What I’ve Been Reading: Some Really, Really Annoying Books, Plus One Enjoyable Book

'Black Swan Green' by David MitchellI’m not going to write about the really, really annoying books I’ve just read (even though I have many thoughts about them) because those authors don’t deserve any more publicity. However, I did enjoy Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. This novel, apparently semi-autobiographical, describes a year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason, who lives in a small village in Worcestershire, England in 1982. As Margaret Thatcher revels in the carnage of the Falklands War, Jason concentrates on his own struggle for survival. At home, his father is angry and often absent, his mother is lonely and frustrated, and his sister Julia, an inconstant ally, is about to leave for university. At school, Jason is bullied for being clever, sensitive and worst of all, a stammerer. He spends a great deal of time and energy hiding his true self, engaging in stupid and self-destructive stunts in (mostly futile) attempts to show how “hard” he is. There are innumerable ridiculous rules about how boys in his community need to behave in order to avoid that dreaded label, “gay”. Pretty much anything Jason enjoys in life, including being friends with girls, is “gay” and is punished with social exclusion and outright violence. Even some of his teachers join in with the harassment. Fortunately, Jason is resourceful, gathers up some courage and a few supporters, and manages to engineer some sort of victory by the end.

The novel is supposedly written by clueless thirteen-year-old Jason, although the insights revealed often sound more like an adult narrator looking back on his childhood. At times, I was also irritated by the author’s decision to use a combination of teenage-speak and a very obtrusive form of contractions:

“School corridors’re sort of sinister during classtime. The noisiest spaces’re now the silentest.”

Even worse was when Jason lapsed into poetry:

“Autumn’s fungussy, berries’re manky, leaves’re rusting, V’s of long-distance birds’re crossing the sky, evenings’re smoky, nights’re cold, autumn’s nearly dead.”

But I enjoyed Jason’s thoughts about his development as a writer (“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say ‘When you’re ready.’”). And readers who can remember the 1980s will enjoy all the pop culture references and the jokes (for instance, listening to “that ace song, ‘Olive’s Salami’ by Elvis Costello” and getting a Betamax video recorder because “VHS’s going extinct”). While the plot’s predictable for anyone who’s ever read any Young Adult fiction, Black Swan Green is an entertaining and often moving story – Adrian Mole rewritten as Serious Literature.

My Favourite Books of 2012

Here are the books I read this year that I loved the most.

But first, some statistics!

I read 72 books this year, plus approximately 7,853 articles in scientific journals (this last number may be a slight exaggeration). I’m sure you really, really want to see some pie charts about the books I read, so here you go:

Books I read in 2012 by genre

I read lots more children’s books this year than I usually do.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' nationality

Hmm, that is not very diverse, is it? I only read three books that had been translated into English, too.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' gender

That’s probably typical of my reading habits. It’s not that I deliberately try to read more women writers than men, it simply works out that way most years.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books

'The Word Spy' by Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby RiddleI absolutely loved Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, which I have previously written about here. I also liked Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp by Odo Hirsch, a sweet, charming story about a girl who is inspired to write stories by a mysterious brass lamp she finds in her house. This has many of the usual elements of an Odo Hirsch book (eccentric but benevolent parents, a carefully multicultural cast of characters, a vaguely European setting), but I found Amelia especially endearing and the lessons she learned (that it takes courage to share your thoughts with others; that other people often have complex motivations for their actions; that unchecked anger harms yourself, not just others) were exactly what I needed to think about at the time.
Other books I enjoyed included The Word Spy, an entertaining non-fiction book about the history of the English language, written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Tohby Riddle, and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko, about a boy whose father is a guard at Alcatraz Prison in 1935.

My favourite Young Adult novel

This year I read quite a few YA books that had received plenty of acclaim, but I ended up feeling underwhelmed by a lot of them. I could certainly understand why the books had been praised, but they just weren’t my cup of tea. Sometimes they had beautiful sentence-level writing, but the voice seemed implausible for the teenager who was supposed to be narrating the story. Sometimes they had a great narrator and fascinating premise, but the structure of the novel didn’t work for me. One book I’d seen described as ‘feminist’ was . . . really, really not feminist at all. Maybe my expectations had been raised too high by the hype. Anyway, my favourite YA book of 2012 turned out to be a book first published in 1910, long before the concept of ‘Young Adult literature’ existed. The book was The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson, which I’ve previously written about here.

My favourite novels for adults

'At Last' by Edward St AubynI found At Last by Edward St Aubyn quite as harrowing as I’d expected, but also hopeful and consoling and unexpectedly funny. It’s the fifth in a series of novels about Patrick Melrose, who was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and was then subjected to appalling childhood abuse and neglect by his parents. In this book, Patrick has finally overcome his drug and alcohol addictions and is trying to cope with his marriage breakdown, when his mother dies. The novel is elegantly structured around her funeral, allowing a lot of thoughtful commentary on the nature of death, forgiveness and free will, but also some hilarious descriptions of the idle rich. Patrick’s awful relatives and family friends are mostly ‘old money’ who’ve never worked a day in their lives, but complain constantly about how difficult their existence is. I know this all sounds very grim and this book certainly isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was fascinating and beautifully written.

I also enjoyed Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley and The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which I’ve previously written about here. I’m currently halfway through Restoration by Rose Tremain and loving it, so I suspect this book will make it onto my 2012 favourites list, too.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

I read some terrific biographies this year, including A. A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite and Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. I wrote about both books here. I also enjoyed Alex and Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg, about a very smart parrot.

I will not bore you with my To Read list for 2013, especially as it contains approximately 2,147 scientific articles1 that I didn’t get around to reading this year (this number may be a slight exaggeration).

Hope you all have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and that 2013 brings you lots of great reading.

More favourite books:

1. Favourite Books of 2010
2. Favourite Books of 2011


  1. Yes, it’s research for my next book. The book that was supposed to need far less research than my last book. Ha ha ha.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Six: The Wind in the Willows

1 I recently had occasion to re-read The Wind in the Willows2 by Kenneth Grahame, and realised at once that it would make an excellent addition to my ‘Dated’ Books series. (For the benefit of those new to the series, ‘dated’ means ‘of its time, not ours’. ‘Dated’ books can be offensive to modern sensibilities, or they can be charmingly nostalgic, or they can simply be . . . odd. And some, like The Wind in the Willows, are all of these things.)

I picked up The Wind in the Willows because I’d been asked to read a section of it aloud as part of the National Bookshop Day celebrations3. Although I’d read the book as a child, it hadn’t made much of an impression on me, so I figured I’d better have another look, just in case there were any ‘difficult’ words. Well! Here are some of the words I found in The Wind in the Willows. How many can you correctly pronounce and define, without looking them up in a dictionary?

provender'The Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

While the general meaning of the words could usually be inferred from the context, I had to look up several of the boating-related terms. For example, a ‘caique’, pronounced ‘kah-eek’, is either a rowboat used on the Bosporus or a small Mediterranean sailing ship, while ‘gunwale’, the edge of a boat formerly used to support guns, is pronounced ‘gunnel’. That’s not counting all the French phrases (table d’hôte, en pension), off-hand references to Norse legends (Sigurd) and Old English names of flora and fauna that I came across in the book. Now, imagine an author of today using those words in a manuscript aimed at primary school children, then trying to get the manuscript published. 4 It says something (probably something unflattering) about expectations for child readers these days. I think it also means The Wind in the Willows is more of a read-aloud-to-young-readers book now (although it depends on the particular child, of course – there are some who’d love figuring out the unfamiliar vocabulary for themselves).

The second thing I noticed about the book is how uneven it is, regarding tone and pace. There are a number of funny, exciting chapters involving Toad’s misadventures, in which he steals a car, insults a policeman, escapes from prison, hitches a ride on a steam train, gets tossed into a canal, steals a horse and finally makes his way home, only to find that his mansion has been invaded by weasels. There’s also the thrilling tale of Mole and Ratty getting lost in the Wild Wood during a snowstorm. Fortunately, Mole trips over a door-scraper hidden under the snow, although he fails to understand the significance of this:

“‘But don’t you see what it MEANS, you—you dull-witted animal?’ cried the Rat impatiently.

‘Of course I see what it means,’ replied the Mole. ‘It simply means that some VERY careless and forgetful person has left his door-scraper lying about in the middle of the Wild Wood, JUST where it’s SURE to trip EVERYBODY up. Very thoughtless of him, I call it. When I get home I shall go and complain about it to—to somebody or other, see if I don’t!’

‘O, dear! O, dear!’ cried the Rat, in despair at his obtuseness. ‘Here, stop arguing and come and scrape!’ And he set to work again and made the snow fly in all directions around him.

After some further toil his efforts were rewarded, and a very shabby door-mat lay exposed to view.

‘There, what did I tell you?’ exclaimed the Rat in great triumph.

‘Absolutely nothing whatever,’ replied the Mole, with perfect truthfulness. ‘Well now,’ he went on, ‘you seem to have found another piece of domestic litter, done for and thrown away, and I suppose you’re perfectly happy. Better go ahead and dance your jig round that if you’ve got to, and get it over, and then perhaps we can go on and not waste any more time over rubbish-heaps. Can we EAT a doormat? Or sleep under a door-mat? Or sit on a door-mat and sledge home over the snow on it, you exasperating rodent?’

‘Do—you—mean—to—say,’ cried the excited Rat, ‘that this door-mat doesn’t TELL you anything?’

‘Really, Rat,’ said the Mole, quite pettishly, ‘I think we’d had enough of this folly. Who ever heard of a door-mat TELLING anyone anything? They simply don’t do it. They are not that sort at all. Door-mats know their place.'”

But then, interspersed with the humour and excitement of these adventures, are entire chapters wallowing in cloying Victorian sentimentality. Most of these are Romantic odes to Nature:

“‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew […] All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.”

Can you believe these two excerpts are about the same characters and come from the same book? And then, directly after Rat and Mole’s trembling glimpse of The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, we return to Toad escaping from prison, disguised as a washerwoman. Still, this might not count as evidence of the book’s datedness – it’s possibly just a sign of Kenneth Grahame’s eccentricity.

One definite sign of both datedness and the author’s oddness is the book’s attitude to girls and women. Not one of the animal characters – Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger, Otter, Portly, the Wayfarer Rat or the Chief Weasel – is female. When baby Portly goes missing, it’s his father, not his mother, who frets about him, searches for him and keeps a lonely vigil at the ford waiting for his return. The only female characters with speaking roles are the gaoler’s daughter (described as “a pleasant wench”) and an unnamed barge-woman (described by Toad as a “common, low, FAT barge-woman”). When other females are mentioned, it’s always with contempt. Toad’s friends try to get him to give up his dangerous motoring escapades by warning him that he could end up “in hospital, being ordered about by female nurses”. Then there’s this charming exchange between Toad and the barge-woman:

“‘But you know what GIRLS are, ma’am! Nasty little hussies, that’s what I call ’em!’

‘So do I, too,’ said the barge-woman with great heartiness. ‘But I dare say you set yours to rights, the idle trollops!'”

Oh, dear. Apparently, when Kenneth Grahame “sent the manuscript off to his agent, he told him proudly that it was ‘clean of the clash of sex’.”5 By ‘the clash of sex’, I assume he meant ‘any positive references to girls or women’. Still, you have to feel sorry for the man, because he had a very troubled life. His mother died when he was five, his father proceeded to drink himself to death, and his guardians refused to send him to Oxford, ordering him instead to work at the Bank of England, where he was shot at by a ‘Socialist Lunatic’. Fortunately, all the bullets missed, but Grahame retired to the country soon after this to live in “a loveless marriage with a hysterical hypochondriac” and look after their disturbed young son, Alastair. One of Alastair’s favourite games involved “lying down in the road in front of approaching cars and forcing them to stop”, and he eventually killed himself at the age of nineteen by lying in front of a train. It was no wonder Kenneth Grahame wanted to escape into a world where animals lived in snug little houses by a river bank and spent all their time “messing about on boats” and having delightful picnics.

Despite the difficulties I had with this book, I am curious about this annotated volume, edited by Seth Lerer (if only because it features those lovely original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard).

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


  1. I have finally learned how to do proper footnotes in WordPress. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
  2. Now available in a new Vintage Classics edition.
  3. at Shearer’s Bookshop in Norton Street, Leichhardt, which now has a large selection of my signed books.
  4. I write for teenagers, not children, but still had a minor editorial skirmish over ‘enervating’. It appears in the Australian edition of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, but was replaced with ‘tiring’ in the North American edition.
  5. All the biographical quotes in this paragraph are from this fascinating article by John Preston, entitled Kenneth Grahame: Lost in the Wild Wood.

Alex and Me by Irene M. Pepperberg

'Alex and Me' by Irene M. PepperbergI love birds, and science, and books, so how could I not love a book about a talking bird, written by the scientist who raised him? Alex and Me is a touching, funny account of a scientist who trained an African Grey parrot to talk, in order to gather information about bird cognition and language. Alex learned how to label colours, materials and objects, knew ‘same’ versus ‘different’, was able to construct original phrases from words he’d been taught, could count to six and possibly add numbers, and even taught himself to segment words into phonemes, after being taught how to link English speech sounds to plastic letters. He played jokes on his trainers, loved to dance and be tickled, and said ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Calm down’ during tense situations after watching people in the lab use these phrases. The book is full of entertaining Alex anecdotes – for example, he once ordered a toy parrot, ‘You tickle!’ and then, when the toy failed to respond, said, ‘You turkey!’ and stalked off in a huff. When recuperating at the vet’s after an operation, he wanted to talk to everyone he saw, including the accountant who was working late one night:

“‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
‘No, Alex.’
He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally Alex became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

I must admit that Dr Pepperberg is not the world’s greatest writer, and this book would have benefitted from further editing. I really didn’t need to know the details of the author’s childhood or her early studies, for example, and I would have liked more information about how Alex produced human-like sounds when he didn’t have lips or teeth. I’d also have loved some photos of Alex (although I later found a film clip of him in action). Another issue, barely alluded to in the book, is how captivity affected Alex’s life. His beak, claws and wings were clipped when he was young, and he never had the chance to fly, to sit in a tree or to mate with another parrot. Dr Pepperberg had difficulties securing permanent research funding, and the constant moves around the country made Alex so stressed that at times, he pulled his own feathers out. I’d like to think that a similar research project nowadays would show greater concern for the bird’s welfare, although it’s clear from the book that Dr Pepperberg and Alex had a strong, affectionate bond and that she was devastated by his relatively early death at the age of thirty-one.

One thing that surprised me was how resistant many scientists were to Dr Pepperberg’s theories (and evidence) about animal cognition and language, with many refusing to accept that animals could actually use ‘language’. Some continue to believe that Alex was merely repeating the sounds he heard without any understanding of their meaning, and that his intelligent behaviour was simply a ‘Clever Hans’ effect, with Alex responding to cues from his handlers during testing. This seems highly unlikely to me – the research was carefully planned to control for the ‘Clever Hans’ effect by using multiple trainers and testers. Anyway, Alex repeatedly demonstrated complex, novel, situation-specific behaviours that could not have been prompted by his handlers. But perhaps some scientists feel threatened by the notion that animals other than themselves are capable of intelligent behaviour, of using language – of even, perhaps, experiencing human-like emotions.

I’ve never met an African Grey parrot, but I’ve spent the past decade watching the wild rainbow lorikeets that hang out on my apartment balcony and they use language. Rainbow lorikeets don’t imitate human sounds, but are capable of ‘almost continuous screeching and chattering’, as Jim Flegg’s Birds of Australia says. They make happy, murmuring sounds when they’re feeding or grooming each other; enquiring calls if their mate is out of sight, rising in intensity if the other bird doesn’t respond immediately; sharp, angry sounds when another bird muscles in on their territory; and inquisitive, chirruping sounds at me if I’m watering my balcony plants or appear to be eating something they might like. When baby rainbow lorikeets want their parents’ attention (which is pretty much all the time), they make a noise like bits of styrofoam rubbing against each other, and the harassed parents respond as quickly as they can. Isn’t that ‘using language’? But I think they go even further in human-like behaviours than simply using language.

One morning last year, I was awakened by the sound of some rainbow lorikeets screeching with distress outside my window. I went out to investigate, assuming they were being harassed by currawongs, and found a dead adult lorikeet lying on my balcony. It showed no obvious signs of injury or disease – the poor thing had simply died. Two lorikeets were sitting on the balcony railing, looking down at the dead bird and screeching, but they fell silent when they saw me and climbed down the railings to have a closer look. One of them started grooming the feathers around the dead bird’s face; the other took hold of the dead bird’s claw and gave it a couple of tugs, as if to urge it to wake up. The two birds climbed back up onto the railings to watch while I took the body away, and then flew to a nearby tree branch, where they sat for twenty minutes gazing at the spot where the dead bird had been. Did they feel sad? Or confused? It’s impossible to tell, but they were certainly unsettled by what they’d seen – and this was an adult bird that had died, not their baby.

As I don’t have any photos of Alex, here are some photos of rainbow lorikeets. First, a rainbow lorikeet eating a grape:

Rainbow lorikeet

And a group of rainbow lorikeets hanging out on my balcony:

Lorikeets on balcony

And finally, rainbow lorikeets take flight:

Rainbow lorikeets take flight

Love In A Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy MitfordI love this book. It’s a masterpiece of social comedy and it deserves to be more widely read, so that’s why I’ve decided to rave about it today. Imagine Pride and Prejudice set in the 1930s, and you’ll have some idea of the plot. Not that it’s really about the plot – which, for the record, involves posh English girls attempting to find suitable husbands. The real joy of this novel lies in the characters, particularly Lady Montdore, the wildly ambitious mother of beautiful Polly, who is ‘destined for an exceptional marriage’. Lady Montdore is a monster – self-centred, snobbish, bossy, greedy, completely deluded as to her value in the world – but she’s a very entertaining monster. She provides the author with numerous opportunities to send up the English aristocracy, as in this scene, when Lady Montdore berates our poor narrator, Fanny, the wife of a professor:

“‘You know, Fanny,’ she went on, ‘it’s all very well for funny little people like you to read books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter . . . It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring, but occasionally we have our reward – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance, when we came back from India and the dear villagers pulled our motor car up the drive. Really touching! Now all you intellectual people never have moments like that.'”

Of course, things don’t go to plan, and Polly rebels in a manner calculated to drive her mother mad. This sets the scene for the introduction of another wonderful character, Cedric, the heir to the Montdore fortune. It was unusual enough in 1949 (the year the book was first published) for a novel to mention homosexuality, but it was revolutionary to have a happy and openly gay character who charms nearly everyone he meets. He even manages to dazzle the Boreleys, a family notorious for its intolerance:

“‘Well, so then Norma was full of you, just now, when I met her out shopping, because it seems you travelled down from London with her brother Jock yesterday, and now he can literally think of nothing else.’

‘Oh, how exciting. How did he know it was me?’

‘Lots of ways. The goggles, the piping, your name on your luggage. There is nothing anonymous about you, Cedric . . . He says you gave him hypnotic stares through your glasses.’

‘The thing is, he did have rather a pretty tweed on.’

‘And then, apparently, you made him get your suitcase off the rack at Oxford, saying you are not allowed to lift heavy things.’

‘No, and nor am I. It was very heavy, not a sign of a porter as usual, I might have hurt myself. Anyway, it was all right because he terribly sweetly got it down for me.’

‘Yes, and now he’s simply furious that he did. He says you hypnotised him.’

‘Oh, poor him, I do so know the feeling.'”

Then there are Fanny’s eccentric relatives – her wild Uncle Matthew, vague Aunt Sadie, hypochondriacal stepfather Davey, and exuberant little Radlett cousins – with many of these characters inspired by Nancy Mitford’s real family. In addition, the author provides a wickedly funny look at English politics, fashion, marriage and child rearing.

'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Love in a Cold Climate' by Nancy MitfordLove in a Cold Climate is actually the second book narrated by Fanny. The first, The Pursuit of Love, was published in 1945. I hesitate to call it a prequel, because that would suggest you need to read it first, and I don’t think you do. It stretches over a longer time period, and is mostly the story of Fanny’s cousin and best friend, Linda (Lady Montdore, Polly and Cedric don’t make an appearance in this one, unfortunately). Some readers prefer this first book to the second, but I think it really depends on whether you regard Linda as a tragic romantic heroine or a spoiled, self-centred brat. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m in the latter camp (I really can’t forgive Linda’s treatment of her hapless daughter). I also think this book ends too abruptly – as though the author suddenly got tired of typing. However, there’s a lot of enjoyment in the descriptions of the Radlett family, so if you adore Love in a Cold Climate, you’ll probably like The Pursuit of Love as well. There’s also a BBC television series based on both books, but I haven’t seen it (and it doesn’t appear to be available in Australia).

I’ve previously written about one of Nancy Mitford’s earlier novels, Wigs on the Green (1935), which is interesting for historical and political reasons, but doesn’t have much literary merit. I cannot recommend The Blessing (1951) at all, because it’s awful. However, it and Don’t Tell Alfred (1960) have recently been re-released with lovely illustrated covers.

'Noblesse Oblige' edited by Nancy MitfordI can recommend Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, a biased but very entertaining collection of essays and cartoons about ‘Upper-Class English Usage’, edited by Nancy Mitford and including contributions from Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman. Laura Thompson has also written a biography of Nancy Mitford called Life in a Cold Climate, which discusses all her books and the influences for her novels.

See also: Meet The Mitfords

More favourite 1930s/1940s British novels:

1. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault

‘Dated’ Books, Part Four: Police at the Funeral

When I read books written in the past, I try to keep in mind LP Hartley’s idea that:

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

That’s what makes visiting those books so interesting. I can’t help noticing the characters’ (or the author’s) different attitudes to race, gender and social class, among other things, but I don’t tend to get annoyed about the attitudes.

Except when I’m reading a Margery Allingham book.

Right, so my friend H, who shares my love of 1930s British literature, recently acquired some of Allingham’s crime novels. H loved them. I just had to read them, she informed me, because they were so charming and funny. She said she’d send me two of the best ones, although she did warn me that they were “totally politically incorrect”. This turned out to be the understatement of the decade.

'Police at the Funeral' by Margery AllinghamPolice at the Funeral, the first Allingham book I read, is actually the fourth in a series featuring Albert Campion, gentleman private investigator. It was first published in 1931, although the edition I read was published in 1965. Apparently Campion is meant to be either a spoof of, or a homage to, Lord Peter Wimsey, and certainly both of these characters are aristocratic, independently wealthy, clever, skilled in martial arts and the use of various weapons, and able to solve the most puzzling mysteries using the tiniest and most ambiguous of clues. In Police at the Funeral, Campion is summoned to Cambridge by an old friend, whose fiancée’s family has been involved in what appears to be a murder. The ancient family matriarch wishes to avoid any hint of scandal and asks Campion to do what he can to solve the crime, or at least, cover it up. Pretty soon, family members are dropping like flies, getting killed in various bizarre ways, and Campion is the only one who can save the family from extinction, or even worse, social disgrace!

This leads to the first way in which this book is dated. I know the British class system continues to exist in the twenty-first century, but thank Heavens it’s not as bad as it used to be. Almost all of the characters in this book accept that their position in life is due to the social class into which their parents were born, and that this is how it always has been, and always should be. (The sole exception to this is one of the villains, who comes to the violent end he ‘deserves’.) In this book, working-class characters are consistently depicted as either ugly and violent; ugly and stupid; or ugly but amusingly foolish. In fact, Campion, supposedly the smartest person in the book, firmly rules out the notion that any of the servants of the household could have been involved in the murders. Only someone from the middle or upper classes would have the brains to plan a crime, you see.

But it’s not just the working classes who are stupid and unlikeable. There are also the (upper-middle class) women, who are all either hysterical, shrewish or insane. There is one female university student who seems reasonably sensible, but she doesn’t do much except help her friend each time the friend faints (which is quite often). It’s also firmly stated that this sensible character is not “conventionally beautiful” and that her manners are “startlingly American”. Oh well, that explains it, then.

The worst, though, has to be the attitudes towards race. Remember that recent debate in the United States about banning Huckleberry Finn because it contained a certain word no longer used in polite society? Well, that word is used casually by the characters in this book. I thought that was as bad as it would get as far as ‘political incorrectness’ went, but then a body was discovered by an “Indian student”. I cringed, anticipating the student’s interview with Campion, but in fact, it could have been worse. The student is described as:

“not an attractive person. He seemed to have embraced European culture with a somewhat indiscriminate zeal . . . He was full of his own importance . . . [and had] a gleam of childlike pride in his eyes.”

The reader is meant to be amused by the student, but he does turn out to be an observant and intelligent witness whose descriptions of the crime scene are invaluable to Campion. No, the worst is yet to come, when Great-Aunt Caroline explains why a particular character has been blackmailing her family. As the following is, a) a mild plot spoiler, and b) appallingly racist, I’ve hidden the text. If you’d like to read on, highlight it with your mouse or click ‘Select All’ in your browser:

It turns out Caroline’s husband had a nephew who was

“shipped off to the colonies [that is, Australia] many years ago. He returned with a certain amount of a money and a wife . . . She was a peculiar-looking woman and of a very definite type . . . They had a child, a girl, and when that child was born the rumours that had been rife about the mother were proved beyond a doubt. By some horrible machination of heredity the stain in the woman’s blood had come out . . . The child was a blackamoor . . . They left, of course, and the disgraceful business was hushed up. But to my own and to my husband’s horror, although the first child died, these criminal people had a second. That child was George.”

Even worse, George is “not in the least ashamed” of his “half-caste blood”!

It wouldn’t be so bad if Campion, the hero of the story, thought or acted in any way that showed he disagreed with Caroline’s attitudes. But no, he feels “honoured” that she has confided this family secret to him, looks at her “admiringly”, tells her she’s the “cleverest woman he’s ever met”, and ends the book by describing her as “very beautiful”.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a “colonial” with “half-caste blood”, but this is one of the few scenes I’ve read in recent years where my jaw has actually dropped, and I’ve thought, “How could she write this? How could they publish this? ARRGHH!”

Leaving apart the classism, sexism and racism of this book, I still had difficulties with it. It has one of those convoluted plots that hinge on a series of implausible coincidences. Whenever something illogical happens, it’s due to the murderer being insane. Still, the plot’s no worse than most of Agatha Christie’s novels, and Margery Allingham does have a sense of humour. I particularly liked the dignified dog who insists on shaking hands with Campion, and the ‘mermaid skeleton’ that Campion unwillingly acquires as a reward for his endeavours. The characters may be annoying, but some thought has gone into making them rounded and interesting. Fans of 1930s murder mysteries may well enjoy this, even if I didn’t. For example, this reader felt that the book was “extremely well-written”, although he acknowledges that Allingham is an “acquired taste”.

I must also add that I later read Allingham’s Mystery Mile, the first in the Campion series, for comparison purposes. There was still a bit of racism and classism, but I enjoyed this book far more, perhaps because there was more humour, a more interesting and plausible mystery, and a greater opportunity to get to know Campion and his factotum, Lugg. On the whole, though, I don’t think I’ll be actively searching for more Allingham books. Sorry, H.

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

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

I’ve spent most of this year reading depressing non-fiction about the Second World War, but after I handed Montmaray Three over to my publisher, I gave myself permission to read anything I wanted. Something fun! So I decided to read a book about punctuation.

I heard a lot about this book when it first came out, but the author came across as kind of bitter and humourless in interviews, so I thought I’d give the book a miss. Readers, I was totally wrong. Not only is this book hilarious, it could have been written specifically for me. As Lynne Truss says, it is a book for punctuation sticklers:

“Part of one’s despair, of course, is that the world cares nothing for the little shocks endured by the sensitive stickler. While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation . . . No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to ‘get a life’ by people who, interestingly, display no evidence of having lives themselves.”

'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' by Lynne TrussMs Truss is the sort of person who stands outside cinemas “with a cut-out apostrophe on a stick” in order to demonstrate how to punctuate the film title Two Weeks Notice. However, she readily acknowledges that the rules of punctuation are complex, that rules vary between nations (and even between publishers) and that one stickler’s pet hate might not be shared by another stickler. She is not a pedant. She loves punctuation because it helps us understand what we’re reading, and she hates punctuation errors because they cause confusion. For example, look at how punctuation alters the meaning of these two sentences:

“A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

She claims the book is not a punctuation guide, but it does provide clear instruction in how to use apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation marks and other forms of punctuation. I particularly liked her discussion of the comma, which demonstrates her pragmatic approach to punctuation:

“See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken . . . My own feeling is that one shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.”

[Evidence for the passion the Oxford comma evokes can be found in this post at Bookshelves of Doom. And don’t you love that American commenter who chose to study at a British university, then was outraged that the British professors wanted her to use British punctuation? The nerve of them!]

Eats, Shoots and Leaves also contains some fascinating historical facts about punctuation, and an interesting discussion of the future of punctuation in a world of e-mails and texting. My only criticisms of the book are minor. Firstly, it lacks an index. I think it ought to be compulsory for all non-fiction books to have an index. (Actually, it would be quite nice if fiction books had them, too, so that I could go straight to my favourite bits when re-reading a novel. I can see that constructing an index for a novel could be rather difficult in practice, though.) Secondly (and this isn’t the author’s fault), the edition I read was written in 2003 for a British readership, so it was not completely relevant for this Australian punctuation stickler. Nevertheless, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a terrific read and I heartily recommend it for fellow sticklers.

The Kitchen Front, Part Two: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam . . .

I’d been intending to do another Kitchen Front post for a while, but sadly, my attempts at authentic 1940s meals have not been a success. The vegetable part has been easy – I like vegetables – although I must admit, quite a lot of British recipes of the time seem to involve boiling the poor things to death, then smothering them in a margarine-based white sauce.

No, the problem has been meat. Meat was rationed during the war, of course, but what made it tricky for me was that it was rationed by price, not weight. Each adult was allowed one shilling and ten pence worth of meat each week, although this had fallen to one shilling’s worth by 1941 (while food prices had soared). I think this would have bought a couple of chops or about twelve ounces (340 g) of mince or stewing beef. That doesn’t seem so bad to me (it’s as much meat as I’d usually eat in a week), but I had to remember that in pre-war Britain, families who could afford it ate meat at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It must have been a real hardship for them, trying to adapt to rations. I should add that bacon and ham were rationed separately, with the total amount ranging from eight ounces (225 g) to four ounces per week. Poultry, fish and rabbit weren’t rationed, but were difficult to obtain, unless you were lucky enough to live on a farm in the country.

SPAMGiven these restrictions, it’s no wonder the British welcomed the first shipments of SPAM® after the signing of the Lend Lease agreement with the United States in 1941. I thought I’d try it out myself, and purchased a tin from my local supermarket. I’d read that it could be used straight from the tin to make tasty sandwiches, so I put a few slices of it on wholemeal bread with margarine, mustard and lettuce. Readers – do not try this at home. It was like eating a very salty piece of pink sponge – and I’d bought the salt-reduced version. But perhaps I’d put too much SPAM® on my sandwich. My next experiment involved dicing it and adding it to a hash of potato, cauliflower, spinach and whatever other vegetables I could find in my fridge. This was better, although I don’t think the SPAM® contributed much to the dish. I still had a third of a tin of SPAM® left, so in desperation, I added small cubes of it to a stir-fry of bok choy and rice noodles. This was quite nice, the little pieces of SPAM® providing some salty, fatty goodness to an otherwise healthy meal. However, it wasn’t exactly an authentic 1940s British dinner. Bok choy would have been unknown to most British diners, and rice was in extremely short supply, due to the British not being able to import it from Asia, especially after the Japanese entered the war. In fact, I read about one Chinese restaurant in London that chopped up spaghetti to make ‘rice’.

Still, if I’d been living in England during the war, I probably would have eaten SPAM® and liked it – although I think I might have been tempted to become a vegetarian and exchange my meat ration for cheese.

And speaking of spam, why does my blog attract such weird examples of it? I don’t mean the usual offers to increase the size of my (nonexistent) penis or make me a millionaire in thirty days. I’m talking about the spam comments that seem to have been translated through several languages by someone with very little understanding of any language, let alone English. For example:

“Out! Gone. And I maid the, misconstrue the bus, the close halfwit!
Clara Hyummel kicked in spleen nor innocent stool. My sinfulness, Alya, overlooked! Underestimated.”


“All the in in the terra won’t mutate the at one’s fingertips’s awareness of him as a scant Napoleon with a eminent mouth.”

I know it’s usually generated by a computer, but it’s hilarious how even the relatively coherent ones manage to be completely unrelated to the blog post on which they are ‘commenting’. For example, this appeared on my blog post about fan mail:

“my partner and i love this specific, where can I receive much more home elevators this particular topic?”

(And it wasn’t even advertising ‘home elevators’ – the link in the address looked like a site that sold Windows-related software.)

And this was a response to my post about my favourite fictional girls:

“I have to say that I thought this piece was very profound . . . It has shown me a new insight in to my research about current government policy.”

Of course, most spam is far more creative when it comes to English grammar:

“I firm next to way of this blog ask for up and it is really incredible.I patently genuinely enjoy your website.Perfectly, the chunk of posting is in pledge the very finest on this genuinely worth even though subject.”

However, my award for Spam of the Month has to go to this spammer (advertising a real estate agent), who posted the following comment to my blog:

“Im completely fed up with this, in the event you spam my internet site or even blog site 1 more point in time I am going to expose you!”

Even the manufacturers of SPAM® are fed up with spam. Thank goodness for Akismet spam filtering service.

How To Write A Novel

The Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald has been running “a series about how to write”, which I have been reading with increasing irritation. First there was Sue Woolfe, who stated that anyone can write a novel, provided they “don’t stick to a subject, a character or, worst of all, a plot”. Her advice is not to read what you’ve written until you have a hundred thousand words “about anything”, whereupon you add “some narrative techniques and suspense” and, voila, “you’ll have the novel you knew you could write”! Oh, and you mustn’t use a computer – that’s death to creativity.

Then there was Debra Adelaide, who insisted on “total extermination” of adverbs. She isn’t keen on adjectives, either – they’re the “cockroaches of prose”.

MERCIFULLY (I intend to saturate this post with adverbs), most of the other articles in this series have been wiped from my memory, but they were EQUALLY ANNOYING.

Phyllis BnF Francais 874, Folio 11v
The author resolutely ignores all those urging her to delete her adverbs
Here’s why they annoyed me. They imply that all you have to do to write a good novel is to follow a set of simple rules that apply to all writers and all situations. I agree that a writer needs to know about grammar. However, blanket statements, such as “Adverbs are evil”, make me bristle. Yes, deleting all the adverbs in your prose may make it sound cleaner and more contemporary. But if you’re writing a series about, say, posh British people in the 1930s, your prose (and especially your dialogue) will sound inauthentic if you delete all the adverbs. I’ve studied English grammar and I think about it constantly as I write. But sometimes I start my sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions – because that’s what works in a novel written in the first person, narrated by a teenage girl. Every writing project – and every writer – is unique. Some writers need to do detailed planning before they begin a first draft; other writers work best by jumping into the project feet first. Some people find it efficient to edit as they write; others find this slows their writing down. Telling writers that there is ONLY ONE TRUE WAY TO WRITE A NOVEL is wrong and silly. Writing is not brain surgery. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you’re not going to kill anyone. Just press ‘delete’ ON YOUR COMPUTER and try again.

FORTUNATELY, Gabrielle Carey restored some sanity to the series in today’s Herald by saying:

“There are many things one can get out of a writing class: advice on character, structure, grammar and punctuation. But that leap into the creative realm is something you can only do on your own.”

EXACTLY! She also talks about teaching creative writing to rich, successful adults, who, having achieved all their other goals in life, decide they’re going to bang out a novel:

“They pay exorbitant prices for creative writing classes but by the end they often come up to me and say, ‘Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve learnt a lot. But I’ve realised it’s just too hard. I’m going back to law.'”

It’s true, writing a novel can be hard work. It takes concentration, good language skills, persistence, an ability to exist on limited sleep and funds – plus a mysterious, amorphous element called ‘creativity’. It’s tempting to try to get around all this by persuading an author to surrender what Ms Carey laughingly calls “some secret code or some magic advice”. But I agree with her – there ISN’T a secret code.

Of course, I’ve never actually done a creative writing course, so what would I know? Group instruction for a solitary pursuit like writing just isn’t my thing, but I’m sure some writing courses are great, especially the ones that take place over a long period of time, have a small number of students, focus on a particular type of writing (say, ‘writing a short story’ or ‘writing fiction for children’) and are taught by someone with both writing and teaching expertise. You don’t need to do a creative writing course to become a published novelist, but if you like the sound of a particular course and can afford it, why not?

What I can recommend from personal experience is working with a mentor. A mentorship is for writers who’ve committed themselves to hard work – who’ve sat down and written a draft (or several drafts) of a novel and realised they need help with the next stage. Mentors can give specific advice on your manuscript, once they’ve talked with you about what you want to achieve. Some of them also know agents and publishers, which is useful if you feel your novel is complete and you’d like to try to get it published. Your local writers’ centre may have a mentorship program, and free mentorships are awarded each year by the Australian Society of Authors and the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

Of course, you don’t need a mentor to become a published writer. You don’t need a literary agent, either – at least, you don’t if you live in Australia. But that discussion is probably best left for another post.

‘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