Why Science Book Titles Are The Best Book Titles

Browsing the science shelves at my local library yesterday, I found the following books:

How to Fossilise Your Hamster and Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist

Dunk Your Biscuit Horizontally

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?

The Velocity of Honey

Lies, Deep Fries and Statistics

The Joy of X

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?

Ignorance

Actual book titles, people. And How to Fossilise Your Hamster is “The must-have companion to the No. 1 bestsellers, Does Anything Eat Wasps? and Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?

What I’ve Been Reading

'Daughter of Time' by Josephine TeyI loved The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a murder mystery in which a police detective solves a four-hundred-year-old crime while lying immobile in a hospital bed. Alan Grant, with the enthusiastic help of a young American working at the British Museum, examines the facts behind Richard III’s supposed murder of the Princes in the Tower and convincingly argues that the villain was actually . . . well, you’ll have to read it to find out. While I don’t think Richard III was quite as saintly as this author believes, the novel was well researched and fascinating, and I was amused (in a horrified sort of way) by the descriptions of the 1950s hospital setting (for instance, Alan lying in bed and CHAIN-SMOKING). It was especially interesting to read about Richard III, given the recent (disputed) discovery of his skeleton under a car park in Leicester. And yes, I did spend the entire book with this song stuck in my brain (“Can you imagine it, I’m the last Plantagenet . . .”). I’m also happy to say that Sydney City Libraries lived up to expectations and provided me with a lovely old volume from the library stacks – not quite a first edition, but pretty close (see picture).

I’ve also been engrossed in Fun Home, a funny, sad, insightful graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (of Bechdel Test fame) about her father, who died when she was at college. She found it difficult to grieve, partly because he’d been such a complicated, miserable, angry person, and partly because she’d grown up in a family that suppressed emotions and unpleasant realities. At his funeral, she wonders, “What would happen if we spoke the truth?” and when a well-meaning neighbour says consolingly, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways”, she pictures herself screaming, “There’s no mystery! He killed himself because he was a manic-depressive, closeted fag and he couldn’t face living in this small-minded small town one more second!” The story of her father’s secret homosexual life (which included criminal charges and being ordered into psychiatric therapy) is told in conjunction with Alison’s own, much happier, coming-out story. My only criticism would be that there were an awful lot of references to Important Books (from The Odyssey and Ulysses to As I Lay Dying and The Great Gatsby), which seemed to have more to do with the author saying, “Look how well read I am!” than with the story being told.

A different take on the subject of coming out was provided by James Howe in Totally Joe, an endearing and funny middle-grade novel about twelve-year-old Joe and his friends (and enemies). While it’s definitely an Issues Novel, the characters are nuanced and the whole idea of Life Lessons is incorporated in an amusing way – Joe has to write an ‘alphabiography’ for English class and explain what he’s learned about life at the end of each chapter. His Life Lessons range from “Middle school is like being trapped in a reality show where there’s no way off the island and you’re always a loser” (after he’s falsely accused of kissing the boy he has a crush on) to “Religion is only as good as the people using it” (after his friend’s proposal for a Gay-Straight Alliance group at school is viciously opposed by the religious parents of the school bully). I’m a bit wary of middle-grade books that deal with pre-adolescent sexuality, whether gay or straight, but this book is about (very restrained) romance rather than sex. While Joe briefly has a boyfriend, their relationship mostly consists of them hanging out with their group of friends, dressing up as Bert and Ernie for Halloween, and on one occasion, holding hands “for all of maybe five seconds” (and Joe thinks kissing sounds disgusting, although maybe in about four years’ time, “I’ll be ready to exchange saliva”). It was nice to see Joe had supportive adults around him (his parents, his aunt, his English teacher who has a gay son), but there were also adults who needed time to grow into acceptance (his grandparents, his school principal) and some realistically unrepentant bigots (the school bully and his family).

