Favourite Books And TV, Plus A Book Giveaway

The Book Smugglers kindly invited me to write a guest post about my favourite books and TV of 2012. My chosen favourites won’t come as any surprise to regular readers of this blog, but you can read my post here. The Book Smugglers are also giving away a copy of the Vintage Classics edition of A Brief History of Montmaray, with entries closing on January 13, 2013.

The RAF Pilots’ Song, Plus Some WWII Girl Power

Did you know that, during the Second World War, some of the brave fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force formed their own boy band? And, when not shooting down Luftwaffe bombers, would dance in front of their Spitfires, singing harmonies about, among other things, Douglas Bader’s legs (“They’re not real”)? No, neither did I!1 But I think Toby FitzOsborne would approve. Take that, Hitler!

And let’s not forget the contributions made by British women during the war. If you think they were all stuck in the kitchen, you haven’t seen this! Or read The FitzOsbornes at War, which is all about girls being awesome in wartime, and is published in North America next month, and looks like this:

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American edition
‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, published in North America on October 9, 2012


  1. Thank you to Kate Constable, whose informative and entertaining blog post alerted me to the fact that the Horrible Histories books have now been turned into a TV series. I had no idea! I would have left a comment on her blog post as well, but Blogspot doesn’t like me and refuses to accept my comments.

The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy

'The Fishing Fleet' by Anne de CourcyI’ve enjoyed Anne de Courcy’s previous social histories and biographies, so when I saw her latest book was about India, I was keen to read it. As usual, her subject is posh English people, circa 1850 – 1950, but this time she has focussed on the young English women who sailed to India to find themselves husbands. The first such ‘Fishing Fleet’ arrived in Bombay in 1671, the women having been paid generous allowances by the East India Company. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no need to provide incentives to prospective brides. The only respectable career for a Victorian ‘gentlewoman’ was that of wife and mother, but there were far more unmarried women than eligible bachelors in England. Women who were neither rich nor pretty enough to snare a husband knew they’d have a much better chance in India, where white men outnumbered white women by four to one and were forbidden (by their terms of employment and social custom) from marrying females with any tinge of ‘native blood’.

Anne de Courcy uses memoirs, letters, diaries and interviews to provide fascinating details of these ‘husband-hunters’. First, there was the arduous sailing trip (all the way around Africa before the Suez Canal opened in 1869), the poor women having to contend with cramped living space, sea sickness, limited fresh food and other inconveniences:

“Fresh water for washing clothes was in such short supply that many women who knew they were going to travel saved their most worn underwear and then discarded it overboard on the voyage, leaving, one imagines, a trail of dirty, threadbare nightdresses across the Indian Ocean.”

Arriving in Bombay or Calcutta, the young woman was often overwhelmed by the heat, the dust, the smells, the “teeming mass of people”. She was then flung into India’s version of ‘the Season’, attending (depending on her social rank) Viceregal balls and banquets, dinner parties, tea dances, picnics, tennis parties and tiger-hunts. Couples often became engaged after only one or two brief meetings, the men desperate for companionship after years of celibacy, the women anxious to avoid the mortification of being sent home as a ‘Returned Empty’ (that is, a failed husband-hunter). Most military and Indian Civil Service men weren’t permitted to marry until they were at least thirty, which meant bridegrooms were often several decades older than their teenage brides and could be unwilling or unable to change their bachelor lifestyles. One beautiful and cosseted young woman, who wed in 1932, found herself living on a remote tea plantation, miles from her nearest white neighbour, with no transportation, no electricity and nothing to do. Her much older husband spent all his time working or hunting with his hounds and horses and forgot her twenty-first birthday, and her child was delivered by the local vet because there was no doctor available. Still, “Sheila was a true daughter of the Raj, brave and uncomplaining” and later told her daughter that she always dressed in an evening gown for dinner because “it was felt that one must keep up standards and not let oneself go native.”

Actually, Sheila had it relatively easy. Other women were shot at by mutinous ‘natives’, while some were caught in avalanches and earthquakes. Women died of cholera, smallpox, malaria and even bubonic plague. Infants were particularly vulnerable to diseases, and those who survived were routinely sent off to boarding school in England from the age of six, so their mothers had the agonising choice of being separated for years at a time from either their husband or their small children. And then there was the wildlife – panthers that snatched pet dogs from gardens and golf courses, snakes that slithered up through drainage holes into bathrooms, scorpions hidden in shoes, rats under the bed and monkeys that stole silver spoons from the table. One young woman awoke to find a civet cat drinking from her bedside glass of milk.

What I found most interesting was how British India was far more patriarchal and snobbish than Britain itself. By the twentieth century, it was possible for a working-class man with a great deal of intelligence, talent and luck to rise as high as Prime Minister, and for a well-born woman to become a Member of Parliament. This was impossible in India, where women had no status at all and “the hierarchy of the Raj position was fixed, according to service, rank and seniority in an unalterable grading . . . within which there was room for petty nuances that could be painful and damaging.”

