Letters of Note

One very nice (and unexpected) result of becoming a published writer has been that I now receive letters from readers. Yes, actual letters, written in pen or pencil on pieces of paper, sealed inside fancy envelopes and delivered by my friendly postie. Of course, it’s lovely to receive readers’ e-mails, too, and I must admit it’s much easier and quicker to reply to e-mails – but there’s something special about a personal letter, perhaps because they’re so rare now. When I open my letter box these days, I generally find electricity bills and reminders about dental appointments and pamphlets from politicians who are desperately seeking my vote in the upcoming State election – but hardly ever do I receive letters.

The lost art of letter writingThat’s why I so enjoy browsing through Letters of Note, an on-line collection of letters to and from famous people. It includes adorable letters from J. K. Rowling and Dr Seuss and David Bowie to fans; an indignant letter from Enid Blyton to Robert Menzies demanding that he stop calling her books ‘immoral’; a completely illegible letter from King Henry the Eighth to Anne Boleyn; a hilarious ‘personal letter’ from Steve Martin; a letter from an exasperated schoolboy to President John F. Kennedy and much, much more. Go and have a look, it’s fascinating. It’s like finding a dusty box of letters in your attic – assuming you’d lived the same house as Albert Einstein, Yoko Ono, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Freddie Mercury.

P.S. As much as I adore receiving letters, I can’t answer them unless they include a return address. Harriet, thank you so much for your lovely letter, but you forgot to include your address. If you contact me by e-mail or post, I promise I will write back.

Happy Birthday, Jules Verne!

'20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' by Jules VerneHappy birthday to Jules Verne, the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (or Twenty Thousand Legs Under the Sea, as one of my friends used to call it). To celebrate, go and have a look at the best Google Doodle yet! A little submarine that you can manoeuvre up and down and across the sea! Check out the treasure chest on the sea bed, and the shark, and the divers! So cool.

(If you missed it on the 8th of February, you can still read about it at The Guardian.)

Look At This Cover!

The people who design my book covers have consistently come up with thoughtful, attractive designs, but I think this one is the most gorgeous yet:

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' - North American hardcover
'The FitzOsbornes in Exile', North American hardcover, released on April 5th, 2011

It’s so glamorous! It’s such a great depiction of the mood of the book! And isn’t that model the perfect Sophie? She’s doing the Queen Matilda chin tilt! And her facial expression! Is she sad, or bored, or calm, or curious, or defiant, or all of those things at once? She’s even wearing the pearl drop earrings Aunt Charlotte gives her for her seventeenth birthday. At first, I thought the dress looked more 1950s than 1930s, but it’s an actual photo from a 1930s edition of Vogue. (The dress is probably more daring and fashionable than Sophie would wear, though – and she must have just had her hair done by Monsieur Raymond, the hair artiste.)

Sitting next to Sophie is Toby. It can’t be Simon, because the figure has fair hair, and it can’t be Rupert, because he seems to be smoking a cigarette. In the background is Veronica, dressed in mourning and dancing with . . . someone. He’s probably not Daniel, not at a Society ball. I guess it could be Simon – in which case, they’re stomping on each other’s feet, out of range of the camera.

I love the colours of this cover, too. I don’t know if the designer planned it, but it brings to my mind the red, white and black of the Nazi flag – a chilling hint of what’s in store for these characters.

Then there’s the beautiful title, written in a lovely 1930s Art Deco font.

Oh, it’s all so very pretty . . . and if you live in the United States or Canada, you can buy your very own copy in two months time! (Actually, I guess you could buy a copy wherever you live in the world, as long as you don’t mind paying a large postage bill.)

I should also mention that the paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray is out next month in North America. The cover looks like this:

'A Brief History of Montmaray' - North American paperback
'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American paperback, released on March 8th, 2011

It’s quite different from the North American hardcover, which featured a photo of a castle perched on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. That hardcover design seemed to polarise readers – some thought it was really striking and interesting, others felt it made the book look boring. Which just goes to show you can’t please everyone. This paperback cover does look a bit more ‘fairy-tale princess’, which could be a good or bad thing. I mean, FitzOsborne princesses don’t tend to hang around on tower balconies waiting for a prince to rescue them, but on the other hand, it is a very nice photo of a castle on a moonlit night. (And is that a full moon, hidden by clouds? Watch out for werechickens!)

North American readers can buy this paperback next month – or they can buy the lovely hardcover edition right now. Or they can buy both!

To Respond Or Not To Respond (To Reviews)

That is the question.

When my first novel was published, I decided I would not respond to on-line reviews, ever. I believed bloggers should be free to say whatever they wanted about a book, and I thought they might feel inhibited if they knew the author was reading their review. Obviously, if a review of my book was negative, I would never, ever argue about it with the reviewer. That would be pathetic and rude. But if the review was positive, wouldn’t it be sycophantic and stalker-ish for me to leave gushing thanks in the comments?

This policy was easy to follow for my first book, because a) there weren’t that many book bloggers around then, and b) hardly anyone read my first book, let alone reviewed it. (Poor Rage of Sheep. She’s like the plain, nerdy girl who gets ignored in favour of her younger, prettier and more charming sister.)

Guercino - La Sibilla Persica
The author wonders whether or not she should respond to that one-star review on Goodreads
Anyway, things are a bit different now. The YA blogosphere is enormous, and growing every day, so lots more reviewers are on-line. I’m now published outside Australia, which means I have more readers and more reviewers. I’ve actually met some bloggers who’ve reviewed my books (and of course, they all turn out to be super-nice people, as well as having excellent taste in books), and personal connections always complicate matters. I have my own blog, too, and sometimes (okay, not that often) I comment on strangers’ blogs about other topics – so if they subsequently mention one of my books, they’ll probably suspect that I will read their opinion at some stage. Occasionally, mutual friends also draw my attention to a blogger’s post featuring one of my books. And it’s not only reviews – sometimes, one of my books gets mentioned in a ‘favourite books of the year’ post, and I feel even more guilty about not saying a huge thank you to the blogger.

So, what should I do? It would be polite to say, “Thank you very much; I am so pleased you enjoyed the book” whenever anyone posts a positive review and I get to hear about it. But if I did that, I’d have to comment on EVERY blog post that mentions my book, otherwise people would say, “How rude! She commented on X’s blog, but completely ignored my post!” And, of course, sometimes I don’t see reviews until weeks after they’ve been posted; sometimes I don’t ever find out about them.

See how it would be easier to stick with my original policy? But then, sometimes bloggers post such wonderfully insightful and/or hilarious comments about my books that I can’t help wanting to contact them, simply because they sound like the sort of people I’d like to get to know. For example, this librarian, who recently blogged about A Brief History of Montmaray:

“OMG MICHELLE COOPER HIJACKED MY TEENAGED BRAIN! A castle! Nazis! Ghosts! Crazy people! British nobility! NON-British nobility! NOT true love! Diary format! The only thing she left out was sym– wait, she DID include sympathetic socialists. THERE WERE EVEN SYMPATHETIC SOCIALISTS! Who IS this Michelle Cooper person, and HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?!”

Actually, I was laughing too much to comment in any coherent way on that particular post. And it was published last year, and I only read it today, so, kind of weird to comment now, anyway.

I know some bloggers love having authors visit their blogs. But I’m sure just as many bloggers hate the idea of an author butting in on their frank book conversations with friends. (Yes, I know if it’s on the internet, it’s out there for public scrutiny. But I still regard blogs as someone’s personal space.)

So, for the moment, I am sticking with my original policy of not responding to on-line reviews. (Of course, if people e-mail me with their thoughts on my books, I always reply, usually with gushing thanks. And the same thing goes if I meet readers in Real Life.) In the meantime, I’d like to say an enormous THANK YOU to any blogger who’s ever posted a nice comment about one of my books. It really is very encouraging and flattering and all-round awesome for an author to read that sort of thing. And to bloggers who didn’t like one of my books: I respect your right to your own opinion, thanks for giving the book a try, and sorry it didn’t turn out to be your cup of tea. (I make an exception to this for the homophobic librarian who was disgusted by A Brief History of Montmaray because it contained non-heterosexual characters. I don’t respect her opinion. Although, of course, I defend her right to publish her thoughts on her own blog, just as I defend my right to pull faces at her behind her back.)