'Tea with Arwa' by Arwa El MasriFinally, Tea with Arwa: One woman’s story of faith, family and finding a home in Australia by Arwa El Masri was a gentle, simply told account of the life of a “proud and happy Muslim Australian woman”. Arwa’s parents had been exiled from Palestine after the Israeli occupation when they were small children, and although they eventually established a comfortable, middle-class life in Saudi Arabia (her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher), they were not permitted to become Saudi citizens, so they decided to migrate to Australia. Arwa’s story is unremarkable compared to some recent stories of migration – she herself didn’t flee a war-torn nation or arrive here in a leaky boat, her parents simply decided, quite reasonably, that their children would have a better future in a country where the family could become citizens. Arwa, arriving here as a primary school student with limited English literacy skills, had some difficulties adjusting to co-educational schools where students were often disrespectful to teachers and she occasionally faced racism, but just as often, she found Australians to be kind, helpful and interested in learning more about her life.
Arwa is careful to distinguish her religious beliefs from the cultural and family traditions of the Middle East, although it’s clear that both are immensely important to her and not to be criticised. For example, she feels it’s a little unfair that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive, because there’s nothing in the Quran that expressly forbids it – but it’s okay, because they all have chauffeurs! She also states that “racism and prejudice do not exist under Islam” and that it’s a religion of “peace and harmony” (especially sad to read, given the hundreds of thousands of Muslims currently torturing and murdering one another in various parts of the world, not that Jews and Christians are much better). She has a tendency to state beliefs as though they are facts, and when this contradicts scientific evidence, well, “some aspects of science are yet to catch up to the Quran’s teachings”. She also discusses her decision, as a young married woman, to resume wearing the hijab, which she regards as “a simple way for a woman to protect herself against unwanted objectionable sexual attention in a world that sexualises women”. (Oh, if only putting on a veil really did provide magical protection against sexual harassment and assault. Then there’d be no rape or violence against women in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, but alas, that’s not true.) Anyway, this is a good reminder that multiculturalism means accepting the values and beliefs of everyone in society (providing they don’t break the law), even when those values clash with those of a modern, secular society. Multiculturalism is about much more than lots of yummy new foods, although a key part of Arwa’s philosophy is that sharing food is an important part of cross-cultural communication. Accordingly, the book includes a number of delicious-sounding recipes, from pavlova and sausage rolls with a Middle Eastern twist, to falafel, babaganoush and tabouli, with many descriptions of the meals Arwa has shared with family and friends. This would be a great book to give to your auntie/neighbour/work colleague who constantly complains about migrants taking over Australia but loves to cook – it might shift her ideas a little, as Arwa seems like a nice person to sit down with for a cup of tea and a chat.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

- YA author Simmone Howell, who recently taught a course on writing for young readers, has written a series of blog posts about aspects such as character, structure, voice and place, and why you probably won’t be able to make a living from your writing, with lots of useful links.

- Over at The Paris Review there’s an interesting interview with Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and then Knopf, who edited books by Jessica Mitford, John Le Carré, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing and many other writers. He discusses the role of the editor and publisher (“you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor . . .You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill”) and how much the publishing industry has changed in recent years.

- Something I’ve been pondering lately is the distinction between ‘middle grade’ and ‘young adult’ fiction (mostly because I’ve just finished writing a book that falls somewhere in the middle of those two publishing categories), so I was pleased to see this article about the topic at Publishers Weekly (especially as it mentions A Brief History of Montmaray – thank you, Meghan from BookPeople in Austin, Texas!). Other interesting blog posts I’ve come across include Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask, Where are the books for 13-year-olds? and Middle grade saved my life (the last written by Jeanne Birdsall, author of the wonderful Penderwicks books).

- Finally, I’m tickled that the Montmaray books have appeared on TV Tropes. For those who haven’t encountered TV Tropes before, it’s an enormous and quite addictive website devoted to discussing the tropes (that is, the stereotypes, clichés and overused ideas) in popular TV shows, movies and books. Tropes identified in the Montmaray books include Micro Monarchy and (slightly spoilery) Kissing Cousins and Never Found the Body. But come on, TV Tropers, you’ve missed a few! What about Ace Pilot, British Stuffiness, Everything’s Better with Llamas, I Was Beaten by a Girl and Upper Class Twit? And I’ve always thought of the Colonel as a bit of an Agent Peacock . . .

Scones – The Definitive Version

The good thing about having a blog devoted to books is that you can write about absolutely any topic you like, knowing there will be a book about it, or at least a book containing some references to it. This is why I’m able to direct your attention to this article on the correct way to eat scones, knowing it is a perfectly valid literary topic, because several of my own books mention people making and/or eating scones.

I’m afraid Tony Naylor gets off to a bad start when he claims the word ‘scone’ rhymes with ‘cone’, when of course, it rhymes with ‘gone’. He seems to think only Hyacinth Bucket types pronounce it as ‘skon’, which seems the wrong way round to me – surely the pseudo-posh pronunciation is a drawled-out ‘skohhhn’? Fortunately, there are a lot of people who are able to put Mr Naylor right in the comments section of his article. And he gets everything else right, explaining that scones should never, ever contain fruit1 or be dusted with icing sugar or sullied with a blob of disgusting clotted cream. I was interested to read that he believes the (fresh, whipped) cream should go on first, then the jam, rather than the other way round, on the grounds of both aesthetics and taste (“by plopping the jam on top you allow its flavour to shine through . . . I assume it is something to do with fat coating your mouth first, and inhibiting your tastebuds”). Wouldn’t the jam fall off? It probably depends on how much cream and jam you use. I should conduct a scientific experiment to investigate this important issue. Although it seems this scone eater has decided to have a bet each way, with jam above and below the cream:

A scone with jam and cream and even more jam

A scone with jam and cream and even more jam. Creative Commons Licensed image by Foowee.

Anyway, I wish this article had existed a few years ago, when the North American edition of A Brief History of Montmaray was being prepared, because then I could have directed my American editor towards it and saved myself a lot of time. She was confused by the manuscript’s references to ‘scones’ because in the United States, they do not have scones. Tragic, isn’t it? We eventually established that the U.S. equivalent is the ‘biscuit’, a small, round, bread-like cake made with baking soda, although I think that’s regarded as a savoury food, something to eat with a main meal, like a bread roll? (All of my knowledge of American biscuits comes from American novelists, mostly Anne Tyler. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ruth makes “beaten biscuits genuinely beat on a stump with the back of an ax”, while Evie in A Slipping-Down Life visits her former housekeeper to find out how to make biscuits with bacon drippings. Actually, now I think of it, there’s a recipe for buttermilk biscuits in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, too. Are biscuits a Southern food?) This led to an editorial discussion about what Australians mean by ‘biscuit’, which is the equivalent of an American ‘cookie’, although we do have chocolate-chip cookies2. The notion of Sophie FitzOsborne baking ‘oat biscuits’ was so baffling to the Americans that I took it out of the American edition altogether (it was ‘oat cakes’ originally, but even my Australian editor was perplexed by that). And then I learned what a strawberry shortcake is, and that it has nothing to do with shortbread. Remember the Strawberry Shortcake doll craze of the 1980s? I think there were even some Strawberry Shortcake books. See, everything is related to books.

Strawberry shortcake

A strawberry shortcake. Creative Commons Licensed image by Stuart Spivack.

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  1. The exception is the pumpkin scone, which should be served with butter, rather than jam and cream.
  2. But Anzac biscuits are definitely biscuits and not cookies, despite the views of some baked-goods manufacturers.

‘Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith’ by Valerie Grove

I picked up this biography with great enthusiasm, but found, on the very first page, this description of Valerie Grove, the biographer, reading I Capture the Castle:

“Like so many readers before me, I was captured from the opening sentence: ‘I am writing this sitting in the kitchen sink.’”

Grrr! It’s “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, one of the most famous opening lines in modern English literature, and a person who can’t see or hear the difference between those two sentences probably should not be writing books at all, let alone writing biographies of Dodie Smith. However, I pressed on and found that the biographer seemed to have done a very thorough job of investigating Dodie’s life – assisted by the millions of words Dodie wrote about herself in her journals, her letters to her friends and her multiple volumes of autobiography.

'Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith' by Valerie Grove Dear Dodie contains detailed descriptions of Dodie as a spoilt only child surrounded by doting older relatives in a wealthy, theatre-loving Victorian family; of the deaths of both her parents by the time she was eighteen; and of the years she spent as an unsuccessful actress in the 1920s, before she gave up and got a job at Heal’s, the London department store. Dodie was “not temperamentally suited to the shopgirl’s humdrum life of clocking in from nine to six”, but as she was having an affair with the (married) owner of the store, she knew she was unlikely to be sacked, despite her tardiness and temper tantrums (she once “flung one of [the] assistants, a heavy girl, across the china department”). She then had enormous critical and commercial success in the 1930s as a playwright, before being “forced” into exile in the United States during the war, so that her younger husband Alec could avoid conscription.

Dodie seems to have hated America, even though she managed to make quite a lot of money writing screenplays in Hollywood. When she and Alec finally returned to England in 1953, it was to a country that was no longer interested in her cosy plays set in rich people’s drawing rooms, and she never again had much success as a playwright. Her first novel, though, was I Capture the Castle, an international bestseller, which was followed by even greater commercial success with her children’s book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was subsequently made into a beloved Disney film.

But did this make Dodie happy? No. She complained bitterly about any less-than-gushing book reviews and was outraged when the play of I Capture the Castle was not sufficiently appreciated by critics or audiences. She spent money extravagantly, then moaned about how impoverished she was. She was fiercely critical of all her friends and acquaintances, and in later life, preferred to avoid people altogether. Animals, particularly dogs, were her passion, although she took this to extremes – for example, feeding mice and rats in her country cottage, until the kitchen was “carpeted with mice” and the lawn “alive” with rats. (Mind you, her love of animals didn’t prevent her from eating meat or wearing fur coats.) She became increasingly peevish and obsessive about her routines, and was indignant when her husband died, because he was supposed to look after her till her death:

“As Christopher Reynolds-Jones [her cousin] tells, Dodie telephoned him and he asked her how she was. ‘Oh, I’ve had a terrible morning,’ said Dodie. ‘My breakfast didn’t arrive, so I went along to see what was happening and found Alec dead.’”

It seems to me that this biographer didn’t actually like Dodie much, which must have made writing the book a bit of a struggle:

“[Dodie's] life was essentially limited and, to a degree, pampered. Though she had to struggle in her actress days, even at her poorest she never cooked herself a meal, and even as a ‘shopgirl’ there was always someone to wake her and fetch her breakfast. After her mother’s death, she never had to look after anyone – husband, children or aged parents; and she was nannied by her husband for fifty years. A writer who has no family, no responsibility for other people, nobody to consider but himself and his own work (and there have been legions of such writers, most of them men) lives a peculiarly privileged and self-indulgent life.”

The biographer also feels, for some reason, that we need constant reminders of how Dodie was “plain”, “unbeautiful”, “ugly”, “witchlike” and “dwarfish” (she was five feet tall, only an inch shorter than I am, and she looks like a perfectly normal middle-aged woman in most of the photos). Perhaps this is relevant when explaining Dodie’s failure to become a leading stage actress, but what does it have to do with the rest of her life? Do we really need to be told that Dodie dressed up for the opening night of one of her plays, “although elegance was hard to achieve, for a woman five foot high . . .”?

'I Capture The Castle' by Dodie SmithOn the other hand, the biographer acknowledges that Dodie worked extremely hard and was intelligent, witty, resolute, spirited and highly perceptive. Dodie could be very generous to those she liked, and she had fascinating friendships with other writers, including Christopher Isherwood and Julian Barnes – and, of course, she wrote some wonderful books. My favourite part of this biography was about the process of writing I Capture the Castle. The castle setting was borrowed from the autobiography of Margot Asquith, who’d grown up with her sister in a remote Scottish castle, where they’d walked on the turrets at midnight and kept their clothes hanging in a tower. Mortmain’s book, Jacob Wrestling, was meant to be a fictional version of Joyce’s Ulysses. Cassandra, originally called Sophia, was a younger version of Dodie (although Ambrose Heal, her former lover, claimed Dodie was Topaz). In the US, the Literary Guild ordered more than half a million copies before publication, but asked her to make Cassandra kinder to Stephen, which she did. Dodie was astonished when they said they would have preferred Cassandra to marry Stephen, but was “relieved to be allowed to keep the ending ambivalent: she wanted readers to finish the book hoping that Cassandra would marry Simon.”

Fans of I Capture the Castle, then, will find much of interest in this book, and dog lovers will enjoy the amusing anecdotes about Dodie’s own Dalmatians. Dear Dodie is well-researched and provides a clear, chronological account of the life of a very successful writer. Just don’t expect to feel very fond of Dodie by the end of it.

The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

'Lucia Rising' by E. F. BensonThese books provided a delightful distraction during my recent lengthy convalescence, so I feel obliged to gush about them here, even though you’re probably already familiar with them. Actually, why hadn’t I read them before? They are exactly my cup of tea – comedies of manners, set in England during the 1920s and 1930s, mercilessly poking fun at the trivial pursuits and snobbery of the idle rich. Few of the characters are likeable, but that just makes their frantic attempts to clamber to the top of the social pile all the more entertaining. The queen of their society is Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas, whom even her loyal friend Georgie describes as

“a hypocrite . . . a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”

At first, Lucia has to be content with bossing around the inhabitants of the village of Riseholme – forcing them into participating in an Elizabethan pageant, ‘educating’ them about etiquette and poetry and Beethoven – but then her husband inherits a house in Brompton Square and she sets off to try to insert herself into fashionable London Society, with mixed success. However, the books really come to life when Lucia and Georgie move to the village of Tilling, reigned over by the formidable Miss Elizabeth Mapp. Lucia usually wins their battles, but Miss Mapp puts up a strong fight. The secondary characters are equally entertaining. There’s sweet, slightly dim Georgie, clutching his “toupet” to his head as he gallops along in Lucia’s wake; Major Benjy with his tall tales of tiger hunting and his fondness for whisky; the Padre who inexplicably speaks “Scotch”, even though he’s never been further north than Birmingham; and Mrs Wyse, who communes on a higher plane with her dead budgerigar, Blue Birdie. My favourite is Irene, roaring up and down the main street on her motor-bicycle, painting scandalous frescoes on the front of her house, and coming up with mad schemes to assist her beloved Lucia, which always go disastrously wrong.

'Lucia Victrix' by E. F. BensonI was intrigued to see how few of the characters fitted into the traditional married-with-children mould, and the most endearing characters were all coded as gay or lesbian. Irene, for instance, has an Eton crop, wears men’s clothes and lives with her not-very-servant-like maid, Lucy. Meanwhile, Georgie is obsessed with his appearance and his favourite hobbies are embroidery and watercolour painting (and Major Benjy sneeringly refers to him as “Miss Milliner Michael-Angelo”). There’s no indication that Georgie is attracted to men – in fact, he spends all his time in the company of women and is devoted to Lucia – but he has a panic attack whenever it seems that a woman might be attracted to him and he eventually settles into a happy, celibate marriage with Lucia. The novels have also been described as abounding in “camp humour”, so it did not surprise me to learn that E. F. Benson was “likely to have been homosexual“. Bonus fact about E. F. Benson – ‘Mallards’, the fictional residence of Miss Mapp and then Lucia, is based on Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, which was inhabited by not just E. F. Benson, but also Henry James and Rumer Godden (not all at the same time, obviously) and was the subject of Joan Aiken’s book, The Haunting of Lamb House.

There are six novels in the Mapp and Lucia series:

Queen Lucia (1920)
Miss Mapp (1922)
Lucia in London (1927)
Mapp and Lucia (1931)
Lucia’s Progress (1935)
Trouble for Lucia (1939)

Apparently there are also a couple of short stories about the characters, including The Male Impersonator. E. F. Benson was a prolific writer, producing over a hundred books. David Blaize sounds especially interesting, but Benson also wrote some memoirs and a biography of Charlotte Bronte (as well as a novel called The Princess Sophia!). The Mapp and Lucia books were made into a television series in the 1980s, starring Geraldine McEwan as Lucia, Prunella Scales as Mapp and Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie, and the BBC has just announced a new series will be filmed this year, using Lamb House as ‘Mallards’.

What To Read When You’re Sick

'The Convalescent' by Gwen John (1924)

‘The Convalescent’ by Gwen John (1924)

My apologies for the scarcity of blog posts recently. I do have an excuse – I’ve been sick. This has been No Fun. On the positive side, after months of dragging myself around, feeling pathetic and useless, it was some sort of relief to hear my doctor say, “You are not being lazy – you are seriously ill and need to be in hospital right now, having lots of blood transfusions.”1 Anyway, all of this has left me pondering what to read when you’re sick.

Of course, when you’re really, really sick, you can’t read anything at all. In fact, this could be a diagnostic test for certain people (the sort of people who read blogs about books, for instance). Doctors could ask, “Have you had difficulties reading more than a few pages of a book, even when you usually like that author?” alongside questions such as “Do you get breathless walking more than a few steps?” and “Do you feel faint when you stand up?”

However, assuming you’re at a stage where you can read, what should you read? Here are my suggestions:

1. Choose books that conserve your energy

You don’t want to be reading anything that makes your heart pound in fear, causes you to gasp with laughter, or gives you nightmares. You’re trying to give your body a rest. For this reason, main characters who are endearing may be a better choice than characters who are so annoying that they tempt you to hurl the book across the room. Novels with convoluted plots, non-fiction containing complex information and genres you don’t usually read may also be too much for your tired brain right now. You’re looking for something predictable and comforting, yet interesting enough to distract you, and this really depends on your personal tastes. I found Anne of Green Gables, which I’d never read before, worked well for me. Anne is good without being sickly-sweet, and her adventures were fun, without containing any nasty shocks. The book was amusing without being laugh-out-loud and Anne’s feisty approach to life was inspiring – perhaps I, too, would soon have the energy to be able to break a slate over the head of anyone who annoyed me.2

The problem is that you don’t really know what a book will be like till you’ve read it, so old favourites are often a good choice. I grabbed Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe off my bookshelf just before I rushed off to hospital and this turned out to be an excellent decision. I could put the book down if I needed a little sleep, then resume reading without forgetting who the characters were or what they were supposed to be doing. (This reminds me of another Anne Tyler character, Macon in The Accidental Tourist, who never boards a plane without his copy of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, which he describes as “plotless . . . but invariably interesting”. I was pleased to discover recently it is an actual novel, so maybe I should hunt down a copy.)

2. Avoid books about illness, medicine, hospitals, death, etc

You don’t want to be reading about all that when you’re sick. So don’t, for example, choose Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper for your sickbed reading because a) it’s about a teenager dying of leukaemia and contains detailed descriptions of medical procedures, and b) it’s full of corny dialogue, clunky metaphors and implausible plot developments, with a conclusion that will make you want to throw the book across the room.

3. Magazines are good, newspapers less so

There’s a reason hospital shops stock a large selection of magazines. A magazine article is often just the right length to suit your concentration span and there are lots of colourful pictures to gape at. I don’t know who most of the celebrities in magazines are, so I prefer ‘lifestyle’ magazines and the more removed from my current life, the better. There’s something very soothing about sitting in a hospital bed, reading about the difficulties someone had while renovating their charming centuries-old farmhouse in Provence. Newspapers are less suitable, because the pages get loose and smear ink on your sheets and they’re full of BAD NEWS.3

4. Paperbacks or large-print hardcovers?

Large-print books are handy if your vision is blurred due to illness or your medication, or if you just can’t get out of bed to put in your contact lenses. Hardcovers are also good at sitting up and staying open by themselves on your bed tray. They are heavy, though, so sometimes paperbacks are easier to manage. An e-reader with adjustable font size would probably work well, but a) I don’t have one, and b) you can’t use personal electronic devices in some medical settings.

5. What about audiobooks?

In theory, audiobooks should be a great way to read when you’re sick. Choose an appropriate book, plug in your earphones and relax against your pillows as a professional actor brings the words to life! However, I find that audiobooks require more concentration than print books do. If I get lost, I can’t just flip back a few pages to figure out the timeline or remind myself of the name of a minor character. There’s also the issue of not being able to use electronic devices in some medical settings. What sick people really need is an actual live person to sit by their bed and read aloud to them on demand. The reader can stop when the patient falls asleep and then answer questions about previous events in the book once the patient wakes up again, and can also fluff up pillows, fetch iced lemon drinks, adjust window coverings according to time of day, etc. Unfortunately, this is not an option for most sick people.

Um . . . that’s all I’ve got. Reading recommendations welcome.

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  1. I try not to use this blog to proselytise about anything other than books, but I’m feeling very grateful to the blood donors of Australia at the moment, so . . . If you’re medically capable and are okay with needles, maybe consider donating blood this year? I used to be a regular blood donor, back when I was young and healthy (obviously, they wouldn’t want my blood now, especially as most of it isn’t mine). Giving blood doesn’t take much time, doesn’t hurt much, and could save someone’s life. Thanks! Okay, back to books now.
  2. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I wonder what a modern-day Anne would do to an annoying classmate? Wallop him with an iPad?
  3. Especially at the moment, if you are an Australian.

An Interview With Anne Blankman, Historical Novelist

I was impressed by Anne Blankman’s debut historical YA novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog, and wondered about the research she’d done for it. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about this.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanCongratulations on your debut novel, Anne. I found Prisoner of Night and Fog to be a thrilling read, but also a fascinating look at one particular period of German history. Why did you choose to set your novel in Munich in 1931?

Thanks so much for having me, Michelle! I’m a huge fan of your Montmaray books, and so pleased to be invited to visit your blog today.

My reasons for setting Prisoner of Night and Fog in Munich were rooted in Hitler’s history. Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Hitler lived in Munich. As my main character, Gretchen, initially has a close friendship with Hitler and has adored him for years, it was necessary that they reside near each other.

As for the year 1931, it was a pivotal time for the Nazis–in the previous year’s elections, they had increased their presence in the Reichstag from 12 to 107 deputies and they were poised to become the most powerful political party in Germany. Hitler was campaigning for the presidency; support for the Nazis was finally spreading throughout the country, instead of remaining localized in Bavaria. Everything hovered on the edge of an abyss–including Gretchen. Like most teenagers, she’s caught between childhood and adulthood, trying to discover who she is and what she believes.

There’s also a certain real-life event that occurs near the book’s end, which necessitated the story’s timeline, but it’s too spoilerish to reveal here to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet.

Can you tell us a bit about your research process? Do you read or speak German? Have you visited Munich or Berlin? Did this help/hinder the process of writing the book?

The research for this book was intense. I felt a responsibility to portray Hitler accurately, not just because he was a real person, but out of respect for his millions of victims. I read everything I could find: biographies, memoirs, psychological profiles, essays, social histories, you name it. I studied Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and his early speeches. Understanding his ideas, and his method of presenting them, was vital. Primary sources, such as maps and photographs, helped me envision the setting. I watched lots of old videos, too, including the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. There are many videos of Hitler on YouTube, as well, and I watched them over and over, studying the way he walked, how he used his hands when he talked, the cadence of his voice. Those are the little details that can make a story come alive.

I taught myself basic German phrases, but not enough to read any of my sources in a language other than English. My editor, Kristin Rens, is not only incredibly talented, but happens to be fluent in German and used to live in Munich. (When I learned this during the submission process, I was very grateful I’d done so much research because Kristin would have easily spotted inaccuracies!) Kristin helped me make sure that my characters sound like native German speakers. For example, in an early draft Gretchen bumps into a man and says, “I’m sorry.” It seemed fine to me, but Kristin explained that Germans would say, “Excuse me,” instead.

One of my favorite research tricks when I’m dealing with a subject I know nothing about, is to read a children’s non-fiction book on the topic. They tend to be written clearly and simply and hit the high points that you need to know. Then you can dig deeper.

When I started researching the history of psychology as background for Prisoner of Night and Fog, I was clueless – I hadn’t even taken the ever-popular Psych 101 course at university. I started by reading Kathleen Krull’s biography of Sigmund Freud. It provided an excellent starting point.

One of the most fascinating aspects of your book is the psychological study of Adolf Hitler and other members of his political organisation, the NSDAP. At one point, a (fictional) British psychoanalyst claims that “the NSDAP leadership seems to contain an extraordinarily high number of mentally diseased men. Narcissists, psychopaths, lovers of violence and death – something about National Socialism appeals to them on an elemental level.” Did you reach any conclusion about Hitler’s personality? Was he evil or mentally ill? Did he genuinely believe in his own ideas or was he simply very good at telling the German people what they wanted to hear, in order to gain power for himself?

Michelle, you’ve hit on one of the most controversial and hotly debated questions surrounding Adolf Hitler! Not even the major Hitler biographers, such as Ian Kershaw, Hugh Trevor-Roper, John Toland, Alan Bullock, and Joachim Fest, can agree about Hitler’s personality and his motivations.

When I started my research, though, I knew I’d have to come to my own conclusions about Hitler or I wouldn’t be able to portray him at all. The more I investigated, the more I became convinced that Hitler was deliberately evil. I say “deliberately” because I believe that Hitler understood the consequences of his actions.

For the first twenty-odd years of his life, Hitler was casually anti-Semitic, as many people were during that time. After World War One, he even marched in the funeral procession of Kurt Eisner, a Jewish politician. Then, almost overnight, he started spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric. I suspect that his motives were political and he consciously latched onto the Jews as a convenient scapegoat. By focusing on a common opponent, he could band together his followers and catapult himself into power. In fact, Hitler says as much in Mein Kampf when he writes that a great leader can focus his people’s attention on a common adversary.

Whether the Nazi leadership was mentally ill or not, Hitler and his violent, hate-filled ideology had enormous popular support throughout Germany in the 1930s. Other countries – Britain and Australia, for instance – had their own charismatic Fascist leaders, but these men never gained enough popular support to achieve any significant political power. What was different about the situation in Germany, do you think?

In my opinion, to understand why Nazism was so successful in Germany, you need to go back to World War One. Not only had Germany surrendered, but her leaders had signed the Versailles Treaty, which acknowledged their country’s moral responsibility for the war. The treaty’s conditions were onerous: Germany owed millions in war reparations, lost some of her most fertile land, and had her military capped at a measly 100,000 troops. While the rest of Europe was enjoying the hedonistic, freewheeling 1920s, Germany was trapped in a cycle of dizzying inflation, sky-high unemployment, and skyrocketing crime rates. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Nazi Party surged forward in the polls. People were desperate for change, and Hitler promised to provide it.

The Nazi Party easily could have fallen by the wayside, though, as countless other political organizations did in Germany at this time. The reason why Hitler became so successful is, I think, because he figured out how to reach on people on their most basic level–their faith. He’s known to have that he wanted to appeal to his followers’ emotions, not their intellect.

If you ever watch old Party rallies, you’ll see how eerily they mimic portions of some religious services. The uniforms and pageantry, the flickering torchlight, the shouted liturgical-like responses seem religious. I suspect that Hitler knowingly perverted familiar and beloved elements of the Catholic Mass and Lutheran eucharist. As he wanted people’s unwavering support, he needed them to love him with a deep devotion–as though he were a modern-day savior. It’s incredibly calculated and cruel. And it worked, at least at first.

Prisoner of Night and Fog has a satisfying conclusion, but the story isn’t quite finished yet. Can you tell us anything about the sequel you’re writing?

Ooo, I have to be careful what I say here so I don’t give anything away to people who haven’t read Prisoner of Night and Fog yet! Gretchen and Daniel are still the main characters, and there’s plenty of romance, murder, and danger. This time most of the action takes place in Berlin right after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship. Every move Gretchen and Daniel make could be their last, with both the Nazis and the police hot on their trail.

I’ll give you one more hint: Pay attention to everything Hitler says to Gretchen in the first book. His advice becomes crucial for her survival in the sequel.

Many thanks for having me, Michelle! Best wishes for your continued success!

‘Prisoner of Night and Fog’ by Anne Blankman

Complicated Disclaimer: I read this book when it was in copyedited manuscript form. I didn’t know the author, but the book’s editor knows the agent who sold the Montmaray books to Knopf (who is not really ‘my’ American agent, but my Australian publisher’s agent – I did say that this would be a complicated disclaimer). I was asked to read the manuscript so that if I liked it, a quote from me could go on the book jacket. I’ve been asked to do this before, and as always, I made it very clear to the editor that I could only provide a complimentary quote if I loved the manuscript. And this is the first time I’ve actually provided a quote for a book jacket, so there you go.

'Prisoner of Night and Fog' by Anne BlankmanPrisoner of Night and Fog is set in Munich in 1931, as Adolf Hitler begins his rise to power. Gretchen is the perfect Aryan girl, having grown up absorbing Nazi ideology. Her father fought alongside Hitler in the trenches of the First World War and then gave up his life to protect Hitler during the failed Nazi Putsch of 1923, so Gretchen has always been a special favourite of Hitler’s. She’s also close to Hitler’s beloved niece Geli, although her best friend is a sweet young woman named Eva Braun who works in the camera shop frequented by Hitler and his associates. It’s true that Gretchen has some difficulties – money has been tight, her mother wants Gretchen to give up her dreams of attending university, her brother Reinhard can behave very strangely sometimes – but she knows everything will be wonderful once the Nazis are in control of the country, especially as Reinhard seems to have found a sense of purpose among the SA Brownshirts. Then a young journalist called Daniel Cohen turns her life upside-down by a) revealing a terrible secret involving her father, and b) being incredibly handsome and clever and kind, even though he’s a Socialist, a sworn enemy of Hitler and, worst of all, a Jew.

Anne Blankman does an excellent job of weaving real historical events and people into a thrilling fictional murder mystery. She’d clearly done a tonne of research, but it didn’t come across as information-dumping to me. There are also detailed author notes at the end of the book, providing background information about the real-life people in the book and including a long bibliography for those who’d like to read more. I found the setting fascinating, but this is also a really engrossing story. Gretchen and Daniel are brave and believable protagonists, and even the minor characters had depth. Gretchen’s mother, for example, is weak-willed and easy to despise, but she’s also shown to be someone forced by circumstances to make some impossible, heartbreaking choices. I can’t truthfully say I ‘enjoyed’ the book, because the events were so horrifying (if it’d been a film, I’d have watched the second half with my fingers over my eyes, shouting things like, “Don’t go into that cellar, Gretchen!” and “Run, Gretchen, RUN!”). This is not a book full of warmth and humour. It’s dark and grim and occasionally shocking in its violence (although this shouldn’t really be surprising, given that most of the characters are Nazis). There is a bit of romance, but mostly the lovers are too busy fleeing murderous thugs to enjoy their developing relationship. It’s difficult to discuss the plot in much detail without providing spoilers, but I will say I found the conclusion satisfying – even though it’s clear the story isn’t quite over, and in fact, the author is working on a sequel. Recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those craving mystery and excitement, and those with an interest in twentieth-century European history.

Read More: An interview with Anne Blankman about the historical background to Prisoner of Night and Fog.

You might also be interested in reading:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley

Bat Babies And Other Minutiae

The book I’m working on now has required a lot of research – far more than for any other book I’ve written. Most of this research was done as part of the planning stages of the book, but there have also been many smaller facts I’ve needed to find out as I’ve been writing. Among the questions I’ve had to ask Google over the past few months are:

- How did the Secret Service agent who uncovered the Great Phenol Plot of 1915 get hold of that incriminating briefcase?
- What do you call those small yellow spongy things made of corn that are used as packing materials for fragile objects?
- What’s the name of the girl in The Scooby Gang who isn’t Velma?
- How many churches in Europe use human skeletons as interior design features?
- Can you actually buy genuine ancient Egyptian faience amulets, and if so, how much would one cost?
- How do you spell the names of those two bumbling detectives in the Tintin books?
- Is the nursery rhyme Ring Around The Rosie really about bubonic plague?
- How many Catholic saints have names starting with the letter ‘v’?
- Why does grapefruit juice interact with some medications?
and
- When did Rembrandt paint The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp?

Quite often, I get a bit distracted. Especially when I encounter photographs like this:

Bat Babies

A crib full of 2-3 week old baby Grey-headed Flying-foxes in care of Wildcare Australia at The Bat Hospital. Creative Commons Licensed image by Wcawikinfo.

I needed to answer a minor question about the feeding habits of flying foxes and ended up reading, um, quite a lot about them. (This may explain why I’m still working on this book, two years after I started it.) But did you know that flying foxes (as these fruit bats are commonly known in Australia, because they look like little winged foxes) don’t have echolocation and instead rely on sight, which is why they have such large eyes! Were you aware that there are more than sixty species of flying foxes, including the big-eared flying fox, the masked flying fox and (my favourite) the spectacled flying fox! Did you realise that these cute furry creatures carry fatal rabies-like viruses including Australian bat lyssavirus, and that some species of megabats have tested positive for Ebola!

Anyway, this is why Memoranda has been a bit quiet lately. However, coming up next week, I do have an interview with historical novelist Anne Blankman and a review of her debut novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog.

In the meantime – look at those bat babies!

(Don’t pretend you didn’t go, “Awww!” when you saw that photo.)