Everyone was obsessed with their own and everyone else’s social precedence, and in a small society where nothing was private, it was thought essential to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Those who could barely afford it still kept polo ponies, paid expensive subscriptions to clubs and held elaborate dinner parties, and there was little tolerance for those regarded as ‘intellectuals’.

The stories in this book are mostly of upper-class British women, rather than, say, the women who went to India as teachers, nurses and missionaries. There are also few mentions of Indians, apart from some anonymous, silent servants and the Maharajah of Patiala, who married Miss Florence Bryan in 18931. The author clearly feels that Britain’s colonisation of India was a very good thing – after all, most of the Indian rulers prior to colonisation were cruel despots (true, but so were the rulers of most countries in the eighteenth century) and the British “left India, after independence, with an enviable infrastructure, a democratic Government and a common language”. (The book makes only passing mention of the terrible famines that resulted from the British forcing Indian farmers to grow jute and cotton, rather than food2, and of the violent suppression of pro-independence Indians3.)

'Heat and Dust' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaDespite these reservations, the book is recommended for those interested in reading about British women’s experiences in India. But I think novels can be just as useful for this purpose, so here are some of my favourites:

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The Jewel in the Crown and other novels in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden4
Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
(Actually, read all of Rumer Godden’s India books, because she’s brilliant. Anne Chisholm also wrote an excellent biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life.)
– And for a slightly different look at Europeans in India, there’s also Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai.


  1. It was a “brief and unhappy” marriage. She was shunned by both Indians and Europeans, her infant son was poisoned, and she died of pneumonia three years later.
  2. Up to ten million Indians died in the famine of 1876-8, and a similar number in 1899-1900.
  3. For example, hundreds died at Amritsar in 1919, when British troops fired on unarmed protesters.
  4. Black Narcissus was made into a hilariously bad film in 1947. In one memorable scene, the mad nun flees through a Himalayan ‘jungle’ inhabited by kookaburras.

Vintage Classics Book Giveaway

'A Brief History of Montmaray' Vintage Classic edition

A Brief History of Montmaray is being re-published as a Vintage Classic Children’s book next month. This new edition has a lovely illustrated cover by Samantha Battersby and features the original illustrated introduction page by Zoë Sadokierski:

'A Brief History of Montmaray' illustrated introduction page

And there are some added extras – historical background information, reading group discussion questions and information about some of Sophie’s own favourite classics. It goes on sale in Australia and New Zealand on the first of August, but I’m also giving away three copies here. For all those North American readers who were curious about the original text of A Brief History of Montmaray before it was edited for American readers – here it is! And for Australian and New Zealand readers who already have the Australian edition – um . . . oh look, pretty cover! And cute sketches of puffins and teapots and cats inside the covers! (Note: if an Australian or New Zealander wins a book and would actually prefer a copy of the North American paperback, I’ll send them that instead.)

Usually, when I hold a book giveaway on my blog, I ask people for book recommendations, but I thought I’d do something a bit different this time. To enter this book giveaway, leave a comment below about your favourite film (or television series) adapted from a book you’ve loved. I’ll start you off with some of my favourites.

1. Brideshead Revisited, 1981 television series. One of those rare examples of a television series being better than the book, in my opinion. All those pompous sermons in the final section of the novel were turned into poignant monologues or the sort of dialogue that real people might actually speak. Special mention must go to Jeremy Irons for transforming snobby, wife-abandoning Charles into a sympathetic character. And the bear who played Aloysius did a pretty good job, too. (Let’s just ignore that 2008 film version, shall we?)

2. Cold Comfort Farm, 1995 film. This has a dream cast – Ian McKellen, Eileen Atkins, Miriam Margolyes, Rufus Sewell (in unbuttoned shirt), Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley and Kate Beckinsale. The film’s almost as funny as the book, and that’s high praise.

3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2005 film. I think this was my favourite Harry Potter film. The Yule Ball! Draco as a ferret! Hedges that eat people! A Voldemort who was even scarier than in the book! (They shouldn’t have killed the dragon, though – that was just mean.)

4. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1981 television series. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I watched it and I’m sure today’s teenagers would scoff at the low-tech special effects, but I really loved this series. It probably helped that quite a few of the cast members had been part of the original radio series, but I can’t imagine a better Arthur Dent than Simon Jones. (And no, I haven’t seen the 2005 film version.)

5. Careful, He Might Hear You, 1983 film. A lovely film with a stellar Australian cast (including Robyn Nevin, Wendy Hughes and Geraldine Turner), based on Sumner Locke Elliott’s beloved novel.

So, what is your favourite film or television series, adapted from a book you’ve loved? Comment below for a chance to win one of three signed copies of the new Vintage Classics edition of A Brief History of Montmaray.

Conditions of entry:

1. This is an international giveaway. Anyone can enter.
2. Make sure the e-mail address you enter on the comment form is a valid one, so I can contact you if you win (no one will be able to see your e-mail address except me, and I won’t show it to anyone else). Please don’t include your real residential or postal address anywhere in the comment. However, it would be nice if you mentioned which country you live in, because I’m curious about who reads this blog.
3. The three winners will be chosen at random, unless there are three or fewer comments – in which case, it won’t be random and all will win prizes.
4. This contest and/or promotion is not sponsored or authorised by Random House Australia. Random House Australia bears no legal liability in connection with this contest and/or promotion. (My Australian publishers say I have to put this bit in. This is the first time I’ve ever given away any of my Australian books on my blog.)
5. Entries close on the 1st of August, 2012, when the Vintage Classics edition of A Brief History of Montmaray goes on sale in Australia. The winners will be e-mailed then, and I will send off the winners’ books as soon as possible after that.

Note: This book giveaway is now closed. Click here to see the names of the lucky book winners.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Five: Emil and the Detectives

‘Dated’ doesn’t have to mean ‘painful to read’ – sometimes it can mean ‘charming and sweet and nostalgic’. Emil and the Detectives, written by Erich Kästner in 1929, is an example of a children’s adventure story that is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. Young Emil (age unknown, but he seems to be about ten or eleven) encounters a suspicious bowler-hatted man during a journey to Berlin. While Emil is asleep in the train carriage, the man steals a large sum of money that Emil is meant to deliver to his grandmother. Emil doesn’t feel he can report it to the police – he’s already afraid that he’s going to be arrested because he chalked a red nose and black moustache on an important statue in his home town. No, Emil must track down the missing money himself in Berlin. It’s a daunting task for a country boy – but luckily he encounters Gustav and his gang of friends, who are eager to be part of the adventure.

'Emil and the Detectives' by Erich KästnerAh, the good old days – when rural mothers sent their young sons off on unaccompanied, four-hour train trips to an unfamiliar city, and city parents allowed their boys to roam the streets of Berlin in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, they were also the days when girls weren’t allowed to have adventures. Emil’s female cousin, Pony, would love to help, but all she can do is bring refreshments to the boy detectives. On the few occasions she gets to speak, she says things like “I wish I could stay! I’d make you some coffee. But I can’t, of course. Nice girls like me have to be in bed in good time” and “I’m just doing the washing up. Women’s work is never done”. I’d love to have seen Pony run down the thief on her bicycle or something. Still, the boys – Gustav with his motor horn, the bespectacled Professor, little Tuesday and the rest – are so full of energy, fun and ingenious plans that the story skips along. It’s also nice to see a boy character who cares for his mother in lots of practical ways and isn’t afraid to discuss this with his new friends (although Emil does threaten to punch anyone who calls him a mummy’s boy).

I do wonder what today’s young readers, accustomed to fast-paced modern adventure stories, would make of a book that begins with Mrs Wirth, the baker’s wife, having her hair shampooed by Emil’s mother. It takes a few chapters before anything remotely suspenseful or adventurous happens, although the action speeds up once Emil reaches Berlin. Young readers may also struggle with some of the dialogue, unless they’re familiar with Enid Blyton. The edition I borrowed from my library was a 1959 English translation (see photograph above – although I must emphasise that Sydney City Library does stock other, more recent, children’s books). Gustav says things like “Cheerio, Emil. Gosh, I’m looking forward to this. It’s going to be smashing!” and the stolen 120 marks is translated into “seven pounds” (which still won’t mean much to young readers). I think a modern translator might have done a better job of conveying the original German text, although I suppose it’s always difficult to translate slang.

The edition I read also included a rather poignant introduction by Walter de la Mare which says, “There is nothing in it that might not happen (in pretty much the same way as it does happen in the book) in London or Manchester or Glasgow tomorrow afternoon.” This may have been true when he wrote it in 1931, but it certainly wasn’t ten years later. By that time, Britain and Germany were at war; the cities of Berlin, London, Manchester and Glasgow were being bombed; and young Emil and his friends were of age and probably conscripted into the Nazi war machine. Meanwhile, the author, a pacifist, had been interrogated by the Gestapo and had his books burnt by the Nazis. His home in Berlin was destroyed by bombs, but he survived the war to write more books for children and adults, including an autobiography called When I Was A Little Boy. Emil and the Detectives was made into several films, the most recent in 2001 (in which, apparently, Pony had a bigger role to play, hooray!).

Thank you, Alex, for drawing my attention to this book in one of your comments a few months ago. I think I might have read it as a child, but I had forgotten almost everything about it, so I thoroughly enjoyed all the plot twists and jokes.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

There’s always a bit of trepidation when you re-read an old favourite from your teenage years. Will the book turn out to be No Good At All? Will it be obvious and sentimental and vacuous? Will it reveal that you used to have appalling taste in literature? Thankfully, Careful, He Might Hear You proved to be just as good as I remembered – perhaps even better, because I can now see the immense skill that went into the construction of its apparently effortless prose.

Careful, He Might Hear You was Sumner Locke Elliott’s first novel. It was published in 1963, but he’d been writing plays, radio serials and television scripts for decades before that, and it really shows in his writing. He knew all about plot and pacing, how to balance action with introspection and how to reveal character through dialogue. But writing a novel also allowed him to write beautiful descriptions of a setting he knew very well, that of Sydney during the Depression. The novel is based on his own childhood, in which he was the focus of a bitter custody battle between several aunts. His mother, a popular Australian writer, had died giving birth to him and his father, an irresponsible alcoholic, played no part in his upbringing. On one side of the battle was his anxious, motherly Aunt Lillian (named ‘Lila’ in the book), the wife of a hard-working but poor Labor politician; on the other was rich Aunt Jessie (‘Vanessa’), recently returned from England and determined to transform her nephew into a proper little gentleman. The situation was complicated by his odd Aunt Agnes, disciple of a bizarre American cult, and his bohemian Aunt Blanche (‘Vere’). The author does a superb job of narrating events from the perspective of six-year-old PS, who is by turns amused, baffled and angered by the grown-ups running his life. It’s a pleasure to watch him slowly gain some control over the adults, although the author also manages to evoke some sympathy for them. There is poor, over-worked Lila; her long-suffering husband, George; emotionally-repressed Vanessa; even exuberant Vere is revealed to have hidden sorrows. There are also gorgeous descriptions of Sydney in the 1930s – a cruise liner steaming into Sydney Harbour, a train trip to dusty Woronora Cemetery, Lila’s suburban backyard and Vanessa’s Point Piper mansion and Vere’s chaotic flat in King’s Cross:

“Vere poured the golden-coloured bubbles into two peanut butter glasses and handed one to Opal. They immediately forgot him and began talking about their friends who were all in a mess, thwarted, broke, maddened or suicidal, my dear. They had wonderful names like Dodo, Ukelele, Widget and Gussy. When they came to visit Vere, they brought her old shoe buckles, brooches, half-used pots of cold cream, combs and long, cool bottles because they were always dying of thirst, just dying of thirst, my dear, and their voices would grow brighter as the daylight faded, would fly around the small room like birds let out of cages telling about gay-sounding things, about parties and dancing, full of mysterious words that had to be spelled out in Lila’s house and which made his heart jump for the time when he would understand and be a part of the things they told about with such laughter.”

'Careful, He Might Hear You' by Sumner Locke Elliott and 'Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life' by Sharon Clarke
'Careful, He Might Hear You' by Sumner Locke Elliott and 'Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life' by Sharon Clarke

Careful, He Might Hear You was a huge success in the United States, Britain and Germany, but didn’t sell very well in Australia, as Sumner Locke Elliott explained:

“I distinctly remember that [his agent] told me 50,000 copies had already been sold in Germany, where there had been three editions in six months, and naturally I was elated. Then I asked about Australia and she said, ‘Seven.’ And I said, with some delight, ‘Well, 7,000, that’s not bad at all – it’s only a small country.’ But she said, ‘Not 7,000, just seven – seven copies.’ And you know, I just couldn’t believe it – my own country and only seven copies!”

Actually, it wasn’t his own country by then, because he’d moved to the United States in 1948, escaping a country that had banned his plays and had little tolerance for gay men. He lived in Los Angeles, and then New York, where he died in 1991. Several of his novels (Waiting for Childhood, Eden’s Lost and Water Under the Bridge) revisit the autobiographical themes of Careful, He Might Hear You, but it is his final novel, Fairyland, that’s probably the closest to his real life. Fairyland is the depressing tale of a young man growing up in Australia, desperately ashamed of his desires for other men but longing to find true love. It includes scenes taken from the author’s life, such as when he was bashed nearly to death in Wynyard railway station, and it shows the conservatism, violence and hypocrisy of the country where he grew up. Sharon Clarke wrote a good biography called Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life, which I recommend for anyone wanting to know more about the story behind Careful, He Might Hear You. There’s also an excellent film version starring Robyn Nevin and Wendy Hughes, which came out in 1983. (At least, I remember liking it when I saw it, but that was a very long time ago. It is possible I had terrible taste in movies then.)

Anyway, I was very pleased to see that Text is bringing out a new edition of Careful He Might Hear You as part of its Australian Classics series. This book deserves to find lots of new readers.

My Favourite Books of 2011

Okay, it’s not the official end of the year just yet, but here’s my list so far. It was a bit easier to compile than last year’s list, because I now keep a book journal, which allows me to report the following statistics:

Number of books read so far this year: Fifty-seven (not including the two novels I disliked so much that I couldn’t finish them)

Number of books read that I’d previously read: Seven (actually, there were more than seven, but I stopped noting them down in my journal, so most of them aren’t included in this book tally)

Number of Young Adult books read: Fifteen

Number of children’s books read: Eight

Number of memoirs read: Three

Number of other non-fiction books read: Nineteen

Number of graphic novels read: Three

Number of anthologies read: Two

Number of books by Australian writers: Fourteen

Number of books by British writers: Twenty-seven

Number of books by North American writers: Fourteen

Number of books by Scandinavian writers, translated into English: Two

Number of journals subscribed to this year: Two (Viewpoint on Books for Young Adults and Australian Author)

And now, here are the books I read this year that I loved the most. Note that none of them were actually published in 2011 (I’m still trying to catch up with reading from the nineteenth century).

Favourite Novel About Terrifying Creatures with Supernatural Powers

'Let The Right One In' by John Ajvide LindqvistI don’t read many horror novels – if I want horror, I can just read the newspapers. However, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist received a lot of favourable publicity when the two film versions were released, so I decided to give it a try and it was amazing. It’s incredibly gruesome, but the author does such a terrific job of narrating events though each character (even a squirrel, at one point – truly) that I could not put the book down. I must say, it doesn’t paint a very pretty portrait of late twentieth-century Sweden. Practically every character is desperately lonely, an alcoholic, a drug addict, mentally ill and/or a violent criminal, and yet all the modern-day villains (and there are many of them) have plausible reasons for their vile actions. Ultimately, it’s a hopeful story about two outsiders helping one another. I should also note that this is one of the few translated novels I’ve ever read where the prose was completely seamless, as though it was originally written in English – the translator of the edition I read (whose name I forgot to write down) did a wonderful job.

Favourite Novel About Victorian Clergymen

'Barchester Towers' by Anthony TrollopeBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope is a clever and very entertaining satire of church politics and middle-class English society – think Jane Austen with added snarkiness, or Charles Dickens without the sentimentality. I’m not sure who is my favourite villain – Mrs Proudie, self-appointed Bishop of Barchester, or the oleaginous Reverend Mr Slope, the chaplain who rapidly falls from grace after he gets tangled up in a few too many love affairs. There’s also a good BBC television series based on this book and its prequel, The Warden, with Alan Rickman as Mr Slope.

Favourite Short Story

‘Different for Boys’ by Patrick Ness (in Keith Gray’s YA anthology, Losing It) is one of the best short stories I’ve read in years. Vibrant teenage characters, a school that felt completely authentic, real sex and real heartbreak, lots of jokes, all in forty-four pages.

Favourite Graphic Novel

'Tamara Drewe' by Posy SimmondsAdmittedly, I only read three graphic novels this year, but Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds would probably have been my favourite even if I’d read fifty of them. It’s a loose modern adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, set mostly in a writers’ retreat in rural England. There’s lots of biting satire about self-indulgent writers, academics, celebrities, middle-aged philanderers and ‘liberated’ young women, but the story is engrossing and includes a sad but realistic portrayal of disenfranchised rural teenagers. The art is great too, expressive without being too fussy (and is it just me, or does Glen, the American writer who’s moved to England, look exactly like Bill Bryson?).

Favourite Book About Punctuation

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which I have previously discussed here.

Favourite Children’s Book

'Millions' by Frank Cottrell BoyceMillions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is the very best sort of children’s story – funny, exciting and moving. A bag containing thousands of pounds lands in young Damian’s lap, and he and his brother Anthony have only a couple of weeks to spend it before it loses all its value. They trigger hyper-inflation in the school yard, realise that material goods don’t buy happiness, and discover that trying to do good in the world is harder than it seems (for example, when they give a large donation to the Mormon missionaries down the street, the men spend it on a dishwasher and foot spa). Damian’s family are beautifully portrayed, but so are all the secondary characters – Damian’s long-suffering teacher, the local policeman, a lady who visits their school to explain about the introduction of the Euro dollar, the various saints who appear as visions to Damian, even the robber trying to retrieve his stolen money. Highly recommended!

I must also mention two other children’s books I enjoyed: The Secret Language of Girls by Frances O’Roark Dowell, about two best friends gradually growing apart during sixth grade, and Cicada Summer by Kate Constable, an intriguing time-slip story set in a drought-stricken Australian country town. (I also re-read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, which is still awesome.)

Favourite Book About Germs

I read quite a few ‘popular science’ books this year, some written by journalists, others by scientists, and I decided I much preferred the ones written by people who actually understood the science they were writing about. Anyway. Killer Germs: Microbes And Diseases That Threaten Humanity by Barry E. Zimmerman and David J. Zimmerman was a very clear, interesting account of the history of microbiology, with technical but accessible descriptions of how germs cause diseases. It did have an overwrought ‘We’re all doomed!’ chapter about bioterrorism and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and so on, and the edition I read was out of date (published in 2003), but overall, it’s very good. Also, it was written by science teachers who are identical twins (I’m not sure why the book pointed that out, but I couldn’t help imagining them as looking like the Winkelvoss twins).

An honourable mention in the ‘popular science’ category (although this book is not specifically about germs) goes to Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All by Rose Shapiro, which examines a variety of ‘alternative medicines’ popular in the UK, ranging from chiropractic to homeopathy. The author points out that there is no scientific evidence to support most of these treatments, and she laments the money and time that the UK government devotes to ‘quack remedies’ that can be very dangerous (for example, chiropractic neck manipulations can cause strokes, and some herbal medicines contain toxic levels of lead and mercury).

Favourite Novel About Teenagers

'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' by John Green and David LevithanI really enjoyed Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, a book about friendships between teenage boys – some gay, some straight, but all of them interesting, realistic characters. There was lots of humour and the story moved along at a perfect pace, but most importantly, it was emotionally resonant. I cried at the end, but I didn’t feel manipulated into it by some sentimental epiphany on the part of the characters, because their emotional journeys seemed real. I also liked that while being gay wasn’t ‘normal’ in this book, it wasn’t the cause of unending angst, either. Maybe the girl characters could have been nicer or had more depth, but overall, I thought this was a great YA novel.

So . . . I don’t seem to have read many new books this year – perhaps because I was so busy writing. I was reading online newspapers, magazines and blogs, but not that many books made out of paper (even though I don’t own an e-reader, iPad or laptop, and my only internet connection is extremely slow dial-up). I do have a list of To Read books for 2012, but it’s too long to type out, and I still haven’t read a couple of books from my 2011 To Read list.

I hope that you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2012 brings you many entertaining and intriguing books!

More Favourite Books of the Year:

1. Favourite Books of 2010

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

'Cold Comfort Farm' by Stella GibbonsI knew I was going to get along with Miss Flora Poste, the narrator of this novel, from the very first chapter, in which she explains that her “idea of hell is a very large party in a cold room, where everybody has to play hockey properly”. Flora also likes everything about her to be “tidy and pleasant and comfortable”. She is therefore presented with quite a challenge when she goes off to live with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, following the (unlamented) deaths of her parents.

The Starkadders have always lived at Cold Comfort Farm, even though the place is apparently cursed. The family is ruled over by mad Aunt Ada Doom, who conveniently “saw something nasty in the woodshed” as a child and so must have her every wish fulfilled, for fear she might go even madder. Her daughter Judith is sunk in gloom; Judith’s husband Amos spends all his time preaching hellfire at the Church of the Quivering Brethren; their inarticulate elder son Reuben tries to keep the farm going and obsesses about how many feathers his chickens have lost; Seth lounges about with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, seducing the housemaids; and young Elfine writes terrible poetry and communes with Nature. Then there’s their ancient farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, and his beloved cows (called Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless); Mrs Beetle the housekeeper and her “jazz quartet” of tiny, illegitimate grandchildren; and a confusion of dirt-encrusted Starkadder cousins, with names like Urk and Micah, who are constantly stealing one another’s wives and pushing each other down the well.

Fortunately, Flora enjoys a challenge and she cheerfully sets about improving the lives of all her relatives, whether they like it or not.

This is one of the funniest novels I have ever read. Stella Gibbons pokes fun at everyone and everything: Serious Literature, romance, evangelists, psychoanalysis, intellectuals, people who worship Nature, fashionable Society, the British aristocracy. As Rachel Cooke writes, “Gibbons was a sworn enemy of the flatulent, the pompous and the excessively sentimental.” The really clever thing, though, is how Gibbons manages to create over-the-top characters who are nevertheless completely recognisable. Mr Mybug, for example, who is convinced Branwell Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights:

“You see, it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff . . . There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the Heights.”

He sounds like V. S. Naipaul.

Although Cold Comfort Farm was first published in 1932, it is supposed to be set “in the near future”, sometime after the “Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ’46”. Mayfair is now part of the slums of London, while Lambeth is a fashionable, expensive part of the city. The British railways have fallen into “idle and repining repair” because so many people travel in their own private aeroplanes, and telephones come equipped with a “television dial”. Some of this is quite prophetic, but it reads oddly in a novel that otherwise seems thoroughly part of the 1930s. (The excellent 1996 film version of the book wisely omitted these modernistic bits.) One extra note: make sure you read the author’s foreword before you read the novel. I didn’t, so I missed out on a running joke about literary criticism.

Stella Gibbons wrote two sequels to this book, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, which unfortunately, I haven’t read. After being out of print for years, they have been republished this year by Vintage Classics, along with a dozen other novels from this author. I am particularly interested in reading Westwood, which is set during the Second World War and sounds fascinating.

More favourite 1930s/1940s British novels:

1. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Oh, and don’t forget that my book giveaway is still on, until the 4th of December. Go and check out the excellent book recommendations from readers, and add a recommendation of your own!

Anne Tyler And Her Novels

Thanks to John le Carré, I’m now aware that there is a Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years to a writer for a body of work, rather than for a single novel. The finalists for the 2011 award were announced last month in Sydney, and I’m very pleased that Anne Tyler is among them. She is one of my favourite novelists ever and I hope she wins.

For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she’s written eighteen novels:

If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
The Tin Can Tree (1965)
A Slipping-Down Life (1970)
The Clock Winder (1972)
Celestial Navigation (1974)
Searching for Caleb (1975)
Earthly Possessions (1977)
Morgan’s Passing (1980)
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Breathing Lessons (1988)
Saint Maybe (1991)
Ladder of Years (1995)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass (2009)

With such a large body of work, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Luckily for you, I’ve produced this handy guide, which you can print out and take to your nearest library or bookshop:

For those who enjoy Southern Gothic:

'If Morning Ever Comes' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler is reported to “hate” her first two novels, but I think they’re both interesting books, even if they don’t quite work. If Morning Ever Comes is about a boy who abandons his studies in New York to rush home to North Carolina after his runaway sister shows up. There’s some very fine descriptive writing and the characters are fascinating, if a little too self-consciously quirky. Nothing very much happens, but it’s an enjoyable read.

The Tin Can Tree contains even more Southern eccentricity, but with slightly more narrative. It’s about an extended family that falls apart after their youngest child is killed. What I really like about this novel is the vividness of the setting – one “long, crowded” house inhabited by three families, surrounded by tobacco farms and dust. It’s hard to like these characters, but then, they are people weighed down with grief.

Earthly Possessions could possibly fall into this category, too, although it’s more of a Southern road trip novel than anything else. It’s about an unhappy housewife, who’s taken hostage by a young bank robber. They then head for Florida in a stolen car. Apparently, this was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, but I haven’t seen it.

For those who like Young Adult novels:

A Slipping-Down Life is probably the closest to a YA novel that Anne Tyler has written. A lonely high school girl, obsessed with a local rock singer, decides to carve his name into her forehead, and the attention she receives alters her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined. This is a coming-of-age tale with a satisfying conclusion, set in a Southern town so insular and isolated that you can understand why all the teenagers are desperate to escape.

Saint Maybe is absolutely wonderful, but doesn’t fit quite as easily into the YA category. It’s about Ian, a teenage boy who becomes convinced he’s responsible for his brother’s suicide and goes searching for a way to atone, ending up a member of the very odd ‘Church of the Second Chance’. Much of the story is told from Ian’s perspective, but there are also contributions from Agatha, Thomas and Daphne, his brother’s children, as they grow up. It’s a funny, thoughtful novel about guilt, forgiveness and the consolations of religion. I highly recommend it.

For those who like reading about really annoying men:

'Celestial Navigation' by Anne TylerCelestial Navigation is about Jeremy, “a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who never did leave home”. Although the words ‘Asperger’s’, ‘autism’ and ‘agoraphobia’ are never used, they could all apply to him, so I was fascinated to read in a New York Times article that he’s “the closest Anne Tyler has come to writing about herself”. When Jeremy’s devoted mother dies, it’s difficult to see how he’ll manage, but he takes in lodgers and works on his art, and eventually falls for Mary, who’s just walked out on her husband. I loathed both these characters for their extreme self-centredness, but it’s a beautifully written novel, and the minor characters are very endearing.

Morgan in Morgan’s Passing is “a man who had gone to pieces, or maybe he’d always been in pieces; maybe he’d arrived unassembled”. He spends most of his time collecting costumes, practising accents and acting out roles – a street priest, a refugee without any English skills, and then, disastrously, a doctor. This leads to him delivering Emily’s first baby in the back of his car. He then wheedles his way into the calm, organised lives of Emily and her husband Leon. Morgan hopes they’ll help him untangle his own life, but all he does is spread the chaos around. I detested Morgan, but liked Emily and was fascinated by her Quaker upbringing. Apparently, Anne Tyler’s “early childhood was spent in a succession of Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina.

For those interested in an analysis of a marriage from the perspectives of both wife and husband:

'Breathing Lessons' by Anne TylerBreathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize, follows a day in the life of a seemingly incompatible middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira. As the summary in my copy of the book explains, “Maggie has an inexhaustible passion for sorting out other people’s problems: where happiness does not exist she must create it”. Her capacity for self-deception is extremely irritating, but Ira isn’t quite as perfect as he thinks, either. What I really loved about this book was how the author used a single day of their life to illuminate everything that both tears them apart and holds them together.

The Amateur Marriage is about another mismatched couple, Michael and Pauline, but this story begins at their fateful meeting during World War Two. They spend the following decades in vicious conflict, their children reduced to unhappy bystanders. I’m not fond of this novel because I dislike both Michael and Pauline, and the structure of this book didn’t quite work for me (or for this reviewer). However, some readers love this book.

For those interested in reading about an unhappy wife:

'Ladder of Years' by Anne TylerIn Ladder of Years, Cordelia is on a summer holiday with her unappreciative family when she decides to walk off down the beach and not come back. I was fascinated by the notion of a woman leaving her husband, without any preparation or even conscious thought on the matter, and then setting up a completely new life in a new town. Could she truly abandon everything from her past? Would she simply end up repeating the old patterns of her life? I must admit, I was disappointed with the conclusion to this novel, but I enjoyed the journey.

Back When We Were Grownups is my least favourite Anne Tyler novel – in fact, I gave away my copy of this book, because it irritated me so much that I didn’t want it sitting next to my proper Anne Tyler novels. However, I include it here for the sake of completeness. There’s a good review here, if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in reading about complex, dysfunctional families:

Searching for Caleb is a rich, rewarding family saga stretching from the 1870s to the 1970s. Justine Peck elopes with her rebellious cousin Duncan, hoping to escape the dull, dry “Peckness” of her family. However, it isn’t as easy as she or Duncan predict, because they’re soon joined by their grandfather Justin, who’s been searching for his runaway brother Caleb for decades. This novel is utterly engrossing and has a wonderful ending. I loved it.

'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' by Anne TylerDinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those rare, absolutely perfect novels. Anne Tyler thinks it’s her best, too (she also said it was “her hardest novel to write” ). Pearl is abandoned by her husband, left to bring up three children in her own angry, bitter fashion. Then the children grow up to wreak havoc upon their own spouses and children. I realise this does not sound like a very enjoyable read, but it’s so funny, moving and wise. I can’t recommend it too highly.

The Clock Winder probably fits into this category, too, but I don’t think it’s one of her best books. Here’s a thoughtful review if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in unsentimental portraits of old age:

'A Patchwork Planet' by Anne TylerA Patchwork Planet could probably fit into the ‘dysfunctional families’ category, but one of the many delights of this novel is thirty-year-old Barnaby’s job at Rent-A-Back (or Roll-A-Bat, as his socialite mother scornfully calls it). Barnaby and his friend Martine do chores for the elderly, ranging from decorating their Christmas trees to taking out their trash cans and disposing of their late husbands’ law books. I admit that Barnaby’s voice isn’t always plausible for a young man, but his cluelessness is hilarious. This is another deceptively light-hearted story with a powerful ending.

Noah’s Compass is Tyler’s most recent novel. It’s about Liam, a solitary, introspective man who’s been retrenched from his teaching job. He settles down in a resigned fashion to contemplate the last years of his life. However, on the first day of this new life, he’s attacked by a burglar and he wakes up a few days later with no memory of this event. His attempts to discover those lost moments throw him into a relationship with a younger woman, who seems as though she might revitalise him . . . or perhaps not. This is certainly not an optimistic book, but this reviewer admired it, and so did this one.

For those interested in a multicultural view of the United States, post 9-11:

'Digging to America' by Anne TylerI love Digging to America, which tells the story of two very different Baltimore families, who each adopt a baby girl from Korea. The description of the rigidly politically-correct Dickinson-Donaldson family verges a little too close to caricature, but I adored the Yazdans, originally from Iran. Maryam, the grandmother of the adopted baby, is a wonderfully astringent observer of American customs, and her independence and intelligence make her one of my favourite Anne Tyler characters. This reviewer agreed.


'The Accidental Tourist' by Anne TylerI can’t quite categorise The Accidental Tourist, but I couldn’t possibly leave it out. Only Anne Tyler could turn the story of a man destroyed by the murder of his child and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage into a story so incredibly moving, hilarious and hopeful. I love this book, and I also enjoyed the film version, which starred William Hurt, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner and some very clever corgis.

Anne Tyler is famously reclusive, but she has given one interview about her writing process (unfortunately, you now need an account with The New York Times to read this), one about The Amateur Marriage, and one about Digging to America. The Observer has also done an interesting profile of her.

Extra note: The book cover images I’ve used are all from the Readings website, which is selling a collection of Anne Tyler novels with snazzy new jackets, published by Vintage. Inexplicably, Saint Maybe is not included. This is very sad, especially as Readings doesn’t even have an old edition of the book in stock.