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.)

Some Thoughts On Reading

'Reading Woman' by Poul Friis Nybo (1929)

Gwenda Bond has a great post1 on her blog about what she calls “The Reading Police”, in which she says (among other things),

“I have zero patience for reader shaming or for making people feel lesser or unwelcome or clueless because they haven’t read the same things you have from some inevitably problematic canon checklist.”

I don’t like Book Snobs, either. And it was interesting to me that Ms Bond’s post was mostly about Science Fiction/Fantasy, because I’ve found certain fans of that genre to be among the Snobbiest of All Book Snobs2. I recall, for instance, an SFF-loving bookseller throwing a tantrum after a friend said something along the lines of “I’m not sure that’s my kind of book, because I don’t read a lot of fantasy.” Note, the friend had not said, “Fantasy sucks” or “People who like fantasy are idiots”. She had simply expressed an opinion about her reading preferences after being pressured to read a certain book, and in return, she received a blast about how that book WASN’T FANTASY, IT WAS URBAN PARANORMAL, plus a whole lot more, none of which made me want to read the book or ever visit that bookshop.

I think SFF Book Snobbery often comes from defensiveness. If you’ve spent the formative years of your reading life being sneered at for being a nerd and a geek, then it makes a kind of twisted sense that you would seek to exclude others if your club eventually becomes cool and popular (which SFF is, now). So, I do have a bit of sympathy for these people. I have a lot less sympathy for those who believe that only people with PhDs in English Literature, ideally old white male people, are allowed to have opinions about books. I have read a few reviews and articles written by such people lately and they annoyed me. This is why I was happy to read the following in a collection of David Malouf‘s work:

“I would just remind you, as gently as possible in this age of education, that the great books of the world survived into the twentieth century without being institutionalised in literature departments, and that readers got by, till very recently, without being tutored in the handling of a text.
I say this, not to indulge in that popular local sport of academics-bashing, but to suggest that the professional handlers of literature have no special authority in the making or breaking of canons – they are readers like the rest of us – and to claim as well that the only real training we need as readers is got by reading itself.3

I agree that it’s possible to be a thoughtful and critical reader of fiction without having any formal qualifications. But then, my formal study of literature ended in senior high school, so what would I know? Here are the only memories I retain from Mrs Jordan’s Higher School Certificate English class, none of which have much to do with literary theory:

1. Reading Wuthering Heights, at the same time that a particularly annoying ad was being aired on television, in which one sibling locked another out of the bathroom in order to have unhindered access to a certain type of toothpaste. This meant that when our class read Emily Brontë’s famous ghost-knocking-at-the-window scene, it was inevitable that someone would add in a squeaky sibling voice, “Let me in! Let me in! I bet you’re using my Colgate Gel!”, causing every student in the class to fall about laughing, while poor Mrs Jordan wondered what was going on. I have never been able to take Wuthering Heights seriously since that moment, but let’s face it, it’s a ridiculous book. Read Jane Eyre instead.

2. Studying the play Equus, and then Mrs Jordan putting on the R-rated video and saying, “Please don’t tell your parents about this!” Technically, she shouldn’t have been showing us the film because most of us were under eighteen, but believe me, none of our parents would have cared what we were watching. They were just pleased we’d stayed at school till Year Twelve and weren’t out roaming the streets being juvenile delinquents. What I was outraged about was that the film got a Restricted rating due to male nudity and not due to the violence against animals. Because apparently the censors thought Peter Firth’s penis was more horrifying than HORSES GETTING THEIR EYEBALLS SLASHED. I say “apparently” because I couldn’t bring myself to watch the eyeball scene – I got my friends to warn me when it was approaching, then I clapped my hands over my face. (I did watch the nudity. I don’t think that caused me any permanent psychological damage.)

3. Reading Jane Austen’s Emma, at the same time that The Sydney Morning Herald was running a series of articles about the life of a real Year Twelve student named Emma. I should point out that our year was the first to be subjected to a new, ‘improved’ version of the Higher School Certificate, so we were known as the Guinea Pig Year and there was considerable media attention paid to us, or at least to the Year Twelve students who attended exclusive private schools in the posh areas of Sydney and whose parents were doctors or politicians or Sydney Morning Herald columnists. So we spent a year learning about how difficult Real Emma’s life was, having to fit in her private tutoring sessions around debating practice while filling out applications for Oxford and Harvard, not to mention enduring terrible traumas like that awful time the family’s Rolls Royce suffered a flat tyre on the way to the Sydney Opera House where she was due to perform a violin solo . . . I am exaggerating, but not very much. Eventually Real Emma became aware that Year Twelve students in badly-resourced rural state schools (like mine) were less-than-sympathetic about her travails and she wrote an article along the lines of, “Don’t hate me just because I’m so beautiful and intelligent and talented”, which did not improve matters. But, as I said, our class was also reading about Austen’s Emma, who was equally annoying, and the two Emmas merged into one Super Annoying Emma in my mind, and that’s why I decided I hated Jane Austen. (But luckily, a few years after high school, I happened to read Northanger Abbey, which was hilarious, so then I read all the other Austen novels and they were excellent. Except for Mansfield Park, which features a heroine even more annoying than Emma.)

I did spend quite a few English lessons exchanging notes with a friend about Scritti Politti lyrics (that’s literary analysis, right?) and I also spent a lot of time staring out the window, making up stories in my head, which is good training for a future novelist, so I can’t say the classes were a total waste of time. And, despite my lack of literary qualifications, I’ve gone on to read and enjoy and think about a lot of books, and have even written a few of them myself.

So, in conclusion, Book Snobs of the World should just go hang out with Real Emma and Austen Emma, somewhere far, far away from me, and everyone will be much happier.

_____

  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.
  2. The least snobby are probably Young Adult literature readers, possibly because it’s a relatively new category of books, so there isn’t a vast canon. Romance readers are also fairly unsnobby, in my experience, except for the ones who think Real Romance can only be heterosexual, which is just silly.
  3. From ‘The Making of Literature’, the keynote address at the 1986 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which was later published in both Overland and in the book I’m currently reading, David Malouf: Johnno, short stories, poems, essays and interview, edited by James Tulip.

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

‘The Montmaray Journals’ Optioned For Film and Television

I’m happy to announce that the film and television rights to The Montmaray Journals have been optioned by an independent US production company. Here’s a statement from producer Lucy Butler:

Book One: 'A Brief History of Montmaray'

“Roommates Entertainment is excited to have optioned Michelle Cooper’s trilogy of novels entitled ‘The Montmaray Journals’ including ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’, ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’, and ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’. We feel passionately that the journey of the young, soul searching and strong female protagonist, Sophie, forging her way in life in the era of WW2, will not only be dramatic, visual, informational but upmost inspirational, and will be a magnet for the audiences young and old.”

Having a book optioned is merely the first step in what is usually a long and convoluted journey from the page to the big (or small) screen. However, Lucy’s enthusiasm for the Montmaray books and her understanding of their historical and cultural background convinced me that she would be the right person for the job, and I’m hopeful that any film or television series that results will be true to the spirit of the books. I wish the production team all the best as they get started on this project, and I’ll keep you posted about any further developments.