The Mystery of the Dashing Widower: A FitzOsbornes Story

I’d planned to publish this for Love Your Bookshop Day, to say thank you to all the Australian booksellers who have worked so hard to keep us supplied with books during the pandemic. Unfortunately, Love Your Bookshop Day was two weeks ago. I would have known the correct date if I was still on Twitter. But not being on Twitter meant I had lots more spare time to write this. Swings and roundabouts. So, here, belatedly, for booksellers and book readers, is a fluffy FitzOsbornes short story. I’m afraid it won’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve read The FitzOsbornes at War.

The Mystery of the Dashing Widower

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Miss Lancaster’s job at the bookshop — apart from the unlimited access to books, of course — was contemplating the hidden lives of the customers. Such mysteries! There was The Major, a gruff elderly gentleman who always had a Mills and Boon romance concealed in the stack of military history books he brought up to the counter each month. (“For the wife,” he’d muttered, when he saw Miss Lancaster’s glance snag upon Desire is Blind. She wasn’t sure if it would be more endearing if this turned out to be the truth or a lie.) There was the tall, thin lady who was slowly making her way through a badly-foxed copy of The Interpretation of Dreams in the dimmest corner of the shop, marking her place each week with a red cotton thread. There was The Brunette in Blue, who always contrived to be in the shop at the exact same time as The Shy Accountant, although Miss Lancaster had never managed to catch them exchanging a single word, let alone touching.

However, her favourite mystery by far was the Dashing Widower, whom she’d first encountered two years ago when he’d rushed in and begged for book recommendations.

“It’s for my sister,” he’d said. “She’s very clever and has read absolutely everything but we must keep her in bed, doctor’s advice, you see, first baby and all, and magazines and newspapers simply aren’t working anymore.”

“Ah,” said Miss Lancaster, brightening. It had been a very dull afternoon and the young gentleman had blond curls and sparkling blue eyes and a charming smile. “Well, what interests her?”

“The human condition,” he said solemnly, then laughed. “Let’s see. She likes Austen and Trollope and the Brontës and there’s a novel she’s just finished, I wrote down its author — Davey, I have to put you down for a moment while I find that note.” He’d been carrying a dark-haired child, perhaps two years old, who grumbled quietly as he was lowered to the floor. “Look, old chap, a book about yachts, you’ll adore that. Here we are — Rumer Godden. Can that be right? Is that really someone’s name?”

Up close, the gentleman was older than she’d first thought, with scarred flesh running down the side of his face and neck. He limped, and later she realised he had a wooden leg. The war, she supposed. What a tragedy, and then to have lost his wife, too — because surely he was a widower. Why else would a man spend so much time looking after his small children? Because soon after that, he began to visit the shop every couple of weeks or so, sometimes with a baby in a fancy silver perambulator, more often with his son on their way back from sailing toy boats in Hyde Park. He mostly bought books for the children, Ladybirds and Dr Seuss and a beautiful leather-bound collection of fairy tales. Sometimes he accepted further recommendations for his sister (“The Grand Sophy! Oh, yes, that’s perfect.”), but he always claimed he didn’t read himself.

“You do, Daddy,” corrected Davey. “You read about aeroplanes.”

“Yes, maintenance manuals,” said his father, and Miss Lancaster filed that away. Ex-RAF? Former fighter pilot? Current pilot? Except he didn’t ever seem to go to work.

“We had a box of Biggles come in this morning,” she offered. “Excellent condition.” She picked up Biggles Sees It Through and handed it over. A curious expression came over his face and he went very still.

“What’s that?” said Davey, peering closer.

His father shook his head and smiled down at the boy.

“Sorry, lost in thought. Your aunt loved these books. Oh, look, Davey, The Adventures of Wonk: Going To Sea! Shall we get that one?”

Miss Lancaster stayed well away from aeroplanes — indeed, anything military — after that. Her standard recommendation for men who claimed not to read was a collection of humorous short stories, but she didn’t dare suggest P. G. Wodehouse, not after all the fuss about his broadcasts during the war. Nazi propaganda, they’d called it. Sometimes it felt like the war would never be over…

Months later, Miss Lancaster spied the Dashing Widower by The Serpentine with a pretty blonde who looked so much like him that she could only have been his sister. Davey was hurling bread at the ducks, his sister had by then grown big enough to stand on her own legs and the lady was fussing over a smaller baby in the now-familiar perambulator. Her baby? Presumably. She did not, Miss Lancaster had to admit, look like a Biggles fan, but appearances could be deceiving.

However interesting this sighting was, it was nothing compared to the momentous afternoon the following year. Miss Lancaster had been walking through Belgravia. This was not, strictly speaking, on her way home, but sometimes she couldn’t resist the lure of those grand old mansions, so imposing, so intriguing. Since the war, some of them had been turned into embassies — mostly for tiny countries no one had ever heard of, but still, imagine all the fascinating people inside, the diplomats and press officers and spies… She turned a corner and there, across the road, was the Dashing Widower with little Davey, talking to one of the most beautiful women Miss Lancaster had ever seen in real life. She looked like a film star, except she was dressed in a sensible navy trouser suit and her only makeup was a slash of scarlet lipstick. The three of them were standing on the steps of the grandest house on the street and the resemblance between Davey and the woman was striking.

Miss Lancaster did some hasty editing of her mental file. Not a widower, then? Perhaps his beautiful wife was one of those modern career women and he’d agreed to take care of the children? Because his injuries were so serious that he knew he could never work again? Although she suspected that no one who lived in a house like that would ever need to worry about working at any sort of ordinary job. Old money, as her boss had said that morning when he’d returned from that deceased-estate auction in the country. Miss Lancaster sidled rapidly across the road to the neighbouring house and arranged herself behind a marble pillar, where she spent some time with her head bent over her handbag, carefully adjusting and re-adjusting the leather strap.

“I must go,” said the lady. “Meeting Daniel for tea at Westminster.”

Could she be a lady MP?

The woman climbed into a rather battered-looking motor car and Davey waved vigorously as she drove off.

“Bye, Aunt Veronica!” he cried.

Ah. Not his mother, then. An aunt, and this one looked even less like a Biggles reader. Miss Lancaster was just wondering whether she could stroll ahead now, perhaps nod hello and get a glimpse of their foyer as they opened their front door, when a far more impressive motor car pulled up and Cary Grant stepped out.

Well, not Cary Grant, because he was in Hollywood, but close enough, double-breasted pin-striped Savile Row suit and all. Davey ran down the stairs and threw himself at the man.

“Oh, you just missed Veronica,” said the Dashing Widower.

“Good,” said Not Cary Grant, hoisting up Davey. “How’s my boy?” he asked with obvious affection, and now Miss Lancaster could see the family resemblance between those two as well. “Is Julia back yet?”

“Yes,” said the Dashing Widower. “And the meeting went exactly as you predicted. But never fear, she’s plotting her next move.”

“You were away for two days,” said Davey accusingly, holding up two fingers.

“Yes, and I missed you,” said Not Cary Grant.

“Did you miss Mummy?”

“Yes.” He put the child down so that he could pull his suitcase out of the car.

“Did you miss Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“Did you miss Mr Simpkins?”

“Who’s Mr Simpkins?”

“The cat with three legs.”

“The one that chewed up my favourite silk tie? No, I did not miss him. And I wish your uncle would stop foisting all these defective animals on us—”

The three of them disappeared through the glossy red front door, which shut firmly behind them before Miss Lancaster could catch a glimpse of the interior.

Miss Lancaster pursed her lips. This was getting very confusing.

She had progressed no further with solving the mystery of the Devoted Father, as she’d re-named him, on an icy winter’s afternoon a few months later. Anyone who had any choice in the matter would have been tucked up by the fire with tea and crumpets. Davey, however, had birthday money to spend and was taking this book-buying expedition very seriously.

“I could get this one about sailing ships and this quite small book about a fireman or I could get this very, very good book about how to defend a castle from invaders…”

'Girl Reading' by Emil BrackMeanwhile, his little sister was sitting on the rug in the children’s section, her stout legs stretched out in front of her. She was the most angelic-looking child, all golden curls and enormous blue-green eyes, but her rosebud frock had mud smeared down the front. (“Toni fell in a puddle,” Davey had said disapprovingly. “On purpose. And she just laughed.”) Her father was holding up a book for her approval.

“I want bunny,” she said.

“We say please when we want something. And we do not need any more bunny books,” said her father. “Now, who’s this? Look, he’s grey and has floppy ears!” He handed her The Story of Babar, which she examined dubiously. “You sit here quietly and look at this for a moment. Davey! Have you decided yet?”

The little boy was frowning at two books. “I decided, but I don’t have enough money. This one costs two shillings and two pence and this very, very good one is three shillings and nine pence.”

“So how much are they, when you add them up?”

“Five shillings and eleven pence. But I only have five shillings and eight pence.” He held out a palmful of coins.

“So how much more money do you need?”

“I’m only four, Daddy,” said Davey. “I can do adding up, but I can’t do adding down.”

“It’s called subtracting and yes, you can. You were doing it this morning. Here, I’m going to lend you thruppence and you can pay me back from your jam jar when we get home. How much do you have now?”

“Five shillings and eleven pence!”

“So if you subtract three pence from five shillings and eleven pence, you get—?”

“Daddy, Toni is climbing the wall.”

Miss Lancaster, distracted by the arithmetic lesson, had also failed to notice the little girl, who had tucked her dress into her bloomers and scaled the bookshelf in the Natural History section as far up as Alpine Flora and Fauna.

“Good Lord, I leave you alone for thirty seconds!” said her father, who’d dashed over to rescue her. “No climbing, Toni! That’s very naughty. You could hurt yourself. And look, now you’ve torn your new dress—”

“Excuse me, I would like to pay for these books, please,” said a firm voice somewhere below the counter.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Miss Lancaster, leaning over to take the books and handful of coins from Davey. “Thank you, that’s the exact amount. Shall I wrap them for you?”

“No, thank you. I will put them in my bag.” Davey was carefully stowing them away in his satchel when his father came up, carrying the little girl.

“Give the book to the lady, please,” said the Devoted Father, rather wearily.

“No!” Toni clutched the book and shook her head. Then she suddenly changed her mind and thrust The Bunney-Fluffs’ Moving Day at Miss Lancaster, with a dazzling smile that showed off two new pearly teeth.

“Ah, a bunny book. How nice,” said Miss Lancaster blandly. “That will be 2/6, please. Shall I wrap it for you?”

“Put this in your bag, please, Davey,” said the Devoted Father. “Right! Have we got everything? Toni, where are your mittens? Let’s go or we’ll be late for tea. Remember, we’re going to see Elizabeth this afternoon.”

“Princess Elizabeth?” said Davey, and Miss Lancaster’s eyes widened.

“So we’ll be on our best behaviour, won’t we, Toni?”

“Bunny book,” said Toni.

“Yes, you can share your bunny book with her. I’m sure she’ll love that. Good afternoon,” he said, nodding to Miss Lancaster. “Terribly sorry about the mountaineering. Won’t happen again.” He herded the children out and the bell clanged behind them.

Miss Lancaster propped her elbow on the counter and her chin on her hand. She was considering getting some cushions for the children’s section and perhaps a Winnie-the-Pooh to sit on the windowsill. Her boss said they should not encourage children in the shop because they were noisy and smelly and had sticky fingers, but Miss Lancaster had pointed out that this also applied to a significant number of their grown-up customers. She very much enjoyed observing the various children who visited the bookshop and remained hopeful that one day, little Davey would let slip enough information to enable her to solve the mystery of the Devoted Father. In the meantime, she was going to put the kettle on. She was planning to have a nice cup of tea and an arrowroot biscuit. And then she had a box of Margery Allingham detective stories to sort through. Miss Lancaster really did adore her job.

© Michelle Cooper 2020

Memoranda Turns Ten

Ten years ago today, I started this blog with a post about how I learned to hate poetry. Three hundred and twenty-one posts and about two hundred thousand words later, here I am, still blogging, although far less frequently than at the start.

Here’s a selection of Memoranda posts from the past decade.

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

First, ten discussions about children’s books, in no particular order:

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay

Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

The Years of Grace and Growing Up Gracefully by Noel Streatfeild

Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

End of Term by Antonia Forest

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

And ten discussions about favourite novels and novelists:

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Anne Tyler And Her Novels

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford and Meet the Mitfords

The lost art of letter writing

Here are ten posts about writing:

How To Write a Novel, about writing advice

Same Book, But Different, on editing books for different countries

Book Banned, Author Bemused – my book got banned in the US!

Five Ways in Which Writing a Novel is Like Making a Quilt

Writing About Place

The Creative Vision Versus the Marketing Department

Goatbusters, or How The Writerly Mind Works

The ‘Aha!’ Moment and Three Things That Didn’t Happen In The Montmaray Journals

Adventures in Self-Publishing

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice For Writers

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)

And ten rants about book-related topics:

Just a Girls’ Book, followed by Just A Girls’ Book, Redux and Girls and Boys and Books, Yet Again

That Gay YA Thing

Some Thoughts On Reading

Looking for a Good, Clean Book

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Regarding Internet Piracy

ARCs

A Public Service Announcement: Smoking Is Bad For You

Here’s to another ten years of Memoranda. Hopefully I’ll be blogging a bit more from now on, because I’ve just deleted my Twitter account.

In Which I Finally Purchase An eReader

I am not what is termed an ‘early adopter’ of new technology. I don’t own a smart phone or an iPad or a digital radio, I don’t subscribe to any streaming services, and my entire music collection consists of cassettes and CDs (played on my trusty 1990s Panasonic boombox). In fact, some people who know me have gone so far as to mention the word ‘Luddite’, but this is inaccurate. I’m not a technophobe. I studied maths, physics and computer studies at high school, I have a science degree, and at Day Job, I’m the go-to person for solving tech problems, whether it’s modifying our database software or unjamming the photocopier.

Outside work, though, I only use new technology if it’s both affordable and essential. That’s why I’ve avoided ebooks for the last decade. I already had a cheap, efficient way to read books, so why would I pay a lot of money to buy some electronic reading device? Anyway, I spend all day looking at screens for work. I didn’t want to spend my leisure time staring at yet another screen.

However, with my library now closed for physical book borrowing for the foreseeable future and with limited access to bookshops, I finally decided to invest in an eReader. There are really only two options for Australians — a Kindle or a Kobo. I don’t much like Amazon and I wanted a device compatible with library ebooks, so that left me with a choice of three different models of Kobo eReaders. I chose Clara, the smallest (and cheapest). Clara has a six inch screen, fits comfortably in my little hand, weighs less than a paperback, but can store up to 6000 ebooks.

Kobo Clara eReader text

There are various options for screen brightness and colour, font type, font size and moving between pages and chapters, some of which work better than others for me. I like being able to increase the size of the print, although as the screen is fairly small, I need to swipe up and down to read a single page. I could have avoided this problem if I’d bought one of the bigger models, but they’d probably have been more awkward to hold. (In different times, I’d have visited a shop and tried out the various models before I bought anything. But if I could go to shops, I’d also be able to go to the library, so I wouldn’t need an eReader.) It takes about two hours to charge Clara fully and this apparently lasts several weeks, as long as you turn the power off whenever you finish reading. I discovered that if you use the Sleep Mode, it eats up energy very quickly. However, if you’ve turned off the power, you need to re-set the viewing options when you open up your book again, which is annoying.

Clara also provides ways to bookmark pages, highlight sections and check word definitions using the built-in multilingual dictionaries, but I haven’t tried out these features yet. I did find it a bit awkward to swipe back to previous pages to re-read an earlier section — that’s definitely easier to do in a paper book.

Kobo Clara eReader

Clara displays nice, sharp images, including book covers, in shades of grey. Apparently you can read graphic novels and picture books with Clara, but I can’t imagine it would be a very enjoyable experience, compared to paper editions.

I bought a separate black leather cover with a magnetic clasp, which not only keeps Clara safe and clean, but can be flipped to make a convenient hands-free stand. This is a vast improvement on my usual propping-a-paperback-against-another-book-and-using-one-hand-to-stop-it-from-snapping-closed, which is how I tend to read books while eating lunch.

Kobo Clara eReader sideview

Clara also asked me about my favourite books and provided some amusingly unhelpful recommendations for future reading. Here’s what she thinks I should read next: all of Anne Tyler’s recent novels (which I’ve already read); The Complete Works of Plato (no thanks); The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (ha ha! actually, I have read that, a long time ago); Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (what?); and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I fear Clara has the wrong impression of me. I hate to disappoint her, but my next read is actually a library copy of Courtney Milan’s Proof by Seduction, a Regency romance whose cover features a lady in distinctly unRegency underwear swooning across a bed. I have downloaded a free copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, though.

I was interested to see whether I’d read and comprehend ebooks differently to paper books. I think I might read ebooks quicker, with more skimming and less contemplation. But the two ebooks I’ve finished so far have been YA and middle-grade novels, so maybe I’d read them quickly anyway?

In conclusion, Clara and I are getting on very well, thus far. Please do let me know if you have any helpful e-reading tips.

‘The January Stars’ by Kate Constable

Disclaimer, because this is an Australian book: I’ve never met Kate Constable but we internet-know each other and she is a regular commenter on this blog. However, I wouldn’t write nice things about her books unless I really, truly enjoyed them. If I don’t like something written by an Australian writer I know, I just don’t write about it. I rarely spend time blogging about books I don’t like (unless the books are amusingly bad and the author is either dead or so famous that my opinion is irrelevant to their well-being).

The January Stars by Kate Constable is a warm-hearted, thoughtful novel about family, in which twelve-year-old Clancy and her older sister Tash accidentally kidnap their grandpa from his awful nursing home and set off on an adventure to find him a better life. In the fine tradition of children’s literature, the grown-ups are mostly dead, absent or useless, so the girls need to be resourceful and clever. Clancy is an endearing and relatable protagonist — initially shy and anxious, reluctant to take risks or challenge the rules, but ultimately able to draw on hidden reserves of resilience and courage. It’s lovely to watch how her relationship with her confident older sister evolves. I also liked Pa, who has had a stroke, is partly paralysed and has aphasia, but is always depicted as a strong-minded person with a sense of humour and varied interests. He’s also shown as able to communicate effectively with his granddaughters, despite the challenges posed by his speech and language difficulties. (I did wonder why he didn’t have a communication board attached to his wheelchair or some sort of electronic communication aid, but perhaps it got lost in the tumult of the kidnapping.)

Something I really loved about this book were the vivid descriptions of the settings, from inner-city Melbourne apartment blocks to leafy outer suburbs to a rural ashram and a seaside town. I dislike it when children’s books have either generic settings (for example, Odo Hirsch’s novels, set in vaguely European cities) or else vast swathes of descriptive prose that read like creative writing exercises, but The January Stars gets it exactly right, for my tastes.

Kate Constable’s books often involve fantasy and in this one, Clancy begins to believe her dead grandmother is assisting their quest. There is also a short section involving a time-slip or possibly a parallel, pocket universe, which the girls decide not to think about too much because “if you can explain magic, it’s not magic anymore”. I mean, personally, I would not have been able to resist researching the magic bookshop and its owner, but some readers (and authors) prefer mysterious events to remain enigmatic.

Also, I don’t often pay attention to book covers, but I need to mention this one because it’s so eye-catching. It looks like a paper sculpture, but I believe it was done digitally by Debra Bilson. It’s a very appropriate image for a beautiful, layered story.

'The January Stars' by Kate Constable

'Cicada Summer' by Kate ConstableIf you like the sound of The January Stars, you may want to try Cicada Summer, for slightly younger readers. Poor Eloise, mute with grief over her dead mother, is dragged off to live in a drought-affected country town with her odd grandmother. Fortunately, there is an intriguing old family mansion to explore, as well as a mysterious but friendly girl who might possibly have slipped through time … This is a charming, poignant story with a genuinely surprising and clever twist.

'New Guinea Moon' by Kate ConstableI also really enjoyed New Guinea Moon, set in the 1970s, in which Australian teenager Julie visits her father, a commercial pilot working in Papua New Guinea. It reminded me a little of those Rumer Godden books in which a young white woman arrives in India, falls in love with it, gets into conflict with the old India hands over their racist views, blunders about for a while naively causing damage, then departs, sadder but wiser. Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest neighbour, but is rarely part of our literary world, especially in children’s fiction, so this novel was fascinating to read. In common with many Australians, I have a family connection to PNG — my father worked there in the 1960s — and I also grew up in Fiji in the 1970s, in and beside an expat community that sounds very similar to the one Julie finds herself in. The descriptions of that community — the insularity, snobbishness and racism — felt very true to life, in my opinion. I also wallowed in all the lush, evocative descriptions of tropical life in this book — the sudden downpours, the geckos falling off the ceiling, the bright bougainvillea against whitewashed cement walls, the tang of salty plums. I did marvel at Julie’s mother sending her all the way to another country to stay with a near stranger for a summer (particularly given what subsequently happens in this story!), but hey, it was the 1970s — they did things differently back then.

You can find more about Kate Constable’s books here.

‘False Value’ by Ben Aaronovitch

False Value is the eighth novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. I’ve enjoyed all the previous novels, but I’m sorry to say that I think that Ben Aaronovitch has now lost the plot. This book was a mess, and worse, it was a boring, unfunny mess.

'False Value' by Ben AaronovitchFalse Value opens with Peter Grant, wizard policeman, starting a new job in a company that does geeky stuff involving data and algorithms. Its owner, an Australian tech billionaire, appears to be involved in a secret project that has some link to the theft of a historical, possibly magical, artefact. Unfortunately, Aaronovitch decides to use a convoluted, back-and-forth timeline in the first part of the book to increase suspense, which is unnecessary and annoying. Even more annoyingly, the tech company is called the Serious Cybernetics Corporation and the book is filled with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references. I’m a Hitchhikers fan from way back but even I was totally over the jokes by the end of the first chapter — and they just kept coming. And this was just the start of the hard core sci-fi in-jokes, because ultimately, False Value is science fiction, or a mix of science fiction and fantasy. Which is fine! Ben Aaronovitch is a Doctor Who writer and this is clearly a genre he loves. The problem is that the Rivers of London series has a lot of fans who don’t often read speculative fiction but were initially drawn in by the humour, the London history, the well-researched police procedural bits and the diverse cast of interesting characters — and only some of these elements appear in False Value.

It also seems to me that Aaronovitch has lost control of his world-building. He keeps inventing cool bits of magic to throw into his story – talking foxes! humans ageing backwards! carnivorous unicorns controlled by militant time-shifting fae! — without following up on them in any meaningful, consistent way. So, for example, a talking fox appears for a paragraph to remind us of how awesome the concept is, even though this has nothing to do with the plot, then he disappears. Some new American magicians arrive in London, but there’s no reference to the two groups of American magicians introduced in previous books. The tech plot involves a type of magic developed by women, but where are Lady Helena and Caroline, the witches from The Hanging Tree? Aaronovitch is juggling a lot of elements and he keeps dropping them. This book also relies heavily on the reader being familiar with all of Aaronovitch’s novellas, short stories and graphic novels, particularly The Furthest Station, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect novel readers to keep up with all these associated stories (personally, I gave up on the graphic novels after all the gratuitous female nudity in Black Mould).

There is a bigger issue, I think. The first seven books had a long narrative arc involving the Faceless Man, which was mostly resolved in Book Seven, although Lesley remained at large. She doesn’t appear in this book. Are we meant to believe that Peter and the rest of the London police force would just forget about Lesley and move on? Is False Value meant to be the start of a new seven-book arc with a new villain? Is it possible to write a long-running, open-ended series of books while maintaining character development and the quality of the writing — especially when Aaronovitch is concurrently writing graphic novels, novellas and short stories, working on a Rivers of London television series and keeping up with a hectic publicity schedule?

I went back to read some of the earlier books in the series and was struck by how much I enjoyed them. Despite my familiarity with these stories, they felt fresh and funny. I’d encourage you to try the first book if you’re unfamiliar with the series, but I’m sad to say that I won’t be reading any more of Rivers of London. So long, Peter, and thanks for all the fish.

What I’ve Been Reading

Remember how I resolved to spend more time reading books and blogging about them in 2020? Hmm, that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? Other people may have spent lockdown reading War and Peace or the collected works of Anthony Powell or teaching themselves Italian so they could fully appreciate the original manuscript of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I’ve been getting up each morning to go to Day Job, then coming home and collapsing. I work as a hospital administrator in a large, busy public hospital — a job that is stressful and underappreciated at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I should note that I work with some lovely people dedicated to the well-being of their patients and colleagues, and that Australia has so far, through a combination of luck and good governance, avoided the terrible rates of infection, sickness and death that other countries have experienced during the pandemic. I also know how lucky I am to have a job, when so many others are now unemployed. But I’m still tired and stressed and I don’t feel much like reading long, complex books. Also, my library has closed down, so I’ve mostly been re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves. However, I have read a few new-to-me books that I liked.

'The Secret Place' by Tana FrenchI read The Secret Place by Tana French way back in February, in the Before Times, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a suspenseful murder mystery, cleverly plotted with some surprising twists, but along the way, it thoughtfully explores some interesting themes through vivid, authentic characters. The narration alternates between four Dublin schoolgirls and a young, ambitious detective who is investigating a murder in the grounds of their posh boarding school. The intense friendships between the girls felt true to me, although their fate is rather depressing. There is also a supernatural element that didn’t work so well for me. I don’t want to get into spoilery details, but the girls experience something occult and then there’s an outbreak of ghost-sightings in the wider school community. Mass hysteria in a school is believable, but what actually happens in the book isn’t. It’s possible that the author is critiquing Irish superstition and I’m missing some important context. Anyway, this was a riveting read and if my library ever re-opens, I’d like to borrow more of Tana French’s Murder Squad books.

'The Crown' by Robert LaceyI also liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle And The Years That Define Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, which provides a good summary of the actual historical events portrayed in the TV series, The Crown. The author of this book was the historical consultant for the series and he sets out which parts of the script actually happened (or occurred in a less dramatic manner than portrayed on screen). I gave up on the TV series at the end of the first season because the historical inaccuracies were driving me up the wall and I found Prince Philip and Matt Smith deeply irritating, but as Robert Lacey points out, “drama is not the same as documentary”. I would have liked more photos of real events, but there’s a good index and bibliography and I learned some interesting things. For example, did you know that Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and replace him with an unelected ‘Government of National Unity’, headed by Mountbatten himself?

'The Queen' by A.N. WilsonAs a companion read, I picked up The Queen, an eccentric extended essay by A. N. Wilson, a novelist and popular historian who doesn’t let facts get in the way of his opinions (apparently he wrote a scientifically-illiterate biography of Charles Darwin that argued against the theory of evolution). In this book, Wilson asserts that although Queen Elizabeth II is badly educated and dull, her steadiness and respect for tradition have been good for Britain, so hereditary monarchy is a logical and beneficial system of government. He thinks Prince Philip is basically a good egg and that his notorious gaffes are simply due to his tragic childhood; that Princess Anne would make a much better regent than Prince Charles, but at least poor Charles is earnest and well-meaning; and that Prince Andrew and the other young royals are beneath contempt (and this was published in 2016, before the depths of Andrew’s depravity were public knowledge). I can’t say I learned a lot about the British royals, but this was a quick, entertaining read.

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossHowever, the best book I’ve read recently was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. This is an intense, deeply affecting novella in which a history professor, his three students and Bill, a local expert in living off the land, spend a week emulating the lives of Iron Age hunter-gatherers in the north of England. Seventeen-year-old Silvie is dragged along on the field trip by her father Bill, along with Silvie’s long-suffering mother. Bill is a bigot and a bully, tyrannising his wife and daughter, controlling every aspect of their lives, keeping them in line with vicious verbal and physical abuse. He’s not a cartoon villain, though — we see glimpses of his pride in Silvie, it’s clear he’s hard-working and intelligent, and his frustration with his working-class life becomes more understandable when we see how patronising the professor and his students are. But there are no excuses for how Bill and the other men start to behave during the field trip and the tension ratchets up to nearly unbearable levels. I should warn you, this book is really grim in parts, but there’s a hopeful ending. I saw this as a powerful book about domestic violence, but I’ve since read reviews that discuss it in the context of Brexit and the rise of the far right in Britain, and that makes sense, too. It’s about how men use their own versions of British history, which may or may not be based on fact, to justify their oppression of less powerful people. It’s also really beautifully written, despite the dark, confronting themes.

I also read False Value, the latest Rivers of London novel by Ben Aaronovitch, and I’m sorry to say that I found it disappointing and I won’t be continuing to read that series. I’ll do a separate blog post about that if anyone’s interested.

What I Read During My Holidays

Yes, my holidays ended a fortnight ago and I’m only now getting around to blogging about the books I read.

'Lady in Waiting' by Anne GlenconnerLady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner was exactly what the title suggests — a memoir of Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting, who was married to Colin Tennant, one of those badly-behaved rich aristocrats who enjoyed hanging out with celebrities. Tennant had numerous affairs, enjoyed bullying his family, delighted in eccentric behaviour such as pulling off his own underwear and eating it, and spent most of his time throwing enormous ‘uncontrollable’ tantrums in public (yet, oddly enough, he was able to restrain himself in the presence of people more powerful than he was, such as the Queen). Lady Anne coped with his abuse by travelling the world with Princess Margaret and finding a boyfriend of her own. Meanwhile their eldest children were left in the care of various sadistic and incompetent nannies, then sent off to boarding school. Unsurprisingly, their eldest son developed mental health problems. He was a heroin addict by the age of 16, was disinherited by his father, then died of hepatitis. Their second son, unexpectedly finding himself the heir to the family title, dutifully got married and produced a son, then came out as gay, left his wife and died of AIDS. Meanwhile, their third son had been nearly killed in an accident caused by his reckless behaviour and spent years in rehabilitation re-learning how to walk and talk. (There were also twin girls, who were ignored because they were female.) I spent the book alternately despising Anne for being a doormat and feeling desperately sorry for her. It’s a fascinating, appalling look at some very privileged, very repressed British people. Mitford fans will adore this.

'The Weekend' by Charlotte WoodI’d wanted to read The Weekend by Charlotte Wood ever since I heard her speak about the process of writing it a few years ago. This is an engrossing novel about three older women who gather to clear out their dead friend’s holiday house at Christmas. There are a lot of sharp, funny observations about friendship, men, families and ageing, although there’s not much compassion in the author’s gaze. I expected to find the characters unlikeable, which they were, but they were always interesting enough to keep my attention. I can’t say the women and their experiences are ‘typical’ — one is a celebrity chef, one a famous actress and the other a ‘public intellectual’ whose books are international bestsellers. The characters all live in modern-day Sydney and yet everyone in the novel is white and middle-class (with the exception of a young priest who briefly appears at the end and is “Filipino, Wendy thought”). I also never quite understood why the characters remained friends when they seemed to dislike each other so much. However, my main issue with this book was the final chapter, which veers so wildly into melodrama and cliché that it seemed to have been tacked on from an entirely different novel. Book clubs will love this, because there’s so much to discuss.

'The Wych Elm' by Tana FrenchMy favourite holiday read was definitely The Wych Elm by Tana French, a crime thriller with a literary bent that reminded me of the novels Ruth Rendell used to write under her ‘Barbara Vine’ pseudonym. The twists of the murder mystery plot kept me turning the pages eagerly, but this was also an intelligent exploration of privilege, identity and memory. Golden boy Toby is handsome, clever and rich, with a loving, stable family and a devoted, beautiful girlfriend. He begins by saying “I always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person”, but his life changes in an instant when he’s the victim of a violent home invasion. Physically and psychologically damaged, he goes to stay with his dying uncle in the family mansion. And then a body is discovered inside an elm tree in the garden and Toby gradually learns just how privileged his previous life had been… Some fans of this author have complained that this was too slow and a disappointment compared to her earlier crime series set in Dublin. I haven’t read her previous books, but I thought Toby’s rambling, repetitious narration was characteristic of someone recovering from a traumatic brain injury and I tore through the nearly 500 pages in two days. It was a grim read at times, but a satisfying one and I’m keen to read more of this author’s work now. (I was also filled with horrified admiration for someone who could dream up the notion of a dead body in a tree until I discovered that this actually happened and the real-life mystery of Bella in the Wych Elm remains unsolved.)

Finally, two books that ended up being not what I expected or what I really wanted to read, but that’s not the fault of these authors, who have both written thoughtful, well-researched historical novels.

'The Fountains of Silence' by Ruta SepetysThe Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys sounded as though it would be exactly my cup of tea — a novel set in Fascist Spain in the 1950s. The story involves the ‘stolen children’, the tens of thousands of babies stolen from Republican families and other ‘enemies of Spain’, who were sent to orphanages and then adopted by the Spanish political elite and rich foreigners. Ana, from a poor and traumatised Republican family, is working at a hotel in 1957 when she meets Daniel, aspiring photojournalist and son of a Texan oil tycoon. A forbidden romance blossoms, but Daniel doesn’t understand just how repressive, corrupt and dangerous Franco’s regime is. The author’s research is thorough and wide-ranging, the setting is fascinating and I learned a lot about post-war Spain. However, I found the story too soap-opera-ish for my tastes, involving a lot of amazing coincidences and clunky dialogue. I think I would have preferred to read non-fiction about this subject, but I’m sure a lot of readers will find this novel engrossing.

'Exposure' by Helen DunmoreExposure by Helen Dunmore was also very well-researched. Set in England in 1960, the book jacket suggests it’s a fast-paced thriller about Cold War spies. It’s actually an extremely slow-moving account of a British civil servant accused of espionage and the effect of this scandal on his German-born wife and their three young children. There is a lot of fascinating detail about the grimness of English life and while none of the characters are particularly warm or likeable, they are carefully portrayed. It was just a bit of a slog to get through, because nothing very exciting happened until the final chapter. In fact, it ends just where I thought it should have started. I would probably have enjoyed this more if I’d begun the book with more realistic expectations. Note to publishers: write accurate blurbs on your book jackets!

Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy

'Funny Business' by Leonard S Marcus“A joke isn’t a joke if you need to explain it,” says Leonard S. Marcus, who compiled and edited this series of interviews with authors of funny books for children. “Even so, the hidden clockwork of comedy has long been considered one of the great riddles of life.”

When the world is literally on fire, being able to have a laugh now and then may be the only thing stopping us from succumbing to utter despair. I like reading funny books. In fact, all of my favourite books include some form of humour, however dry or subtle it might be. And while I don’t write comedies, my books do have amusing bits in them (or at least, I find them amusing). So I picked up this book at the library, eager to learn more about why and how humour works in books.

Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy includes authors whose work I love and find hilarious (Beverly Cleary, Carl Hiaasen, Hilary McKay, Judy Blume), authors I don’t find funny at all (Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket1, Anne Fine), authors I’ve never heard of (Christopher Paul Curtis, Daniel Pinkwater) and authors I’ve heard of but haven’t gotten around to reading yet (Sharon Creech, Norton Juster). They discuss their childhood experiences with books and writing and comedy, how they write, and what they think about humour in their work and lives.

I was surprised at how many of these authors don’t plan their books before they start writing (or who claim they don’t plan), although nearly all of them discuss how much revision they do and how important reading is for writers. While there isn’t much about the “clockwork” of constructing a joke, there are lots of interesting insights into comedy. Sharon Creech, who has lived in America and Europe, thinks that the need for humour and the impulse to use it is “universal”, but feels that different nationalities have different senses of what is funny (“some being more wry or more subtle or pun-based, for instance”). I think this is true. Australian and British humour is often more self-deprecating than American humour, in my experience. I had an American editor ask me to change a bit in the first Montmaray book, in which my heroine was making fun of herself, because the editor felt this was a sign of low self-esteem and was sad rather than funny. (I also recall another American copy-editor who failed to see any humour in my joke about ‘were-chickens’ during a full moon and who thought that ‘Goat Husbandry for Pleasure and Profit’ was a real book — although that could be an individual-sense-of-humour thing and not an American thing.)

Sharon Creech agrees with Mark Twain about a link between humour and sadness, that humour is stronger when “juxtaposed with sorrow”. Along similar lines, Carl Hiaasen thinks that “even though my books are supposed to make people laugh, they’re serious books”. Meanwhile, Jon Scieszka is convinced that there is “boy humour” and “girl humour”, with broad, slapstick comedy appealing only to boys. Really? (Mind you, Scieszka has five brothers and no sisters and spent all his high school years at a boys-only military academy, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t know what makes girls laugh.) Hilary McKay, like many of the authors interviewed, isn’t exactly sure why her work is funny, but says, “I think if you listen to what people say, exactly as they say it, and write it down, it’s pretty nearly always funny”, especially when it’s children, who are “fairly blunt and fairly direct”.

There’s also lots of general writing advice, ranging from the useless (you must get up at dawn to write for five hours straight, every day of the year, et cetera) to the sensible (read a lot). Carl Hiaasen is full of praise for some of his English teachers but says:

“Teachers can’t give you a voice, and they can’t give you a reason to write. That’s got to come from inside. And you’ve got to become your own toughest critic: brutal, persistent, never satisfied. That’s the only way to get better. You have to have some sort of fire burning inside … There are not a lot of blissfully happy serious novelists.”

Hilary McKay thinks that studying science and working in a chemistry lab helped her writing because she had experience at meeting deadlines and “noticing details”, while Louis Sachar, who loved maths, especially algebra, at school, says his books are “more math- or logic-based than most writing.”

This book includes photos of the authors as adults and children, examples of revised manuscript pages and correspondence with their editors, suggested reading lists of each author’s work and a handy index. There are no Australian writers, either because Leonard Marcus hasn’t read any or because he doesn’t find them funny. (Obviously, Australian writers are hilarious.) I found this book an enjoyable and fascinating read.

  1. I know the Lemony Snicket books are really popular, but I find the humour mean-spirited. Then again, I never really enjoyed Roald Dahl’s books, either.

Check Out These #AuthorsForFireys Auction Items!

#AuthorsForFireys

This week, Australian authors are running an online #AuthorsForFireys auction to raise funds for bushfire emergency services. There are so many amazing items and services and events to bid on. The auction has grown so large that it’s all become a bit overwhelming, so here is a small selection of auction items for you to browse.

Signed Books

Pretty much every Australian author you’ve heard of is offering personally signed books, so if you have a favourite author, search for them on Twitter to see if they’re part of #AuthorsForFireys. Here are some examples:

Simmone Howell
Kate Forsyth
Jaclyn Moriarty and her sisters Liane and Nicola

There are authors outside Australia, too – for example, Bloomsbury Australia is offering a deluxe, illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Writing, Publishing and Research Help

Want some feedback on a manuscript you’ve written? Need assistance applying for a writing grant? Would you love some personal mentoring sessions or would you like a specialist to do some historical research for you? These people all know their stuff:

Penni Russon
Kate Gordon
Pamela Hart
Leanne Hall
Margot McGovern
Kelly Gardiner
Lili Wilkinson
Dervla McTiernan
Sandy Fussell
Eleanor Limprecht
Judith Ridge

Want to name a character in your favourite author’s next book?

Lili Wilkinson
John Birmingham
R. W. R. McDonald
Gabrielle Tozer

Want a poem written especially for you?

Penni Russon
Maxine Beneba Clarke

Art

Have a look at some of the beautiful artwork being offered by Australian book illustrators:

Gabrielle Wang
Kylie Howarth
Jo Renfro
Kelly Canby
Nicki Greenberg

Food!

Clementine Ford is offering to cook dinner for you.
So are David Marr and Benjamin Law.
CakeandMadness will teach you how to make and decorate cakes in Melbourne.
Fiona Wood will take you out to lunch in Melbourne and answer all your questions about writing.

Other awesome stuff

Wouldn’t you love a private viewing of the treasures of the State Library of Victoria?

Or these enamelled pins based on medieval illuminated manuscript illustrations?

Or netball bib bags made to order, with your own personalised 2020 netballstrology chart? Wing Defence rules!

To bid on any of these items, click on the link and reply on the tweet with the amount you’d like to donate to bushfire services. You can find out how the auction works at the #AuthorsForFireys website. There are lots more auction items available – just search Twitter using the #AuthorsForFireys or #authorsforfiries tags.

#AuthorsForFireys

Australia is currently in the middle of a bushfire catastrophe, with horrific destruction of human lives, property and wildlife. Like many Australians, I’ve been watching the news, seeing familiar places being burned to the ground, and feeling very sad, worried and helpless. For those of us not directly involved in rescue and emergency services, the most useful thing we can do right now is to donate money to appropriate organisations.

Emily Gale, Nova Weetman and other Australian authors are running a Twitter-based online auction this week, starting Monday 6th Jan 2020 and ending at 11pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday 11th Jan 2020. All proceeds will go directly to CFA (Country Fire Authority), a volunteer, community-based fire and emergency organisation that’s been fighting bushfires and helping fire-affected residents in Victoria. (International bidders can choose to donate via the Victorian Bushfire Disaster Appeal.)

As part of #AuthorsForFireys, I’m auctioning a signed set of all the books I’ve written – The Rage of Sheep, Dr Huxley’s Bequest and the three Montmaray novels, A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes in Exile and The FitzOsbornes at War. (The photo below shows the Vintage paperback edition of the first Montmaray book and the US hardcovers of the other Montmaray books, but the winning bidder can choose any edition of the Montmaray books they’d like.) I’ll sign each book with a personalised message and include a handwritten thank you letter.

Books for #AuthorsForFireys auction

How does the #AuthorsForFireys auction work? If you’re on Twitter (or you can borrow someone else’s Twitter account), simply reply to my tweet with the amount you’re willing to donate. On Saturday 11th January, I’ll directly message the person who posted the highest bid. The winning bidder will donate that amount directly to CFA and send me proof of the donation. Then I’ll post my package of books to them. I am happy to post to anywhere in the world and the auction allows international bidders.

Here’s a list of Australian Children’s and YA authors taking part in the auction, with links to each author’s Twitter: https://www.facebook.com/groups/the.knack/permalink/499228104059061/. (You don’t need a Facebook account to read it – just click on ‘Comments’ to see the list.)

If you don’t want to be part of the auction, but are looking for some way to help those affected by the Australian bushfires, here are some links to organisations accepting donations:

Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Appeal

NSW Rural Fire Service

WIRES Wildlife Rescue

RSPCA Bushfire Appeal

Thank you!