Authors Seanan McGuire and Sarah Rees Brennan have posted sensibly and eloquently about this issue. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

‘Dated’ Books, Part Three: The Friendly Young Ladies

Here is a true story about this book. (You know how people say this, then the story turns out to be not very extraordinary at all? This is one of those stories.)

When I was fifteen, my family moved house right at the start of the summer holidays, to yet another country town. I didn’t have any school friends, because I’d just arrived, and there didn’t seem to be anyone of my age left in the surrounding streets – they’d all gone somewhere more interesting for the holidays, and besides, I would have been too shy to approach them if they had been around. As a result, I spent the entire summer in the town library. One day, I came across a dark green paperback with an old-fashioned painting on the front cover and ‘Virago’ written on the spine. I had no idea what ‘Virago’ meant, but I thought I’d give this one a go.

The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary RenaultWell. It was a revelation. The girls in this book weren’t like the girls in any other books I’d read, or even like girls I knew in real life. All the girls I knew thought that the point of life was to make yourself as attractive as possible, so that lots of boys would fall in love with you, whereupon you would choose the most popular boy, fall in love with him, marry him, buy a nice house, fill it with nice objects and have a couple of nice children. I’d never had the slightest interest in doing any of those things, but I’d assumed I would when I finally ‘grew up’. This book dangled in front of me the tantalising possibility that I might grow up and still not want those things. The girls in this book wore whatever they felt like, and sometimes wore nothing at all; had fascinating jobs but no husbands or children; had lots of intriguing, oblique conversations with one another; and lived with their best female friends on houseboats. The word ‘lesbian’ was never mentioned, but I probably wouldn’t have understood it, anyway (it was the eighties, and I was a very unworldly teenager). As it was, quite a lot of the book went over my head, but I didn’t mind. I was absolutely loving swimming around in all that deep, opaque water.

I had to return the book eventually, but when I went to look for it a few weeks later, it was gone. Stupidly, I hadn’t written down the author’s name, and I couldn’t even recall the title – something about ladies? I wasn’t quite stupid enough to ask the librarian if she could locate ‘the green book about ladies’, but I made attempts to find it over the next few years, at that library, at other libraries, at various bookshops. Then I gave up and almost (but not quite) forgot about it.

Twenty-five years later, my friend H was on holiday in the UK and browsing through second-hand bookshops.

“Hey,” she e-mailed me. “I found this great book I think you’ll like. It’s really clever and funny, and it’s set in 1930s England, and it says on the back that it’s the antidote to The Well of Loneliness, so I thought of you straight away! Not that you’re anything like The Well of Loneliness.”

“I haven’t ever been able to bring myself to read The Well of Loneliness,” I e-mailed back. “Sounds too depressing.” Then something swam up from the depths of my memory. “Hang on. This book isn’t about two girls living a bohemian existence on a houseboat, is it?”

“Yes, and the little sister of one of them runs away from home and comes to live with them, and there’s this hilariously awful doctor who fancies himself as God’s gift to women and tries to seduce all three of them – for their own good, of course.”

“This book isn’t green, is it?”

“Yes, and it’s got a lovely painting of two girls in 1930s clothes on the cover.”

“And is there a scene where the little sister gets badly sunburnt, so they use green face powder to disguise it?” (For some reason, this was the scene that had stuck with me. Green face powder. Would that really work?)

“Maybe,” she said. “Haven’t got up to that bit yet. I’ll send it to you when I’ve finished.”

And it was the very same book – well, the cover was different, but it was still green. It was Mary Renault’s 1944 novel, The Friendly Young Ladies, and it was just as good as I’d remembered. Lots of sharp social satire, and some wonderful insights into the convoluted thoughts and emotions of the characters. For example, here’s the self-satisfied doctor, who sees himself as a saviour of lonely female patients:

“His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

There are also some funny, irreverent comments about writing and publishing. One character, who writes cowboy books, describes herself cheerfully as a “competent hack” and says,

“Personally I always think people are rather sickening who make out they could write better than they do. It’s like losing a game and then saying you didn’t try.”

And here she is, complaining about an editor who says he wants to see more romance in her manuscript:

“I did put a girl in. I’m sure I did. Her name was Susie, or Sadie, or something. And I mentioned her again at the end . . . I always think it would save such a lot of trouble if you could just indicate it with a row of crosses, or BERT LOVES MABEL, or something quick, and get on with the story.”

So, lots to enjoy – except for the conclusion, which I’d forgotten entirely. And this brings me to why this book is ‘dated’.

As with The Charioteer, there are no descriptions of any form of sex. In an afterword, written forty years after the book was first published, Renault says,

“I have sometimes been asked whether I would have written this book more explicitly in a more permissive decade. No; I have always been as explicit as I wanted to be, and have not been much more so in recent books. If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter.”

That’s interesting, although I don’t agree with her. By her argument, if the characters have come to life in the first half of the book, then the reader ought to know how they’ll interact in the second half, so why bother writing the rest?

Renault also criticises the “silliness of the ending” of this book. She’s quite right, it is extremely silly, although so are some other aspects of the plot. As a discussion of this involves plot spoilers, I’ve hidden the next three paragraphs. Use your mouse to highlight the blank space (or use your browser to ‘select all’ text) if you’d like to read on.

It turns out Leonora, the tomboyish elder sister of runaway Elsie, had an unsatisfying sexual experience with her friend Tom when they were both teenagers. As a result, Leo has turned to women, and eventually ends up in a happy, satisfying, long-term partnership with the beautiful, talented Helen, who loves Leo devotedly but not possessively. It seems an ideal relationship, supportive without being suffocating. Leo is also close friends with Joe, who lives up the river from them. He’s handsome, clever, sensitive, a brilliant writer, from a wealthy family but not at all snobbish, able to fish, paddle a canoe, climb mountains, rescue drowning women and build houses with his bare hands. And, in the final chapters, he ‘cures’ Leo of her lesbianism by having (dubiously consensual) sex with her. Then Leo abandons Helen and goes off with him to America.

I mean, what?!

Renault thinks the conclusion is silly because Leo and Joe would have a chaotic domestic life, and this would prevent Joe from writing. I think it’s silly because Leo’s previous unsatisfactory heterosexual experiences are due to her being a lesbian, not the other way around, and that Leo abandoning Helen makes absolutely no sense.

Despite the conclusion, I think this is a terrific read. If you’re interested, Charles Taylor has written a very thoughtful review of the book.

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

The King’s Speech

As this blog is supposedly devoted to books, writing and language, I should, first of all, note that this film is based on a book by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi about Lionel Logue.

The King's SpeechRight. Well, from what I’d heard of this film – Australian speech therapist plus 1930s British politics plus dysfunctional royal family – it sounded just my cup of tea. Then it started attracting rave reviews from critics, and reports of standing ovations in cinemas. Then just about everyone I knew said, “Michelle! Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!” The problem with this sort of hype is that it creates enormous expectations that can rarely be met. It makes me put off seeing the film for weeks, then slouch into the cinema, cross my arms and raise a very sceptical eyebrow at the screen.

I am happy to say that, in this case, my friends were quite right. I did enjoy this film very, very much. Colin Firth does a superb job of turning Bertie into an endearing and poignant character. All the British kings of the twentieth century were completely useless, but King George the Sixth (as Bertie becomes during the film) was even more useless than most of his forebears. The best that can be said about him is that at least he wasn’t his elder brother, David, whose Fascist sympathies and appalling choice of wife would have been a disaster during the war. The film demonstrates how ridiculous the idea of a monarchy is in the modern world, and how sad and suffocating it must be for those born into reigning families. I like that even Bertie asks whether there’s any point to being a king. He has no real political power. All he can do is wear flashy uniforms and give speeches, and poor Bertie finds speech almost impossible. But at least he has a supportive wife. (And I thought Helena Bonham Carter was excellent as Queen Elizabeth – it’s so nice to see her playing someone other than a homicidal maniac once in a while.)

The best part of the film for me, though, was Lionel. I’m not a huge fan of Geoffrey Rush (his performances so often scream, “Look at me, here I am winning an Oscar!”), but he was perfect for this role. I absolutely adored the Logue family and would have loved to have seen more of them, especially the bookish younger son. They were so warm, funny and Australian – such a contrast to the stuffy British royals. The speech therapy sessions were fascinating, although I must admit I cringed at some of the ‘facts’ Lionel presented. Actually, stuttering (or stammering, as it’s called in the film) ISN’T caused by cruel parents and siblings. It usually manifests itself long before “four or five years of age” – in fact, it usually appears when a child first starts to put words together. It’s a motor speech disorder with clear evidence of a genetic basis, although, yes, many people who stutter find their speech becomes less fluent in situations where they feel anxious. And I’m proud to say that Australian speech pathologists are still leading the world in stuttering research and that the renowned Lidcombe programme for the treatment of early stuttering was named after the Lidcombe campus of the University of Sydney, where I trained as a speech pathologist (and no, the Lidcombe programme does not involve teaching children to swear).

Er, sorry – will take off my speech pathologist hat now and replace it with my historical novelist hat. Generally, I try not to have very high expectations of historical accuracy in films. If the story is engaging, the acting is good and the costumes and sets are pretty (which is certainly true for this film), I’ll go along with minor issues of historical revisionism. So, I wasn’t too concerned that everyone in the film seemed to be treating Hitler as a serious threat long before the war began. But – King George the Fifth warning Bertie about Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe? Very, very unlikely. The real Bertie actually sent cheery birthday greetings to Hitler in April, 1939, only five months before war was declared. I was also surprised to see Winston Churchill castigating David during the abdication crisis scene. In fact, Churchill very publicly supported David at the time, and said, with characteristic hyperbole, that if the King was forced to abdicate, “the outrage so committed would cast its shadow across many chapters of the history of the British Empire”. (I must admit, though, that I was a bit distracted during that part of the film because I kept thinking, ‘What’s Peter Pettigrew doing there?’ and expecting him to transform into a rat. That’s the problem with British films, all those wonderful but very familiar actors. Look, there’s Dumbledore pretending to be King George the Fifth! And Bellatrix has had a perm and put on some pearls!) The film also ignored the fact that Bertie toured the United States and Canada – and gave a number of successful speeches – in early 1939, months before the ‘King’s Speech’ of September, 1939.

But never mind all that historical nitpicking – this is a charming, beautifully-produced film with lots of sparkling dialogue and moments of real emotion. Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!

Happy Birthday, Severus Snape!

Birthday greetings to Professor Snape, everyone’s favourite Potions Master, who would be fifty-one today if he hadn’t been involved in that unfortunate incident with Nagini in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. He’s a Capricorn, and therefore unlikely to attend his own birthday party because Capricorns “despise wasting [their] valuable time and resources on fun and levity that yield no tangible returns.” (Oh, what a coincidence, I’m a Capricorn, too. Of course, I don’t believe in all that astrological rubbish, because we Capricorns are consistently logical and rational.)

I’ve been a fan of Snape’s since the first book, because I figured anyone who was that mean to poor little Harry had to have some very good reasons for it and must secretly be on the side of Good. Then ALAN RICKMAN was cast to play Snape in the films (oh, that voice)! Is it really any wonder that Snape is now one of the most popular characters in the Harry Potter fandom?

To celebrate, why not dress up as Severus Snape, bake a Severus Snape birthday cake, knit your own ‘delightfully grumpy’ Severus Snape doll, purchase a Severus Snape LEGO keychain or hack into his Hogwarts e-mail inbox.

Happy birthday, Severus! We love you, even if Lily didn’t!

My 2011 Writing Resolutions

Hermann Fenner-Behmer 'De quoi ecrire'
The author ponders her New Year’s resolutions
Here are my writing resolutions for the New Year.

1. Finish writing Montmaray Book Three, ideally by the time my deadline arrives.

2. Start writing my new novel.

That’s about it. I could make some resolutions involving daily word counts, or minimum hours spent at my computer each day, but I know I won’t stick to them beyond February. If I achieve my two stated goals, I will be a very satisfied writer.

Happy New Year to you all, and I hope you achieve your writing goals during 2011, too.

My Favourite Books of 2010

Lots of bloggers are listing their best and worst books of the year, and I’d like to join in. I do have a few problems, though. Firstly, I don’t keep a record of what I’ve read or when I’ve read it, so I’m not entirely certain whether some of these books were read this year, or at the end of last year. Secondly, I’m not going to name any books that I’ve disliked. It is true that I’ve been disappointed by a few books I’ve read recently. In each case, I’d been expecting something great, either because I’d liked previous books by that author, or because there’d been a lot of hype about the book. However, it isn’t the authors’ fault that my expectations didn’t match their books, so I don’t think I ought to criticise them for it. Thirdly, this year has been a bit unusual for me, with respect to my reading. I spent the first few months working my way through two enormous boxes of Australian YA fiction (and some non-fiction), because I was helping to judge a literary award. Then, for the rest of the year, I was immersed in non-fiction about World War Two (with some British 1930s and wartime novels for light relief). Here, then, is a list of the books I remember enjoying (or being intrigued by) this year.

Australian YA Fiction

When The Hipchicks Went To WarI loved Pamela Rushby’s When the Hipchicks Went To War, which won this year’s Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a moving account of a teenage girl who goes to Vietnam to entertain the troops, told in a fresh, funny and very Australian voice. I enjoyed all the books on the shortlist for this prize (which is not very surprising, because I helped select the shortlist). I also liked Blue Noise by Debra Oswald. It’s an engaging story about some high schoolers who start a band, with an ending that was hopeful without being too neat or saccharine (also, hooray for an Australian book that is not set in a country town, and a story that does not rely on a teenage girl getting murdered or killing herself). I was also fond of Keepinitreal by Don Henderson (imagine the film The Castle, but with greyhound racing) and The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar (an old-fashioned mystery about an intriguing house and its former owner, featuring some beautiful writing).

Other Fiction

I must have read lots of other novels this year, but only two (well, three) remain in my thoughts. The Believers by Zoë Heller has had mixed reviews, but I thought it was terrific. I admit that the characters are extremely unlikeable, and I did find the conclusion to Rosa’s story irritating and implausible. However, I was intrigued enough by this very dysfunctional New York family that I re-read the book, and I enjoyed it even more the second time.

The Night WatchThe other novel that stuck in my mind was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Really, this book deserves a blog post all of its own. Suffice to say it’s the story of four people living in London during the Blitz, linked in ways that only become apparent at the end of the book, due to the very clever structure of the narrative. This was the first Sarah Waters book I’d read, and I was so impressed by her writing that I raced out and bought The Little Stranger. Which I did not like nearly as much (see what I mean about high expectations), even though it’s a very well-plotted ghost story with a fascinating setting (a crumbling country house in post-war England).

World War Two Non-Fiction

I read a LOT of books about wartime Europe this year, but it was for research purposes – I was interested in facts, not the literary qualities of the books. However, a few of them stood out because they were not only useful, but interesting and well-written enough to appeal to (some) general readers. Firstly, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary was a fascinating, heart-breaking (and occasionally infuriating) memoir of a young RAF pilot who was shot down and badly injured during the Battle of Britain. The Last EnemyThe book gives an unsentimental account of his medical rehabilitation (his hands and face were surgically reconstructed by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe) and it describes Hillary’s evolving views on the war. The story is made more poignant by the fact that Hillary somehow managed to talk his way back into the air force (despite having only limited movement in his hands) and then crashed his plane during re-training, dying at the age of twenty-three. For a more general overview of Britain’s fighter pilots during WWII, I recommend Patrick Bishop’s Fighter Boys, which paints a vivid portrait of the individual (and very young) men who helped prevent Britain’s invasion in 1940. I also liked The Freedom Line by Peter Eisner, about the underground resistance in Belgium and France rescuing Allied airmen who’d been shot down over Nazi-occupied territory.

The best book I read about the experiences of civilians was Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner. Somehow, she managed to describe every aspect of wartime life, from rationing to the Blitz to the ‘invasion’ of Britain by American servicemen, in a way that was clear, coherent and accessible. However, at eight hundred pages, this book is probably only for those with a deep interest in the subject. For others, I recommend Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs, an intriguing collection of photos, cartoons, advertisements and newspaper articles from the war years, with just enough comment to provide context.

Other Non-Fiction

The God DelusionI think I only read two non-fiction books this year that weren’t about WWII, but they were both amazing. First was Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit and the rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough. It reads like a thriller, but also explains the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. By the end of the book, I had a much better understanding of Middle Eastern politics, and felt thoroughly pessimistic about peace ever being achieved in that part of the world. Secondly, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was, as I’d expected, a clear, rational argument for atheism. What I didn’t expect was that this book would be so entertaining, inspiring and plain laugh-out-loud funny. Admittedly, I’m an atheist, but I really feel this is an important book for everyone to read, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Phew! I seem to have read a lot of Very Serious Books this year, but this really wasn’t a typical reading year for me. I’m also sure I’ve left out some wonderful books that I’ve simply forgotten (due to my brain being over-stuffed with Very Serious Thoughts). What I have decided is that, from the first of January, I’m going to write down the title of each book I read, with a very short comment. I already have some book titles for my 2011 pile, including:

India Dark by Kirsty Murray
Monster Blood Tattoo Book Three: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
Anonymity Jones by James Roy
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

and possibly, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, depending on how brave I’m feeling.

Hope you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2011 brings you lots of smart, enthralling and inspiring books!

The Kitchen Front, Part One: Carrot Cookies

During the Second World War, the British government introduced rationing so that the population wouldn’t run out of food. I’ve been doing lots of research on this subject for the novel that I’m writing, but I’ve decided that simply reading about it isn’t enough. I think I need to experience it. Well, some of it. I’m not so dedicated to my craft that I’d actually change my entire diet (although some people do), but I have been trying out some 1940s recipes.

One of the main aims of the Ministry of Food during the war was to convince the British public that vegetables were healthy, filling and delicious. Eggs, sugar, cheese, butter and meat were rationed, so housewives were encouraged to be creative with potatoes, parsnips, swedes, cabbage, cauliflower – even nettles. An oversupply of carrots at one stage resulted in a Ministry of Food advertising campaign led by a cartoon ‘Doctor Carrot’, who explained how to make ‘carrot soup’, ‘carrot croquettes’, ‘carrot pudding’, ‘Carrolade juice’, ‘curried carrots and chestnuts with potato border’, ‘carrot savoury’, ‘braised carrots’ and ‘boiled carrots’ (I think they were running out of ideas by the end).

I was tempted by the idea of ‘carrot fudge’, until I read that it consisted of carrots, gelatine and orange essence. I could not see how that could be remotely appetising, and this blogger’s attempt to make it simply reinforced my aversion. However, I thought ‘carrot cookies’ sounded interesting, so I gave them a go. This version comes from the wonderful World Carrot Museum website.

Carrot Cookies

1 tablespoon margarine
2 tablespoons sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons of vanilla essence
4 tablespoons grated raw carrot
6 tablespoons self-raising flour (or plain flour with ½ teaspoon baking powder added)
1 tablespoon of water



Method – Cream the fat and the sugar together with the vanilla essence. Beat in the grated carrot. Fold in the flour. If mixture is very dry, add a little water. Drop spoonfuls onto greased tray and press down just a little.  Sprinkle tops with sugar and cook in an oven at 200° Celsius for about 20 minutes.

In the interests of authenticity, I used my most withered carrots (few houses back then had refrigerators). I suspect that 1940s flour was somewhere between our white and wholemeal flour, but I only had plain white flour, so I used that with baking powder. I wasn’t quite sure what sort of sugar was most common then, so I used caster sugar. Unfortunately, I don’t have a 1940s wood-burning stove (or even a gas stove), but I did grate the carrots and beat the mixture BY HAND (mostly because I don’t own a food processor).

Here’s the final product (my apologies for the poor quality image, but the only camera I possess is the webcam inside my computer):

Carrot Cookie
A cookie - made of carrots!

I didn’t have very high expectations, but these cookies were delicious! They were moist and chewy, rather than crisp, and tasted like a cross between plain sugar cookies and pumpkin scones. I must admit they didn’t taste much like carrots, although they were very orange – and very sweet. If I made them again, I’d only use one tablespoon of sugar, and I wouldn’t sprinkle extra sugar on top before baking. It just shows how much natural sugar is in carrots (now those Ministry of Food recipes for ‘carrot lollies’ make more sense to me). I’d also use wholemeal flour next time.

So, a success! But I think my next attempt at 1940s food will be something savoury. Stay tuned for updates on the Kitchen Front.