‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest

'Falconer's Lure' by Antonia ForestI have been working very hard on my new book and felt I deserved a reward, so you know what that means – Antonia Forest read-along time! And really, with the world in its current state of chaos and despair, what better time to immerse oneself in a nice story about English children enjoying their summer holidays on a country estate. That’s pretty much all I know about Falconer’s Lure, except I’ve also read that it’s a pony book, but with falcons instead of ponies. I am totally on board for anything involving posh country estates, although I’m a bit wary about the falconry, being very much against animal cruelty, especially involving birds. Then again, most of my knowledge of falconry comes from reading T. H. White’s biography and he was notoriously bad at doing it, so maybe it’s not as awful as I think.

For those new to this series of books, they feature the Marlow family, which consists of Commander Marlow, Mrs Marlow and eight Marlow offspring: Giles, Karen, Rowan, Ann, Ginty, Peter and identical twins Nicola and Lawrie. In the first book, Autumn Term, the twins had an eventful first term at their new boarding school. In the second, The Marlows and The Traitor, Nicola, Peter and Ginty got caught up in a terrifying adventure on land and at sea after uncovering a naval spy. Whatever will they get up to on their summer holidays? With Antonia Forest, anything is possible.

Chapter One: Jael in the Morning

This is the first Marlow book that’s explicitly stated the year in which it’s set. It takes place in the summer of 1948 at Trennels Old Farm (exact location unspecified), which was requisitioned by the military during the war and recently inherited by Cousin Jon after the death of their Great Uncle Lawrence. The story begins with Nicola fetching the breakfast eggs from the farmer and glorying in the sunlit countryside, when she hears what she thinks is a distressed cat stuck in a tree. Nicola, “who had a tender feeling for all animals except anteaters”, climbs to the rescue and finds herself facing what seems to be an enraged eagle. Actually, it’s a goshawk called Jael, as Nicola is informed by its supercilious owner, Patrick Merrick, whom she recognises as a friend of her brother Peter’s from before the war. Patrick snaps orders at her, calls her a “clot” and “silly” for not knowing everything he does about falconry and is unsympathetic when Jael slices open Nicola’s ungloved thumb. What a lovely boy. I sincerely hope he’s not a future love interest for Nicola. Or any of her sisters. Or her brothers. I think even Giles deserves better.

Anyway, they rescue Jael and walk back to Patrick’s house, exchanging family news. Giles is now a Lieutenant, Karen is off to read Classics at Oxford, Rowan is going into Sixth Form and will probably be Games Captain (what, not Head Girl?), Peter is doing well at Dartmouth, Nicola’s father has been promoted to Captain, and the Marlows’ Hampstead house is finally habitable again after being bombed in the war.

Meanwhile, Patrick’s father has just been elected an MP, so his family has to move to London. I’m not sure why – can’t his father stay in a flat there when Parliament is sitting so his family can remain at their country estate? Patrick also reveals he attends a local day school, which he loathes, but that he hasn’t been at school at all for the last two years:

“Expelled?” [Nicola] asked instantly, for she was always hoping to meet someone to whom this enthralling thing had happened.

But it turns out Patrick was ill. I wonder what made him too sick for school for two years. Polio? TB? They were both deadly diseases in the 1940s.

Nicola is impressed with Patrick’s beautiful hunting birds (even though the poor things are TIED UP and UNABLE TO FLY). Apart from Jael, there’s Regina, an imperious peregrine falcon, and The Sprog, a sweet little jack merlin. Patrick asks if Nicola will help him look after the hawks. They really belong to Jon, but Jon’s busy being a test pilot for experimental planes at the local airfield. Naturally, Nicola says yes. Then she goes back to Trennels to breakfast, Patrick refusing to come in and say hello to the family (“I don’t think I could meet eight practically strange people on an empty stomach”). That’s okay, Patrick, they probably wouldn’t enjoy meeting you, either.

Chapter Two: Grand Stoop

Back at Trennels, Mrs Herbert, the housekeeper, is loudly unimpressed with Patrick’s “nasty great birds”, because one of the hawks killed her old cat and she has quite reasonable fears for the wellbeing of young Fluff. Nicola tends to her wounded thumb and goes in to breakfast, where much is revealed about the Marlows.

Firstly, the hawks were really Great Uncle Lawrence’s and Jon inherited them reluctantly. Jon also says the RAF used hawks kill pigeons near airfields during the war. Really? I happen to know a bit about pigeons in WWII and there was actually an official campaign to shoot birds of prey to stop them killing carrier pigeons, which were a vital part of military communications. That was mostly on the east coast of England, though, and who knows where Trennels is. Jon throws about a lot of hawking jargon, which interests Nicola and Karen, then they get onto the subject of Patrick. Nicola reports Patrick is “nicer than he was” (he must have been appalling before) and Jon tells them Patrick was badly injured and nearly killed when he fell off a cliff while trying to steal baby hawks from a nest. No wonder Patrick’s mother doesn’t like his hawks.

It also turns out Captain Marlow knows quite a bit about hawks, too (so Jon is his cousin, not Mrs Marlow’s) but he was never allowed to go near them because he was so “rough and rude”. Ginty is horrified to hear that hawks are used to hunt not just rabbits and partridges (that is, animals that you can eat) but also larks and blackbirds for entertainment. Jon says it’s all great fun, like “watching hounds at work with a fox” and that he thinks objections to blood-sports are “a bit exaggerated”. Well, I’m with Ginty on this issue. She storms off, but Mrs Marlow explains it’s only because she’s “been worked up and weepy since Easter”, after what Jon thinks was the children “getting themselves shipwrecked and having to spend the week-end in a lighthouse”. Captain Marlow is coldly unsympathetic and says “it’s time she got over it”.

Well, actually she wasn’t just shipwrecked. She was KIDNAPPED by a SOCIOPATHIC TRAITOR and DRUGGED and forced to wade through a tunnel (even though she’s been terrified of enclosed spaces ever since she was BURIED ALIVE UNDER A BOMBED HOUSE IN THE BLITZ) and then she nearly DROWNED and was on the verge of being MURDERED BY NAZI SPIES and afterwards was FORBIDDEN TO TALK ABOUT HER EXPERIENCES so if anyone has the right to be a bit shaken, it’s Ginty.

The family think Ginty’s lack of moral fibre is due to her new school friend Unity Logan, whom I kept picturing as Unity Mitford. Unity is an intense child who goes around adoring Ginty, telling Rowan, “I’d risk more than an order mark for a friend like Ginnie. I think she’s the most beautiful thing the gods ever made.” As if that isn’t bad enough, Nicola notes that Unity writes poetry. About Beauty. And also writes long holiday letters to Ginty.

Lawrie tries to draw attention back to herself by reminding them all she has a limp from when she was run over by a car. She is firmly squashed by her father, who says it’s boring to talk about illness. Then he humiliates Ann, who is just trying to make sure Nicola’s wounded thumb is properly bandaged. Then he tries to berate Peter for not addressing Cousin Jon with the proper formality, but fortunately Peter is already out of earshot. And Mrs Marlow hurries to placate her husband. My already low opinion of Captain Marlow has descended to uncharted depths. Maybe he and Patrick could go off and live together in some other, non-Marlow, book, so I don’t have to read about them anymore.

But I think my favourite bits of these books are the keen psychological observations. For example, here’s Peter when Nicola explains that Patrick only wants her to visit the hawks:

“Oh, all right,” said Peter carelessly. He felt such an odd mixture of feelings – hurt astonishment that Patrick should have warned him off, jealousy because Nicola was admitted to what was evidently privileged ground, and fury with himself for being either hurt or jealous – that the only thing to do was to spin round and dash after Cousin Jon, shouting “Wait for me, man! I’m coming!”

Peter goes off with Jon to the airfield while Nicola and Patrick walk to the Crowlands and try, unsuccessfully, to get The Sprog to pounce on a lure. There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside and of Jon’s plane “plunging down the sky”, the vapour trails “sketched across the blue like lines drawn by a slate pencil”. Then comes a moment when “the landscape seemed to quiver”, “as if the air went solid” and it appears someone has lit a bonfire on the horizon, although they don’t hear anything. And, because I’ve read to the end of the chapter and I know what’s coming, I’ll just add that Nicola then passes on the message that Jon will come to see the hawks soon and Patrick says, “Tomorrow, I expect. He’ll be dead to the world tonight.” Oh, no…

Anyway, Patrick and Nicola walk back to his house, having a bonding moment over their respective obsessions (medieval nobility for Patrick, the Navy for Nicola) and then tend to the hawks. But before Patrick can accompany Nicola to Trennels for supper, he’s stopped in a very awkward manner by his housekeeper. And then on the way back Nicola meets Peter, who looks and sounds very odd:

“The sun came down in slanting lines through the trees, and made a fishnet of light on the bed of the stream. It was doing that when Nicola and Peter first met. It was still doing so, five minutes later. But by then Peter had managed to tell her that Cousin Jon had been killed when the plane crashed, and that made everything look quite different.”

Oh, no! Poor Jon. Poor Peter, who had to watch his cousin being killed. And what’s going to happen to Trennels now? Jon doesn’t seem to have any children. Do the Marlows inherit Trennels or is there some other relative around?

Next, Chapter Three: “No One Ever Tells Us Anything”

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

There is a stigma attached to self-published books. Book buyers are often wary of these books. Self-published books are rarely found in libraries and bookstores, and they’re explicitly banned from entering many literary awards. This is partly due to the perception that self-published books have all been rejected by traditional publishers and therefore must be rubbish – even though we know that publishing houses are interested in commercial potential, not literary quality. Unfortunately, there are a lot of terrible self-published books out there and that’s because a lot of self-published books aren’t professionally edited.

In a traditional publishing house, there’s an editorial team who do their best, within the limits set by the book’s budget and the team’s workload, to make sure the book is a satisfying read. Typically, a structural editor will edit the manuscript for clarity, coherence and cohesion, then a copy editor will look closely at issues such as spelling, grammar and punctuation, and finally a proofreader will check the typeset pages before the book goes off to the printer. There might be specialist editors for certain subjects or genres, and big publishing houses usually have a legal expert to look at possible defamation or copyright issues.

Editors are professionals, often with university qualifications and years of experience, so they deserve to be paid at professional rates. That makes three rounds of editing prohibitively expensive for most self-publishers, including me. Still, there was no way I was going to let a book of mine anywhere near the public without at least some professional editing, so one of the first tasks on my To Do list was to find a suitable editor.

This was made more complicated by the nature of my book. It’s non-fiction, but it’s told in the form of a story, so I needed someone with experience at editing both fiction and non-fiction. It’s also for thoughtful readers of about twelve years and up. I figured its audience would be a mix of what the US publishing market calls ‘middle grade’ (although that term doesn’t really exist in Australia) and Young Adult (which can mean anything from thirteen to eighteen years old in Australia) – as well as some adults who read the sort of books I write (I think the Montmaray books ended up with more adult than teenage readers). Plus, I figured it would be helpful to have an editor with educational publishing experience, given the potential for this book’s use in the classroom. And naturally, the editor needed to be Australian…

I scoured the directories of Australian professional editors’ societies and came up with a small list of names, which became even smaller when I contacted each editor and explained the project’s complexities and my timeline. And of course, I needed to find an editor who would fit my budget. Luckily, I found someone just right. Helena Newton did a thoroughly professional structural edit, marking up the manuscript with hundreds of queries and useful suggestions, and writing me a detailed editing letter and style guide, all within a couple of weeks.

Helena also suggested I should get legal advice about a couple of issues, so I contacted the Arts Law Centre of Australia. They provide free (or very reasonably priced) telephone advice to creative professionals, as well as lots of free written resources in areas such as copyright and defamation law. I found them to be very helpful.

I’m now almost ready to send my manuscript off to Helena to be copyedited. After that, it will be ready to be typeset into various formats for print and ebooks.

Although I did say earlier that this series of blog posts on self-publishing wouldn’t be Expert Advice, I will pass on any really valuable lessons I learn along the way. And the first of these is this: if you can possibly avoid it, DO NOT WRITE A BOOK THAT REQUIRES AN INDEX. (Does my book have an index? Ha ha, of course it does! Also, a seven-page bibliography!) Professional indexing costs a mint, so you won’t be able to afford that. You’ll have to do it yourself and it will make you want to tear your hair out by the handful. (Don’t think you can just use the automatic indexing function in Word, either. You can’t. Although it will help a little bit.) It feels as though it took longer for me to compile the index entries and track down all the references in the text than it did to write the book in the first place. And my book’s index isn’t even finished yet! All those entries will need to be cross-checked and the page numbers changed once the book is typeset!

I cannot even bring myself to contemplate the potential horrors of typesetting at the moment (given that I have chosen to write a book with not just an INDEX, but also ILLUSTRATIONS and yes, I did them myself, too), so I will talk about social media next.

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

Way back in 2012, I wrote this on Memoranda, in response to a reader’s question:

“Shannon asked me about the new book I’m working on, so I composed a long blog post on the subject, complete with jokes and a cool photograph of a turtle. But then I read over it and realised I didn’t feel comfortable revealing that much detail about a writing project that’s at such an early stage, it doesn’t even have a title, let alone a publisher.

So I deleted the post.

But it wasn’t a complete waste of time, because I also realised that writing that post had made me feel more confident about this new book. After I finished ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, I flipped through my mental catalogue of Ideas For Books and decided I needed to write something that would not be the start of a series, would not be a complicated family saga, would not include scenes of heart-rending anguish, and would not require much research. This next book would be fun and easy to write!

Of course, it hasn’t turned out quite the way I’d expected. I’ve spent the past six months compiling a vast folder of notes and diagrams and photocopies, but feel I’ve barely started on the research. It isn’t a complicated family saga, but at the heart of the story is a mystery that requires far more complicated plotting than I’ve ever before attempted. It was supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but I already have ideas for a sequel and I’m not even sure the book would be best described as a ‘novel’. Plus, there’s at least one scene of heart-rending anguish…”

And five years on, I’m still working on that book, although at least now, I know what it’s about.

Dr Huxley’s Bequest grew out of several ideas. One of them was sparked by my irritation at shoddy articles about health and medicine in supposedly reputable newspapers. One particular Australian journalist, who clearly had no scientific education whatsoever, specialised in what I came to think of as ‘blueberries cure cancer’ stories – that is, articles that misrepresented or ignored scientific research in favour of sensational, fact-free assertions by celebrities and self-proclaimed experts who had no medical qualifications. I have a science degree and have worked in health sciences for most of my adult life, so I could see these articles were utter rubbish, but what about other readers? People were spending lots of money on these useless ‘cures’ and sometimes putting their health at risk by following harmful advice.

I was especially concerned about teenagers who dropped science subjects early in high school because they hated maths or decided science was boring or difficult. Scientific literacy is just as important in modern life as being able to read and write and interact socially. Science doesn’t always have to be learned in a classroom, though. Some of my favourite reads in recent years have been popular science books – books written by experts who are good at explaining complex scientific ideas in an entertaining and informative way. But those books are all aimed at adults. Where are the popular science books for teenagers, especially teenage girls?

It’s not that there are no Australian books about science for young readers. There are thousands of colourful, interesting books for primary school students on a wide variety of science topics, from astronomy to zoology. There are science books for older students, too. There are well-written and well-designed text books used by science teachers in the classroom, but they’re not intended for general reading. I’ve also seen books with eye-catching titles and cartoon covers, along the lines of There’s a Worm on My Eyeball!, full of disgusting facts and clearly marketed at boys.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop girls picking up these books and some girls do like them, but I was interested in writing something more thoughtful and philosophical, although still entertaining – a book that would appeal to teenage girls who were interested in history and stories and people, but thought science was difficult, dull and only for boys. I decided a history of medicine, from superstition to science, might be a good way to introduce the beauty, creativity and power of scientific thinking. The book needed a framing narrative, so I came up with Rosy and Jaz, two very different thirteen-year-old girls who are thrown together one summer holiday because their parents work at the same college. A mysterious bequest sends Rosy and Jaz on a race against time to identify thirteen strange and wonderful artefacts – which turn out to tell the story of medicine, from the superstitions of ancient Egypt to the ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.

Rosy and Jaz find themselves arguing with Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, being horrified by the Black Death, body-snatching and eighteenth-century surgical techniques, and scrutinizing modern homeopathy and the anti-vaccine movement. They uncover the secrets of the brain’s anatomy in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, and find a link between herbal medicine and Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces. They learn how the discovery of penicillin demonstrated the benefits of having an untidy desk, why an Australian scientist thought it would be a good idea to drink dangerous bacteria, and how traditional Aboriginal remedies might save lives when modern antibiotics fail. And there’s more:

What does aspirin have to do with secret agents, revolution, stolen treasures and explosions?
Can unicorns cure leprosy?
Who thought it was a good idea to use heroin as a cough medicine for children?
Is grapefruit evil?
Did a zombie discover the cure for scurvy?
Does acupuncture really work?
Did the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head predict his fate?
And how exactly did parachuting cats save a village from the plague?

It’s a little bit like Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, but about the history of medical science rather than the history of philosophy. (Incidentally, whenever I said this to publishers, I got blank looks. How can you work in the publishing industry and not have heard of Sophie’s World?! It was an international best-seller! It won awards! It was made into a film and a TV series and even a computer game! And by the way, it was the reason the narrator of the Montmaray Journals was called ‘Sophie’.)

Anyway, this is how Dr Huxley’s Bequest starts:

CHAPTER ONE

Afterwards, Rosy always blamed the turtle.

‘It wasn’t the turtle’s fault,’ said Jaz, as the two girls sat in the courtyard beside the pond, eating salt-and-vinegar chips.

‘You weren’t there, Jaz. You didn’t see his evil expression. He knew exactly what he was doing. None of it would have happened without that turtle.’

The turtle in question raised his head and turned his beady yellow gaze upon them.

‘Look,’ said Rosy. ‘He’s doing it again. Malevolent, that’s what I call him.’

‘How do you know it’s a boy?’

‘He’s got a beard.’

Jaz peered closer. ‘I think that’s a bit of lettuce stuck to its chin.’

‘After all that everyone here’s done for him, too,’ Rosy went on. ‘Feeding him. Cleaning his stupid pond. And how did he repay us? With treachery and disloyalty and, and … dirty tricks! Just imagine the disaster that would have befallen this college if we hadn’t come to the rescue.’

‘Well, considering there wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t –’

‘Malicious,’ Rosy said quickly. ‘That’s what he is. Mephistophelean.’

‘That is not even a word.’

‘It is. It’s from Mephistopheles. Remember, that stone demon spitting into the fountain in Science Road?’

‘Oh, right,’ said Jaz. ‘Faust. The quest for knowledge.’

‘Exactly,’ said Rosy.

The turtle lunged at a passing dragonfly, snapping off its wing and a couple of legs. The unfortunate insect tumbled onto the surface of the pond and the turtle gulped it down, then twisted his wrinkled, serpentine neck in the direction of the girls.

‘He does look a bit sinister,’ Jaz conceded.'Dr Huxley's Bequest' turtle illustration

Text and illustration © Michelle Cooper

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: Editing

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Why Self-Publish?

It’s been five years since my last book, The FitzOsbornes at War, came out and occasionally readers contact me to ask whether I’ve written another book and if so, why it isn’t available for them to read.

There’s a long, complicated answer to that question, and there’s a short answer.

The short answer is ‘Yes, I’ve written another book! I finished writing it ages ago! It’s really interesting and funny! But it hasn’t been published because no-one wants to publish it!’

The long, complicated answer is … long and complicated. Firstly, for the past few years, my energy has not really been focussed on my writing career. I got really sick and was in and out of hospital for months, so I felt I was doing really well just to finish my manuscript and write some blog posts and answer readers’ emails. When I was better, I went back to college to update my (non-writing) qualifications and then found a new day job, and that took up all of my time and energy for a while. I pretty much handed my manuscript over to my agent and left him to get on with his job, which was trying (and, it turns out, failing) to get my new book published the traditional way, the same way my previous four books had been published.

The second part of my long, complicated answer has to do with how much the publishing industry in Australia has changed since I became a professional writer. When I signed my first publishing contract in 2006, ebooks barely existed. There were lots of Australian publishers, of all different sizes and types, all keen to take a chance on an unknown author, and there was much excitement (and money) in the Children’s and Young Adult section of publishing, due to the success of Harry Potter and then Twilight and The Hunger Games and all those other best-selling books for young readers. It was a good time to be writing YA, and I was lucky to get my start then.

However, in recent times, publishers have had to deal with a number of challenges. The Australian government keeps trying to push through legislation that would devastate the local publishing industry. Large publishing houses have merged into huge multinational publishing houses, and lots of small publishers have been swallowed up or disappeared, so there are fewer publishers accepting manuscript submissions. Digital piracy is now a massive problem and book sales are down. There’s a new generation of consumers who want everything on the internet to be free and available immediately – and why should they read a full-length book, anyway, when there are so many other things they could be doing online? It’s much harder for publishers to make a profit these days, so they need every book they publish to be a best-seller. When Fifty Shades of Grey sold by the truckload, I’d hoped this would give that particular publisher some spare money to spend on quiet, thoughtful, quirky, unlikely-to-be-a-bestseller books (like mine). But no, what Australian publishers are actually looking for is the next Fifty Shades of Grey, or at least a clone of whatever is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a problem for me as an Australian reader, and even more of a problem for me as an Australian writer. Australian publishers are still publishing books by Australian writers, including debut authors, but these tend to be writers who are easy to market – celebrities and young, attractive, gregarious writers with a huge social media following.

Given all this, it’s not really surprising that publishers’ marketing departments were not wildly enthusiastic about my new offering. “Wait, it’s about … science? And history? But in the form of a mystery story? With teenage girls as the main characters, girls being all clever and … solving problems with science? And there’s no romance? And you actually expect teenagers to read this? Wait, this is mostly set in Australia, are you serious, don’t you realise how useless that is for attracting international sales…” And so on. It didn’t help that the book doesn’t fit neatly into one marketing category or genre. I was told it would be impossible to market, and therefore publish, “because booksellers won’t know which shelf to put it on”.

(I should point out here that my new book does have lots of jokes! And cool illustrations! Also vampires, witches, werewolves, body-snatchers, unicorns and parachuting cats. I should probably also note that there’s quite a bit of what Americans call ‘diversity’ and I call ‘real life’, which tends to worry Australian publishers – although hopefully that is starting to change.)

Anyway, by the end of last year, it seemed clear that the only way this book was going to exist was if I published it myself. I did think very hard about whether it was good enough to be published. I mean, if more than one publisher had rejected it, it must be badly written, right? Except publishers are not making judgements about a manuscript’s literary quality, but about its commercial potential (see aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey). And there are many examples of publishers getting it wrong (all the publishers who rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or those who told Rebecca Skloot that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wouldn’t find a readership). In any case, I think I’m my own harshest critic. I’ve previously abandoned one whole first draft of a novel, plus another half-finished manuscript, because I just didn’t think those particular stories were good enough for publication. When I picked up this new manuscript after a long period of time (it sat on one publisher’s desk for nearly two years), I was able to read it with a fresh eye – and I was genuinely interested in the story and the information, and even laughed out loud at one of the jokes. I think it’s the sort of book I’d pick up at the library or pay actual money for in a bookshop.

So, I’ll be running a series of blog posts over the next few months about my experiences publishing my own book. It won’t be all How To Publish Your Own Book expert advice, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It may end up being a What Not To Do, which should be helpful for authors contemplating taking this path. As always, I welcome your comments!

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

‘The Furthest Station’ by Ben Aaronovitch

'The Furthest Station' by Ben Aaronovitch

There’s a new Rivers of London book out! Except it’s not a novel but a 140-page novella, and I’d thought it wasn’t being released until September. It turns out that an American publisher, Subterranean Press, has just released a signed, limited-edition hardcover for $40, with another 26 signed, lettered editions available for those willing to pay $250.

My local council librarians must have been in an extravagant mood, because they’ve just bought three of the limited-edition hardcovers. I read copy number 676. Look, it’s signed and everything:

'The Furthest Station' signed by Ben Aaronovitch

Is this book worth nearly two dollars a page? Well, no, but it’s a charming story with some characteristically amusing Peter Grant commentary, set sometime between the events of Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree. In this book, London’s trains are being haunted by some ghosts who are behaving very strangely, even by ghost standards. Peter, Abigail and Toby the ghost-hunting dog join up with Jaget of the British Transport Police to find out what the ghosts want – and then realise that they need to save a real, live person from a terrible fate.

There are two other strands of the story, one involving a brand-new river god and the other involving those talking foxes who first popped up in Whispers Under Ground. This is at least one too many strands for a book of this length. Neither of these two stories seems to have anything to do with the main mystery plot and they aren’t resolved in any satisfactory way. I’m particularly annoyed about the foxes, because they’ve been hanging around for four books and we still don’t know anything about them. No, wait – we find out they talk to Abigail because she feeds them kebabs. I sincerely hope they do something more interesting in the next book.

The central mystery itself is resolved fairly quickly and is probably the least interesting part of the book, although the ghosts themselves are poignant. I most enjoyed the bits in which the Folly characters interact – Abigail and Peter taking a break from ghost-hunting to sit on a train platform and eat Molly’s packed supper (“steak and kidney pasties, still warm, with a recycled jam jar full of pickled onions staring out at us like so many eyeballs”), Nightingale sitting at the kitchen table polishing his shoes and reminiscing about his school days to Peter, Abigail teaching Molly how to upload cake photos to Molly’s Twitter account. It was good to learn about Abigail’s ‘internship’ at the Folly, although she did show distinct signs of being a Mary-Sue. (Nightingale calls her a genius! Postmartin’s amazed by her Latin skills! She’s bound to ace her GCSEs! She’s such a techno-whiz that even British Transport is impressed! She can talk to animals! And she hasn’t even turned sixteen yet!) Peter and Nightingale argue about whether they should teach Abigail magic or not, but we all know perfectly well that she’s going to be the next Folly apprentice. And let’s hope that turns out better than the last time a brilliant young woman joined the Folly …

Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.

‘Aunts Up The Cross’ by Robin Dalton

“My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.”

'Aunts Up The Cross' by Robin DaltonSo begins this highly entertaining memoir about a rich and eccentric Sydney family in the 1920s and 1930s. The author’s many older relatives tend to die in unusual ways: Aunt Juliet’s husband was killed when he fell through the dining room floor and broke his neck; Uncle Spot fell off a ladder while attempting to change a light bulb; Uncle Luke tumbled backwards off his office chair; Aunt Eva ate too many green apples; Aunt Jan died “from blowing up a balloon”. Even a visiting plumber dies of a heart attack after catching sight of the author’s ravishing mother, who’d “emerged naked from her dressing room en route to take a bath”.

There are also a number of unbalanced servants, pets and permanent house-guests, as well as an interfering grandmother who lives downstairs with batty Aunt Juliet (before Juliet gets run over by the bus) and a doctor father with a gambling habit who manages to shoot his own knee off (by accident, in his consulting rooms, while seeing a patient). The author claims “it was the clash and mingling of the Irish [on her father’s side] and Jewish [on her mother’s side] temperaments which provided this climate of high dramatic comedy. The fact that the doors were open and everybody joined in was pure Australian.”

Aunts Up The Cross was first published in 1965, long after the author had moved to London, and it shows (the author is particularly scathing about Australian architecture and the state of Australian theatre). The edition I read, however, was the 2001 Penguin re-release, which includes dozens of fascinating photographs of the various aunts and uncles and grandparents, the author’s extremely good-looking parents and the author herself as a pretty and indulged only child. There are also photos of the family mansion in Kings Cross, which burned down during the Second World War and is now the site of Fitzroy Gardens and the El Alamein Fountain.

My only criticism would be that this book is so short, a mere two hundred pages. I’d have liked to have learned more about the author herself, who went to a day school with the Governor’s daughter, then a posh country boarding school before working for the U.S. Army office in Sydney during the war and getting engaged multiple times. However the author, now ninety-six, has a new memoir out entitled One Leg Over, apparently about the many men who fell in love with her over her long and eventful life, so I have that to look forward to.

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Eight

Saturday Night: Foley’s Folly Light

Now we’re back to Peter, in the lighthouse’s lantern room, watching the girls carry out the first phase of their plan. A few days ago he’d been questioning his future at Dartmouth and taking absurd risks to try to prove himself, but now he seems more confident and thoughtful:

“All his life he was going to have to be prepared to make plans which would risk other people’s lives as well as, or even instead of, his own. And the older he got, and the more important, the more it would happen to him. Besides […] it wasn’t as if the alternatives at the moment lay between danger of their own making and eventual safety at Foley’s hands. If they waited, they were almost certain to be killed when the U-boat’s crew got hold of them. And besides–Peter blushed rather, for it sounded pretty pompous as soon as you put it into words–it was probably a thing they ought to do–to do everything they could to prevent that oilskin package falling into enemy hands. And you couldn’t fight the enemy without taking some risks.”

He goes out onto the narrow, wind-shaken walkway to watch Ginty and Nicola almost drown, then once the crisis is over, suddenly remembers his terrible, paralysing fear of heights. He finally manages to crawl inside the lantern room, berating himself all the while (“how jolly silly he must look, crawling painfully along a gallery which Nicola, for instance, would simply have run round”), but then – Foley comes in! Peter shoots out onto the gallery and tip-toes around it, keeping himself on the opposite side of Foley until Foley gives up searching the rocks below and goes back downstairs. Hooray, Peter’s fear of heights has now gone! So that’s one good thing Foley has achieved.

Peter now has a long wait till night falls and the fleet returns, so he passes the time reading the horrifying diary of Fabian de Noyes Foley, the wrecker ancestor – a book which Lewis Foley keeps in the lantern room, although, given how much he worships his ancestor, you’d think he’d store the diary in a more secure place. It’s good to see Peter showing a proper respect for other people’s books, though:

“…that book had made him feel so absolutely furious that if it hadn’t belonged to someone else, he would have dropped it over the rail to be pulped and pounded to pieces by the sea.”

It doesn’t matter if people are traitors – don’t damage their books, especially irreplaceable historical records.

At last, Nicola and Ginty arrive (Nicola is very relieved to see that Foley hadn’t shoved Peter off the top of the lighthouse that morning) and they start sending out their SOS as soon as the fleet appears. But it’s rainy and the fleet is far away and there’s no answering signal. (Typical of those adults.) So poor Peter and Nicola (Ginty is being useless again) keep signalling into the night, knowing it’s hopeless – except all at once, there’s a response! They send their message and are asked to repeat the bit about the U-boat’s arrival time and then they read the signals “message received” and “R”. (Is it Robert? Frankly, he’s the only adult I have any faith in at the moment.)

Meanwhile, Ginty is on the stairs thinking of all the dreadful things that could happen to them – getting shot, having to go in the U-boat, being carted off to Siberia – when she hears Foley running up the steps. She doesn’t even have any weapons, but she resolves to do her best:

“She never doubted he would overwhelm her in the end, whatever she did, but she might have been able to hold him off, just long enough for the others to get the message through.”

Aw, now I like Ginty again! And I like her even more when she throws her paraffin lantern in Foley’s face, causing him to lose his footing and tumble all the way down the stairs. Unfortunately, he’s still alive, just badly injured. Peter gets the package of secrets off him and Nicola locates the key to the transmitting room, although Ginty is busy feeling “more worried than a good counter-spy should over an enemy agent who has been put out of action.” She administers first-aid while Peter retrieves the revolver from the transmitting room and locks it.

Things are looking up! The only problem is, Peter suddenly realises that they don’t know who responded to their signal. What if it was the U-boat? (It’s okay, Peter. I’m sure it was Robert. Well, fairly sure.)

Sunday Morning: Ships in the Bay

Foley regains consciousness and is rather surprised to see Peter is alive. Foley is also not very happy to learn that the children have signalled to the navy, especially when Peter says he’s thrown both the secrets and the downstairs key into the sea. Foley is now doomed, but the children’s fate depends on whether the U-boat or the navy reaches the lighthouse first. And then a fog rolls in. Oh, the suspense…

Now a boat is approaching! But is it friend or foe? Nicola dashes off “with a relishing piratical look” to fetch knives for her and Ginty:

“Ginty stared at the knife in her hand without any relish at all. It was quite plain that whatever sort of fight Peter and Nicola intended to put up against the U-boat crew, Ginty meant to go quietly.”

Poor Ginty. Especially as the boat carries the U-boat crew. Ginty goes inside and puts her hands over her ears because “she simply wasn’t going to see or hear anything until they came to take her.”

But Peter and Nicola are made of sterner stuff. They watch Foley getting berated on the beach for failing to kill the children and losing the secret information – foiled by those pesky kids! – and then Peter loudly defies the enemy leader’s orders for the children to get down on the beach. The enemy leader brandishes a revolver at Nicola and worse, calls Peter a “little boy” who needs to be taught a lesson.

So Peter shoots him dead with Foley’s revolver.

Don’t mess with the Marlows!

Then the fog rolls away, revealing not just the U-boat but three Navy destroyers. Well, it’s about time they showed up. In an immensely exciting scene, the men on the beach, including Foley, try to get back to the U-boat, but the Navy blows up the U-boat and Foley and capture the surviving U-boat crew. But even in the midst of the action, the author makes space for astute observations of characters’ reactions:

“‘Oh, Binks,” [Nicola] said half-sobbing. ‘Why didn’t you stop him? He’ll be killed, I know he will.’
‘He’d rather be,’ said Peter, grabbing her, ‘I should think. Get down, Nick. They’re firing.’
Nicola, however, put her head up. She was still, though she hadn’t the least idea of it, sobbing in a breathless way because Foley was dead, or about to be, but at the same time she was intensely interested in what was going on.”

Eventually the children are taken aboard one of the destroyers to tell their story to Commander Whittier and Nicola is only mildly surprised, at this stage, to find Robert Anquetil on board. Whittier tells them about Lawrie’s accident and Nicola says her father will be furious that Lawrie didn’t have her bus fare and didn’t look before she ran across the road (which is, in fact, what he says when he finds out). Then Whittier says “that sounds like Geoff Marlow.” So Whittier actually knew Commander Marlow personally and still said the Marlow children were expendable! (Heaven knows what he’d have done if it’d been a group of working-class non-navy children – probably used any surviving children as live bait for his next useless spy-catching scheme.)

Whittier also says they’re to forget everything that happened and not to speak about it again, not even amongst themselves. Well, that’s really going to help Ginty’s post-traumatic stress disorder. He also mentions that Johnnie Thorpe “knows more than he should” and that Johnnie’s also been warned to keep silent forever. Then Nicola thinks to ask Whittier who saw their signal and is gruffly told it was Robert:

“But it was quite obvious there was a grandmother and a grandfather of a row on, so she said sturdily: ‘It was jolly lucky he was there. ‘Cos we were signalling when the Fleet passed and they never saw a thing.’”

Then she stares Commander Whittier down until he agrees with her and apologises to Robert. Yay, Nicola! Then she gets to spend the rest of the voyage on the destroyer’s bridge and she doesn’t feel a bit seasick. Really, it’s Nicola who ought to be at Dartmouth.

Also, Whittier asks Peter what he said to the enemy leader, then explains that man was the Nazi equivalent of a Rear-Admiral:

“So just remember, when some haughty sub in your first ship is telling you what a low form of life you are, that you once gave a Rear-Admiral his marching orders.”

And, you know, shot and killed him. But it doesn’t even seem that there’s going to be an inquiry into that. At least Peter is happy that he still has a naval career and that his vertigo is cured.

Finally, the children meet their relieved mother and they go off to see Lawrie in hospital, where Lawrie is being Lawrie:

“Whatever had happened to the others, Lawrie didn’t think it could have been nearly as impressive as what had happened to her. Fractured bones, broken bones, concussion–Lawrie felt they would have to produce something pretty remarkable to compete with that.”

Oh, Lawrie. What a goop.

Final random thoughts:

– What happened to Ida Cross? Did they arrest her? How did a woman like that even get mixed up with Foley? Assuming she wasn’t a fervent Communist and it wasn’t her idea, did he seduce her into this plot? If so, he’s even more despicable. He gets a noble suicide and she’s left to face the consequences.

-Has Robert Anquetil now blown his cover as an intelligence agent? Won’t the locals notice if he turns up at port on a navy destroyer? Hadn’t they noticed something before this? Anyway, he ended up being my favourite adult in this book. When he broke the rules, at least he was doing it to save the children.

– I really hope David was kicked out of the navy for attacking Robert, locking him up and taking over the boat. But he probably wasn’t. I mean, the navy didn’t seem to do anything to Foley for getting eighteen men killed.

– I don’t really see the point of Johnnie Thorpe. I wondered if he’d be shown to be brave and helpful, just to show the Marlows were being superficial snobs when they ostracised him, but he remained an idiot throughout.

– I was also kind of hoping the Thorpe daughters would play a useful role, thereby proving that even young ladies who wear tight, colourful trousers can be brave and helpful, but no, they might as well not have existed in the story. I’m starting to think that Antonia Forest’s idea of a heroine is a tomboy, because any girl character who displays any stereotypical girl behaviours, like being interested in clothes, always turns out to be useless. I have nothing against tomboys (I was one myself), but it would be nice to see a bit more variety when it comes to portrayals of heroines. I’ve only read two of her books though and maybe I’ll have a pleasant surprise in later books.

THE END (for the moment)

You might also be interested in:

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Two
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Three
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Four
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Five
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Six
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Seven

and

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest