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.

ARCs

I am feeling very Oscar the Grouch because I’ve just seen ARCs of the American edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile for sale, for almost twice the price of the real book, five months before publication date. This is not the first time this has happened.

An ARC, for the uninitiated, is an Advance Reader’s Copy of a book. It’s a set of uncorrected typeset pages of the book, bound into paperback form, usually with an early version of the cover art on the front. The first page of the ARC gives information about the book’s publication date, price and other bits of information useful for librarians, booksellers and reviewers (who receive ARCs for free). The ARCs of Random House books also include this notice:

“ATTENTION, READER: THESE ARE UNCORRECTED ADVANCE PROOFS BOUND FOR REVIEW PURPOSES. All trim sizes, page counts, months of publication, and prices should be considered tentative and subject to change without notice. Please check publication information and any quotations against the bound copy of the book. We urge this for the sake of editorial accuracy as well as for your legal protection and ours.”

And then, on the front cover of the ARC, it says “NOT FOR SALE”. Which some recipients of ARCs interpret to mean “YAY! LET’S SELL THIS ON-LINE! FREE MONEY FOR ME!” Even worse, according to Liz B. from Tea Cozy, some librarians in the US are actually putting ARCs on their library shelves, rather than buying the proper book.

Here’s why authors get grouchy about this:

1. Authors don’t earn any money from sales of ARCs. The ARC is produced by publishers and given away free for publicity purposes. A sale of an ARC is not counted towards book sales figures, and it doesn’t earn the author any royalties. Most authors are not rich. They need all the book sales they can get.

2. People buying ARCs are not buying the proper book. They are buying a cheap, flimsy paperback that will fall apart after a couple of reads, instead of a beautifully-produced hardcover.

But, most importantly,

3. An ARC contains grammatical errors, unchecked facts, weird spellings, odd typesetting and many other problems. It is not the final version of the book. My publishers and I go to lots of trouble to proof-read the typeset pages of my books before they are printed, and I want readers to read the corrected, final book, not an ARC. I certainly don’t want readers paying inflated prices for a book full of errors, not when the book has my name on the cover.

So, if you’re a book blogger, professional reviewer or librarian reading this, and you’re wondering what to do with all those ARCs you’ve received – don’t sell them. And don’t give them to someone else who’s going to sell them. If you do, don’t be surprised if the authors and publishers involved get very cross with you.

And while I’m having a whinge – what’s with all those book reviews I’ve been reading lately where the reviewer hasn’t even seen the final copy of the book? For example, a recent review of a YA novel (which I am not going to name, because I don’t think that’s fair to the author or the book) complained about editing problems in the book, then admitted:

“As this review has been assessed from an uncorrected proof, my comments in relation to editing issues need to be considered in this light.”

Well, why didn’t you wait until you could assess the final book, then? This review appeared in a published journal, and its readers want to know about the final, published book, not some earlier, uncorrected version!

Right. Now I’ve got that off my furry, green chest, I’m climbing back inside my trash can for a nap.

Top Ten Girls in Fiction

Earlier this year, CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus listed their “top 10 female protagonists in recent Australian YA literature”, to mark the occasion of Australia’s first female Prime Minister being sworn in to office. I was chuffed to see my very own Sophie FitzOsborne make the list, and it got me thinking about my own favourite fictional girls.

I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with ten of them, though. There are a lot of great girl characters in my favourite books, but often they had some fatal flaw that kicked them off my list. For example, Hermione in the Harry Potter series is clever, hard-working and loyal to Harry – but has an inexplicable fondness for Ron Weasley, a boy who spends six books mocking her intelligence, forgets to ask her to the Yule Ball and shows a complete lack of regard for her feelings (I pretend that the epilogue to Book Seven doesn’t exist). Here’s my final list, although I didn’t restrict myself to “recent”, “Australian” or “YA” fiction.

1. Myra in Apple Bough (Traveling Shoes in the US) by Noel Streatfeild

Myra broke my heart when I read this book as a ten-year-old. Myra, a “funny, solemn little thing”, is the eldest child of the Forum family, and the only one without any discernible artistic or musical talent. Her brother Sebastian is a musical prodigy touring the world and earning millions; Wolfgang is a child actor; Ettie is a celebrated dancer. All Myra wants is to live at Apple Bough, the family home, with her dog Wag, but both of these are taken away from her by Sebastian’s career – yet she still unselfishly looks after Sebastian, Wolf and Ettie for years. Myra finally starts to realise how important she is to her whole family after her perceptive grandfather tells her,

“You have a trouble which is unique in your family. You underestimate yourself.”

(Yes, Myra is finally re-united with Wag. Thank goodness.)

2. Claudia in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Claudia is imaginative and sensitive enough to want to escape the “injustice” and “monotony”of her suburban life, but she’s smart and organised enough to plan her running-away down to the smallest detail. She’s also absolutely hilarious in her attempts to control her uncontrollable little brother. I love how Claudia grows up (with some help from Mrs Frankweiler and ‘Angel’) at the end of the book.

3. Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra can be an infuriating snob (for example, see her horrible treatment of Stephen), but she’s so honest and curious about life, and so charming and articulate, that most of the time, I can overlook her flaws. It helps that she loves books as much as I do, and that she has a couple of adorable pets in Heloise and Abelard. And that she lives in a castle.

4. Nona in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden

I just adore Nona. Despite feeling shy and miserable and lost, she devotes herself to building a dollhouse for poor, homeless Miss Happiness and Miss Flower – an authentic Japanese dollhouse, even though Nona initially knows nothing about Japan. By the end of the book, Nona has drawn together not only her new family, but half the neighbourhood. She’s such an inspiration.

5. Madlyn in The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

Madlyn is a “very pretty” blonde who loves shopping (which is usually enough to stop me liking a girl character), but she’s also smart, sensible and caring, particularly when it comes to her eccentric little brother:

“She soothed him when stupid people asked after his skunk instead of his skink; she stopped the cleaning lady from throwing away the snails he kept in a jar under his bed; and when he had a nightmare she was beside him almost as soon as he woke.”

Madlyn doesn’t really want to spend two months at gloomy old Clawstone Castle, but she doesn’t complain about it, and she comes up with an ingenious plan to save the threatened Beasts. She’s also very brave during the terrifying showdown with the villains.

6. Brownie in The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park

Another elder sister (I am sensing a theme here), who’s smart, responsible, and practical. Brownie’s also quietly courageous – for example, when necessary, she grits her teeth and walks along a ledge under a gigantic waterfall, even though she’s terrified of heights. At the start of the book, her father says, “Good grief, you kids of today have no more initiative than a jellyfish”, but by the end of their adventures, he’s forced to eat his words. Go, Brownie!

7. Jo in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Is there anyone who actually prefers Meg or Amy or Beth? Okay, Jo should have married Laurie instead of that old German guy, but in every other way, Jo March is awesome.

8. Sophie in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Only a girl as thoughtful, inquisitive and imaginative as Sophie could possibly make sense of all those mysterious letters and postcards that arrive in her mailbox (or in her hedge, on her bedroom floor or stuck to the kitchen window). She’s not afraid to question her teachers and her mother during her search for philosophical truth, and she has a great sense of humour. I also really like Sophie’s real-world ally, Hilde.

9. Anaximander in Genesis by Bernard Beckett

All right, I’m taking some liberties with the definition of ‘girl’ here, but as Anaximander is described as young and female, I think she counts. Her compassion, intelligence and determination to uncover the truth is inspiring – or it would be, if we didn’t slowly realise where it was leading her. (Oh, that book’s conclusion!)

10. Agatha in Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Agatha is possibly my favourite Anne Tyler character ever, which is really saying something. She’s another eldest child, left to look after her siblings by hopeless parents, but unlike Madlyn, “Agatha never concerned herself with appearances”. She’s bullied by her classmates, but by high school, she’s “supremely indifferent, impervious” to them (“You could tell she thought prettiness was a waste of time”). However, the main reason I love Agatha is her ferocious intelligence. She’ll take on anyone in an argument – even God. Here she is having a theological debate with her Uncle Ian, who’s getting rather flustered because he’s losing:

“‘Agatha,’ Ian said, ‘there’s a great deal in the Bible that’s simply beyond our understanding.’
‘Beyond yours, maybe,’ Agatha said.”

She ends up becoming an oncologist, marries a handsome, charming doctor, and earns piles of money. I just wish there’d been a final scene where she attends a school re-union.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Two: The Charioteer

Is this book ‘dated’? Well, not in the same way as Wigs on the Green. The Charioteer wasn’t out of print for decades, it was never rejected by its author, and it continues to be discussed and admired by readers. However, it is definitely a novel of its time. It’s set during 1940, and was written in the early 1950s. The author, Mary Renault, was a nurse during the Second World War. She looked after soldiers who’d been evacuated from Dunkirk, and she worked in the same sort of hospitals described so vividly in the book. In part, the novel is about the war, about the moral (and occasionally physical) conflict between wounded servicemen and young, male conscientious objectors. However, to quote the summary on the back of my 1968 paperback edition:

“The theme of this compassionate and deeply understanding novel is homosexual love . . . Each [character] in his own way wrestles to compensate for what he feels to be biological failure.”

And doesn’t that sound like something out of a 1970s journal for psychotherapists, and make you want to avoid this novel like the plague?

'The Charioteer' by Mary RenaultBut if you did, you’d be missing out on a compelling story. Yes, this is a deeply serious book, with little of the humour that lights up Renault’s earlier novel, The Friendly Young Ladies. Yes, The Charioteer does go to ridiculous lengths to ‘explain’ (or perhaps ‘excuse’) the homosexual natures of the characters. Most modern readers will feel a bit bemused by the author’s careful explanations that Laurie, the narrator, had a philandering, alcoholic father who abandoned his family; that Ralph’s mother was a religious fanatic who had him flogged as a six-year-old after she caught him ‘discussing anatomy’ with the little girl next door; and that Andrew’s father died before Andrew was born and was probably bisexual. At social gatherings, the characters all sit around and have solemn debates about whether homosexuality should become legal, with one arguing:

“I didn’t choose to be what I am, it was determined when I wasn’t in a position to exercise any choice and without my knowing what was happening . . . I think we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross over-population . . . I’m not prepared to let myself be classified with dope-peddlars and prostitutes. Criminals are blackmailed. I’m not a criminal.”

To which, another retorts:

“[The authorities have] learned to leave us in peace unless we make public exhibitions of ourselves, but that’s not enough, you start to expect a medal. Hell, can’t we even face the simple fact that if our fathers had been like us, we wouldn’t have been born?”

(Actually, perhaps this isn’t so dated, after all. The same debate is being played out right now in the Australian parliament, except over same-sex marriage, rather than the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. Conservative politicians continue to trot out the ‘But they can’t reproduce!’ line, along with other, equally idiotic, ‘arguments’ against gay and lesbian rights.)

Anyway, the characters of The Charioteer live in England in 1940, so their lives are ruled by terror. As if the war isn’t bad enough, they’re also terrified of attracting the wrath of the police, their commanding officers, their families and God. Not surprisingly, many of them are suicidal, alcoholic or drug-addicted. Also not surprisingly, they have enormous difficulties being honest with each other. It’s the sort of book in which many of the characters’ problems would be solved if they simply sat down and talked about how they felt. But no, Ralph can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, because he thinks it will turn young Laurie gay. Laurie can’t tell Andrew he’s in love with him, because he thinks Andrew is too religious to cope with the knowledge. Ralph still can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, years later, because he knows Laurie is in love with Andrew. Andrew can’t tell Laurie he’s attracted to him because . . . Arrgh! It made me want to smack them all over the head. Still, I kept turning the pages, desperate to find out what would happen next. And the writing is superb – thoughtful, rich, beautifully-paced. The only issue I had with it was the coy fade-to-black whenever anything sexual happened, which again, is probably due to when the book was written. Perhaps the publishers censored it; perhaps the author censored herself? Still, after Laurie obsessively describing every thought, word and eye twitch during his interactions with Ralph and Andrew, it seemed bizarre that when he finally went to bed with one of them, there was a big blank in the narrative. I doubt a modern writer would have flinched at describing the scene (for example, see The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, set during the same period but published in 2006). Surely how these two men interact in bed is just as significant to the story as how they act when they’re eating a meal together in public?

So, yes, The Charioteer is ‘dated’. However, it’s an authentic depiction of the experiences of gay men during the Second World War, and I found it impossible to put down.

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

‘Dated’ Books, Part One: Wigs on the Green

Some time ago, a fellow Australian writer described one of my books as ‘dated’ (in fact, she stated in her blog that she was going to re-read that particular book so she could learn how NOT to write a novel). ‘Dated’ was an interesting word to use, and I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by it. If a book was deliberately set in the past, wasn’t it a good thing that the story was ‘of its time’ (assuming that’s what the writer meant by ‘dated’)? Shouldn’t a book set in a particular time show what those people thought and read and did? How could it be a bad thing for a book about the past to reflect the attitudes of the period?

Wigs on the Green by Nancy MitfordWell, I’m still not sure about the writer’s comments and that particular book of mine. However, I’ve recently read a couple of books that even the authors felt had ‘dated’ badly – and I think I agree with the authors. The first book is Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford, written in 1935. She wasn’t famous then, and the book attracted lukewarm reviews and modest sales. It wasn’t until the enormous success of The Pursuit of Love in 1945 that anyone became interested in re-releasing Wigs on the Green. But Nancy Mitford refused to allow re-publication. The world had changed and the book was now in “the worst of taste”, she wrote to her friend Evelyn Waugh. Nearly forty years after her death, a new edition of the book, with an introduction by Charlotte Mosley, has just been published, and it’s fascinating – in an awful sort of way.

Wigs on the Green is a satire about Fascism, written back in the days when Hitler was still a funny little man with a silly moustache, and Mussolini was much admired for making Italian trains run on time. The novel is set in a peaceful English village, and the main character, Eugenia Malmains, bears a close resemblance to Nancy Mitford’s sister, Unity. Eugenia makes impassioned speeches on an overturned wash-tub on the village green, forces the villagers to join her beloved ‘Union Jackshirt’ movement, and eventually organises a ‘Social Unionist’ pageant that turns violent after her supporters are viciously attacked by local ‘Pacifists’. The other characters seem to have escaped from a P G Wodehouse novel. There’s a weak-willed young man whose aunt has left him a small fortune, his caddish friend, a snobby (and stupid) girl fleeing her engagement to a duke, an ambitious (and stupid) society hostess, and a couple of dotty old aristocrats. Compared to these people, Eugenia is, at least, sincere and hard-working. Perhaps it was this ambivalence, this refusal to condemn Eugenia outright, that Nancy Mitford was worried about? On the other hand, Mitford gives Eugenia plenty of mad speeches, outlining the ridiculous policies of the Fascists. Here’s Eugenia, for example, giving some relationship advice to her cousin:

“She turned to Poppy and said, ‘If your husband is an Aryan you should be able to persuade him that it is right to live together and breed; if he is a filthy non-Aryan it may be your duty to leave him and marry Jackshirt Aspect. I am not sure about this, we want no immorality in the Movement …'”

This is after Eugenia has explained to Poppy and her potential husband, Jasper, that:

“‘A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.’
‘How about Siamese cats?’ said Jasper.
‘That’s true. But Siamese cats possess, to a notable degree, the Nordic virtue of faithfulness.'”

Clearly, the author is making fun of Fascist ideology, but what was funny in 1935 is not so funny now, after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

There were also personal reasons why the author might have wanted to pretend the book had never existed. Its initial publication led to a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Diana spent much of the war in prison (Nancy’s own testimony helped put Diana there), and Unity shot herself in the head when war was declared. Fascism tore the Mitford family apart, so it’s not surprising that Nancy Mitford might have become reluctant to laugh at her own jokes about it.

Well, whatever the author’s motivation for not wanting the book re-published, Penguin has now released it (as well as four other Mitford novels) with a very nice illustrated cover. Yes, it’s ‘dated’. Apart from the Fascist jokes, there’s racism (people from Uruguay being called ‘fuzzy wuzzies’, et cetera), as well as blatant misogyny. The plot is predictable, and most of the characters are boring and unlikeable. If you haven’t read any of Nancy Mitford’s writing and want to try some, please don’t start with this book (I recommend Love in a Cold Climate). However, if you’re a Mitford fan, you might find this one really interesting – because, rather than in spite of, its ‘datedness’.

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

Just A Girls’ Book

So, I was reading the latest edition of Viewpoint and came across a review of India Dark, Kirsty Murray’s new novel. This book has been on my To Read list ever since I heard of it, because a) it’s by Kirsty Murray, b) it’s set in India and c) it’s historical fiction based on a fascinating true story, all of which suggest it will be an excellent read. The review, by Tony Thompson, was very positive, but then, towards the end, he had this to say:

“It would be tempting to suggest this is a book for girls but I think that would diminish a novel that is told with such skill and precision.”

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)Yep. You see, books told with ‘skill and precision’ are wasted on girls. To give such a book to girls would ‘diminish’ the book, because, as everyone knows, girls can’t cope with complex plots, rich language or vividly-described settings. Only boys have the vocabularies, reading comprehension skills and attention spans that are required to read and understand a well-written novel.

Yes, I am being sarcastic, Mr Thompson. But what’s that you say?

“. . . astute English teachers will recognize that, despite the female narrators, this is a book that will appeal strongly to the boys in the class . . .”

So, boys ought to be given a chance to read this book, despite the fact that it contains characters who are (ugh!) girls. But only ‘astute’ English teachers will recognise this, because apparently it takes a huge amount of wisdom to see that boys might benefit from learning about the other half of the human population.

Of course, English teachers, astute or otherwise, don’t seem to have any problem making girls read books about boys. When I was in senior high school (a quarter of a century ago), only one female writer existed – Jane Austen. There were no female poets, playwrights, short story writers or contemporary novelists in the English-speaking world, according to our syllabus. The current list of texts for New South Wales senior high school students shows some improvement, but in junior high school, texts about boys still predominate. The thinking seems to be that, as boys are more likely to be reluctant and/or poor readers, they must always be indulged at the expense of girls. Girls will read anyway. Besides, it doesn’t matter so much about their academic skills, because they don’t have to get a job – they’ll get married and be supported by their husband. (Don’t laugh – this is what I was told by the parents of one of my students, a girl who’d just been identified as having learning difficulties).

I understand that teachers need to consider many issues, including themes and language, when they’re selecting books for their students. I just don’t see why the gender of the characters is only an issue when the characters are female. Teachers don’t often say, ‘I can’t give this book to my co-ed class – the narrator is a boy!’

It’s depressing enough that the Children’s Book Council awards so often seem to privilege stories about boys over stories about girls. But do we also have to read patronising reviews about ‘girl’ books that are so good, even boys might like them? That’s insulting to both girls and boys.

EDITED TO ADD: Two pages on in Viewpoint is yet another male reviewer who has interesting views on girls and books. Here’s Malcolm Tattersall reviewing Kate Elliott’s alternate history/fantasy novel, Cold Magic:

“One aspect of Cold Magic will be a problem for half its potential readers and a strength for the other half: it is intrinsically a girls’ book. That is apparent on the surface level in the protagonist’s clothes-consciousness and romantic crushes, but it also pervades deeper levels, in the greater significance accorded to relationships than to deeds and Catherine’s ongoing, if unarticulated, struggle for self-determination in a male-dominated world.”

I haven’t read the book, but . . . really? Boys never have ‘romantic crushes’? They never care about what they’re wearing? They have no interest in relationships? They never struggle for their own self-determination? And they have no interest in reading about someone else’s struggle for self-determination?

You’d think boys and girls belonged to completely different species, reading this. Maybe I just give teenage boys more credit than these reviewers do.

UPDATE: Just A Girls’ Book, Redux

The Search for Enlightenment

I possess many of the personality traits of a nerd, but few of the technological skills, which is why it’s only now, three years after I set up my author website, that I’ve discovered my own website statistics. Web statistics tell you how many people have visited your website, which pages they prefer, what they’re looking for, how they found you in the first place and lots of other interesting bits of information. My favourite set of data is the list of key words that my website visitors type into Google and other internet search engines.

Not surprisingly, the most common search words are various spellings of my name and the titles of my books. Most people are looking for information about my second novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, although I was tickled to find several people searching for ‘the island of Montmaray’, ‘Montmaray island’ and ‘Montmaray near the Atlantic Ocean’. (I like to think they’re planning a holiday in the Bay of Biscay and are hoping to drop in at Montmaray.)

There are also quite a few visitors wanting information about my first novel, The Rage of Sheep. Judging by the number of requests for ‘chapter summaries’, ‘quotes’ and ‘spark notes’, I’m guessing these visitors are high school students who are being forced to study the book in class. (My heart went out to one who plaintively asked, ‘What is the rage of the sheep about?’) I’d really like to help, but I think teachers would get suspicious if thirty of their students handed in identical character analyses and chapter summaries, all copied from my website. (However, if you think there is some other information that would be useful to include on my website, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail, and I’ll do my best.) There are also lots of teenage writers searching for writing competitions and writing workshops, and fortunately, I do have some relevant links for them.

Then the list of key words gets more entertaining. There are people with an extremely vague interest in history, who search for ‘historical people’, ‘famous history people’ and ‘historical people with a picture’. Some are more specific, looking for ‘historical people who were known for their gratitude’, ‘lying historical figures who failed’ and ‘historical person whose son left and died and had a secret wife’. Sadly, these searchers are unlikely to find enlightenment at my website, although sometimes I come very, very close to providing an answer. I can only imagine the frustration of the person searching for ‘the handwriting of Anne Boleyn’, only to discover my website provides a link to a handwriting sample from not Anne, but her daughter, Elizabeth. Happily, I was able to help those who were interested in ‘the Duchess of Kent’s popularity as fashion leader in the 1930s’, wanted to see ‘pictures of Princess Elizabeth and Margaret as children’, and wondered about ‘fascism in British aristocracy’. However, the person looking for information on ‘sheep hormonal rage’ was doomed to disappointment.

Finally, there are those who ask the really big, important questions. ‘What would Jesus do in the schoolyard?’ ‘Was Boy George sexy in the 80s?’ And then, the most difficult of all to answer: ‘When does Book 3 of the Montmaray Journals come out?’