pressured to dress a certain way or not attend church, etc. So many of them are thinking of leaving abroad and it’s such a huge loss. We have famous Christian surgeons, professors, artists, and musicians. It has always been an Iraqi quality in the region- we’re famous for the fact that we all get along so well.

I’m convinced the people who set up these explosions are people who are trying to give Islam the worst possible image. It has nothing to do with Islam- just as this war and occupation has nothing to do with Christianity and Jesus- no matter how much Bush tries to pretend it does. That’s a part of the problem- many people feel this war and the current situation is a crusade of sorts. ‘Islam’ is the new communism. It’s the new Cold War to frighten Americans into arming themselves to the teeth and attacking other nations in ‘self-defence’.

From the Baghdad Burning Blog (Saturday, August 07, 2004) full article can be found here:


I’ll get around to reading the second volume of Riverbend’s writings when I’ve had a short break to read other things. While the writing style is easy – the content is much more challenging to deal with. I could only read it in short sections – maybe one or two blog posts at most. The realities of what was done to Iraq and its people, all in the name of western political lies is hard to digest. And yet, if it was so challenging to read about – I can’t imagine what it was AND IS like to live through, day by day, year by year.

BB vol 2

Posted in "War on Terror", blogging, politics, Riverbend, War | Tagged , ,

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

mantelI usually like Hilary Mantel’s work, but I was disappointed by this collection of short stories.

Most stories started well, showing promise with vivid evocative imagery, but stalled instead of leading to a satisfying conclusion. The writer’s emphasis seemed to be on creating a mood (mostly dark) rather than a completed narrative journey.

For me, the satisfying exceptions are the titular The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, an  “alternative history” with hints of dark comedy, and another called Winter Break which describes a wild, countryside taxi ride leading to a frightening destination.

While the rest of the collection had moments of appeal, they didn’t fulfil the expectations I have for a story. They had a repeated unfinished feel where I was left wondering what the point had been.

I’ve come across story collections like that before where the collection as a whole was saved by the subtle drawing together by cross references and overlaps between stories.

Maybe I missed it, but that saving feature was lacking here.


Posted in Hilary Mantel, Short Stories | Tagged

My Reading Problem


I saw the film Short Circuit during its initial cinema release; I now find I can identify with its primary character, the escaped military robot Number Five.

Brought to life by (from memory) a lightning strike, Number Five had an insatiable appetite for “input”, devouring information from whatever source he could, especially books: speed reading volume after volume, demanding more as each completed book was cast aside. “More input. More input”.

I also have a very strong desire for knowledge, but sadly I’m not blessed with robotic speed and my progress through a book is far slower.

booksb1booksb2There are many topics that draw my interest, and I’m usually not happy merely skimming the surface of a subject. I usually want to find out as much as I can from a variety of viewpoints.
An example of that can be found in a lot of my reading material during the last year, where I wanted to find out why Anzac Day and Gallipoli were thought to be so important to the Australian identity. One book about the WWI Gallipoli campaign led to another, and another, and then even more.

But I didn’t stop there. What I read piqued my interest in the greater conflict of the First World War and I broadened my reading to include other campaigns. I still have several more WWI books that I haven’t had the chance to read.

In particular I’ve been interested in the role of non-combatant participants in the war, and I collected several books about nurses, stretcher bearers and chaplains. Most of them still sit on my “to be read” list – as well as others extending to subsequent conflicts: WW2, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But my interests don’t stop there. I still have a lot of books about art and artists to get through (pushed aside for the time being by the Anzacs), and there are several books still to be read about Ben Hall, an Australian bushranger with significance to my local area.

There are books about the Holocaust, including three or four by Sir Martin Gilbert and a few related to Ann Frank; books about Christianity, religious history, British history, local history, books about space and the history of space exploration.

There are biographies of people from various backgrounds with differing reasons for having a biography written about them: authors, artists, national and international heroes (and the occasional anti-hero or villain).


All of those are only the non-fiction books – I have just as many fiction books stacked on bookshelves and stored in cupboards.

Fiction ranging from classics, to the “literary” on to popular, young adult, children’s; some award winning, some verging on the trashy, ranging in genre from SF and fantasy to spy novels, historical, a little crime; some that seem genre-less, dealing with everyday people with everyday lives but living in complicated relationships…booksa

So many books, so little time and much of that filled with the “necessities” of life: working, eating, sleeping, bathing, travelling to and from here and there, shopping, gardening, bible reading, painting, blogging, visiting family, watching the news or favourite TV shows and occasional movies, listening to the radio (usually in the car when driving)…

How do I find the time to read everything I’d like to read?

Posted in books | 2 Comments

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. After the reading.

MissPeregrineMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children fulfilled the expectations built up by Gloria’s recommendation.

I started reading it on Friday evening after work and finished it mid-Sunday afternoon. I now have to wait who knows how long for Gloria to finish reading the second book of the series.

big fishAt the beginning of the book I couldn’t help think of the Tim Burton film, Big Fish, the story of a boy turned man who had grown to realise that the stories his father had told him throughout his life were at best exaggerated and more likely complete fantasies. The father’s continued insistence of the truth of his tall tales caused a rift in the relationship.

Miss Peregrine’s starts with the relationship between the Jacob and his grandfather Abe, and like the father in Big Fish, Abe seems to be a teller of tall tales with amazing stories of his early life.

As he enters his teens, Jacob begins to doubt the stories of the “peculiar children” that Abe grew up with in an idyllic house “protected by a wise old bird”; a refuge and safe haven from the monsters he’d escaped from in Europe.

Jacob begins to understand that Abe’s stories about his past are covering dark, very real experiences of a Jewish boy escaping from the Nazis and their east European death camps. But when Jacob himself seems to come face to face with one of his grandfather’s monsters, that understanding, as well as the safe but boring life planned out for him suddenly collapses. Plagued by nightmares he is referred to a psychiatrist to try to bring rationality back to his life.

As part of his road to recovery, he is taken to a small island off the coast of Wales, the location of Abe’s childhood refuge, to find the truth behind the fantasies, and hopefully restore his own sense of reality.

PeregrineThroughout, the book is illustrated with slightly weird historical photos that play a part in Jacob’s discovery of the truth, not only about his grandfather’s past, but also about his own life.

The author used genuine historical photos as inspiration for the book’s characters, especially the “peculiar children” of the title. In a short interview at the end of the book he tells us how he’d wondered who the people in the photos were “- but the photos were old and anonymous and there was no way to know. So I thought: If I can’t know the real stories, I’ll make them up.”

He cleverly spins these imaginative biographies into a compelling, intriguing story with elements of history, fantasy, horror and adventure that are grounded in a familiar, everyday world. He takes us beyond the edge of the familiar and recognisable and shines light onto things overlooked and ignored; those things we push away to maintain the security we find in predictable rationality.

After starting this book I found that the memories it stirred of a Tim Burton film had a degree of spookiness (insert brief excerpt of Twilight Zone theme). The cover of the book announces it is “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE”, what it doesn’t say is that Tim Burton is behind that project.

That doesn’t surprise me.


Posted in Fantasy, Historical, Horror, Ransom Riggs, Time Travel, Young Adult | Tagged | 4 Comments

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. (prelude)

MissPeregrineCoverIt seems like I’ll be starting this book over the weekend. I bought it a couple of weeks ago but haven’t been able to read it yet because Gloria took possession of it and wouldn’t put it down. She has now called me at work to say she’s reached the end and she’s impatient for me to read it so she can talk to me about it.

The fact that Gloria feels that way about a book is significant. In the years I’ve known her, the books she’s read could probably be counted on the fingers of one and a half hands. The books she’s REALLY been enthusiastic about would make up the half hand.

I’m not sure why I bought it. I’d never heard of the book before seeing it in a local shop.
Maybe I was falling for the warned about trap of judging it by the cover – or it might have been the compelling collection of old, unusual photos scattered throughout its pages – or maybe the general appearance of the binding and the book’s physical weight made it seem more impressive than the majority of books on the shelf…

More than an impressive cover, I can be seduced by a weighty book and tend to think a book’s weight can reflect the quality of its content. No matter how many times that’s been proven wrong, the idea remains unshakeable.

So this weekend it seems like I’ll be putting aside my current non-fiction diet to make a start on the book Gloria found so compelling.

Posted in books, Ransom Riggs, Young Adult | Tagged

Baghdad Burning : Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend

baghdad burningBaghdad Burning should be compulsory reading for every US, British and Australian citizen.

It clearly describes how those nations helped destroy peoples’ lives and culture, all in the name of family Bush and those nations who followed them based on blatant falsehoods.

The book should be compulsory reading for political or military leader who think their invasion of another country is in the best interests of the people of that country.

While published as books in two volumes, Baghdad Burning was originally written as blog entries, as events unfolded, by an Iraqi woman as the life she knew was destroyed by the Bush family invasion of her country and its aftermath.

Well written. Grippingly informative. Devastatingly frank. Even at times joyful and humorous.

It’s not easy reading.  It can’t be read quickly. It requires regular breaks to reflect on what has been said. To reflect on the injustice, outright criminality and corruption all carried out in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”.

The blog is still available on line, don’t forget to start at the beginning by using the menu on the side bar, and don’t read in reverse order by starting at the opening page and working downwards.


However if you are interested in the books volume one is available here, at the time of writing this it was half price:

Volume 2 almost half price:–v–2/9780714531335

BB vol 2

Posted in "War on Terror", blogging, politics, Riverbend, War | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

When Michael Met Mina, by Randa Abdel-Fattah


Humour, poignancy, foreboding, joy.

Just a few relevant words that come to mind to describe this book.

I could also add complex, but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression that its a difficult, confusing reading experience. The complexity relates to the issues explored, where face-value judgements are never helpful and people don’t always live up to stereotypes.

It is highly entertaining but is much more than mere entertainment; hopefully testing the reader’s preconceptions and biases.

There is a tiny hint of Romeo and Juliet in the story of Michael and Mina. They come from opposite sides of a political/racial divide. One is an Afghan refugee, a “boat person”; the other is the son of politically active parents who established the Aussie Values party devoted to “stopping the boats” and keeping Australia free of the taint of multiculturalism.

Michael first sees Mina on the opposing side during a confrontation between “Aussie Values” and an anti-racist group at a protest gathering. The kind of protest that is becoming increasingly familiar on Australian news programs. There’s no way he can realise how that brief glimpse of a Muslim girl will change his life.

Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of the title characters, starting with Michael, then moving on to Mina. Each chapter helps build up their stories to show us what has shaped their lives and current situations, and also how their developing relationship brings change.

I found the book very relevant in an Australia obsessed with “border control” where election results can be turned upon glib, three word slogans of exclusion. It has relevance when fear and racism can win votes.

It was one of those un-put-downable novels that  was a pleasure to read.


Author’s website:

Publisher’s website:

Posted in politics, racism, Randa Abdel-Fattah, refugees, Young Adult | Tagged , ,

Words I Find Annoying (1)

COHORT:  A word that I’m hearing and reading more and more, especially on ABC radio interviews; a word that seems to be used to describe a group of friends and acquaintances.

When did the increasing use of this word start to become so (annoyingly) prevalent?

Posted in Words I Find Annoying | Tagged | 6 Comments