My quest to be a paid book reviewer remains stalled for two reasons: first, I’ve never once asked anyone for money to do a book review, and second, this book review comes to you express, hot out of the oven, fresh from the year two thousand and fourteen.
Crabb is also a well-known Australian political journalist — the ABC’s chief online political writer — who is best-known for hosting a cooking with politicians TV show, and probably next best known for her comic writing style, eg:
Right then. The parliamentary consideration of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has concluded. The nation has experienced the special thrill of watching its elected representatives fight like ferrets in a bag over a legislative clause even John Howard couldn’t get excited about, and can now dully register the fact that all this fuss has produced exactly zero changes to the clause in question.
One or the other of the title’s reliance on the hackneyed complaint about women needing wives, or Crabb’s journalist persona, caused a lot of people I know to write off this book unread. The marketing runs with this too:
Written in Annabel Crabb’s inimitable style, it’s full of candid and funny stories from the author’s work in and around politics and the media, historical nuggets about the role of ‘The Wife’ in Australia, and intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia. Penguin Books Australia
I suggest you don’t write it off, at least not for those reasons. It’s quite a serious book, and Penguin has buried the lede: intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia. The research is central to the book: Crabb did a lot of one-on-one work with demographers to extract answers to questions that no one had answers to about gender, work, money, and career progressions in Australia. Some of the findings the book contains are in fact new findings prompted by Crabb’s questioning of demographic collaborators (who are acknowledged by name, although not as co-authors).
I found two discussions especially interesting: the way in which Australia makes part-time work fairly readily available to women with young children and the many limits of that as a solution to pay and career progression disparities between men and women; and the evidence suggesting that, contrary to the widespread perception that men are hailed as heroes by men and women alike for participating in the care of their young children, they are actually discriminated against by their workplaces when they do so.
After that Crabb’s writing style is just an added bonus to keep you going through the book. If you’re going to read a demographic exploration of gender and labour in Australia in the 2010s, it’s certainly a nice bonus that it happens to be written by Annabel Crabb of all people. Instead, the major caution I would give is that it’s very middle-class in both point of view and content, without much discussion of that limitation; and is largely focussed on women partnered with men. Assuming that the work lives of middle-class women partnered with men in Australia is of interest to you, recommended.
You love and grieve for your estranged teenage daughter enormously, enough to mention her in passing periodically.
Your mother is so beautiful that those looking her directly literally risk heart failure. Almost every man you know is in love with her, except for the ones who are in love with you.
One of your best friends has staked first claim on being the one who kills you. Bringing her donuts often smooths things over though.
Your loving and infinitely patient and giving substitute father figure is probably a small-minded villain. However, his identical twin brother, who arranged the years-long torture of his sister-in-law and his young niece, may be redeemable.
Most men you know are either royalty or royalty-in-hiding.
Everyone sufficiently important smells of roses.
Your cats are known spies for the monarch of a kingdom unanswerable to you or your allies. This does not significantly alter your opinion of them. Or of him for that matter.
You got your blood on the carpet again. And on your clothes. And on the walls. And on your enemies, woe betide them.
One of the major relationship issues you and your friends worry about is having a lover who needs to sleep at night-time.
You’re getting a bit tired of everyone harping on about how you have overthrown two monarchs and that you also killed a man that one time.
You like to get high so much that you sometimes alter your biology for an optimal experience.
Teenage boys look up to you and never ever rebel against you.
You drink people’s blood in order to enter their dreams and strip them of half of who they are. They are usually pretty OK about this. You’re somewhat surprised when they aren’t.
You own the knife of a teenage girl who died thinking of you as her hero, and you live with a housemate who ate her soul and later went on to assume your face and memories too. You get on great and think of each other as sisters. It’s somehow clear to everyone that you get to keep the knife.
Prejudice against people who have an animal form or characteristics is deeply disgusting to you, but you know for sure that certain lineages of magic should never ever interbreed. You’re becoming a bit ambivalent about folks with recent ancestors from the plant kingdom too.
You aren’t the species your mother always told you you were. Your friend the part-time cat would have told you this, but he didn’t think you’d believe him.
Damn! Damn! Damn! Every year he forgot. Well, no. He never forgot. He just put the memories away, like old silverware that you didn’t want to tarnish. And every year they came back, sharp and sparkling, and stabbed him in the heart.
Night Watch, Terry Pratchett, 2002
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels.
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have[…] a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc, etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have ‘lost’. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, 1979
Vetinari [said:] “As one man to another, commander, I must ask you: did you ever wonder why I wore the lilac?”
“Yeah, I wondered,” said Vimes.
“But you never asked.”
“No, I never asked,” said Vimes shortly. “It’s a flower. Anyone can wear a flower.”
“At this time? In this place?”
Night Watch, Terry Pratchett, 2002
Remembering Douglas Adams (1952–2001) and Terry Pratchett (1948–2015), both of whose work meant a lot to me at various times.
I was aware of Pratchett for as long as I can remember, because I was a teenager in the 1990s and he had a good amount of shelf space in my local mainstream book store, but the Josh Kirby cover era was always instinctively offputting to me as a teenager and into adulthood. I never got so far as consciously thinking “should I read Pratchett?” I thought it was clear from the covers that it was bawdy humour aimed to men, not one of my genres. So it took two pushes to read him: the first was a recommendation from a friend and the second was a recommendation from a friend that happened to take place on a camping trip in 2000 to which I hadn’t brought enough books. (I love me some ebook era, but I think transmission of Pratchett fandom would now be less likely in such circumstances.)
The book in question, because it happened to be there in someone’s bag, was Hogfather, which as I wrote in 2012 is not a bad introduction to Discworld in that it’s fairly self-contained and has a pretty comprehensive drill into the way magic and divinity work on the Disc. Its main failing was that it meant I hoped for a while that Susan Sto Helit was the main character in all the novels. (I didn’t end up really liking any of her other novels, eg the writer M is correct about Susan in Soul Music, although I think the portrayal of the immature rationality-supremacist geek girl was intentional!)
I then read many of the Discworld books in whatever order I came across them in my friends’ libraries (the ebook era would win here!), so I met the witches about halfway through in Lords and Ladies and was perpetually disappointed that it turned out to be about halfway through. I always wanted to know the end of Magrat’s story, when she finally, inevitably (in my opinion!) outgrows Granny and they both know it. (Apparently I always trust the designated irritating woman to grow up to win.) And what will Esmerelda the Younger become?
But, despite being a Hoyden, my heart ended up in Ankh-Morpork, in the Watch subseries which I happily read in more or less publication order. Honestly, partly this is because Vetinari is a ridiculous trope who just happens to be one of my very favourite ridiculous tropes in the entire world, but it’s also because Pratchett took his frustrating and increasingly sidelined comic sidekicks, went back in time, wrote a novel largely about men doing heroic man things with one of his favourite creations in the rescuer role, niggled at me politically a couple of times in a way he normally doesn’t, and made it the heart of the series for me anyway: Night Watch, the first Pratchett I believe I bought in hardback, and what a good choice that was.
It isn’t yet the glorious 25th of May, I’m in the wrong hemisphere, and there’s no lilac anywhere near me in any case. But it will always be the image that comes to mind when I remember the heart of Terry Pratchett’s work to me.
Here’s a few Pratchett links worth visiting today:
Penknife’s Modern Love, my favourite fanfic, taking the ongoing thread of dwarf gender to somewhere I had wondered repeatedly if Pratchett was headed.
I’ve had good luck in recent years with vague resolutions that attempt to adjust my attitude. I think it was 2007 or 2008 when I said “never turn down an adventure”, and 2011′s was “be an artist”… in that vein, this year’s resolution… is GO TO THE SHOW.”
That’s not what I’m aiming for this year — not a lot that was wrong with my 2012 would have been solved by attitude adjustment even of the most fun and aspirational kind — but I like the idea of a resolution that isn’t a chore. I’m also short an obvious, and perennial, resolution because I actually did submit my PhD thesis in 2012.
So at today’s New Years Day party I came up with a resolution, which is to read works by Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Jr. at long last. I’ve decided on one a month. Obviously I will be reading other stuff while I am at it.
Here’s my schedule through to end of April:
By January 31: Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories
By February 28: Tiptree, Up the walls of the world
By March 31: Butler, Parable of the Sower
By April 30: Butler, Parable of the Talents
Just creating this list has shown that it’s going to be harder than I expected: the university library I live near, the largest in the country, will be close to exhausted by the end of April, except for rare books not available for loan.
The problem isn’t that cultures intermingle, it’s the terms on which they do so and the part that plays in the power relations between cultures. The problem isn’t “taking” or “borrowing”, the problem is racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and colonialism. The problem is how elements of culture get taken up in disempowering, unequal ways that deny oppressed people autonomy and dignity. Cultural appropriation only occurs in the context of the domination of one society over another, otherwise known as imperialism. Cultural appropriation is an act of domination, which is distinct from ‘borrowing’, syncretism, hybrid cultures, the cultures of assimilated/integrated populations, and the reappropriation of dominant cultures by oppressed peoples.
A quote I saw making the Tumblr rounds, which said, “I’m not like other girls!” It went on to avow wearing Converse instead of heels, preferring computer games to shopping, so on and so forth. When I saw it, about 41,000 girls had said they weren’t like “the others.”
It is not enough to respond to this ongoing rhetoric about Australia’s supposed calamitous future by pointing out, as Ms Gillard correctly did, that these comparisons are ridiculous given the state of European periphery countries. Yet the ideological blackmail is strangely telling, precisely because the financial sector in the form of the troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) has held Greece’s politicians hostage, forcing a slashing of the government in exchange for “bail-out” loans.
I am subscribed to two “long form” websites: the picks of Long Reads, which focuses on newer pieces, and the editor’s picks of Longform, which tend to skew a little older. Hence, this, from McSweeny’s in January 2005. I always like a piece that clearly ended up not being about what the original pitch was about. In this case, the writer wanted (or supposedly wanted, I guess) to investigate a gerbil plague, and ended up writing an article about gerbil social structures, text messaging on Chinese phone networks, and, several times, the Black Death. Which is how I ended up reading Wikipedia articles about pandemics the same night I was getting sick with the first illness I’ve had since I got out of hospital.
It’s impossible to follow Liam Hogan on Twitter without becoming interested in urban transport issues. At the moment the big conversation is helmet laws in Australia, which are arguably interfering with take-up of bike share schemes (if you’re going to have to get hold of a helmet, you don’t just jump on the bike, hence, scheme falls apart), although see Why is Brisbane CityCycle an unmitigated flop? for several other reasons that scheme may be failing.
Reboxetine is a drug I have prescribed. Other drugs had done nothing for my patient, so we wanted to try something new. I’d read the trial data before I wrote the prescription, and found only well-designed, fair tests, with overwhelmingly positive results. Reboxetine was better than a placebo, and as good as any other antidepressant in head-to-head comparisons… In October 2010, a group of researchers was finally able to bring together all the data that had ever been collected on reboxetine, both from trials that were published and from those that had never appeared in academic papers. When all this trial data was put together, it produced a shocking picture. Seven trials had been conducted comparing reboxetine against a placebo. Only one, conducted in 254 patients, had a neat, positive result, and that one was published in an academic journal, for doctors and researchers to read. But six more trials were conducted, in almost 10 times as many patients. All of them showed that reboxetine was no better than a dummy sugar pill. None of these trials was published. I had no idea they existed.
Given that I favourited two separate articles about this, I’m going to buy the book. Now you know.
[I]t turned out I needed Adobe Digital Editions to ‘manage my content’… It tried, of course, to force me to give Adobe my email and other details for the ‘Adobe ID’ that it assured me I needed to get full functionality. I demurred… and was confronted by a user interface that was tiny white text on a black background. Unreadable. Options to change this? If they exist, I couldn’t find them.
Getting this far had taken me half an hour fighting my way through a nest of misery and frustration with broken eyes and a sinking heart. Along the way, I’d been bombarded by marketing messages telling me to “enjoy the experience” and “enjoy your book”.
Reader, I wept. Marketing departments, here’s a top tip: if your customer is reduced to actual, hot, stinging tears, you may wish to fine-tune your messaging.
Friday the 13th of April 2029 could be a very unlucky day for planet Earth. At 4:36 am Greenwich Mean Time, a 25-million-ton, 820-ft.-wide asteroid called 99942 Apophis will slice across the orbit of the moon and barrel toward Earth at more than 28,000 mph. The huge pockmarked rock, two-thirds the size of Devils Tower in Wyoming, will pack the energy of 65,000 Hiroshima bombs–enough to wipe out a small country or kick up an 800-ft. tsunami.
On this day, however, Apophis is not expected to live up to its namesake, the ancient Egyptian god of darkness and destruction. Scientists are 99.7 percent certain it will pass at a distance of 18,800 to 20,800 miles… Scientists calculate that if Apophis passes at a distance of exactly 18,893 miles, it will go through a “gravitational keyhole.” This small region in space–only about a half mile wide, or twice the diameter of the asteroid itself–is where Earth’s gravity would perturb Apophis in just the wrong way, causing it to enter an orbit seven-sixths as long as Earth’s. In other words, the planet will be squarely in the crosshairs for a potentially catastrophic asteroid impact precisely seven years later, on April 13, 2036.
It turns out that with current technology we might be able to move the asteroid prior to the (potential) 2029 entry into the gravitational keyhole, but if it did so we would be unlikely to perturb the orbit sufficiently after that point to avoid a civilisation-ended impact. So it’s the question of how many resources to spend on a low-probability but enormously catastrophic event.
There’s only one problem with this: Roth’s open letter is at best the (justifiably) aggrieved and confused ramblings of a man ignorantly discussing what he does not understand or remember, and at worst a deliberately malicious act inspired by nothing more than a misguided desire to flip us the Vs and maybe get paid by the New Yorker on the way.
Is it noble to volunteer for a cash-rich for-profit enterprise? And what about when taking the gig means that you’re taking food from the mouths of people whose day job it is to play these kinds of high-pressure, high-profile concerts and ensure that the audience won’t be let down?
Is it noble to devalue the role of musicians by suggesting that their years of training and their tens of thousands of hours of practice is worth little more than a beer and a high-five?
In a statement released this afternoon, the organisation said it was uncomfortable about the support RU OK? Day was receiving from Gloria Jean’s because of the coffee chain’s $30,000 donation to the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).
As India became increasingly crucial to British prosperity, millions of Indians died completely unnecessary deaths. Over a decade ago, Mike Davis wrote a seminal book entitled Late Victorian Holocausts: the title is far from hyperbole. As a result of laissez-faire economic policies ruthlessly enforced by Britain, between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation needlessly. Millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain even as famine raged. When relief camps were set up, the inhabitants were barely fed and nearly all died.
It began with a private email last month from one established male philosopher to four others: Proceed with a Berlin-based conference that features 14 male speakers and no women, the writer said, and I will essentially launch a campaign to take you down professionally.
Or as my friend and sci-fi novelist Robin Sloan put it to me, “I maintain that this is Google’s core asset. In 50 years, Google will be the self-driving car company (powered by this deep map of the world) and, oh, P.S. they still have a search engine somewhere.”
Whenever the Julian Assange extradition comes up in the news, many of his supporters make various confident assertions about legal aspects of the case.
Some Assange supporters will maintain these contentions regardless of the law and the evidence – they are like “zombie facts” which stagger on even when shot down; but for anyone genuinely interested in getting at the truth, this quick post sets out five common misconceptions and some links to the relevant commentary and material.
[Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert, in particular, have assumed the role of secular saints whose nightly shtick restores sanity to a world gone mad.
But their sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.
Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.
This is part of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Blog Book Week challenge, about favourite childhood reading, how we read these books, and why we remember them.
I haven’t forgotten that I promised to do Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif and I still intend to, but while I’m tracking it down for a re-read, I’ve another Sydney novel in the interim: Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi.
Spoilers for Looking For Alibrandi abound!
Warning: self-harm is a plot element in this novel, and it’s discussed in this entry.
Background/plot summary: Looking For Alibrandi is a 1992 young adult book by Australian author Melina Marchetta. Seventeen year old Josephine Alibrandi is in her final year of a expensive private Catholic high school, preparing for the HSC (the Higher School Certificate, which is the statewide final school exams in NSW). She is a scholarship student, the daughter of Christina Alibrandi, a single mother who had a child at sixteen and was exiled from her Italian-Australian family until her father died, in the recent past from the novel’s point of view.
Christina insists that Josie has a relationship with Christina’s mother, Josie’s Nonna Katia, but Christina’s own relationship with Katia is strained due to their long estrangement and Katia’s coolness to her throughout her childhood. At the beginning of the novel Josie is more concerned with school problems in any case: her quartet of outsider friends fight for recognition in their upper class Anglo-dominated school. Josie is school vice-captain to her mortal enemy, perfect blond Ivy, daughter of a wealthy surgeon, as captain.
But Josie’s home life suddenly undergoes another change. Josie’s father, Michael Andretti — son of Christina’s childhood next door neighbours, now a barrister — moves back to Sydney for a year to be welcomed briefly into unknowing Katia’s home as one of the family. Josie confronts him and they agree to have no contact, only to ring him from school frantically to extricate herself from a legal threat by a classmate’s father. After this they have an initially uneasy but gradually warmer relationship. In the meantime, Katia begins telling Josie stories of her immigration to Australia and her married life in rural Queensland in total social isolation, until the arrival of her sister from Sicily. Josie begins to see Katia as more of a person and less of an oppressively tradition-bound stereotypical grandmother.
Events at school also demonstrate to Josie that she’s not as much of a complete outsider as she thought, including a revelation by the principal after some irresponsibility towards younger students on Josie’s part that she was in fact voted school captain at the beginning of the year but that it was awarded to Ivy, who the principal felt was more responsible. While at the beginning of the novel Josie wants nothing more than a relationship with John Barton, her solidly upper-class debating friend, she ends up with Jacob Coote, captain of a nearby public school, as a boyfriend, and has to navigate being middle class to his working class.
It eventually becomes clear to Josie as Katia’s stories of her past continue that Katia’s Anglo-Australian friend Marcus Sandford was in love with her, and eventually Katia slips up and Josie works out her grandmother’s secret: Marcus and Katia were lovers and Marcus was in fact Christina’s biological father, which accounted both for Christina’s father’s loathing of her and of his swift condemnation of her when she became pregnant as a teenager.
Josie very briefly reaches a feeling of peace with herself and her story before her tranquillity is suddenly destroyed again: her friend John Barton commits suicide the night before the HSC exams begin, and she is told this by Ivy, who was even closer to John, crying out the front of the school. In the aftermath of this Jacob Coote breaks up with Josie, not sure what he wants from his future himself in the wake of knowing Josie’s relative class privilege and John’s death in spite of his class privilege. The novel ends with Josie about to find out her university entrance ranking, still relatively at peace with herself, but less sure of her place in the world and her ambitions.
I think I read Looking For Alibrandi a couple of years after it was published: definitely when I was in high school. I recall it being a book that you had to wait some time for at the school library. (It gets assigned as an English text now, but I never read it in that context.) It has crushes and alcohol and uneasy relationships with friends and a pretty intent focus on high school academic achievement, all of which were pretty familiar to me, even if the rich competitive Sydney folk weren’t so much. (At some point John Barton despairs over his poor ranking in a mathematics competition compared to Sydney Grammar, a reference I understood better when I knew former Maths Olympians from Grammar while at uni!)
Again, it’s very evocative of Sydney: I in fact live now pretty close to where Christina and Josie lived in Sydney. There’s a speech day in Martin Place, truanting at the Sebel and a few other landmarks although it’s not quite as firmly inner west as Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son (the latter of which is about twentysomethings, and with which I identify even more closely as someone who went to Sydney Uni).
To be honest, as a result of this book I even have a sneaking fascination with Stanmore Maccas, where Josie gets a part-time job briefly, and I felt rather betrayed when the movie version changed it to Oporto!
John Barton’s death was “that bit” in the book, as in “have you got to that bit yet? Oh, you’ll know what I mean when you get to it.” It was my main frame of reference in the aftermath of the actual suicide of someone I knew at school, while of course not fitting exactly.
Again with the fanon style questions: this is the twentieth anniversary of Looking For Alibrandi‘s publication. If we took 1992 as the year Josie was seventeen, she is now thirty-seven. Did she end up doing a law degree like her father, but which she had begun to doubt she was as interested in as she’d thought? Did Christina and Michael reunite, as the novel implies they are considering? Did Josie and Ivy end up with an unexpected friendship, as they are stumbling towards? Did Josie, who would have won Least Likely To Leave Well Enough Alone if Australian schools did yearbooks, attempt to track down Marcus Sandford?
I don’t have as strong a fanon in my head for this as for Playing Beatie Bow but if I had to guess, Josie did Arts/Law and dropped out after the Arts component (quite a lot of people in combined law degrees do this). I have no idea what she’d do instead though. I think there’s too much hurt between Christina and Michael to reunite, although probably Josie and Katia both pushed strongly for it. I don’t know what to make of Josie and Ivy! And I would put money on Josie telling herself that she doesn’t mean anything by nosing around in the S section of the phonebook and so on, and of course meaning something by it, finding out that, as always, people’s lives aren’t as simple as she thought.
This is part of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Blog Book Week challenge, about favourite childhood reading, how we read these books, and why we remember them.
I’m going to write about two Ruth Park books this week, Playing Beatie Bow and My Sister Sif.
Spoilers for Playing Beatie Bow ahoy!
Background/plot summary: Playing Beatie Bow is a 1980 older children’s book by New Zealand/Australian author Ruth Park. In it, fourteen year old Abigail sees a strange young girl (thin, wearing odd clothes, “furry” shorn head) watching her babysitting charges play, especially when they play “Beatie Bow”, a ghost game. One day she gives chase to the girl and finds herself in Sydney in the same area, only in 1873. She quickly incurs a head injury after being knocked down in the street by Samuel Bow, a war veteran who himself has a brain injury and “takes spells” (flashbacks) as a result. It emerges that the strange girl is his daughter, Beatie, who had found herself several times in the twentieth century watching a game featuring her own ghost.
While both parties hide their knowledge from each other for a while, the Bow and Tallisker (Beatie’s mother’s name) families who share a house in the Rocks know that Abigail is from a different time and will not help her return to the twentieth century. It emerges that some of the women in their family have a psychic Gift as a result of their Orkney heritage, and that every fifth generation it is imperiled, with a prophecy that of the adults in that generation, one is to be barren and one to die, risking there not being another generation. When this happens, the family is visited across time by The Stranger, in this case Abigail, who is destined to save enough of them to continue the Gift. The family has recently had scarlet fever and only a few members of the fifth generation survive: Beatie; her older brother Jonah; and her younger brother, Gilbert, yet to recover his health after the fever; and their cousin Dorcas (“Dovey”). Abigail is initially desperate to return home, but falls in love with Jonah, a sailor, when he has shore leave, and is more conflicted, especially since Jonah is betrothed to Dovey.
Eventually Samuel Bow causes a house fire, from which Abigail saves Dovey and Gilbert. She returns to the twentieth century that same day, under the care of Beatie, still cross with Abigail for pursuing Jonah. Shortly after returning she researches the family history in the newspapers, which suggests that Jonah probably died at sea shortly after she left. She then has a vision which shows that Beatie became a scholar, and that Jonah married Dovey but indeed died young at sea. She tries and fails to warn the family across time. Abigail is overwhelmed with grief that she cannot speak of.
Before long her own parents reunite after years of separation and move with her to Norway. In the final pages of the novel, she returns to Sydney five years later to discover by chance that the Crowns, her former babysitting charges, are descendants of Gilbert Bow through their mother, and (it is heavily implied) Abigail begins a relationship with their uncle Robert Bow after the novel ends. She realises that instead of her role as The Stranger being to save Dovey from the fire for Jonah as the family had believed, it was to save Gilbert.
I think I received Playing Beatie Bow as a gift from a book-loving relative. I wasn’t born when it was written, and probably read it in about 1992 or a bit later, when I was slightly younger than Abigail is for most of the novel. I remember finding the twentieth century portions rather strange for a while: this relative was in the habit of giving me high quality very recent books, and I didn’t realise for a while that the book was more than a decade old and the portrayals of Abigail’s high school experience (secondhand, as she thinks of them with contempt over summer) were using slang and events from the late 1970s! At the time I knew almost nothing about the 1970s, so it sounded rather as if Park had made up a bunch of plausible sounding teenage slang.
Abigail’s teenage alienation was a bit of a foreign country to me at the time. The novel begins with her spending the summer being angry about all sorts of things: her father leaving her mother for another woman, which has alienated Abigail so much she has changed her given name to one that isn’t connected with her father’s affection; her peers at school and their teenage crushes; her mother’s decision to re-partner with her father after his long-lived relationship with another woman. Interestingly, a big part of the novel is Abigail, via falling in love with someone else’s fiancé, coming to a realisation that there’s more going on with love than people falling in love to spite her. The coda at the end in which Abigail has demonstrably grown up emotionally in her nine-odd months in 1873 and then her five years in Norway was also important to me: the Norway part of the arc, being realism, maybe more important than the time-travelling.
It was probably also one of the first encounters I had with a critique of the idea that history is a uniform progression from worse conditions to better conditions (yeah I know, a pretty obvious misconception in hindsight): this critique is put into the mouth of Jonah who is utterly uninterested in the magic that awaits his world in the twentieth century.
Sydney always makes novels memorable for me, too. I didn’t grow up in Sydney, but rather in regional NSW, and as a teenager it tended to signify freedom to me. I was always very excited to have a book with a strong Sydney-centric sense of place: besides Playing Beatie Bow I think only Melina Marchetta’s novels were as evocative for me. (Only Looking For Alibrandi was actually published when I was a child, I was 22 and already lived in Sydney when she published Saving Francesca, and a new mother in my late twenties when The Piper’s Son came out.) Playing Beatie Bow is very thoroughly set in The Rocks around Argyle Street, and grounded in the local geography to the point where I believe it’s possible to identify the set of stairs that led Beatie into the twentieth century and Abigail into 1873.
Fan service insight for other dedicated Beatie Bow readers: there’s very brief speculation by Robert Bow at the end of the novel that his niece Natalie Crown, Abigail’s former babysitting charge and the only other person who could see Beatie watching them play, has the Gift, but otherwise the form the Gift takes in Gilbert’s descendants and what it means to have it with very little cultural connection to the Orkneys and its supernatural origins there, is totally unexplored.
I worked this over several times when I was younger: if I was counting the generations correctly, the fifth generation of Talliskers/Bows/Crowns after Gilbert ought to be Natalie and her brother Vincent, which should make them subject to the “one to be barren, one to die” curse (by the way, the inevitable “cursedness” of being childless is called out in the novel, by Beatie who deeply wants to be, and ends up being, the childfree one). If Abigail and Robert had children, the fifth generation would contain their children also. This last is of course a stretch given that about the first week of Abigail and Robert’s relationship is shown in the novel, but hey, fanon calling.
In addition, in the novel, Granny Tallisker, who had the strongest Gift, spends some time trying and failing to work out why on earth Abigail is their Stranger, since they expected someone with a family relationship. Neither of them at that point knows about the relationship with the Crown children, or for that matter that Gilbert is to live. But if a family relationship is required, Abigail doesn’t have this it unless she goes on to partner with Robert Bow.
In any event, whatever happens to Robert and Abigail, it seems that the Crowns are due a Stranger at some point in their lives. I was always surprised that Park didn’t write a sequel, given this (although as an adult, I can see why it would be difficult to preserve the tone with one novel set in 1873 and the other in the late twentieth century). In my fanon, a somewhat older Beatie ends up being their Stranger, in a reciprocal relationship to that Abigail had with her family.
My overall favourite is Night Watch, but I think it would be a terrible place to start reading: you need the context of the earlier Night Watch sub-series for background. Night Watch follows Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. You could possibly skip Feet of Clay and Jingo and have most of the background, but that’s still a fair commitment. You want The Fifth Elephant because it introduces the major characters in an ongoing multinational inter-species political struggle (Monstrous Regiment, Thud!, Unseen Academicals, Snuff), but it’s also probably not strictly necessary as background to Night Watch.
The Night Watch sub-series is also interesting technically, as Pratchett has created two absurdly powerful political characters in this series (Vimes, the head of police, and Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork), and has to come up with increasingly aggressive scenarios to actually challenge them. He has written elsewhere about finding this annoying when he wants to write interesting stories in Ankh-Morpork without Vimes sticking his nose into them.
It’s worth warning that Night Watch is one of the darker novels, with offscreen torture and onscreen immediate-aftermath-of-torture. Small Gods has similar warnings (religiously inspired torture), if you’re OK with that it is good and very self-contained, and has also served as an entry point for a number of people.
The first Discworld I ever read was Hogfather and I think it’s actually not a bad starting point, since it’s a fairly self-contained story and contains a bunch of core Discworld themes concerning how magic and divinity work. It also has a great heroine who unfortunately, in my opinion, otherwise appears in pretty mediocre Discworld novels.
Probably for most Hoyden readers I’d recommend starting with Equal Rites or Wyrd Sisters and reading through the Witches novels, which is where I went after Hogfather. The Tiffany Aching books didn’t exist at the time, but they’re very much in the spirit of the Witches novels, except that the Witches seem much more organised in them: Pratchett can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to creating power structures. See tigtog’s post about the Witches for more.
Edited to add: there is a well-known reading order guide, which lays out the various sub-series in a flowchart style, but I cannot find an accessible version. Hence this post refers directly to the sub-series wiki pages.