Some Thoughts On Creative Work

“As a creative person, you must always look for what is not commonplace, what strikes a chord. You feel an intuition about what’s essential. The vital point is that you must trust your own instincts … It never gets any easier … The important thing you learn with creativity is that the tide comes in and the tide goes out. There will be fallow periods when the work is not going well, so it’s best to put that painting aside, just turn its face to the wall. And often, months later when you look at it again, you can see possibilities in it that you couldn’t see when you were struggling with it previously.”

John Olsen

“[My books are] very, very complex in their structure, but, in the end, if anyone can see that they’re difficult, then I’ve failed. If you see the sweat and blood on the page, it’s a disaster. It’s got to seem seamless.”

Nick Bantock

“I am an ambitious person, which has often been pointed out to me, usually critically, because it is not seen as something pure. But surely there’s a nobility in trying to make something beautiful that will last a long time? … I had a teacher who was very good at prompting class debate. One day he asked, is it a good thing for human beings to have huge ambitions that possibly lead to disappointment and disillusion? It was an interesting topic to throw at teenagers. Some felt it was better to have practical aims in life, but I remember strongly coming out for the idea of dreaming big. And in the ensuing years I have often thought about it, because I have seen people go south, people with really great talent and big, wonderful dreams get to a point where it all went horribly wrong and they either fell off the edge or became bitter. I came to realise there is a lot of risk attached to ambition. You could argue that there are other noble human virtues that are better to follow. But I can’t help but be addicted to trying to climb the mountain.”

Neil Finn

My Favourite Books of 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2015 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I finished reading 81 books this year, which doesn’t include the two terrible books I didn’t finish, the novel I’m currently halfway through, or the small pile of books I brought home from the library for the holidays.

Types of books read in 2015

I read lots of non-fiction books this year, because I was researching 1960s England for a series I’m planning to write. This would also explain the following information:

Writer nationality 2015

Gender of writer for books read in 2015

Women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I also became hooked on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

I found myself engrossed in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of T.H. White, Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I also liked Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren, a collection of autobiographical stories by twelve Australian Muslims. And for sheer entertainment value, I can’t leave out The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was an exciting middle-grade novel in which four gifted children foil the plans of an Evil Genius. It reminded me of the early Harry Potter novels, except it was science fiction rather than fantasy and had fewer jokes (although it did contain lots of fun puzzles, codes and riddles). I also enjoyed Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

'The Arrival' by Shaun TanShaun Tan’s The Arrival was a beautiful wordless story about a refugee starting a new life in a strange, confusing country, with a message particularly relevant to the world right now. On a lighter note, I enjoyed Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony, about a young warrior princess who hopes to receive a noble steed for her birthday but instead finds herself stuck with a small, round pony with some unfortunate traits.

Thanks for being part of Memoranda in 2015. I hope you all had a good reading year and that 2016 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014

What I’ve Been Reading

'An Experiment in Love' by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love was an interesting, if depressing, novel about young English women studying at university in the 1960s. Carmel, the narrator, has been brought up in a grim, working-class Northern town to believe that she does not deserve pleasure or happiness, and that her life must consist entirely of duty, hard work and ambition. She shares her London residential hall with two former schoolmates – Katrina, whose Eastern European migrant parents escaped the wartime “cattle cars”, and wealthy, confident Julianne, both of whom turn out to have secret lives. Carmel begins to starve herself, due partly to the terrible institutional meals and her inability to pay for extra food, partly to her misery after her boyfriend dumps her, but mostly as a logical consequence of her self-denying nature. The conclusion was a little too melodramatic and abrupt for me, but otherwise, I found this to be a thoughtful exploration of sexism and class divisions in 1960s England. It reminded me quite a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, set during the same period in Canada and also featuring a young woman reacting to society’s restrictions on women’s appetites by starving herself nearly to death.

'The Watch Tower' by Elizabeth HarrowerI also found myself engrossed in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, a meticulous study of an abusive marriage, set in post-war Sydney. Young Laura and Clare have been abandoned by their self-centred mother after the death of their father, so Laura marries her boss, Felix Shaw, because he promises to fund Clare’s education. He goes back on this, and on every other promise he makes to Laura, and spends the next ten years torturing her, physically and psychologically, until she abandons all hope. At first it seems that Clare will also succumb to this monster, but she has hidden reserves of strength, which are revealed when a young refugee needing help enters her life. It was painful for me to watch Laura’s decline, with her only real attempt at escape thwarted by her environment – in the 1940s, Australian police regarded domestic violence as a private matter, there were no women’s refuges, and there were few options for a woman with no education, no job references and no money. Then again, a woman today trapped by a man as manipulative and vicious as Felix would also have a very difficult time escaping him. Some of the choices the author made (the constantly shifting points of view; the long sentences interspersed with sentence fragments) didn’t always work for me, but her descriptions of Sydney were vivid and the psychological studies of Felix, Laura and Clare were fascinating, if horrifying.

'A Far Cry From Kensington' by Muriel SparkAfter all that grimness, it was a relief to spend time with Mrs Hawkins, the magnificent young widow at the centre of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. Mrs Hawkins, who works in the publishing industry in 1950s London, busies herself dispensing good advice to neighbours and colleagues, but her comfortable life is disrupted when she insults a pompous hack called Hector Bartlett. Their feud leads to a range of disastrous consequences for those around them, but Mrs Hawkins has no regrets and emerges triumphant. This novel is cleverly plotted and very, very funny. I think my favourite scene was the posh dinner party, in which Mrs Hawkins dispenses writing tips to her fellow guests, and then, due to a misunderstanding of etiquette, remains with the gentlemen and their port and cigars when the other ladies prepare to depart the room:

“I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room … I, for one, refused to behave rudely just to show solidarity with these oversensitive women, possibly prudes.”

As she is Mrs Hawkins, she not only gets away with this, but becomes even more respected. I also enjoyed her refusal to give in to Emma Loy, a successful novelist entangled with Hector Bartlett. Emma attempts to explain his appeal:

“Do you realise how dedicated he is to my work? He knows all my works by heart. He can quote chapter and verse, any of my novels. It’s amazing.”
“Does he quote it right?”
“No. He generally gets it wrong, I’ll admit. But his dedication to me is there…”

A Far Cry from Kensington is highly recommended, particularly if you liked The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I have Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark next on my reading pile.

Australian Society of Authors Petition Against Parallel Importation

The Australian government has announced that it will change legislation to allow parallel importation of books, effectively ending Australian territorial copyright. The government claims this will lead to lower book prices, a claim disputed by publishers and booksellers. The Australian Society of Authors has also described the decision as “wrecking the careers of writers”:

“Allowing overseas publishers to dump remaindered copies of Australian authors’ books published elsewhere onto the local market will undercut the investment of local publishers and reduce pay to our authors. It is self-defeating for the government to introduce a measure that will adversely affect local authors, bookshops and publishers for a hypothetical reduction in book prices,” said ASA Chair David Day.

The government’s decision will be particularly disastrous for Australian authors whose books are published in the US and UK. Australian authors have never earned very much from royalties, with their income further eroded in recent years by online piracy, so this legislative change will hit them hard. If you like reading books by Australian authors and would like those authors to keep writing books, you might like to consider signing the Australian Society of Authors petition against the parallel importation of books.

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice for Writers

“So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”

The Brigadier fortunate enough to be seated beside Mrs Hawkins at a dinner party “listened with deep interest”. Mrs Hawkins continues:

“I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs, published by Mackintosh & Tooley. On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.”

'Napping Cat' by Elizabeth Fearne Bonsall (1903)

From A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

What I’ve Been Reading : The Peter Grant Series

I’ve just started a new day job, plus I’ve returned to college to update my qualifications, so when I’m not working or studying or despairing at the current state of the world, I’m looking for reading matter that is undemanding and entertaining. You’d think a pile of recent bestselling novels would do the trick, wouldn’t you? And keep in mind I only picked up books that I thought I’d enjoy – mostly YA and what is classified as ‘chick lit’ and a couple of thrillers. Of my selection, two books fell into the “Okay, but instantly forgettable” category, most made me think “Really? This book sold a million copies? That many people liked this book?” and a couple were “How did a manuscript this bad actually manage to find a publisher?”

'Moon Over Soho' by Ben AaronovitchSo, thank heavens for Ben Aaronovitch. I am continuing to devour his Peter Grant novels, which began with Rivers of London. In the second book, Moon Over Soho, London’s jazz musicians are dropping dead of seemingly natural causes at an alarming rate; meanwhile, several gory murders around the country have been linked to a strange creature with superhuman powers. With both Peter’s boss and his best friend out of action due to injuries, it’s up to Peter to save the day. And what does he do? He begins a torrid affair with the mysterious girlfriend of one of the dead men and he convinces his jazz musician dad to come out of retirement. This works out about as well as you’d expect. Fortunately Stephanopoulos, the “terrifying lesbian” in charge of Belgravia’s Murder Squad, is there to sort out the mess, with the help of Somali Ninja Girl, who pairs her leather biker jacket with a black silk hijab. There’s plenty of humour and lots of fascinating London history, but also some really nasty violence as the villain is revealed to be truly evil. Or is there more than one evil wizard…?

'Whispers Under Ground' by Ben AaronovitchI think Whispers Under Ground, the third book, is my favourite so far. Lesley gets to play a greater role in the action as Peter, Nightingale, the Murder Squad and an unwanted FBI agent investigate the death of an American art student in London. Of course, the good guys are still trying to catch what Nightingale refers to as the “black magicians” and Peter insists on calling “Ethically Challenged Magical Practitioners”. There are some great action scenes set in the tunnels beneath London (although I could have done without the scene in which Peter and friends nearly drown in raw sewage) and there’s an awesome bit of fantasy world-building. Also, some terrific new characters! Jaget Kumar, who, when not policing the London Underground system, enjoys exploring uncharted cave systems in India! And Abigail, juvenile delinquent daughter of Peter’s mum’s neighbour, to whom Peter accidentally reveals a bit too much about magic. (Nightingale’s horrified reaction to Peter and Abigail: “What are you proposing? A Girl Guide troop?”). Also, there’s more Stephanopoulos, always a good thing.

In the fourth book, Broken Homes, a stolen German grimoire, a murdered safe-breaker and a suspicious ‘suicide’ lead Peter and Nightingale to Skygarden, a horrible 1960s multistorey housing block that may possibly have been designed for mysterious magical purposes. This allows Peter to ramble on about architecture and town planning and London history in lengthy passages that may not be totally relevant to the plot, but are usually entertaining to read. For example,

'Broken Homes' by Ben Aaronovitch

“In 1666, following an unfortunate workplace accident, the city of London burnt down. In the immediate aftermath John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and all the rest of the King’s Men descended with cries of glee upon the ruined city. They had such high hopes, such plans to sweep away the twisted donkey tracks that constituted London’s streets and replace them with boulevards and road grids as formal and controlled as the garden of a country estate. The city would be made a fit place for the gentlemen of the Enlightenment, those tradesmen they required to sustain them, and the servants needed to minister to them. Everyone else was expected to wander off and do whatever it is unwanted poor people were expected to do in the seventeenth century – die presumably.”

(Peter goes on to refer to Charles II as “the king of bling”, suggesting that Peter is a Horrible Histories fan, in addition to being very familiar with Doctor Who, Tolkien, Blade Runner, Terry Pratchett and various other geeky fandoms. Peter also drives Nightingale around the bend by insisting on referring to Nightingale’s old school as ‘Hogwarts’.)

Although the middle half of this book is fairly slow, it ends with some spectacular fight scenes, in which Nightingale finally shows why he’s in charge of the good guys and then Peter and the villain engage in a James Bond-style showdown on top of a skyscraper. But just as you think it’s all over – well, let’s just say my jaw literally dropped. It’s a huge emotional wallop for both Peter and any reader who’s been caught up in the series.1 WHAT AN ENDING. WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

'Foxglove Summer' by Ben AaronovitchWell, what happens next is Foxglove Summer. Peter, still a mess after the traumatic conclusion to Broken Homes even though he’s pretending he’s fine, is sent off to the countryside to help with an unsolved case in which two children have gone missing from an idyllic village. There’s probably not even any magic involved! What could possibly go wrong? There’s some enjoyment in seeing Peter, the quintessential Londoner, struggling with smelly sheep, recalcitrant farm gates and a lack of mobile phone coverage and there’s the customary action-packed conclusion in which, I’m pleased to say, the whole Heroic Man Saving Damsel in Distress thing is turned on its head (although Peter does do something very heroic in this book, bless him). We also get to find out more about the mysterious WWII battle that wiped out most of Britain’s wizards. However, I’ve just finished this book and still don’t completely understand why the children were taken or the significance of the foxgloves, so I think I’m going to reread it (which is no great hardship, because these books are just so much fun). I may have been distracted by my library copy, in which a previous reader had decided to cross out most of the swear words and ‘correct’ the narrator’s grammar, with ‘helpful’ comments added in the margins. Unfortunately, Library Editor seemed confused about modal verbs and failed to realise that a sentence containing the verb phrase “could have been” is a perfectly valid sentence. Also, I’m not sure why Library Editor decided to read all the way through to the fifth book in a series that’s narrated by a character who delights in not speaking the Queen’s English. In fairness to Library Editor, the UK editions of this series do have a bothersome number of typographical errors. Get your act together, Gollancz. These books deserve better. Also, I’d like the sixth book, The Hanging Tree, RIGHT NOW, PLEASE. Alas, it appears we’ll have to wait till June, 2016. In the meantime, enjoy the official Rivers of London rap.

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  1. For those who’ve read it, and then reread the entire book to look for the signs leading up to it and are still speculating about how that character could do that thing, there’s an interesting discussion post about it here. Huge spoilers for the series, obviously.

‘Goodbye Stranger’ by Rebecca Stead

This is a gentle, thoughtful novel about friendship, love and change by Rebecca Stead, who won the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me. I liked this book very much, but also wondered how many middle-grade readers – the intended audience – would persist with it. But I’ll come back to that thought later. Goodbye Stranger is the story of Bridge, a seventh-grader, and her best friends Tabitha and Emily, who all made a vow back in fourth grade to never, ever fight – which proves difficult when their lives seem to be moving in different directions. Bridge was nearly killed in a traffic accident a few years earlier and when not pondering the purpose of her existence (“You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived,” a nurse told her), she worries whether her friend Sherm “like likes” her, whether her older brother Jamie will ever manage to get rid of his toxic “frenemy” Alex, whether the moon landing was faked, and whether she’ll fail her French class. Meanwhile Tabitha has discovered feminism thanks to her English teacher, Ms Berman (“the Berperson”) and Emily has grown breasts, become the star of the soccer team and is being pursued by older boys.

'Goodbye Stranger' by Rebecca SteadThe plot revolves around a sexting scandal. Why did Emily send a revealing photo of herself to Patrick when she promised Bridge that she wouldn’t? Who sent that photo to all the boys in eighth grade? Does this mean Emily is a “skank”? Should Sherm tell the principal what he knows, even though he’ll be ostracised by the other boys if he does? If Patrick wasn’t responsible, then who is he protecting with his silence? Why does Emily insist on staying loyal to Patrick? And who revenge-posted that revealing photo of Patrick? There’s also a rather confusing subplot set several months into the future, involving an unnamed older teenager responsible for another scandal and narrated in the second person. Other relationships are shown in order to further explore the theme of love – for example, Emily’s parents have divorced but they still go on dates, Sherm’s grandfather has walked out on his wife after fifty years of marriage, and Tab’s mother observes Karva Chauth (when “Good Hindu women fast all day to show their devotion to their husbands”, which Tab thinks is anti-feminist, although her older sister Celeste thinks it’s “romantic”).

There were a lot of things I liked about this novel. The main characters are smart but realistically flawed and the smartest of them does something very, very stupid, yet somehow plausible. They do things they regret, and then they say sorry, face the consequences and learn something from it. The friendship between the three girls is lovely and I really liked that by the end, they’d realised that ‘No Fights’ doesn’t work very well as a friendship policy. Most of the characters are also really NICE, which was a pleasant change after reading so many YA novels filled with snarky, cynical teenagers. The sibling relationships are great – Bridge and her brother Jamie bond over their shared love of a cheesy Christmas movie; Tab and Celeste have very different interests, yet manage to share a bedroom amicably; Emily (and her friends) care about her odd little brother Evan. The parents, grandparents and teachers are also caring and sensible and I especially liked Mr P, the “intense” teacher who oversees Bridge, Sherm and the other members of Tech Crew and runs a book club for kids with divorced parents. Also, the setting was great! I love reading about New York students who walk home from school to their brownstone houses via the local diner, where they sit in booths and order vanilla milkshakes and cinnamon toast to share. (Possibly New York readers get a similar kick out of reading stories about Australian teenagers riding around their farms on quad bikes and bottle-feeding orphaned kangaroos.) Despite the characters in this novel being very privileged, they’re also ethnically diverse – Bridge’s father is Armenian-American, Sherm’s grandparents migrated from Sicily, Tab and Celeste’s parents came from India via France – but none of this is made into an Issue.

However, some things didn’t work so well for me. I didn’t understand why the Mysterious Narrator chapters had to be in the second person, why the timeline had to diverge from the main plot or why the narrator had to be Mysterious. I found these sections confusing and distracting, and I think the novel could have done without them. In fact, my main criticism of this book was that there was just TOO MUCH going on. While the author is highly skilled, this book is nearly three hundred pages long and her efforts to connect every little subplot and character mean that plausibility is stretched to its limits by the end (for those who’ve read the book, the moment when Bridge realises which yellow VW ‘caused’ her accident was the moment I shouted, “ENOUGH!”). It was this that made me wonder whether the book might be too long, complex and slow-moving for a lot of eleven- and twelve-year-old readers (I should note that the ‘sexting’ parts of the book are very mild – I don’t think they’re too confronting for this age group to read). Some reviewers have also raised this concern – for example, this commenter felt the book “reads just like a contemporary literary novel for adults.” A teacher-librarian on Goodreads believed it would not appeal to her own students and a commenter below her review wondered “if children’s writers are writing for the award committees, rather than the kids”. Meanwhile Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal, who has served on the Newbery award panel, raves about the book and thinks it’s perfect for middle-graders but acknowledges:

“…were it not for the author’s fantastic writing and already existing fan base, it would languish away in that no man’s land between child and teen fiction. Fortunately Stead has a longstanding, strong, and dedicated group of young followers who are willing to dip a toe into the potentially murky world of middle school.”

I agree with most of these points of view – I think Goodbye Stranger will find an audience of thoughtful pre-teen and young teenage readers, but will not appeal to many in this age group. I also agree this has been published internationally and is receiving lots of publicity only because the author is already well-known and critically acclaimed – but hopefully this will encourage more publishers to take a chance with subtle, complex, realistic books for young teenage readers who find the sex and violence in some YA books a bit too much for their tastes.

This Looks Strangely Familiar …

'The Scent of Secrets' by Jane Thynne

‘The Scent of Secrets’ by Jane Thynne (Published in September 2015 by Ballantine Books)

The Scent of Secrets, by Jane Thynne, is historical fiction set in 1938 and published last month in the US and Canada by Ballantine Books and Doubleday Canada. “The novel richly fuses fact and fiction with a cast of real Nazis and their British admirers, such as the Mitford sisters and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” according to its Goodreads page. It “puts a new spin on an ever-fascinating era, fraught with glamor, political tension, tragedy, and romance.” What an interesting idea!

To make things more confusing, it was published under the title A War of Flowers in the UK and is the third in a series (although The Scent of Secrets is the first of the series to be published in North America, according to this Q & A by the author). The second book in the series, The Winter Garden, looks like this:

'The Winter Garden' by Jane Thynne

‘The Winter Garden’ by Jane Thynne (Paperback published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster)

I guess Jane Thynne’s publishers really, really like that 1949 photograph by Frances McLaughlin-Gill.

By the way, if you’re new to this blog and you’re wondering what I’m going on about, five years ago I wrote a novel about political tension, glamour, tragedy and romance, set in 1938 and featuring real-life Nazis and their British supporters, including the Mitford sisters and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It looked like this:

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover

‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’, North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch

I absolutely loved Rivers of London, the first in a series of novels about Constable Peter Grant of the London Metropolitan Police, who unexpectedly finds himself apprenticed to a wizard and solving gruesome supernatural crimes. It’s a very entertaining mix of police procedural and urban paranormal (complete with ghosts, vampires, demons, river nymphs and whatever bizarre, blood-sucking creature Molly the Maid is supposed to be), although Peter’s new wizard master, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, wants to make it clear he’s not Harry Potter:

“In what way?”
“I’m not a fictional character,” said Nightingale.

(Also, Nightingale travels in a 1960s Jag, rather than on a broomstick. And the vampires definitely aren’t sparkly.)

'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch

Paperback cover of UK edition of ‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch

The story involves two strands. In the first, a supernatural serial killer seems to be on the loose in London; in the second, the gods and goddesses connected with the River Thames are squabbling over territory. There’s plenty of blood, action and snarky commentary, and the two narrative strands are twisted together satisfactorily by the end of the book.

What I enjoyed most, though, were the characters, who are all interesting, funny and realistically multicultural. This shouldn’t be at all remarkable, except I’ve just finished reading several contemporary novels in a row that were set in Sydney or London or New York and yet were exclusively peopled with white, middle-class, heterosexual characters (just like their respective authors, in fact). In Rivers of London, Peter, the main character, is London-born, with a mum from Sierra Leone and a white dad who’s a jazz musician (and junkie). Peter’s background is integral to the story – he has an understanding of certain London cultures that Nightingale lacks, so it’s an advantage to have Peter on the team. Yet the author also acknowledges the realities of being a young black man in London, such as when Peter catches a train and observes the other passengers warily assessing him (“I was sending out mixed signals, the suit and reassuring countenance of my face going one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race going the other”). It isn’t all Serious Discussion of Race Relations, though – Peter, worried he’s about to be sent undercover in a dangerous black community, blurts out to his commander, “I don’t like rap music!” (His confused superior, who’d actually planned to send Peter off to do boring paperwork because Peter gets so easily distracted on the beat, nods slowly and says, “That’s useful to know.”)

The other characters are just as real and interesting as Peter. Working alongside Nightingale is Dr Abdul Haqq Walid, Scottish cryptopathologist. Peter’s friend Lesley is a beautiful young blonde who is far better at police work than Peter. Lesley has a “terrifying lesbian” supervisor called Detective Sergeant Miriam Stephanopoulos (who turns out to be slightly less terrifying than Peter first thinks). The Londoners whom Peter encounters during his investigation include a Danish housewife, a Sri Lankan refugee working in a cinema, a Turkish doorman, some white Hare Krishnas and a Nigerian goddess. These characters aren’t diverse because the author is trying to be Politically Correct or a Social Justice Warrior or because someone started up a Twitter hashtag campaign against his books – this is just what GOOD WRITING looks like.1

There did seem to be a few plot holes – for example, it takes Peter and Nightingale more than 200 pages to work out what’s going on with the serial killer, when I’d figured it out after the first murder. (Admittedly, there was a big clue in the cover art of the hardback UK edition I read – and I noticed that that part of the artwork had been minimised and blurred for the paperback cover.2) Peter also shows a strange lack of curiosity about his new wizard mentor, even though several characters warn Peter about Nightingale. I mean, I know Peter can be a bit dim sometimes, but if I was suddenly whisked off to live with a wizard and learn magic, I’d want to know a bit about him. Also, how come Peter can suddenly see ghosts and detect magic only now, as a young man? If he was born with magical abilities, wouldn’t he at least have had an inkling of his powers during his childhood? Maybe this will be addressed in the subsequent books, but I must admit, I was so busy enjoying the story and laughing at the jokes that I didn’t worry too much about the bits that didn’t make complete sense. Apart from Peter’s exciting battles with the supernatural, there’s also a lot of fascinating London history (and a really cool chase scene, with the characters running through London’s history all the way back to Roman times). I’m already a few chapters into the sequel, Moon Over Soho, and it’s excellent so far. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series.

You may also be interested in reading:

What I’ve Been Reading : The Peter Grant Series

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  1. I have a lot of feelings about this topic, because like Peter, I’m what is called “mixed race”, although that term doesn’t even make sense unless you believe there’s such a thing as a “pure race” (and at least “mixed race” is better than “half-caste” and the other, even less polite, names I was called at school). I was recently reading an interview with Jemaine Clement about his new film, People Places Things, which apparently attracted attention in the United States because it features what Americans call an “interracial romance”. They seemed to think Jemaine Clement was white and that it was astounding that his character could fall in love with an African-American woman. For one thing, Jemaine Clement’s mother is Māori, he was raised by his mother and grandmother in an extended Māori family, and he describes himself as both mixed race and a “pale-skinned Māori person”. As he said, “Anything I do is interracial!” Diversity in films (or books) isn’t the creators being brave or challenging or progressive – it’s just them doing their job properly and SHOWING REAL LIFE. By the way, I haven’t seen People Places Things, but I have seen his previous film, What We Do In The Shadows, which is extremely funny and charming and is highly recommended if you like spoof vampire documentaries set in New Zealand.
  2. I should also note that Rivers of London was published under the title Midnight Riot in North America. Why do American publishers change book titles like that? Okay, yes, there’s a riot that takes place at midnight, but that’s not what the book is ABOUT. It’s about the RIVERS OF LONDON! Also, check out the difference between the US cover and the (slightly spoilery) UK hardback cover.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

Or, A Collection of Book-Related Links That Caught My Attention But That I Never Got Around To Writing Blog Posts About.

– And yes, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition and started this sentence with a conjunction. At least I have a better understanding of punctuation than these cake decorators. Not all Cakes are Wrecks, though – look at these amazing book-related cakes.

– Here’s a fascinating (if you’re a traditionally-published author) post by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown about why they decided to self-publish the second book in their Change series, after Viking published the first book. It says so much about how the publishing industry works these days. (Incidentally, the manuscript of the first book in the series started off that GayYA thing.)

– And here’s an article by Sally Nicholls about why it isn’t always necessary to kill off the characters’ parents in children’s books. (It does make plotting exciting adventures much easier, though.)

– I have no interest in reading Go Set a Watchman, partly because I don’t feel the need to read the unedited first draft of a novel that I’ve already read and enjoyed, but also because I have doubts about whether Harper Lee has given her consent for it to be published. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

– Speaking of which, what is going on with the book bestseller lists at the moment? Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald’s top ten bestseller list consisted of the previously-mentioned unedited first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, four of the Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and FIVE colouring-in books! Now, I have nothing against Andy Griffiths – his books may not be my cup of tea, but he’s brought a lot of laughter and excitement to a lot of child readers. But colouring books? Why are they being counted?

– However, I do approve of this – a lot of people tweeting about what Young Adult books would look like if the books were Very Realistic.

– I also liked (possibly not the right word) this article by Annabel Crabb about a man who wrote her a detailed letter criticising her latest book, even though he hadn’t actually bothered to read the book. It reminded me of the time I was doing a book signing at an English teachers’ conference and two separate men came up to berate me for having the nerve to publish my book as a ‘Vintage Classic’, when my book was clearly not Classic Literature. Not that they’d read the book. (Not that I’d had any say in that book being republished under the Vintage Classics imprint, anyway.)

– Although if they had read my books, they probably would have objected to them anyway, because the books are full of princesses. Princesses doing girly, princessy things like buying ball gowns and learning how to curtsey and looking for a suitable husband, and also fighting Nazis, giving speeches at the League of Nations and writing newspaper articles about the plight of child refugees. There’s a good post about Princess Shaming over at Tea Cozy (the comments are interesting, too).

– And those men probably would have scoffed at the notion of a tiny island kingdom, as well. I guess they’re not aware of the “republican monarchy” of Atlantium here in Australia (“At 0.76 square kilometres we are counted among the world’s smallest states, which brings into play certain practical realities; we choose to deal with these in a pragmatic manner.”)

– I mean, those men probably don’t even believe in sea monsters!

'Colossal Octopus' by Pierre Denys de Montford, 1810

‘Colossal Octopus’ by Pierre Denys de Montford, 1810