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 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.


  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


  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

‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

'On Writing' by Stephen King

I loved On Writing, a very entertaining and informative book about being a writer. It’s part memoir, part conventional fiction-writing guide, written in an amusing, self-deprecating style. For example, here’s Stephen King describing his first ‘best-seller’, a novelisation of one of his favourite horror films, self-published when he was at high school:

“Working with the care and deliberation for which I would later be critically acclaimed, I turned out my novel version of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ in two days … blissfully unaware that I was in violation of every plagiarism and copyright statute in the history of the world.”

He sold out his entire print run to his fellow students, making an enormous profit, although his principal later made him refund the money and told him to stop wasting his time writing “junk”. King received advice that was far more useful from the editor of his town’s newspaper, where King had a part-time job writing sports reports:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story … When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

King goes on to describe his development as a writer – studying literature and creative writing at college, writing stories for magazines, then working on his early novels while supporting his young family by teaching high school. His wife fished the opening chapters of Carrie out of his wastebasket and convinced him to keep going with it. Carrie ended up being his first published book, made him a fortune, and set him off on his career as a best-selling author of horror and speculative fiction. It wasn’t all smooth sailing after that, though, and he writes eloquently about his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, and then about his physical rehabilitation after he was nearly killed in a horrific traffic accident.

The second half of the book provides a lot of practical, well-organised advice about writing fiction, although King cautions:

“…no matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.”

He divides writers into a pyramid, with a lot of bad writers on the base, some competent writers above them, a few “really good” writers above them, and at the apex, the geniuses – “the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.” He believes it’s impossible to make a bad writer into a competent one, or a good writer into a great one, but that “it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one”. He also believes that stories are like fossils, “part of an undiscovered pre-existing world”, excavated from the ground using a writer’s box of tools.

His advice includes:

– Read a lot and write a lot. He provides a list of his favourite books (his favourite writers include Pat Barker, Bill Bryson, Annie Proulx, J.K. Rowling, Donna Tartt, Anne Tyler and Evelyn Waugh) and he says that watching television is a waste of time.

– Write quickly, work every day to a schedule, and don’t stop until you’ve finished a draft. He thinks a first draft should take no longer than three months and claims he wrote the first draft of The Running Man in a week. However, he does acknowledge that The Stand took sixteen months and (probably not coincidentally) is his fans’ favourite book.

– Don’t ever plot, because “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible”.

– “Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”

– Similarly, symbolism will only become evident once you’ve excavated your story: “If it is there, and if you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it till it shines.”

– “Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others”, which is why H.P. Lovecraft, a painfully shy snob, wrote such terrible, stilted dialogue.

– When revising, remember this important formula: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”

And if you get stuck, remember, “Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam.”

I can’t say I agreed with all of it (personally, I find plotting essential, and while I’d love to be able to finish a first draft of a novel in three months, I can’t imagine that will ever happen) and some of his advice about finding a publisher is a little dated, because the book was written fifteen years ago. But I found all of it fascinating and I’d recommend this to anyone interested in writing as a craft or as a career.

‘The Meaning of Treason’ by Rebecca West

The Meaning of Treason is a fascinating, if somewhat biased, discussion about what ‘treason’ means in the modern world and although it was first published in 1949, I found it highly relevant to current political events. The author, Dame Rebecca West, reported on the post-war trials of the British traitors William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’) and John Amery for The New Yorker, then decided the topic was interesting enough to explore at greater length. She revised the book in the 1960s to include a number of Cold War spy scandals, and the edition that I read included a new introduction, written by her in 1982.

'The Meaning of Treason' by Rebecca West

Revised edition of ‘The Meaning of Treason’, with a cover image of creepy Oswald Mosley and some of his fellow Fascists, including William Joyce (pictured, ironically, to the far left of Mosley)

In Britain, the “root of the law against treason” dated back to 1351, when Edward III declared that “if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere”, that man was guilty of treason. So, how did that apply to the strange case of William Joyce? He’d been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, then he moved to Nazi Germany as soon as war was declared, became a German citizen and spent the war years broadcasting Nazi propaganda to the British public – for instance, he’d gloat over the radio about the damage that German bombs were inflicting on English cities and encourage the British to surrender to Hitler. Obviously, British people weren’t very impressed with Joyce at the time, although most came to regard the broadcasts, and Joyce, as a big joke. At the end of the war, Joyce was captured by the Allies and then put on trial in London, charged with ‘high treason’. Still, he’d been a German citizen at the time of the broadcasts, working loyally for his own country, not even engaged in anything that might be termed a ‘war crime’, so how could he be put on trial for being a British traitor? Well, it turns out “a British subject is forbidden by law to become the naturalized subject of an enemy country in wartime”, so he’d broken the law by moving to Germany and becoming a German. Except it turned out Joyce was actually an American citizen, born in the United States, with an Irish father who’d become a naturalized American years earlier. Joyce’s family moved to England when the boy was two, and he’d never applied for British citizenship, although as an adult, he fraudulently applied for (and received) a British passport to travel to Germany. The prosecution argued he’d been under the protection of the British Crown due to his passport, so he owed the Crown his allegiance, and after several trials and appeals, Joyce was found guilty and hanged. There were other British men tried for treason after the war, including John Amery (the son of Conservative Minister Leo Amery), who pleaded guilty and was also hanged, as well as a number of men who’d been taken prisoner by the Germans and were enticed to join the ‘British Free Corps’ and fight with the Nazis against the Soviets. West has some sympathy for these men, who were often young, uneducated and in terrifying situations (or, in the case of Amery, were mentally unstable).

She has far less sympathy for the next set of traitors, the nuclear scientists who’d signed agreements to keep information secret, then gave away these scientific secrets to the Soviet Union. In fact, she is deeply suspicious of scientists in general. Scientists, she says, are arrogant and clannish, placing scientific comradeship above national loyalty and believing themselves to be always rational, always right and incapable of doing harm. She uses as evidence the cases of Alan Nunn May, Klaus Emil Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo. Dr Fuchs is particularly interesting. He was born in Germany to a Quaker family who courageously opposed the Nazis when they came to power. His father, a church leader, was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but young Klaus, by then a member of the Communist Party, escaped to Britain, where he completed his doctorate studies in physics. When war broke out, the British imprisoned him because he was a German, then exiled him (along with many other scientists, including Max Perutz) to the wastelands of Canada. Eventually, the British worked out that all those imprisoned anti-Nazi German scientists could be helping the Allies win the war, so they brought them back, made Dr Fuchs a British subject, sent him to America to work on the Atomic Project for three years, then, after the war, employed him as head of the physics department at the Atomic Energy Establishment – until 1950, when they discovered he’d been sharing scientific information with the Soviet Union for eight years. He was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act and pleaded guilty, but explained that most of the offences had been carried out while the Soviet Union was a wartime ally of Britain, so he hadn’t been ‘aiding the enemy’. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and his British citizenship was revoked, although he protested against the latter, pointing out that he’d pleaded guilty, cooperated fully with the authorities and anyway, “the British Nationality Act of 1948 excluded punishment as reason for revoking a certificate of naturalization”. Isn’t that interesting, that Britain couldn’t take away citizenship as punishment for a crime, even a ‘traitorous’ crime? In fact, West explains that if a traitor’s citizenship was revoked, he would become “a stateless person and could not have been deported” – that is, taking away someone’s citizenship meant he’d be forced to remain in the country.1 In the end, Fuchs was released from prison and moved to East Germany, where he became an East German citizen and resumed his career in nuclear physics.

West goes on to discuss the cases of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (British diplomatic staff who turned out to be Soviet agents) and their friend Kim Philby (MI6 operative, also a Soviet agent), as well as William Marshall, George Blake, William Vassall and the Portland Five. She acknowledges that many of these spies could have been detected far earlier if British security services had been more competent, but she also seems to share the paranoid belief of Peter Wright that the Soviet Union was far more powerful and efficient than it actually was. Whenever a Soviet spy is caught, she’s convinced that the USSR deliberately allowed the spy to be discovered, in order to further its fiendish Communist plans (that is, to make British security services look foolish, encourage the British public to lose confidence in their government, and cause the Americans to regard the British with distrust). She insists, for instance, that William Vassall was a professional Communist spy, rather than a bumbling amateur who was blackmailed into handing over information to the Soviets after they took compromising photos of him during a drunken homosexual orgy (she says the party may have taken place but it was “probably engineered so that Vassall might refer to it, should his treachery ever be discovered”). And when Burgess and Maclean defected and the British government initially denied the men were Communist spies, this wasn’t a government trying to cover up its own incompetence but a sign of secret Communist conspiracies in the highest echelons of power. And so on.

I kept noticing the parallels with modern politics. West describes the experiences of Westerners imprisoned during the Korean War and subjected to Communist “brainwashing” before being sent home, then worries that future British fighters in “peripheral wars” could return home and spread false ideas “that their countries’ enemies were in the right”. Then there’s Harold Macmillan, responding to demands that security legislation be tightened in the wake of the Burgess and Maclean scandal: “It would be a tragedy if we destroyed freedom in the effort to preserve it.” But apart from having lots of interesting things to say about current events, this book was also beautifully written, full of thoughtful observations and a lot of droll humour and motivated by a genuine interest in the well-being of society. The Meaning of Treason is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about the topic of treason, but particularly those interested in the Cold War.


  1. For the benefit of non-Australians, I should explain that the current Australian government is trying to pass legislation that would revoke the citizenship of Australians accused of terrorism, regardless of whether or not these people had been convicted of terrorist offences, or indeed, if there was any firm evidence they’d committed any crime at all. Among the options being discussed were that such people could have their Australian citizenship revoked: if they had dual citizenship, even if their other country of citizenship refused to allow the person to enter that country; or if they were citizens only of Australia but had parents or grandparents who’d been citizens of other countries – that is, the legislation would potentially leave people stateless. Also, this would be decided by the Minister for Immigration, not by a court of law or an independent commission. Not surprisingly, when the draft of this legislation was shown to legal experts, they said (and I paraphrase), “This is illegal, unconstitutional and makes no sense whatsoever.”

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is excellent at writing family sagas and A Spool of Blue Thread is a wonderful example of her craft, even if many of the themes and plot lines will be familiar to her fans. Her twentieth novel is about three generations of Whitshanks, who live in a beautiful house that was built in a well-to-do Baltimore suburb by Junior, the ambitious Whitshank patriarch. The Whitshanks endlessly retell stories about themselves (and their house) to convince themselves of how special they are, but inconvenient historical truths and the harsh realities of ageing and death threaten the family’s complacency.

'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne TylerEchoes of her previous novels did occasionally distract me from the story. For instance, at one point, Abby Whitshank muses, “The trouble with dying … is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending,” just as Pearl in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant told herself that “dying, you don’t get to see how it all turns out.” Abby’s daughter, clearing out the house after a sudden death in the family, wonders “why we bother accumulating, accumulating, when we know from earliest childhood how it’s all going to end”, just as Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet, cleaning out Mrs Alford’s house, said, “I suddenly understood that you really, truly can’t take it with you.” Abby’s determination to look on the bright side of life, wilfully ignoring the facts, is reminiscent of Maggie in Breathing Lessons; Abby’s wayward son is a current-day version of Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet; even the Whitshank house, with its wide front porch and porch swing, brings to mind the Bedloe house in Saint Maybe. And, just as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, characters who initially seem unlikeable, even despicable, are gradually revealed to have complex reasons for their behaviour, which provides some excuse and attracts some sympathy (not for Junior, though, who remained despicable to me).

If you aren’t familiar with Anne Tyler’s work, you won’t notice the reworking of previous themes, and if you do love her work, you probably won’t mind it too much. I really did enjoy the humour in this book (there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments for me) and the clever observations, delivered in her characteristically sharp prose (for instance, when a family member attempts to make polite conversation with a visitor determined to be offended, the visitor “slammed each question to the ground and let it lie there like a dead shuttlecock”). The only reasons this book doesn’t make it into my Top Five Anne Tyler Novels list are that: a) it doesn’t contain any characters as vivid and lovable as Agatha in Saint Maybe or Maryam in Digging To America, and b) the meandering non-conclusion, while consistent with this novel’s themes, isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the conclusion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or A Patchwork Planet or The Accidental Tourist. I still think this is a great read and I highly recommend it. There’s also a terrific interview with the author here at The Guardian, in which she discusses, among other things, her friendship with John Waters (“I don’t go to biker bars with him. Once a year, he comes to mine for dinner and once a year I go to his. He’s a very sweet man”).

You might also be interested in reading:

Anne Tyler and Her Novels

The Years of Grace : Careers

The fifth and final section of The Years of Grace provides advice for girls about careers, although Noel Streatfeild emphasises in her introduction that “the best career for every woman is, of course, taking care of her husband and home”. (Noel, you big hypocrite. As if you ever got married or did any housekeeping.) But before I describe the careers open to Fifties Girl, I’d just like to point out that this book was first published in 1950, a mere five years after the end of the Second World War. During the war, young English women were conscripted into the army, navy or air force if they weren’t already doing vital war work. Women were welding armaments in factories, driving ambulances through the Blitz, putting out fires started by incendiary bombs, shooting down enemy bombers, taking new planes on test flights, driving supply lorries, plotting ship convoys, decoding enemy messages at Bletchley Park, and being parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to help the Resistance.

But that had all changed by 1950. According to The Years of Grace, girls could aspire to be nurses but not doctors; air stewardesses but not pilots or aeronautical engineers; school teachers but not university professors; secretaries but not managers.

Of the thirteen chapters, a significant number are devoted to destroying any illusions the teenage reader might have about ‘glamorous’ careers. The girl who dreams of being a prima ballerina, film star, famous singer or ice-skating star is firmly told that her chances of making it to the top are infinitesimal – even if she happened to have the requisite talent, it would require an enormous amount of time, money, luck and sheer, backbreaking effort to get anywhere near stardom. I was interested to see that an entire chapter was devoted to ice-skating, of all things, as a career. Apparently, most towns in 1950s England had ice rinks that employed skating coaches and hosted professional ice shows, each show needing a large number of “chorus skaters” (producers looked for girls with “personality, a good figure, a pretty face and well-shaped legs”). However, only a lucky few of these chorus girls would reach the exciting heights of understudy to the solo skater, and only if they had unusual skills (“for example, should you be able to skate indifferently with a live cobra, you are more likely to impress the management than if you skate superbly with a man”).

The other chapters give practical advice about more achievable careers. For example, Mary Field provides a lot of useful information about various behind-the-scenes jobs in the film industry (prop buying, set designing, wig-making, editing, publicity) and gives a frank assessment of women’s prospects:

“As the film production business is a fairly new one – only just over fifty years old – there has not been time for much sex discrimination to grow up and workers get the ‘rate for the job’ without reference to their sex. This is good in one way, because so many jobs may be open to a girl-worker, but it means also that a girl has got to be better than her men competitors to get and keep a position.”

Then there are chapters about the realities of nursing, school-teaching and agricultural jobs, each one emphasising that the rewards of such jobs are emotional, rather than financial. And even nursing requires that a girl be glamorous:

“A good nurse should look as pretty as possible, her shoes should always be polished, her fingernails carefully manicured, her hair done neatly but in a way that suits her. She should somehow manage to look – and smell – as fresh as a daisy, no matter how tired she is – and her nose shouldn’t shine!”

Girls wanting to earn a decent salary are encouraged to think about retail jobs or the Civil Service. Marjorie Linstead claims “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women” and that “the civil service, as a career has been, and is being, combined with marriage and a home by some women”. (The author does not seem aware of the fact that married women were barred from working at the Foreign Office, a situation that continued until 1972.) There’s also secretarial work in private businesses, which requires a girl to be well-groomed (of course), dignified, have a good memory, be excellent at typing and shorthand and adding numbers, and most importantly, to be devoted to her (male) employer and to ensure he never, ever feels he’s incompetent, even when he is, as illustrated in this extract from a hypothetical secretary’s diary:

“2:30 pm – Board meeting–took minutes and rushed a copy into Smithy immediately afterwards, so he could see what had been said, as he was half-asleep during best part of Board. Worked on Fuller accounts for rest of afternoon–felt sure that something was wrong somewhere, but S. said, ‘No, impossible.’ Turned out I was right, but with S. in that mood had to persuade him that the idea of a possible error had been his from the very beginning. Eventually he beamed all over and said, ‘Sue, I had an instinct about that!’”

'Above the clouds' by Alice Bush, in 'The Years of Grace'Then there’s the most lucrative career of all for a girl – being an air stewardess. Women could earn up to nine pounds a week, plus a flying allowance and an overseas allowance and free world travel and free hotel stays, and they were provided with a stylish uniform. Of the four thousand applications, only about forty lucky girls were offered a job with B.O.A.C. each year. Such a girl had to be between 21 and 28 years old, have a “good private school background”, speak at least one foreign language, have nursing or catering experience, be charming and beautiful, and be willing to submit to a “thorough checkup” by airline doctors every couple of months. Also, she had to be able to stay smiling during non-stop twelve-hour shifts, in which she was expected to serve food and drinks, calm nervous flyers, cure travel sickness, amuse fretful children, change nappies and “delicately snub the wolf” (it is not clear whether the sexual harrassers were passengers or pilots, or both). But it’s okay, she’d probably manage to snare a husband pretty quickly:

“There is a retiring age in B.O.A.C., it is fifty-five, but no stewardess has yet come within smelling distance of retiring. After all, they are hand-picked young women, with character, charm and pleasing looks. It will not surprise you, therefore, to learn that 95 per cent marry, and their usual length of service with the corporation is only two years.”

You know what? None of the above career options sound very appealing to me! I think I’d like to write books. Fortunately, Noel Streatfeild knows all about that:

“You can’t, of course, learn to be an author. An author is born to write, just as a singer is born to sing … They may write masterpieces or they may write what is rudely known as pulp, but they have qualities which make them writers … amongst them you will find a blotting-paper memory which has soaked in everything seen and heard. Often a faultless ear for dialogue, so that it is impossible for any person to say something which belongs to another person. A vivid imagination. Usually ruthless individualism. And of course, an ear for cadences, a love of words, and, in the case of the novelist and biographer, a vast interest in human beings.”

But don’t forget about a day job:

“Wolves do not just sit on the doorsteps of young artists taking a casual lick at the paintwork, they come inside and sit on the hearth-rug, taking all the warmth from the fire. You may think now that you won’t mind being poor if only you can give your talent full scope. Maybe, but all the same, before developing your talent, find a nice humdrum job that will support you in hard times and keep the wolf, not only off the hearth-rug, but possibly several streets away.”

Very wise words, Noel. Some of this book’s advice might be a little out of date, but The Years of Grace contains a few timeless truths.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

The Years of Grace : Sport

Each section of The Years of Grace begins with some verse, and the introduction to ‘Sport’ is the worst by far:

'Sport' by Anna Zinkeisen from 'The Years of Grace'

Every girl ought
To love sport
But if she wants to be wise and adorable
and completely feminine
She will let meniwin

Apparently Fifties Man was so fragile that if he was ever Beaten By A Girl, he’d crumple into a heap.

This section is the shortest in the book, partly because Noel Streatfeild admits she was always “the lowest-class rabbit at games”, but mostly because there are only three sports in which Fifties Girl is allowed to participate: lawn tennis, horse riding and swimming. There’s also golf, but “in many parts of the British Isles it is such an expensive game that few can afford it”, so I guess it’s fair enough that Noel chose to omit it from the book. Of course, there’s also ‘Watching Sport With Your Brother And His Friends’. Watching sport played by men, naturally. I spent the entire section desperately wanting to watch Fifties Man getting trounced by Serena Williams at Wimbledon.

The next and final section of The Years of Grace is ‘Careers’. But what possible career could Fifties Girl be qualified to do, given that she spent her school years concentrating on being “well-groomed” and is forbidden from ever competing with a man? Chapter titles such as ‘You Might Be A Secretary’ and ‘Shop-Keeping’ give some indication, although ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ looks intriguing. The Foreign Office? MI5? I will report back.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers