Miscellaneous Memoranda

Rivers of London fans, here’s a good interview with Ben Aaronovitch at Radio National (although, beware, it contains big plot spoilers for the whole series). Also at Radio National, there’s an interview with Leanne Hall about Iris and the Tiger.

I liked this article about Mary Gernat’s lovely cover art for the 1960s editions of the Famous Five books – the artist used her four sons and the family dog, Patch, as models for her sketches and watercolours.

Here’s an interesting attempt to sort into Hogwarts Houses by asking two questions: Are you governed by morality or ethics, and do you derive satisfaction from internal or external validation? (As always, I get thrown straight into Ravenclaw.)

A recent BBC poll of non-British critics about the greatest British novels of all time came up with a list in which women writers dominated the top ten and made up half of the top fifty. As I’d only read fifty-five of the books, I’ve added a few titles to my To Read list, although I think I can live quite happily without Lucky Jim and the two listed D H Lawrence novels.

I feel I’ve read a few too many of these type of novels lately (“I’m going to write a story about a character who feels the way I feel! Middle class, educated, with seemingly every advantage, but who still feels aimless and dissatisfied … Someone with my lived experience will be able to shine a penetrating dramatic light on the problems that arise when you don’t really have other problems.”)

In happier news, the new(ish) Australian children’s laureate is Leigh Hobbs, and hooray, he has a new Mr Chicken book out – Mr Chicken Lands on London!

If you happen to be in London (with Mr Chicken) and are worried about air quality – fear not, the Pigeon Air Patrol is on the case. The pigeons, equipped with tiny backpacks, measure nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other volatile compounds and send the results to Plume Labs for analysis. Londoners can request a reading for their particular location (by sending a tweet, of course). The patrol team includes “Coco, the ‘maverick’, Julius, the ‘hipster’, and Norbert — the ‘intellectual’”.

Finally, in important cephalopod news, a previously unknown species of milky-white octopus has been spotted four kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The octopus is currently nicknamed ‘Caspar the Friendly Ghost’. It joins another a new species, a tiny orange octopus discovered last year that scientists would like to name Opisthoteuthis adorabilis because it is just so adorable.

Castle Stalker

A Brief History of Montmaray

The bleak castle depicted on the hardcover edition of A Brief History of Montmaray may seem like the work of an illustrator, but I recently discovered it’s an actual castle.

Castle Stalker by Norrie Adamson

Castle Stalker. Photo by Norrie Adamson, licensed for reuse by Creative Commons Licence.

Okay, the book cover designer made a few adjustments to make it look as though the island were in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. But Castle Stalker is a real place that you can actually visit (if you happen to be in the general vicinity of Appin in Argyll, Scotland). And not only does Castle Stalker have a splendid name, it has its very own published Brief History, which is even more violent and dramatic than the history of Montmaray. It begins:

“In 1463 Sir John Stewart was keen to legitimise his son by getting married to his Mother, a MacLaren, at Dunstaffnage when he was murdered outside the church by Alan MacCoul, a renegade MacDougall, although he survived long enough to complete the marriage and legitimise his son, Dugald, who became the First Chief of Appin. The Stewarts had their revenge on MacCoul at the Battle of Stalc in 1468 opposite the Castle when the Stewarts and MacLaren together defeated the MacDougalls…’

There follows several centuries of Stewarts, MacLarens, MacDougalls and Campbells killing one another in various colourful ways. The Stewarts had a particular knack for getting murdered, even when they weren’t actually in Scotland – for instance, Duncan Stewart was appointed Governor of Sarawak in the 1940s and was assassinated a couple of weeks into the job. The Stewarts also weren’t very good at betting and lost the castle to the Campbells in a drunken wager. Unfortunately for the Stewarts, they’d fortified their castle walls so strongly that when they later tried to win it back from the Campbells by force, “their 2lb cannon-balls merely bounced off the walls”.

A couple of centuries later, the Campbells finally lost interest, abandoned the castle and allowed a Stewart to buy it back, and the process of restoration began. I would love to take one of the tours, but alas, I don’t think I’m likely to be visiting Scotland any time soon. I did do the virtual tour, which is pretty entertaining. And if you’re wondering where else you might have seen Castle Stalker, it makes an appearance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Castle of Aarrgh.

‘Iris and the Tiger’ by Leanne Hall

Disclaimer because this is an Australian book: I don’t know the author and have no connection to the publisher.

'Iris and the Tiger' by Leanne HallI absolutely loved Leanne Hall’s Iris and the Tiger, a charming, funny story about Iris, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who is sent to stay with her eccentric Great-Aunt Ursula in Spain. Iris’s parents want Iris to ensure Ursula leaves her sprawling country estate to them, but Iris falls under the spell of Bosque de Nubes, a surrealist Wonderland with its own special type of magic and plenty of mysteries. Were her late great-uncle’s famous paintings of tennis-playing sunflowers, five-legged dogs and giant costumed insects based on his surroundings, or is life imitating art? Why is a pair of leather boots shaped like human feet following Iris around? How can her ancient aunt look so youthful? Who is trying to destroy Bosque de Nubes? And most importantly, what happened to the original Iris, painted by her husband in an enigmatic portrait that now seems to be missing a tiger?

Iris is a wonderful heroine – thoughtful, compassionate and braver than she believes. She’s helped in her quest by her new friend Jordi, the gardener’s son, who relishes the danger (“‘I think this could be a very dangerous mission.’ He looked extremely happy as he said it.”). I enjoyed watching Iris grow in confidence and understanding, and although the novel contains some familiar messages (‘Be True to Yourself’, ‘Part of Growing Up is Realising Your Parents are Flawed’, and so on), it’s all done with a light touch and plenty of humour. (Iris also happens to be Chinese-Australian, which is never treated as an Issue, although there was a spot-on ‘You look so exotic, where are your family from?’ conversation, which made me laugh and groan in recognition.) I also liked the imaginative setting and all the fantastical creatures (Señor Garcia and the Exquisite Corpse were particular favourites). Young readers will enjoy the magic and the adventures, although there are plenty of layers for more advanced readers to dig into (for example, involving surrealist art, the history of Spain, and women being valued as models and muses but not as artists in their own right). The Australian paperback has a gorgeous cover and some charming black-and-white illustrations (and I would love to see this republished as a glossy hardcover with colour illustrations of all the surrealist paintings). It’s been a while since I’ve read such an endearing children’s book. Highly recommended!

EDITED TO ADD: You can see some of the book’s illustrations at Sandra Eterovic’s blog.

What I’ve Been Reading: Some Really, Really Annoying Books, Plus One Enjoyable Book

'Black Swan Green' by David MitchellI’m not going to write about the really, really annoying books I’ve just read (even though I have many thoughts about them) because those authors don’t deserve any more publicity. However, I did enjoy Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. This novel, apparently semi-autobiographical, describes a year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason, who lives in a small village in Worcestershire, England in 1982. As Margaret Thatcher revels in the carnage of the Falklands War, Jason concentrates on his own struggle for survival. At home, his father is angry and often absent, his mother is lonely and frustrated, and his sister Julia, an inconstant ally, is about to leave for university. At school, Jason is bullied for being clever, sensitive and worst of all, a stammerer. He spends a great deal of time and energy hiding his true self, engaging in stupid and self-destructive stunts in (mostly futile) attempts to show how “hard” he is. There are innumerable ridiculous rules about how boys in his community need to behave in order to avoid that dreaded label, “gay”. Pretty much anything Jason enjoys in life, including being friends with girls, is “gay” and is punished with social exclusion and outright violence. Even some of his teachers join in with the harassment. Fortunately, Jason is resourceful, gathers up some courage and a few supporters, and manages to engineer some sort of victory by the end.

The novel is supposedly written by clueless thirteen-year-old Jason, although the insights revealed often sound more like an adult narrator looking back on his childhood. At times, I was also irritated by the author’s decision to use a combination of teenage-speak and a very obtrusive form of contractions:

“School corridors’re sort of sinister during classtime. The noisiest spaces’re now the silentest.”

Even worse was when Jason lapsed into poetry:

“Autumn’s fungussy, berries’re manky, leaves’re rusting, V’s of long-distance birds’re crossing the sky, evenings’re smoky, nights’re cold, autumn’s nearly dead.”

But I enjoyed Jason’s thoughts about his development as a writer (“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say ‘When you’re ready.’”). And readers who can remember the 1980s will enjoy all the pop culture references and the jokes (for instance, listening to “that ace song, ‘Olive’s Salami’ by Elvis Costello” and getting a Betamax video recorder because “VHS’s going extinct”). While the plot’s predictable for anyone who’s ever read any Young Adult fiction, Black Swan Green is an entertaining and often moving story – Adrian Mole rewritten as Serious Literature.

What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

I enjoyed A Far Cry From Kensington so much that I wanted to know more about the author, so my next read was Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard. This was a very long and thorough overview of Spark’s life and work, written with her cooperation, although the biographer claims his book is not ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ in any way. Nevertheless, I suspect he went out of his way to be tactful and discreet, given Spark’s tendency to lambaste journalists or reviewers who dared to voice the tiniest criticism of her. She even disowned her only child when he claimed (admittedly, without much evidence) that his maternal grandmother had been Jewish, with Spark telling journalists, “He can’t sell his lousy paintings and I have had a lot of success … He’s never done anything for me, except for being one big bore.”

