Five star reads – can you trust them?

Five star reads – can you trust them?

 A friend was bemoaning the fact that some books are disappointing despite having glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (owned by the same company, in case you weren’t aware).

It’s hard to judge a book solely on the comments of other readers, especially if you don’t know their reading tastes, and they don’t know yours. Nevertheless, we are often influenced by five-star reviews.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t help wanting to get your hands on books that are getting lots of press and are thrilled when you see a much-hyped new release sitting on the ‘new books’ shelf at the library. You take it home full of expectation, only to find it’s not as good as the hype suggested. It’s so disappointing. What were they thinking giving it five stars? You’d only give it three, and that’s being generous.

There are many reasons books get lots of hype. A book can be genuinely brilliant and deserve all the press (Lessons in Chemistry), or win a prestigious prize (Shuggie Bain), or have a huge publicity budget (Jane Harper). The lead time for a new book is very long, at least a couple of years. During that time, many industry pundits have read advanced review copies (ARCs). Copies of new (unpublished) books are also available from NetGalley, so anyone who wants to make a living as a reviewer or book influencer can log in to read digital copies well before they hit the shelves. And a free copy of a book often equals a positive review, unless you are writing for Kirkus.

A book may not be right for you for many reasons. I snaffled a copy of Carrie Soto is Back (by Taylor Jenkins Reid) at the library last week and only read the first few pages before putting it in my return pile. I’m sure it’s probably an excellent book, but I’m not that interested in tennis or any sports really, so it didn’t gel with me.

It rarely takes long to figure out if a book is for you. With most books, you only need to read the first couple of pages to know that you are going to enjoy it. Others take a while to get going, so you need to read a few chapters before you can really commit. I’ve heard people say you should read seventy pages, but I can usually tell much more quickly.

People are often tell me they always finish books, even if they aren’t enjoying them. This is madness! You should never keep reading a book you aren’t enjoying (once you’ve given it a decent chance, of course). There are so many books out there, just read what makes you happy. If you feel bad about not finishing books you’ve purchased, give them to a little street library so they can find a new home. If they are library books, take them back to the library as quickly as you can so another reader can enjoy them. Don’t keep them by your bedside for weeks and weeks, feeling guilty about not reading them.

I’m getting better at choosing books, but my secret is that I nearly always pre-read the first chapter on my iPad. I have literally hundreds of sample chapters which I browse through regularly. I’m constantly adding new titles when I see interesting books advertised or reviewed, and I subscribe to many newsletters from writerly people and publishing houses. I’m lucky enough to have a circle of bookish friends, so I get to talk about books a lot, and I belong to a family of readers which is very handy. I trust their judgement, but most of all I’m confident they know my reading tastes (and quirks) and will recommend books I’ll probably enjoy.

It might not be the same for you. You might not have the time or inclination to spend hours and hours hunting down new titles, or you might be in that weird situation where there are lots of options, but nothing seems quite right. To be honest, that’s why I started Book Chat (a newsletter for readers). I like to think that by reading widely, I can help people narrow down their options and make choosing easier. I know not everyone has the same reading tastes (thank goodness or the world would be a boring place) but I hope that by providing reliable recommendations you can find a book that’s just right for you.

If you would like some reading recommendations, why not subscribe? If you’re already onboard, thank you.

The man who didn’t wash his dishes

We have a lot of old children’s books tucked away on various bookshelves around the house. Some of them date back to my childhood, others belong to my husband, and some were my mother’s. When our children grew up and moved out, they left all their childhood paraphernalia with us, including many of their books, which apparently we need to keep for them until they have their own houses. That day may never come, given today’s property prices, and if they do miraculously buy a house, I’m pretty sure their old books will continue to live at our place. Why clutter up your own house when you can clutter up somebody else’s?

I don’t really mind because I like re-reading them.

One of my favourites is The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky. It’s a very thin old book we bought secondhand at a fete for fifty cents. Originally published in 1950, it’s a simple story about a man who eats so much dinner that he goes into a food coma and can’t be bothered washing up. Once this bad habit becomes entrenched, he ceases washing dishes at all, and is forced to eat his dinner from random items around the house, including a vase, a flowerpot and even an ashtray! It always made me laugh.

The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

I always assumed that this was a little-known book, so it surprised me to discover that Phyllis Krasilovsky wrote over twenty books for children and two novels for young adults. She also wrote humorous articles for several newspapers.

Many of her stories were written for children she actually knew. The Very Little Girl (1953) was originally a birthday card for her sister’s child, and The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes (1950) was written for her husband’s five-year-old cousin who was dying of leukemia. I don’t quite know why a story about a man not washing his dishes is appropriate for a five-year-old child, but my children always loved this story and I have read it many times.

She also wrote the wonderfully titled The Man Who Cooked for Himself , which is about being self-sufficient and begins like this…

There once was a man who lived with his cat in a little house on the edge of a wood. He didn’t have a wife or children, so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed. The man didn’t even have a car or a telephone. But he had a friend who visited him every few days, bringing him the things he needed.

Phyllis Krasilovsky
The Man Who Cooked for Himself by Phyllis Krasilovsky

Phyllis started her career with a bang.

Born Phyllis Louise Manning, she was just nineteen and newly married when she stormed into the offices of Doubleday and demanded to see an editor. Children’s book editor Margaret Lesser heard the confrontation at the front desk, read the manuscript and accepted The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes a few minutes later. I don’t think it would be that easy today. After her husband checked the contract (he was a law student), the couple set off for Alaska in their miniscule car.

I’m not sure if it was this exact model, but their car was too small to travel on the back roads of Alaska and had to be transported on the back of a truck. It reminds me of Noddy’s car.

The couple spent three years in Alaska before returning to settle in Chappaqua, about 30 miles north of New York.

In those days, Alaska was regarded as the last frontier, a bit like the wild west. Phyllis had her first child in Juneau and subsequently wrote Benny’s Flag, which tells the true story of the Aleut boy who designed the Alaskan flag.

In 1927, Benny Benson was 14 years old and living on a mission when he won a contest to design the flag for the Territory of Alaska. He was awarded $1,000, an engraved watch and a trip to Washington, DC. Quite an achievement for a young boy.

Benny Benson with the flag he designed in 1927 – photo from the Alaskan State Archives.

Both Phyllis and her husband, Bill (an entertainment lawyer) were interested in helping people maintain or regain the rights to their work. Bill Krasilovsky represented many well-known musicians including Duke Ellington and Herman Hupfeld, who wrote As Time Goes By.

In the late 1960s, Phyllis was part of an initiative of eminent children’s book authors who pressed for foreign rights to their works to be negotiated separately from domestic publishing contracts. Other members of the group included Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Margret Rey (Curious George).

In her later years, Phyllis taught children’s literature in Tarrytown, near New York. She died in 2014, aged 87. I love her quilted vest. It’s very Alaskan.

Phyllis Krasilovsky 1926 – 2014

Reading round up 2021

Reading round up 2021

One of my favourite things to do in December is to check out all the lists of the best books of the year. There’s always a title I’ve missed in my never-ending quest for a great read. It’s good to be reminded about books that have come out during the year, so that I can keep an eye out for them at the library. They sometimes take a while to show up on the shelf.

I’m hesitant to compile my own list of best books, because everyone has different tastes, but I’d like to share some titles I’ve enjoyed in case you are looking for something new to read over the holidays.

This task is usually easy for me because I normally keep a spreadsheet of books I’ve read, but this year I was very lackadaisical with my record keeping, so I’m not sure how many books I got through (and nor does it really matter) but I think it was around fifty. My list peters out in August, so I had to go back over all the issues of my newsletter to find out what I’d read, and when.

When I look back over my reading year, I can see that my concentration dropped a bit in the second half of the year, for reasons that are perfectly understandable, given the strange year that we’ve all had. Sometimes I find it hard to start new books. I wrote about that here.

I read a few romantic comedies (no shame in that) and some books that were definitely a little sweeter than my usual fare. I also gave up on a lot of books because they were not what I was in the mood for. No shame in that either. Life is too short to keep ploughing through a book you aren’t enjoying.

Overall, I think I’ve been a lot more fussy about my reading. I’m less inclined to read what I call ‘worthy’ books (they’re the books people tell you must read) and more inclined to read books that engage me with vivid stories and characters. I’d also like to note that my best reads were all recommended by reading friends or family. It’s good to have friends who know what you like and can recommend accordingly.

Here are my top ten picks for 2021, listed in the order I read them.

  1. Bruny, by Heather Rose
  2. Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason
  3. Heft, by Liz Moore
  4. The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth
  5. Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  6. The Covered Wife, Lisa Emanuel
  7. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
  8. Love Objects, by Emily Maguire
  9. Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy
  10. The Last Woman in the World, by Inga Simpson

What was your favourite book in 2021?

Why you should read children’s books

Why you should read children’s books

During the last lockdown, the staff at our local library drove around hand delivering books to people like me who were stuck at home. I was thrilled when a pile of books magically appeared on the little white table on my front porch, wrapped in plastic and ready to take me to another realm.

I’d requested some children’s books and when they arrived, they came with a brown paper bag containing art supplies for a craft project suitable for three-year-olds. I don’t have anyone of that age at my house, so I gave the materials to a neighbour with two young children, but it told me that the library staff had assumed I had a small person living at my house. Why else would I be requesting picture books?

It would be easy for me to tell you I was doing “research” so that I can find a publisher for my own book, but the truth is that I enjoy reading books for children.

In Katherine Rundell’s book “Why you should read children’s books even though you are so old and wise,” she says…

“Children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.”

I love that quote. I should paint it on my wall.

Rundell says that as we get older, our imaginations become dampened and we can’t experience the same wonder that children experience when they see the stars in the night sky or the stark blue ocean. Adults feel these things at a primal level, but we are quick to deny ourselves wonder and joy. We avoid being child-like because it leaves us open and vulnerable. Who knows what other feelings might leak out if we admit to being enthralled or amazed?

Children never worry about what other people think. They shriek with delight when a beetle crawls lightly across their palm, or they see a lizard sunning itself on a warm rock. Everything is wondrous to a three-year-old, but sometimes older people forget to be amazed and become cynical and hard. Reading children’s books gives us a second chance to re-capture the bliss of being a child.

“When you read children’s books you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra”.

Katherine Rundell

Adults want things to make sense and align with their understanding of the world, but children don’t question the logic in stories, even though they are keen to ask “why” about most things in life. In The Tiger who came to Tea, the tiger eats all the food in the house and drinks all the water in the tap. Judith Kerr said that her publishers wanted her to change that line because it was impossible to drink all the water in the tap and that this would trouble children.

How foolish. If children can cope with the idea of walking through a wardrobe to a frozen wonderland full of speaking lions and magical witches, then they can certainly cope with a tiger drinking all the water in the tap.

Writing for children doesn’t mean you need to avoid big words

Rundell’s criterion for cutting words was whether they interrupted the story and not whether they were too sophisticated for children. She went against her editor’s advice and retained façade, abundance and renunciation in one of her books because there weren’t any other words that would do the same job of meaning, tone, and rhythm. But she had limits.

“I cut adamantine, a word I love and think children might also love, because it came at the climax of the story, and I didn’t want to lose even that split-second flicker of time that comes when a reader jumps over an unknown word. I would do the same for adults.”

I must admit that I had to look up adamantine because I was unfamiliar with that word. Imagine my surprise when I found it means ‘having the quality of being adamant’, which is exactly what I thought it meant, even though I was guessing.

Like adults, children understand the meaning of words by seeing them in context. They have good imaginations.

Children’s literature is not a lesser form of writing

Another myth that Rundell explores is that children’s books are easier to write than books for adults. I think they are harder. Children wriggle and squirm if they aren’t fully engaged in a story, but they can also listen to the same book hundreds of times if they like the rhythm of the words. Sometimes they just like snuggling up close to you while you read.

Children are keen to read about feelings and emotions

In the book “Are You My Mother?” by PD Eastman, a newly hatched chick goes out into the world to search for his mother. He doesn’t know what she looks like, so he asks every creature he meets if they are his mother. This includes cats, dogs and other animals. Eventually, a kind friend takes him home, and he finds his mother waiting for him and wondering where he is. This is a book about belonging, something every child (and adult) hungers for. Children can understand deep themes.

I like to read children’s books because they make me feel better about the world. When I’m stressed, or tired or angry, they bring me comfort and take me back to a place where feelings are allowed to be expressed and where values such as love and friendship are deeply held and treasured.

Children’s books get down to the nitty gritty without being pompous, but they are often profound. They’re like poetry. Pure, concise, and true.

Like literary vodka.

And the winner is…

And the winner is…

There’s always a big flurry of activity when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced. This year, The Promise by Damon Galgut won the coveted award for the best novel written in English and published in the UK.

Winning the Booker is a big deal. The winner receives £50,000 and authors who are shortlisted win £2,500. This doesn’t sound like very much, but being shortlisted usually results in a dramatic increase in book sales, so it can transform an author’s career overnight.

But apart from the generous prize money, it made me wonder why the Booker is so important and how it all started.

It turns out that the Booker Prize has a very murky past involving exploitation, slavery and reparation.

Here’s a potted history:

In 1815 Josias Booker arrived in British Guiana, and his younger brother George joined him soon after. George found work as a shipping agent for the export of timber and Josias became the manager of a cotton plantation, where he managed nearly 200 enslaved people.

With the abolition of slavery, which took effect in 1834, the Booker brothers received compensation from the state for 52 emancipated slaves. The Slave Ownership Database at University College London records the total sum as £2,884, equivalent to £378,000 in 2020.

In 1835, George and Richard Booker (another brother) founded a trading and shipping company and established the Booker Line, which focused on shipping goods. Richard Booker died four years later in 1838, leaving Josias and George to increase the business after the purchase of sugar plantations across the colony. At one point, the Bookers controlled 75% of the sugar industry in British Guiana and owned five Booker Line ships. It was common to refer to the country as Booker’s Guiana, rather than British Guiana. After emancipation, the sugar plantations relied on indentured labourers shipped in from Calcutta. This continued for over three quarters of a century, with workers being treated as slaves and living in poor conditions.

In 1952, Jock Campbell took over the chairmanship of the company and his Fabian social politics transformed it into a benevolent force, providing major benefits for sugar workers. Jock Campbell helped to set up Booker’s Author Division, which sponsored the original Booker Prize until 2002.

The modern day Booker has no connection to the family and is currently sponsored by a charitable foundation.

Not only does the prize have a colourful past, the choice of winner is often very controversial. There is often widespread debate about whether the ‘right’ book has won as well as whether the judging panel was diverse enough.

This year’s panel was chaired by historian Maya Jasanoff and included writer and editor Horatio Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; Professor Chigozie Obioma and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who is also a poet. A mixed bunch indeed, but the winner was apparently a unanimous choice.

Will I read The Promise? Probably not. It looks too highbrow for me, but I might get around to reading Great Circle, which is very long, but getting great reviews. One of my favourite books this year was Klara and the Sun, which was on the long list, but sadly didn’t make it to the short list.

Do you plan to read any of the books on this year’s list? Let me know in the comments.

A cosy read

A cosy read

One of the great things about being retired is that you can go down a rabbit hole without feeling guilty. This morning I was trying to remember the name of a Scottish novel we read in my book group years ago, so I started tootling around the web looking for “books set on Scottish Islands” and came up with a list of top favourite Scottish crime novels featuring a book called Death of a Liar by M.C. Beaton.

I was delighted to read that Death of a Liar is the 30th book in a series featuring the Scottish police officer Hamish Macbeth. I used to love the TV show which starred a very youthful Robert Carlyle. You can watch some grainy episodes here if you’d like a trip down memory lane. The TV show (featuring a cute little white Scotty dog) aired between 1995-97 in the highly coveted Sunday night drama time-slot, back in the days when we didn’t have control over what was on our tellies and had to watch whatever was on.

I was a big fan of the TV series, primarily because I have a soft spot for Scottish accents, but I’ve not read the books, although that might change. It surprised me to find that M.C. Beaton was the pen-name of a writer called Marion Chesney Gibbons. She wrote under four different pen-names and was also the author of the Agatha Raisin series. These books are known as ‘cosy mysteries’ because they feature low levels of blood and gore and have neat and tidy endings. Perfect comfort reads. Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie books are other examples of the genre, as is The Thursday Murder Club by television presenter Richard Osman.

Marion Chesney started her career in the publishing industry in the 1960s and wrote her first novel after reading some poorly written romance novels and thinking she could do better. I love it when people write for that reason! She soon switched to crime novels and published 160 books during her career.

According to this article in the Guardian, her attitude to the television series was ambivalent, and at a crime-writing festival in Reading in 2010 Chesney Gibbons told a shocked but amused audience in no uncertain terms that Carlyle had been miscast because he was a Lowland Scot whereas Macbeth was a Highlander.

Chesney Gibbons continued to write well into her 80s and published her last Agatha Raisin book only a few months before her death, aged 83, in December 2019. She sold 21 million books during her lifetime and attributed her impressive output to the “curse of the Scottish work ethic”.

I still haven’t been able to recall the name of the books I was originally looking for, so that might be a task for another day. Or maybe someone in my book group will remember?

Sorrow and bliss

Sorrow and bliss

Last week I finally read Meg Mason’s book, Sorrow and Bliss. My middle sister recommended it to me ages ago, but I only just got around to reading it because I had to wait ages for it become available at the library. The library has 12 copies of this book, which tells you how popular it is.

I read it in two days and cried at the end.

I’m not sure how to describe it because it’s both funny and sad. It’s about getting things wrong and keeping going. Martha, (the main character) is both awful and endearing. Sometimes you want to shake her and say, don’t do that, but then you realise that often she can’t help herself.

Even though I loved it, I’m not sure it will appeal to everyone, so I thought I’d share an interview with the author so you can decide if it is something you want to read.

Finding the perfect interview with Meg Mason turned out to be more time-consuming than I imagined. Because the book has been so popular (they’re making it into a movie), she’s been a guest on just about every book podcast imaginable. I ended up listening to about five versions of the same interview and it was interesting to hear how differently she came across in each one. When the hosts were very chatty and casual, she was a lot funnier and more honest. In the more formal interviews, she sounded a lot more nervous and stayed “on script” the whole time.

I finally chose this interview with the author Kate Mildenhall because she sounds really comfortable. I suspect they know one another well because they are roughly the same age and probably hang out at the same literary festivals. In the interview, she reveals she dislikes her first book (a memoir) and when she sees it in a bookshop; she wants to scribble in the book and change some words.

This really resonated with me. When I worked as a film editor, I often had scenes where things just weren’t working, but I couldn’t fix them because I didn’t have the shots I needed, or I didn’t have enough time to make the scene work. I’m sure it’s the same for anyone trying to do something creative. Sometimes you know you should have started again, or spent more time, but for whatever reason, you didn’t or couldn’t. There was a deadline, or the kids needed to be fed, or you had to be somewhere. We often have a desire to make things look and sound perfect, but there isn’t always time to do that.

But it’s hard to give up the idea that we should do things well.

Every time I get down on the floor to do my exercises, I look at the little gaps where the paint stops and the skirting board starts. I did a pretty ordinary job when I painted that room, but I was recovering from a back injury when I did it, so it’s foolish to think that I could do anything other than a “good enough” job. Occasionally, I contemplate getting out the tin of half-strength chintz grey and finishing it properly, but then my knee hurts and I decide to leave it for another day. I’ve got other things to do. Maybe not very well, but to the best of my ability.

Sunshine on my shoulders

Sunshine on my shoulders

My friend and her husband mind their two grandchildren one day a week and enjoy it immensely, even though they find it exhausting. The baby has a sleep around lunchtime, and they have been told to put him in a room that’s heated to precisely 22°C. He’s zipped up in his sleeping bag (blankets are forbidden), and needs to be woken at a particular time, definitely not later than 3pm. There’s a long list of instructions and they follow them to the letter.

When my children were babies, I argued endlessly with my mother-in-law about how my children should sleep. She always wanted to put them on their tummies, but I thought I knew better. The SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) advice at the time was that babies should sleep on their backs, and I insisted that this was how I wanted it to be. I’m sure she probably still put them on their tummies when I wasn’t around, but fortunately they survived!

My mother once told me she enjoyed having her last baby the most. When she had her first baby, she worried constantly about doing the wrong thing, but by the time she had my baby brother (her fifth child), she had learnt to trust her own instincts and ignore the advice of experts. The nurses at the Baby Health Centre were terrifying and there were many rules to follow.

In the 1950s, the number one rule for a healthy baby was fresh air. “An abundance of pure, cool, outside air flowing fresh and free day and night” was how they described it in the baby manual. In the 1930s they took this edict to ridiculous lengths with the invention of baby cages. In London, they literally hung babies outside buildings to ensure that they had enough fresh air. In his book, The Care and Feeding of Children, Dr Luther Emmett maintained that babies needed to be aired to ‘renew and purify the blood’.

A baby suspended in a cage several floors up to ensure adequate sun and fresh air

Even though baby cages went out of vogue, the idea that babies needed both sun and fresh air persisted, and in the 1940s and 50s, mothers were told to put their babies outside in the sun so that they could soak up some of the sunshine. Not only was sunshine an antidote to nappy rash, it also helped prevent rickets. Scientists were aware of the relationship between sunshine and Vitamin D deficiency, but I suspect that most ordinary people just thought that the warm rays of the sun had some special life-giving properties.

And maybe they do.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, Klara and the Sun , the sun is characterised as benevolent and he also has mysterious healing powers. Klara, an empathetic and wise robot, asks the sun to intervene and provide his “special nourishment” to Josie, her human, when she is unwell. It wasn’t until this week, when I was sitting out in the sunshine, that I realised that the AFs (artificial friends) in the book are solar powered. For them, and perhaps for me, the sun is indeed magical.

This is a sad, wise, and funny book. It made me think a lot about friendship and about the mysterious healing powers of the sun.

You can read a great review here.

Shut that door

Shut that door

I’ve just finished reading Monogamy by Sue Miller. I’ve read a few of her books so I knew I was in for a great read, but to be honest it took me a few chapters to get into it. I think this is because I’ve been reading some very undemanding books (aka trashy) and this one needed a bit more concentration. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes find it hard to start new books.

Monogamy is about marriage, fidelity, and grief. It’s about what happens when you lose someone you love, but then find out that they aren’t necessarily the person you thought they were. It’s beautifully written, but I found some of it confronting. Not only did it make me think about my own relationships and how they have affected my life, I also found some of the explicit descriptions of their physical relationship disconcerting. Not because they had any weird sexual proclivities, more because I’m just squeamish about sex scenes in books and movies. I can watch murder scenes (albeit with my hands over my eyes, peeking through my fingers), but sex scenes sometimes make me squirm in my seat.

In the world of romance writing, books with explicit sex scenes are known as “open door” books. You follow the main characters into the bedroom and get to read a graphic description of what follows. Books that leave you at the door are described as “closed door” books, for obvious reasons. The door is shut firmly in your face and you have to use your imagination. I don’t think these labels apply to literary fiction, but romance readers are very picky about their books and there are lots of rules.

Personally, I would rather move on with the story of “what happened next” rather than linger in the bedroom for too long. There are exceptions, of course. In Emily Maguire’s book Love Objects, there is a very graphic bedroom scene near the beginning of the book which is integral to the story. The book wouldn’t make sense without knowing what happened in the bedroom.

I was talking to a friend about this recently and she agreed she finds long descriptions of sex to be irksome. Not because we are prudish, but because they simply don’t add to the narrative. Also, they aren’t necessarily very romantic in the truest sense. If you think about what constitutes a ‘romantic evening’, then that depends on where you are in life and what makes you feel happy and loved. It could easily be very romantic to see your partner doing the washing up! No roses or champagne required in that scenario. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for romance when it’s handled sensitively. We both agreed that the most wildly romantic movie in the world is The English Patient. Check out this clip and see if you disagree. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how the sex scenes are handled, but in the film they are beautiful. Also, Ralph Fiennes is unbelievably handsome, so that helps!

In “Monogamy”, I suspect that the sex scenes were included because they were illustrative of their relationship. They showed that her husband, (despite his unfaithfulness) had been a generous and caring lover. But if they make the book into a movie, I hope they leave some things to our imagination.

Dear reader

Dear reader

I’ve just finished reading a lovely book called Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy. It’s for middle-grade readers (8-12-year-olds), who are ready for novel length books, but not quite ready for young adult fiction, which often has quite strong themes around sexuality, loss, and the difficulties associated with transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Dear Sweet Pea has all those themes, but they are softened. Body consciousness is dealt with gently, and relationships are all about friendship, rather than romance. It’s an enjoyable read with the main character inadvertently falling into the role of Agony Aunt when she gets involved with an eccentric neighbour who writes an advice column for the local newspaper.

It reminded me very much of a book for grown-ups called Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce, which has a similar storyline. Set in war-time England, Emmy (an aspiring war correspondent) takes a low-paid job at a rundown newspaper and begins to secretly answer the letters to Mrs Bird, the resident (and rather fearsome) advice columnist.

Advice columns have always been popular in newspapers and magazines. In the nineteenth century they offered advice on domestic concerns, as well as personal issues like how wives could make themselves indispensable!! They were a good way for women to ask questions about love and about sexual matters in a time when these things were not discussed openly, and doctors were mostly male.

Women have always wanted to know what’s normal and often don’t have anyone they can ask. Some topics are just plain embarrassing and hard to discuss with even your closest friends.

A good place to find the answers to embarrassing questions used to be Dolly Doctor, a column in Dolly magazine, published in Australia from 1970 to 2016. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, back issues of Dolly have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and can be found here.

Another well-known Australian agony aunt was Kate Samperi who wrote a column in the Women’s Day magazine from 1970 to 1993. She gave advice about life, love and happiness in her ‘Dear Kate’ column.

America’s most famous agony aunt was probably Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, also known as Dorothy Dix. She was born in 1861 and was the highest paid and most widely read female journalist in the world at the time of her death in 1951. Her advice on marriage was syndicated in newspapers around the world and her name lives on to this day in Australian politics, where a ‘Dorothy Dixer’ refers to the practice of asking a government Minister a planned question during Parliamentary Question Time. This provides an opportunity for a Member of Parliament to either show off or waste time on a matter of little importance.

Modern versions of Dorothy Dix include Dear Sugar, a column originally published anonymously by Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) and Ask Polly, a column in The Cut magazine, where writer Heather Havrilesky gives no-nonsense advice about a range of issues including how to find new friends, when to break up with your boyfriend and whether you have to thank your aunt when she gives you terrible gifts. Be warned that there is often quite a lot of sweary language (prolific use of the *f* word) in both these columns, but I like their tough love approaches.

I guess there will always be a place for agony aunts in various guises, because despite all the changes in the last 100 years, people are still deeply insecure and in need of reassurance.

I hope you have someone you can talk to, but if not, you can always write to me and I’ll do my best to answer.