… I think of Winston Churchill after the war:
Churchill worried not so much that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it, but that the loss of the past would mean ‘the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.’
… I think of Winston Churchill after the war:
Churchill worried not so much that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it, but that the loss of the past would mean ‘the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.’
She sees something very spooky in the depths of the water…
But fortunately, it’s only a dream. (Or is it?)
So she goes about her regular daily routine, saying hello to the chickens …
and visiting Veronica in the library.
Little does Sophie suspect what cruel and terrible fate awaits her innocent island kingdom!
(I think I’ve been reading too much Wilkie Collins lately.)
Anyway, lots of exciting stuff happens.
And SPOILER ALERT! it all ends in tragedy:
(Don’t worry, there are two more books after that for Sophie to sort things out.)
Thanks again, Noah!
How amazing is this artwork? It was created by Noah Hayes, who’s studying art and design at college. Noah created some art based on The Montmaray Journals for his visual development class and I first became aware of it when I saw these great book cover designs:
And then Noah did a whole lot of work developing character studies. Here’s Sophie:
Plus, there’s a huge storyboard for the scenes following the funeral in A Brief History of Montmaray. Here’s Veronica and Sophie discussing events:
And Simon and Toby looking shifty-eyed after Sophie tracks them down:
You can see the whole thing here at Noah’s tumblr (click on the Tumblr image to enlarge it).
There’s also a wonderfully evocative depiction of Montmaray Castle:
But I think this might be my favourite – some sketches of Henry and Toby. Look how happy Henry is!
Thanks to Noah for allowing me to share these images. You can find them all at Noah’s Tumblr.
The bleak castle depicted on the hardcover edition of A Brief History of Montmaray may seem like the work of an illustrator, but I recently discovered it’s an actual castle.
Okay, the book cover designer made a few adjustments to make it look as though the island were in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. But Castle Stalker is a real place that you can actually visit (if you happen to be in the general vicinity of Appin in Argyll, Scotland). And not only does Castle Stalker have a splendid name, it has its very own published Brief History, which is even more violent and dramatic than the history of Montmaray. It begins:
“In 1463 Sir John Stewart was keen to legitimise his son by getting married to his Mother, a MacLaren, at Dunstaffnage when he was murdered outside the church by Alan MacCoul, a renegade MacDougall, although he survived long enough to complete the marriage and legitimise his son, Dugald, who became the First Chief of Appin. The Stewarts had their revenge on MacCoul at the Battle of Stalc in 1468 opposite the Castle when the Stewarts and MacLaren together defeated the MacDougalls…’
There follows several centuries of Stewarts, MacLarens, MacDougalls and Campbells killing one another in various colourful ways. The Stewarts had a particular knack for getting murdered, even when they weren’t actually in Scotland – for instance, Duncan Stewart was appointed Governor of Sarawak in the 1940s and was assassinated a couple of weeks into the job. The Stewarts also weren’t very good at betting and lost the castle to the Campbells in a drunken wager. Unfortunately for the Stewarts, they’d fortified their castle walls so strongly that when they later tried to win it back from the Campbells by force, “their 2lb cannon-balls merely bounced off the walls”.
A couple of centuries later, the Campbells finally lost interest, abandoned the castle and allowed a Stewart to buy it back, and the process of restoration began. I would love to take one of the tours, but alas, I don’t think I’m likely to be visiting Scotland any time soon. I did do the virtual tour, which is pretty entertaining. And if you’re wondering where else you might have seen Castle Stalker, it makes an appearance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Castle of Aarrgh.
The Scent of Secrets, by Jane Thynne, is historical fiction set in 1938 and published last month in the US and Canada by Ballantine Books and Doubleday Canada. “The novel richly fuses fact and fiction with a cast of real Nazis and their British admirers, such as the Mitford sisters and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” according to its Goodreads page. It “puts a new spin on an ever-fascinating era, fraught with glamor, political tension, tragedy, and romance.” What an interesting idea!
To make things more confusing, it was published under the title A War of Flowers in the UK and is the third in a series (although The Scent of Secrets is the first of the series to be published in North America, according to this Q & A by the author). The second book in the series, The Winter Garden, looks like this:
By the way, if you’re new to this blog and you’re wondering what I’m going on about, five years ago I wrote a novel about political tension, glamour, tragedy and romance, set in 1938 and featuring real-life Nazis and their British supporters, including the Mitford sisters and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It looked like this:
Or, A Collection of Book-Related Links That Caught My Attention But That I Never Got Around To Writing Blog Posts About.
– And yes, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition and started this sentence with a conjunction. At least I have a better understanding of punctuation than these cake decorators. Not all Cakes are Wrecks, though – look at these amazing book-related cakes.
– Here’s a fascinating (if you’re a traditionally-published author) post by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown about why they decided to self-publish the second book in their Change series, after Viking published the first book. It says so much about how the publishing industry works these days. (Incidentally, the manuscript of the first book in the series started off that GayYA thing.)
– And here’s an article by Sally Nicholls about why it isn’t always necessary to kill off the characters’ parents in children’s books. (It does make plotting exciting adventures much easier, though.)
– I have no interest in reading Go Set a Watchman, partly because I don’t feel the need to read the unedited first draft of a novel that I’ve already read and enjoyed, but also because I have doubts about whether Harper Lee has given her consent for it to be published. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?
– Speaking of which, what is going on with the book bestseller lists at the moment? Last week, the Sydney Morning Herald’s top ten bestseller list consisted of the previously-mentioned unedited first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, four of the Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and FIVE colouring-in books! Now, I have nothing against Andy Griffiths – his books may not be my cup of tea, but he’s brought a lot of laughter and excitement to a lot of child readers. But colouring books? Why are they being counted?
– However, I do approve of this – a lot of people tweeting about what Young Adult books would look like if the books were Very Realistic.
– I also liked (possibly not the right word) this article by Annabel Crabb about a man who wrote her a detailed letter criticising her latest book, even though he hadn’t actually bothered to read the book. It reminded me of the time I was doing a book signing at an English teachers’ conference and two separate men came up to berate me for having the nerve to publish my book as a ‘Vintage Classic’, when my book was clearly not Classic Literature. Not that they’d read the book. (Not that I’d had any say in that book being republished under the Vintage Classics imprint, anyway.)
– Although if they had read my books, they probably would have objected to them anyway, because the books are full of princesses. Princesses doing girly, princessy things like buying ball gowns and learning how to curtsey and looking for a suitable husband, and also fighting Nazis, giving speeches at the League of Nations and writing newspaper articles about the plight of child refugees. There’s a good post about Princess Shaming over at Tea Cozy (the comments are interesting, too).
– And those men probably would have scoffed at the notion of a tiny island kingdom, as well. I guess they’re not aware of the “republican monarchy” of Atlantium here in Australia (“At 0.76 square kilometres we are counted among the world’s smallest states, which brings into play certain practical realities; we choose to deal with these in a pragmatic manner.”)
– I mean, those men probably don’t even believe in sea monsters!
Nancy Pearl talked about A Brief History of Montmaray this week in her regular book spot on KUOW-FM, a Seattle radio station. I am very chuffed about this – not only to hear someone on the other side of the world recommending my book, but also because this was NANCY PEARL. The most famous librarian in the world! Probably the only librarian to have her own action figure1 and trading cards and to have a tribute bluegrass band named in her honour!
The interview with Marcie Sillman includes some discussion about what distinguishes Young Adult fiction from adult fiction (“Marketing,” Nancy Pearl astutely observes) and the role of history in historical fiction. You can listen to more book recommendations at the KUOW website. Thank you, Nancy Pearl. Thank you, KUOW. And thank you, book people of Seattle.
Well, I’ve mostly been reading 1960s non-fiction (currently David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain, which is excellent), but I’ve also read some other interesting books, all Elizabeth-related. The first of them was The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt, recommended to me by Sarah during my search for 1950s schoolgirl literature. The review quotes on the back of the paperback edition I acquired were fairly ominous and included the following from the Financial Times:
“One to be reckoned with. It cannot be glibly praised or readily dismissed; it is, massively, there …”
Which I can’t disagree with – it is certainly both “massive” and “there”, “there” being a small town in Yorkshire in the early 1950s, as the community gathers to perform an elaborate verse drama about Queen Elizabeth the First, in order to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. Frederica Potter is the seventeen-year-old schoolgirl chosen to play young Elizabeth, and she’s an apt choice. Frederica is clever, fierce, self-obsessed and hilariously obnoxious, convinced that she is superior to her peers in every way yet secretly hurt that they don’t appreciate her specialness. The other Potters – her bullying father, beaten-down mother, odd and fragile little brother, and a sweet older sister who throws away her Cambridge degree to marry an unintellectual clergyman – are also fascinatingly portrayed. The problem I had with this novel was that I had to wade through a lot of tedious, overwritten prose to get to the good bits. At one stage, a character says, “If we were in a novel, they’d cut this dialogue because of artifice” and I found myself wishing they HAD cut that dialogue, as well as most of the adjectives and all of the page-length sentences. The long sections in which Frederica’s brother and his creepy teacher discuss their peculiar pseudo-scientific theories about the universe were particularly difficult to get through. I wondered if even the author had lost track of where she was going with her story, because the final sentence was: “That was not an end, but since it went on for a considerable time, it is as good a place to stop as any.” And yet, I kept turning the pages, because the author had so many thoughtful observations to make about family relationships, class conflict, women’s roles in society, religion, education, Elizabethan history, art and literature. This is the first in a quartet of novels about Frederica and I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue with it (I saw a very spoilery review of the next book, which indicated that the sole sympathetic character dies in a very stupid manner, which was not an encouraging sign).
My second Elizabethan read was The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford, a sentimental account of the childhood of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and her little sister, Princess Margaret, as told by their former governess, Marion Crawford. Apparently it caused a sensation when it was first published in 1950, because it was the first ‘insider’ account of a family treated as minor deities by most of their subjects and all of the press. Nowadays, of course, we’re used to the British royals exposing themselves (in various unflattering ways) in newspapers and on television, but at the time, the Queen Mother was furious at ‘Crawfie’, as the governess was known, for breaking the code of silence that surrounded the royals and as a result, poor old Crawfie was ostracised1. But actually, Crawfie seems to have gone out of her way to flatter the family in this book. She appears very fond of Elizabeth, a serious, anxious child with a “very high IQ” (not that anyone actually administered an IQ test), while Margaret is described as bright, fun-loving and charming. Mind you, even Crawfie admits Margaret could be “wilful and headstrong” (which seems to be code for “a spoilt and uncontrollable brat” – for one thing, Margaret enjoyed tormenting the servants with unpleasant practical jokes, knowing they could never complain about her behaviour). I was interested (and horrified) to see how limited the education of the princesses actually was. Even though it was known that Elizabeth would eventually become ruler of the entire British Commonwealth, she never attended school and the lessons she had with Crawfie were limited to English literature and (family) history. Teenage Elizabeth did attend some individual history tutoring sessions at Eton, but mathematics, science and economics were deemed unnecessary. It was more important that she learn to sing, dance, make polite conversation in French, and ride a horse. This book covers Elizabeth’s life from the age of six, when Crawfie first arrived, to Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip and the subsequent birth of their first child, Charles. The anniversary edition I read had an introduction by Jennie Bond and contained some great photographs, including one of a young Princess Elizabeth in Girl Guide uniform, learning how to tie knots (with Henry FitzOsborne just out of shot, peering over Elizabeth’s shoulder and shouting, “You’re doing it ALL WRONG! Here, let ME do it!”).
And finally, a novel written by an Elizabeth – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (the English novelist, not the Hollywood star, although the novelist frequently had to deal with people who’d confused her with the actress). This is a brilliant, but bleak, look at ageing and death in genteel English society in late 1960s London. Elderly Mrs Palfrey is not rich enough to stay in her own home with servants to look after her, not poor enough to move into a state-assisted home for the elderly, and not ill enough for a private hospital or nursing home, but is too polite and independent to impose herself on her middle-aged daughter in Scotland, so she decides to set herself up in a respectable London hotel to wait out her final years. There she meets the other permanent residents, including bitter, arthritic Mrs Arthbuthnot; dim, timid Mrs Post; Mr Osmond, who keeps himself busy writing outraged letters to the newspapers and telling disgusting jokes to the waiters; and mauve-haired, drunken Mrs Burton (named, according to one review I read, after the actress). When she has a fall in the street, Mrs Palfrey is rescued by a young, impoverished writer called Ludo, which leads to a strange sort of friendship between them. Each is using the other – Mrs Palfrey now has a handsome, charming ‘grandson’ to show off to the hotel residents and someone to make her feel needed, while Ludo gains a more satisfactory ‘mother’ than his real mother, and also accumulates a lot of useful material for the novel he’s writing (about old people living at a hotel, entitled They Weren’t Allowed To Die There). Elizabeth Taylor’s observations of character are astute and very funny but also very sad. The residents are all bored, lonely and frightened, but feel unable to admit to this, let alone try to help themselves, so they spend their days obsessing over the hotel menus, spreading spiteful gossip, and complaining about modern life. The author has been called a twentieth-century Jane Austen and for once, that’s not an exaggeration. Mrs Post, for example, is described as “too vague, too bird-brained to achieve real kindness. She had always meant well – and it was the thing people most often said about her – but had managed very seldom to help anyone”, while snobby Lady Swayne manages to irritate even mild-mannered Mrs Palfrey, with “all of [Lady Swayne’s] most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements prefaced with ‘I’m afraid’. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common-or-garden Church of England. (Someone had just mentioned Brompton Oratory.) I’m afraid I’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.” I won’t provide any plot spoilers, but I will say that if you’re hoping for a sweet, sentimental look at old age, this is not the book for you. I loved it, but it was rather depressing. And now I’m off to find some more Elizabeth Taylor novels to read.
Working my way through my towers of 1960s research books last week, I finally had an ‘Aha!’ moment – one of those moments when I come across a reference (often a fleeting one, sometimes a mere footnote) to a fascinating real-life event that seems to fit perfectly into my planned story. “Aha!” I cried, clapping my hands in great excitement.1 Ideally, an ‘Aha!’ historical event will involve some bizarre element but not be widely known, because I like the idea of my readers saying to themselves while reading, “I never knew about that! Did that really happen?” On the other hand, it’s helpful (for both me and inquisitive novel readers who want to learn more) if there’s a fair amount of information available about the event. This particular event I’ve discovered appears to fulfil all these conditions, which makes me very happy.
Of course, there’s the possibility that this will turn into an ‘Oh no . . .’ moment, which occurs when I dig further into the research, unearth an inconvenient fact and realise that the event is not actually going to fit into my story the way I’d hoped. Sometimes the dates don’t match my planned story; sometimes there’s a complicated backstory to the event that will lead my story somewhere I don’t want it to go. Here are three scenes that didn’t appear in my Montmaray Journals trilogy, due to ‘Oh no . . .’ moments:
1. Fascists Storm the British Embassy in Madrid!
I came across this thrilling tale in the memoirs of Sir Samuel Hoare, Viscount Templewood. Hoare was a fervent appeaser of Mussolini and Hitler in the years before the Second World War2, and so, not surprisingly, lost his ministerial job when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940. Churchill sent Hoare to Spain to keep him out of the way, figuring Hoare couldn’t do too much damage there and might even get along quite well with Franco, Spain’s Fascist dictator – maybe even persuade Franco to renounce Hitler. Of course, Franco paid no attention to Hoare whatsoever and continued to co-operate with the Nazis whenever it was in his interests to do so, turning a blind eye when his Falangist supporters, with the help of Nazi agents, attacked the British Embassy:
“The attack had in all respects been methodically planned in the true German manner. It was to begin with the burning of the British staff cars standing outside the Embassy. It was at this point that Spanish forgetfulness frustrated German efficiency. Matches were then very scarce in Madrid, and either no one had a match or no one wished to sacrifice one in a street battle. The cars, therefore, escaped burning though several were seriously damaged by stones.
The next move was an attempt to break into the Embassy. At this point we [Embassy staff] were in a strong position. For not only were we protected by our regular force of British guards, but we had within the precincts sixteen of our escaped prisoners of war who were burning for the chance of a battle with the enemy . . .”
Wouldn’t it be great, I thought to myself, if Toby FitzOsborne, recently escaped from Nazi-occupied France, could be one of those men in the Embassy battling the Fascist invaders! With Veronica fighting beside him, knocking out a few Falangists with a well-aimed chair! Alas, the dates just didn’t work out. The Embassy attack occurred in June, 1941, when Toby was still flying in combat as an RAF fighter pilot and Veronica was working in the Foreign Office in London. Anyway, Hoare was not exactly a reliable memoirist, so I suspect the British response during the Embassy siege was a lot less brave and glorious than he described.
2. Sophie FitzOsborne, Lady War Correspondent
I carefully added some references to Sophie writing newspaper articles in the second Montmaray book, so that once war broke out, I’d be able to turn her into a newspaper reporter and send her overseas, in order to describe lots of important battles. But when I started researching the lives of actual war correspondents such as Martha Gellhorn3, I realised this was never going to work. Sophie just wasn’t tough or experienced enough – no British newspaper editor would ever employ her as a reporter, not even to report on the London Blitz. It wasn’t even likely she’d get a job as a women’s columnist – British newspapers were severely curtailed during the war, as a result of both paper shortages and official censorship, with only essential news being printed. In the end, I decided I preferred her to have a humdrum job during the war, to emphasise that war, for most participants, is the exact opposite of a noble, exhilarating experience. And Sophie did get to write some Food Facts, which were published to help housewives cope with rationing. Also, did you know that Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s wife, worked at the Ministry of Food during the war? I tried to arrange a friendship between Sophie and Eileen, so that Sophie could have a discussion about totalitarianism with Orwell, but unfortunately, the two women worked in different departments.
3. The Spy, The Cryptographer and The Poet
During the war, the Special Operations Executive sent Allied agents into occupied Europe, with the agents communicating using codes that were initially based on well-known poems. Unfortunately, these poem ciphers were very easy for the Nazis to break. Leo Marks, a British cryptographer in charge of SOE agent codes, made a number of changes to ensure the codes were more secure, including using original poems. Aha! I thought. Maybe Sophie and her friend Rupert, with their flair for poetry, could meet to write poems for Leo Marks! Unfortunately, introducing another real-life character and his complicated backstory would have made my book even longer than it already was (that is, far too long), so that plot line was dropped. However, I did manage to sneak in a reference to Leo Marks – the Colonel mentions an anonymous friend who is “one of our best cryptographers” but has failed to decipher a sample of Kernetin, the FitzOsborne family code.
Incidentally, Leo Marks was the son of Ben Marks, one of the owners of Marks and Co, the famous bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road – and an employee of that bookshop just happens to be related, in a very tangential way, to that exciting thing I discovered in my 1960s research. Aha! The plot thickens . . .
– YA author Simmone Howell, who recently taught a course on writing for young readers, has written a series of blog posts about aspects such as character, structure, voice and place, and why you probably won’t be able to make a living from your writing, with lots of useful links.
– Over at The Paris Review there’s an interesting interview with Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and then Knopf, who edited books by Jessica Mitford, John Le Carré, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing and many other writers. He discusses the role of the editor and publisher (“you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor . . .You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill”) and how much the publishing industry has changed in recent years.
– Something I’ve been pondering lately is the distinction between ‘middle grade’ and ‘young adult’ fiction (mostly because I’ve just finished writing a book that falls somewhere in the middle of those two publishing categories), so I was pleased to see this article about the topic at Publishers Weekly (especially as it mentions A Brief History of Montmaray – thank you, Meghan from BookPeople in Austin, Texas!). Other interesting blog posts I’ve come across include Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask, Where are the books for 13-year-olds? and Middle grade saved my life (the last written by Jeanne Birdsall, author of the wonderful Penderwicks books).
– Finally, I’m tickled that the Montmaray books have appeared on TV Tropes. For those who haven’t encountered TV Tropes before, it’s an enormous and quite addictive website devoted to discussing the tropes (that is, the stereotypes, clichés and overused ideas) in popular TV shows, movies and books. Tropes identified in the Montmaray books include Micro Monarchy and (slightly spoilery) Kissing Cousins and Never Found the Body. But come on, TV Tropers, you’ve missed a few! What about Ace Pilot, British Stuffiness, Everything’s Better with Llamas, I Was Beaten by a Girl and Upper Class Twit? And I’ve always thought of the Colonel as a bit of an Agent Peacock . . .