'Muriel Spark: The Biography' by Martin StannardSpark did not seem to be very good at personal relationships. She married a violent, mentally unstable man when she was nineteen, then divorced him a few years later. She pretty much abandoned her young son, leaving him to be raised by his father and grandparents, while she worked in publishing in London and eventually began to enjoy critical and commercial success with her novels. There were a few boyfriends over the years, all of them insecure, controlling and disloyal. Her biographer thinks “she had a kind of death wish on all close relationships, a fear of exposure that led her to preserve distance and prevent intimacy. Boundlessly forgiving of human nature in general, she was boundlessly unforgiving of it when she saw it as obstructing her vocation.”

Her writing was more important than anyone or anything, and she took her publishers firmly to task whenever they weren’t giving her the respect and money she felt she deserved. However, I was surprised to read about how well she was treated by her publishers, especially her American publishers, even at a relatively early stage of her writing career. She earned enough, as a ‘literary’ author, to buy houses and apartments, race horses, designer clothes, jewellery and sports cars and to travel the world in luxury. She expected to be treated as royalty at all times and became increasingly peevish, obsessional and unpleasant in her final decades.

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'  by Muriel SparkI’m always interested to learn how writers, especially women writers, balance the responsibilities of life with their work. In Spark’s case, she behaved as many male writers of the time did, by being completely focused on her writing, dumping partners and friends whenever they failed to give her unconditional support, and ignoring her family, including her offspring. She was fortunate enough to acquire a ‘wife’, Penelope Jardine, her secretary and then close friend, who gave up her own career as an artist to live with Spark and manage her business and personal affairs for thirty years. It should be noted that Spark was not born into wealth and social privilege. She had innate talent, but she worked extremely hard for her success. She refused to identify as a feminist, but claimed to be an “independent woman” and said, “I’m in favour of women’s liberation from the economic viewpoint, but I wouldn’t want men’s and women’s roles reversed.” If that seems a little contradictory, it’s typical of her perspective on life. For example, she converted to Roman Catholicism but ignored any doctrine that was inconvenient to her personal life, rarely attended Mass and wasn’t much interested in anything the Pope had to say.

This biography also provides an interesting analysis of Spark’s poetry, short stories and each of her books, which made me take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie down from my shelf and re-read it with a new perspective. Miss Brodie was based on a real-life teacher of Spark’s, but she also comes across as a version of Spark herself. Miss Brodie is supremely confident, convinced that her opinions are fact. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that she believes in contradictory ideas, such as despising the conformity of the Girl Guides while idolising Mussolini and his fascisti. She encourages her girls to challenge their headmistress, but is shocked when one of them rebels against Miss Brodie’s own authority. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s very funny and clever and full of gorgeous descriptions of pre-war Edinburgh life.

'Loitering with Intent' by Muriel SparkI then read Loitering with Intent, which was also highly entertaining and apparently very autobiographical. Set in post-war London, it’s about a young woman writing her first novel while working for an odd organisation called the Autobiographical Association. Life appears to be imitating art, thinks Fleur, but it turns out her deranged boss has stolen her manuscript and is incorporating its events into his own life and work. I enjoyed Fleur’s musings about the publishing industry (“the traditional paranoia of authors is as nothing compared to the inalienable schizophrenia of publishers”) and about making personal sacrifices to be a writer (“I preferred to be interested as I was than happy as I might be. I wasn’t sure that I so much wanted to be happy, but I knew I had to follow my nature.”) As entertaining and clever as the story was, I also kept stopping to admire Spark’s language. For example, rather than write, “Beryl Tims escorted the old lady out of the room”, as most authors would, Spark comes up with:

“Beryl Tims turned up just then and grimly promoted the old lady’s withdrawal; Beryl glared at me as she left.”

Grimly promoted! Especially juxtaposed with that casual, “turned up just then”. It’s exactly right for that character, that scene and that narrator. As is a later description of Sir Eric Findlay, who “lived long enough to earn the reputation of an eccentric rather than a nut”. Fleur herself is also beautifully portrayed throughout – whenever her confidence and ambition start to slide into arrogance and ruthlessness, we’re shown her genuine affection for Edwina, the incontinent “old lady”, and Fleur’s relationship with her friend Solly, and we’re reminded why she’s the heroine of this story.

I think my favourite Muriel Spark novel, though, is still A Far Cry From Kensington. If anyone has any further Muriel Spark recommendations, I’d be glad to hear them (keeping in mind my current interest in books set in post-war England).

Some Thoughts On Creative Work

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

John Olsen

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

Nick Bantock

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

Neil Finn

My Favourite Books of 2015

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

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

Types of books read in 2015

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

Writer nationality 2015

Gender of writer for books read in 2015

Women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

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

My Favourite Non-Fiction

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

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

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

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

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

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

More favourite books:

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

What I’ve Been Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Society of Authors Petition Against Parallel Importation

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

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

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

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice for Writers

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

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

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

'Napping Cat' by Elizabeth Fearne Bonsall (1903)

From A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark