‘End of Term’, Part Four

Chapter Five: Half-Term at Trennels

There is a lot going on in this chapter. So, first, the Kingscote girls have a Christmas play rehearsal in the Minster, and during a break, Nicola has a chat with Jess Geddes, the nice-but-untalented actress playing the Shepherd Boy. She too thinks the casting is bonkers, especially now it’s being held in the Minster with outsiders coming to watch, saying “I don’t see it’s so very reverent, not to have it done the very best we can.”

Nicola is a bit embarrassed that Jess is talking about religion (it’s bad enough they’re in a church), but excuses it on the grounds of Jess being Scottish, rather than “pagan English” like the rest of them. Then they discover a bird, possibly a falcon, carved into a pillar in an out-of-the-way place and wonder why someone would have carved a presumably non-Biblical bird where no one could see. Nicola ventures that perhaps it was “just for fun” and she contemplates how religion was different in medieval times: “I read once about a jester who turned somersaults in front of a statue of the Virgin because it was the thing he could do best.” Although she’s careful to say ‘thing’ rather than ‘gift’ or ‘offering’ because those words would be “priggish”.

Then half-term arrives. Poor Esther has to stay at school rather than going home to see Daks, because her hopeless mother messed up the dates, but everyone else is going home, even Tim. Rowan, looking very grown-up with lipstick, comes to collect the Marlow sisters, but first Nicola and Sprog meet Dr Herrick, who asks if Sprog can be part of the play, carried by one of the Kings. Nicola thinks this will be lovely for Sprog and also for the Minster, having a hawk inside again, because surely in medieval times, “when people believed properly”, they brought their hawks to church.

Dr Herrick, in a fairly blatant intrusion of Authorial Voice, is amused by her ignorance and corrects her, saying there are people now who “believe properly”, “without reservation”. Nicola later thinks that Dr Herrick and Ann are among these people, but didn’t people talk about “science having made everything different”? Nicola wishes she could ask Giles because he was a sensible person who’d “know what was true and what wasn’t”. (Ha ha, imagine thinking Giles the source of eternal wisdom!)

Meanwhile, Miss Craven has bailed up Rowan to ask what’s going on with Nicola. (She’s not in the netball team, Craven! Because you chose to exclude her!) Rowan and Nicola then realise Evil Lois was behind it, but Nicola makes Rowan promise not to say anything to Miss Craven. Rowan reluctantly agrees, worried that Nicola will end up “like Jan Scott and always passed over”. It turns out there was a “terrific scandal” in Upper Fourth when Jan was told to volunteer for some weeding duties and Jan said if it was voluntary, then she was choosing not to. So she was labelled Uncooperative Type and written off forever (except they made her a prefect, so not really). No wonder Miranda has a crush on Janice.

It is revealed Rowan is having a tough time on the farm, having spent six weeks milking cows and “clamping mangolds”. I had no idea what a mangold was, so I looked it up and it’s mangel-wurzel, a type of beet used to feed livestock. I don’t know why they need clamping, but it sounds like something from Cold Comfort Farm. Next thing we know, Rowan will be pushing people down the well and obsessively counting chicken feathers. In the meantime, she’s driving her sisters home even though she’s too young to have a driving licence (but quite old enough to run a farm, according to her parents), hence the lipstick, in case she gets stopped by a policeman.

The big news is that Grandmother (the French widow/possible Nazi collaborator) is staying till New Year and is making everyone miserable, especially their mother, especially as Mrs Bertie the housekeeper has the flu and Mrs Marlow can’t cook. Also, Grandmother is a devout Catholic, which has somehow escaped their notice till now, and she is demanding to be taken to Mass on Sunday. Nicola doesn’t help matters by getting knocked over by the dog as soon as she walks inside, letting Sprog fly up to the candelabra. Fortunately, Patrick arrives and helps to recapture Sprog and even more fortunately, he turns out to be Catholic. And they hear Mass at his house each Sunday, because the Merrick family are such old, important Catholics! (How come the Catholic Mrs Merrick only has one child, while the only-vaguely-Anglican Mrs Marlow has eight? Maybe poor Mrs Merrick had lots of miscarriages or Patrick had some stillborn siblings? Unless she saw how Patrick was turning out and decided that one child was more than enough?) But Patrick is actually polite and helpful here, so maybe being back at school is doing his character some good.

The other revelation is that Mrs Marlow remarks in passing that she had four brothers who were all killed in the First World War, which is news to Nicola. Does this family ever talk about anything important?! Surely there would have been family photographs or it would have come up somehow in the past thirteen years? Mrs Marlow said her mother was always strict with her and Aunt Molly, but “it was different for the boys, of course”. And Nicola notes that Grandmother is polite to Patrick and is always much nicer to Giles and Peter than to the sisters:

“Perhaps she liked boys better than girls. So, come to that, did Nicola.”

AARRGGH! I know poor Nicola is being brought up by a domineering father and doormat mother, in a family where the girls are expected to sacrifice any hope of a career to make the men’s lives easier, but I really hope Kingscote at least teaches her that girls can be as clever, interesting and worthwhile as boys.

At tea, Lawrie again demonstrates her (limited) understanding of theology, when Grandmother mentions a portrait of Our Lady painted by St Luke. Lawrie is confused as to how a non-existent person can paint another non-existent person (“like saying that a statue of Athene was done by Jupiter”). It turns out Lawrie hasn’t really been listening in church, but anyway, “I never thought I was supposed to think it was real.” Ann says that there’s a Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem so Christ must have existed, but Lawrie makes the completely valid point that “Mount Olympus is a place, too, isn’t it? And you wouldn’t say that proved Zeus was real, would you?” But just as I was thinking this was entirely too logical for Lawrie, she asks whether the Greek gods were real, too.

I laughed helplessly all through this section – Grandmother’s horror, Mrs Marlow’s exasperation, Rowan marvelling at Lawrie’s thinking processes, Nicola and Ginty mortified that people are talking religion at the tea table. But the thing is, I agree with Lawrie. I think it’s a story, too: an illogical but highly influential legend. (I have thought about this issue a bit more deeply than Lawrie, though.)

Anyway, the next day, Nicola takes Patrick to the Minster to show him the falcon carving. Patrick likes the Minster, saying he’d like that one back from the Church of England, along with Winchester and Westminster Abbey. On the way home, they discuss his Catholicism – how the Merricks stayed Catholic, despite one Merrick ancestor being martyred by Elizabeth and another by James I, and how Patrick thinks the Reformation was “the worst thing that ever happened to the English”. He says, “For us … it was the sort of thing the Poles have to put up with from the Communists now – torture and imprisonment and having to hear Mass secretly.” Patrick, it was five hundred years ago, get over it. It’s not as though the Merricks lost their estate and they’re not exactly lacking in power or wealth now, with Patrick’s father in Parliament and Patrick completely free to practice his religion. Patrick also seems to be ignoring all the reasons why English people might have wanted to get rid of a bunch of corrupt priests whose loyalties lay with the Pope rather than the English king, and also that there were plenty of martyred Protestants. But I have an idea that Antonia Forest is firmly on Patrick’s side.

Back at Trennels, Lawrie is ‘helping’ her mother with housework in a most incompetent way and getting further theological instruction from her grandmother. Grandmother’s bedroom is cluttered with Catholic paraphernalia – a crucifix, a candlestick, a little lamp, rosary beads, holy medals, a triptych, figurines of Christ and Mary and St Therese (and I like that Lawrie recognises the rosary beads only because they appear in Little Women). Grandmother attempts to explain their significance:

“Now listen to me, Lawrence. Whether you believe or what you believe is between yourself and God. I have no concern about that. But for a child of your age, going to a good school, to be as ignorant and ill-informed of the most elementary facts of Christianity as you seem to be, is something quite disgraceful.”

This is true – it is important for children to know the central beliefs of all the religions practiced in their region (so they can realise how illogical they all are and become atheists). But the useful thing for Lawrie is that she finally understands the metaphor of Christ as Shepherd, which will come in handy if she manages to infect Jess with the flu and take over the role of Shepherd Boy.

Lawrie would be a giant pain to have as a twin sister, but she really is hilarious in this chapter.

Oh, I forgot to say Nicola told Patrick about Lois Sanger and he wondered if Lois is in complete denial about her lies, or realises she’s a heel, which I was also thinking about. But I’ll write more about that if it comes up in a later chapter.

Next, Chapter Six: A Change of Cast

‘End of Term’, Part Three

Chapter Four: Altogether Unexpected

This is a short but dramatic chapter in which Lois proves to be even more odious than usual. It begins with Miss Craven, Miss Redmond and Lois having a meeting to decide who should be in the Junior netball team. Lois finds some of the tasks of Games Captain tedious but she’s enjoying hanging out with the staff and lording it over younger pupils. Miss Craven assumes Nicola will be Captain and Centre, but Miss Redmond makes a tart remark about Nicola’s self-confidence. Because heavens above, we can’t have a Kingscote girl with self-confidence! This is Lois’s chance to contribute her opinion of Nicola:

“That conversation, overheard and rearranged – was she going to repeat it? She didn’t want to, yet she felt helplessly that she almost certainly would …”

Not only does Lois give in to temptation and repeat her mostly-fictional story about Nicola, she tells an outright lie by saying Nicola’s “turned up late to practices”, plural. Still, it’s not just Lois – Miss Redmond is just as petty, taking her revenge for Nicola turning down her Guides offer: “What that young woman needs, it seems to me, is a really good jolt.”

Miss Craven, who’s also told that Nicola has enough to do already with the Christmas play and her hawk, goes along with it. It’s not really Miss Craven’s fault – she’s been fed misinformation by Lois and Miss Redmond.

Oh, the other thing is that the three of them put hopeless Marie in the team, not because she can play, but because Miss Keith is concerned that Marie is struggling at school and needs a boost of confidence. So, Kingscote girls do need to have self-confidence, just a very specific and limited amount of it. Except I don’t see how putting Marie in a team where she’s going to fail will make her any more popular with the other girls or help her self-confidence.

Poor Nicola finds she’s been left off the team before everyone else, then has to pretend not to mind about it all through breakfast. There’s a small distraction when she’s offered a chance to buy a new pony and the others discuss this. It turns out Miranda not only rides in the holidays, but also skates and fences (“Mummy likes me to have millions of things to do to keep me out from under her feet when she’s got refugee committees”). But then Lawrie, Tim and the others find out about Nicola and are outraged. As Miranda says, “It’s just so – so – so unjust when they do things like this and no one knows what or why or anything.” Janice Scott tactfully changes the subject when she sees Nicola on the verge of tears, then later consoles her: “They do these things from time to time, you know. And there’s rarely any rational explanation.”

I think Nicola may have joined Miranda’s Janice Admiration Society, which seems completely reasonable to me. Apart from being a kind and thoughtful person, Janice is also beautiful, like a “Dresden figurine”, all “glassy, cool, translucent”. Janice is eminently crush-worthy.

The rest of the netball team tries and fails to convince Miss Craven to put Nicola in the team. Jenny Cardigan (who has the best name ever for an English schoolgirl), even proposes they go on strike:

“Just for a moment, the possibility of behaving as if they were characters in a book called, perhaps, ‘That Term at St Faith’s’ seemed not only fabulous, but plausible.”

I know End of Term, despite having the form of a conventional girls’ boarding school book, isn’t really like most of those books, but this struck the wrong note to me – as if Antonia Forest needed to remind us, in rather snobby way, how trashy those books are and how superior her writing is. Her characters often do talk about what “people in books” do and that usually comes across as amusing and astute, but this threw me out of the story for a moment.

Anyway, obviously the girls don’t go on strike (but Miranda does snub Lois when Lois congratulates her, calling Lois a “hammer-toed, pot-bellied, copper-bottomed heel” once Lois is out of earshot). And the netball team goes on to lose their first two games. Well, that’s what happens when you choose players on the basis of ill-informed character judgments, rather than ball-throwing skills.

Next, Chapter Five: Half-Term at Trennels

‘End of Term’, Part Two

Chapter Three: Rehearsals and Team Practices

Nicola, Tim and Lawrie are all in Lower IV A this year, along with Miranda, and Esther the new girl, and drippy Marie Dobson. I don’t think much of the academic standards at Kingscote if both Lawrie and Marie are in the top form. And could someone who understands the English education system explain to me about Lower and Upper Forms? In the secondary schools I went to (mostly in Australia) there was First Form to Sixth Form, or Year Seven to Year Twelve (roughly age 12 to age 18). At Kingscote, the twelve-year-olds are in Third Form, but does it then go Lower Fourth (age 13 years), Upper Fourth (14), Lower Fifth (15), Upper Fifth (16), Lower Sixth (17) and finally Upper Sixth (18 and doing A Levels)? So Rowan left after her Lower Sixth year, before she could do the final exams that would gain her entrance to university? And does one ‘form’ take a whole school year, or do pupils skip up to higher forms (eg moving from Upper Fourth to Lower or Upper Fifth) within a school year if they’re doing well? I’m a bit confused by the whole thing.

However, before Nicola and friends/enemies go to their first lesson, Miss Keith makes a dramatic announcement at assembly. The Christmas play, which she (“and I hope you children”) has always regarded as “an act of worship rather than just another school play”, will be performed in Wade Minster this year, by request of the Bishop, and the Minster choirmaster, Dr Herrick, will train the singers. So poor Miranda has even less chance of taking part.

Back in class, Miranda and Nicola bag seats at the front for themselves as well as for Tim, Lawrie and Esther, but their terrifying teacher, Miss Cromwell, has other plans and moves Lawrie to the back of the class. Miss Cromwell, who teaches maths, sounds interesting:

“People who disliked her and were frightened by her, said she was horribly sarcastic and had favourites and wasn’t fair a bit; people who liked her – a fairly strong minority – agreed she was all those things, and, perversely, liked her because of them, apparently finding her faults more stimulating than the conventional virtues of her fellows.”

Miranda and Nicola seem to be favourites already, because they’re both made form prefects. When Marie offers unwanted congratulatory pats-on-the-back to Nicola, Miss Cromwell disapproves loudly: “I will not have vulgar, undisciplined demonstrations of that kind in my form.” She also threatens “blood for breakfast” if anyone ever displays any bad manners. So that’s them told.

At break, Tim and Lawrie assert that Nicola ought to agree to swap places with Lawrie on occasion, but Miranda protests that it would never work and it would be mad for Nicola to antagonise Miss Cromwell over “such a feeble thing”. Tim is furious and storms off. Miranda and Tim seem to have appointed themselves guardians of one twin each, so I foresee trouble there.

The Christmas play is also causing conflict. The Authorities are moving cast members in, out and round about, but “the basis of approval or otherwise remained a mystery”. If the teachers are trying to reward good behaviour and/or punish bad behaviour, in the hope of improving moral character, it would be helpful if the pupils had at least a vague idea of which behaviour of theirs was being rewarded or punished.

Then Dr Herrick further complicates matters by wanting pupils who can actually sing in his choir and he holds an impromptu audition. It turns out he was the judge of the singing competition that Nicola almost won during the summer, and when he sees Lawrie, he thinks Lawrie is Nicola having a bad day (“You have an excellent voice … What was the matter this afternoon? Have you a cold?”). Lawrie, who is terrible at singing, feels humiliated at being relegated to the angel who walks silently beside Nicola (“I don’t want to have to do anything, just because I look like Nick.”) Mind you, I’m not really sure why Lawrie should be so terrible at singing when she’s Nicola’s identical twin. Surely they have identical larynxes and vocal tracts, and it’s not as though Nicola has achieved her voice through training – and Lawrie is good at imitating voices, so she must have good auditory perception. This identical twin-ness is sometimes vitally important, sometimes completely ignored, depending on what’s happening with the plot, but I’m willing to go with the flow on this matter.

Lawrie does have the consolation of probably getting onto the Juniors netball team. It seems Nicola will be Centre and Captain, and that Miranda and Esther are also good players. Unfortunately, Lois rears her evil head and overhears Lawrie and Nicola joking about not having Marie in their team when Nicola is Captain. Lois is fully aware they’re joking but:

“Still, because she had injured Nicola, and Nicola, unlike Lawrie, refused to forget, she naturally preferred to think badly of her.”

So Lois broods about it until she feels “full of a fine and righteous indignation” and decides to tell all the other Sixth Formers a distorted version of the truth – until she catches Janice watching her with “the cool appraising eye of someone who knows a piece of fiction when she hears it and wonders just what’s behind it.”

Then Nicola is late one day to netball training because another teacher has kept her back, and Lois is foul about that, too, so things aren’t looking very good for Nicola’s netball hopes.

I must say, Antonia Forest is doing an excellent job of switching between the Christmas play and netball plots, breaking off at just the right point to keep me turning pages eagerly to see what will happen next. Back to the Christmas play now and Dr Herrick continues to choose his cast based on singing talent rather than Miss Keith’s arbitrary decisions about Moral Character. Miranda listens to the class discussing cast changes and says enviously that “doing it in the Minster sounds gorgeous. Anyway, I never see why I’m not in it, actually.” After all, she points out, practically all the characters in it were Jewish.

Everyone is flabbergasted, but reluctantly admit that she’s correct – except for Lawrie, who refuses to accept that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were Jewish.

Now, I know Lawrie is a bit dim, but honestly, how could she possibly think they were Christian before Christ was even born?! I mean, that’s the whole point of Christmas! She’s from a Church of England family, so presumably was christened as a baby and has gone to church and scripture lessons. Miss Cromwell comes in at that point and they end up discussing “the Balfour declaration and the Jewish refugees from Europe” and how “the Jews, those who wish to, are returning to Palestine … Because historically it is their native country.”

Lawrie eventually agrees with Miss Cromwell, although only out loud:

“But naturally, it couldn’t be true. Obviously they’d been Christians … But she’d remember to say Jews in future.”

Let me remind you that Lawrie is in the top academic class for her year at Kingscote.

Lawrie also manages to infuriate placid Ann by making fun of the new carols: “See the tender lamb appears, promised from eternal years … It always reminds me of school dinners.”

Apparently Ann is “one of those peculiar people – a few did exist – who took the Christmas play seriously.”

Come on, Ann, that tender lamb joke was pretty funny. Christians are allowed to have a sense of humour.

Next, Chapter Four, Altogether Unexpected.

‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest

I’m very happy to be back at Kingscote with the Marlow twins, a year after their eventful Autumn Term, because I have plenty of questions I need answered. Did Nicola get promoted to Form IIIA, leaving Lawrie and Tim behind? Will Nicola get a chance to triumph on the netball courts this year? Will she ever find a worthy Best Friend? How will Ann cope with being Eldest Remaining Marlow Sister? And who will be Head Girl now Karen and Rowan have departed? (Surely not Lois Sanger. But the teachers seem clueless as to Lois’s true character, so it’s possible.)

'End of Term' by Antonia ForestIt seems that Christmas is a good time to begin reading End of Term, because the plot seems to feature a Nativity Play. That’s pretty much all I know about this book. The cover is not very informative or even very accurate – if that’s the twins with their new short hairdos in front, why are they wearing scarlet uniforms? Unless Nicola used her Boke of Falconerie windfall to buy uniforms, which seems pretty unlikely…

Chapter 1: Sprog Takes a Quarry

So, we begin at Colebridge Junction where Ann, Ginty, Nicola and The Sprog are waiting resignedly for their train to school and Lawrie is acting like a fractious five-year-old. Kingscote is a mere forty minutes by road from Trennels, but do the Marlow parents do the sensible thing and drive the girls and their luggage to school? No, they make them take a three-hour train trip, so the sisters can bond with their fellow pupils on the journey and Nicola can do something dramatic and dangerous to start the book off with a bang. (By the way, I always wondered about the Hogwarts school train. Did Scottish students need to travel all the way to London to catch the train all the way back to Scotland? If they could Floo or Side-Along Apparate with their parents to London to catch the train, why couldn’t they just travel directly to Hogsmeade, then get on the boats or carriages to Hogwarts?)

Anyway, after helping Ginty avoid Unity Logan and watching Lawrie boasting about her new theatrical mentor to Tim and company, Nicola sensibly decides to take The Sprog to the relative peace and quiet of the guard’s van. Everything is going swimmingly until they stop at the penultimate train station and The Sprog flies out the open door after some birds and Nicola tears off after him. Well, at least this time the train was actually stopped of its own accord at a station when she leapt out. And she does catch up with The Sprog, and even better, he’s caught his first sparrow (probably accidentally, but they’re both very proud of him). They trek back to the station, to find the next train isn’t due for three hours and worse, a new girl called Esther Frewen, who snubbed Nicola’s welcoming gestures on the train, is there too, after trying to run away back home.

Nicola really is a very kind and sympathetic child, even if she doesn’t always understand others’ insecurities and anxieties, being a very secure and fearless person herself. She realises they can walk to school across the fields and she tactfully talks about Sprog and school and the famous Marlow family until Esther gets her tears under control. Poor Esther is the only child of divorced parents, which must have been pretty unusual in 1950s England, although Nicola thinks “there were quite a few people at Kingscote to whom this beastly thing had happened”. Even worse, Esther’s had to leave her young puppy, Daks, at home because new girls aren’t allowed to bring pets (yet another of Kingscote’s arbitrary and illogical rules, I suppose, although I do wonder why Esther got a new puppy just when she was about to leave for boarding school).

Back at school, poor Ann is in a flap about Nicola going missing (“You wouldn’t have done this to Rowan”) and has already unpacked Nicola’s things into her drawer completely the wrong way:

“What with depressed new girls and pained sisters and misarranged drawers, Nicola saw no hope for the term at all.”

Such trials and tribulations! So Nicola stomps off to see to Sprog.

Chapter 2: Friends and Enemies

Ugh, Miss Redmond! She corners Lawrie and Nicola on their very first day back and graciously condescends to permit them to rejoin the Guides, saying “everyone was most anxious to be able to feel they could forget the whole unfortunate affair and begin again with an entirely clean sheet”. Oh, and Lois Sanger “was very keen to have them back with the Scarlet Pimpernels”! Lawrie, as usual, goes “scarlet and dumb” and expects Nicola to respond: Nicola quite rightly tells Miss Redmond to go jump in the lake. Miss Redmond storms off in an outraged huff and Tim appears, enjoying the strife. It seems Tim and Lawrie are now Best Friends Forever and both of them quite like Lois after she helped them with their play, but Nicola does not forgive and forget so easily.

Fortunately, Nicola seems to have found a new friend in Miranda West:

“Their hands banged together, and clasped and swung energetically as they went along the path to the outhouse. It was odd how people changed – or else you did – Nicola wasn’t sure which. A year ago, Miranda West had been one of III A’s form prefects, a bossy, conceited person, who made no bones about despising the worms of Third Remove. Then first [Nicola], and later Lawrie and Tim, had moved into III A themselves … and suddenly, last summer term, she had become someone to grin at across the classroom – someone who saw the same joke at the same time as you did.”

Miranda is described as having a “vivid, clever little Jewish face” and having “extremely rich” parents. She does seem to share Tim’s disregard for school rules, but has slightly more School Spirit and is worried that now Rowan has left, they might end up with Lois Sanger as Games Captain (Miranda accurately describes Lois as “slippery soap and slithery slime”). And worse luck, Lois has been made Games Captain, as well as being a prefect! Lois is busy crowing to her friends about how Rowan hasn’t even been made a prefect, when Nicola storms up to inform her that Rowan has left school. Take that, Lois! Nicola storms off, leaving Lois’s friends moaning about kids these days, no manners, etc. There’s a lot of storming off in this chapter.

Someone useless called Val Longstreet is Head Girl (to replace useless Karen) and someone called Janice Scott is a prefect, although Miranda wishes Janice had been made both Head Girl and Games Captain. Miranda has a bit of a crush on Janice, but denies it (“I mean, I like looking at her, quite, but not if you mean giving her roses in silver paper, and sleeping with her kirbigrips under my pillow”). Apparently the kirbigrips thing really happened a few years back, with some Lower Fifths obsessing over a couple of older girls, until Miss Keith called a special school assembly to shame the younger girls in the most public and humiliating way possible. (Because she couldn’t possibly have had a quiet sensible word with them right at the start about respecting other people’s privacy, before they got obsessive, and given them a copy of The Friendly Young Ladies.)

Then Nicola and Miranda meet up with Tim and Lawrie. Tim distributes chocolates and Lawrie complains about “the beastliest First Day I’ve ever met”. It turns out the cast list for the Christmas Play has been posted on the noticeboard, and casting depends on good character, not acting or singing talent. Accordingly, Lawrie and Tim are only Crowd. Nicola, who has a much better character, is a Candle Angel. A nice but useless girl called Jess Geddes is Shepherd Boy, the role that Lawrie covets. Ann is Mary, which makes sense, Val is Joseph because she’s Head Girl, and slimy Lois is Reader Angel (although at least Lois has proven reading-aloud skills). Miranda isn’t in it at all, presumably because she’s Jewish (she refers to it as “your play”). I can’t see why she can’t join in, though. She wants to be in it and it’s only a school play. If it’s like most of the Nativity Plays I’ve seen, with singing sheep and so on, it won’t even be particularly Biblical (not that the Gospels tell a consistent story about the birth of Jesus anyway) and it’s being held in a school theatre, not a church. Anyway, I’m sure there’ll be major drama involving the casting before too long.

Next, Chapter Three: Rehearsals and Team Practices

You might also be interested in reading:

‘End of Term, Part Two
‘End of Term’, Part Three
‘End of Term’, Part Four
‘End of Term’, Part Five
‘End of Term’, Part Six
‘End of Term’, Part Seven

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest

My Favourite Books of 2017

It’s not actually the end of the year, but if I don’t post this now, it may not get done at all. I only read 37 new books this year (new to me, that is) – even fewer than last year. I did immerse myself in blogs and newspapers, trying to make sense of the political turmoil here and abroad, but I also re-read a lot of old favourite novels. This year was not an especially relaxing year for me, so I often felt a need to escape into familiar comforting reads and I don’t count those books in my annual book count.

So, what type of new (to me) books did I read this year?

Types of books read in 2017

Nationality of authors read in 2017

Lots of Australian writers this year.

Gender of authors read in 2017

Women writers dominate, yet again. And so they should.

Now for my favourites.

I really enjoyed Tirra Lirra By The River by Jessica Anderson and How Bright Are All Things Here by Susan Green – both, as it happens, novels narrated by elderly Australian women who had to escape to London to fulfil their artistic dreams.

But most of my favourite reads this year were non-fiction. These included:

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne
Indonesia, Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani
Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith

I didn’t have time this month to blog about Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women, but this was a thoughtful, nuanced exploration of the challenges faced by Arab women in the Middle East and in Western countries, by Australian-Palestinian journalist Amal Awad.

I also found myself engrossed in a couple of Australian memoirs, Aunts up the Cross by Robin Dalton and Flesh Wounds by Richard Glover.

My resolution for next year is to blog more about the books I enjoy, or at least to mention these books on Twitter. In the meantime, I have this book on the top of my reading pile for the holidays:

'End of Term' by Antonia Forest

I foresee an Antonia Forest read-along in the near future.

Thank you to everyone who read and contributed to Memoranda in 2017. I hope you’ve all had a good reading year and that 2018 brings you lots of wonderful, interesting books. Happy holidays!

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Turning Your Manuscript Into A Book

The arrival of ebooks has made it much easier for self-publishers to get their work into the hands of readers, but I always knew I wanted to see Dr Huxley’s Bequest as an actual paper book that I could pick up (and be able to read, because I don’t own any kind of ereader). But how does a self-publisher on a limited budget, expecting to sell only a few books, go about turning their work into printed books?

At first I assumed I’d have to do it the way that traditional publishers print books, just on a much smaller scale – that is, pay a printer to produce a limited number of copies using a traditional press. But this means working out how many books you want and paying for all of them up front. I did consider using a crowdsourcing platform (such as Kickstarter) to fund a small print run, but the more I researched, the less attractive this option appeared. These companies take a significant percentage of the money raised and have all sorts of unappealing conditions attached. Anyway, I doubted I’d attract enough contributors to make it worthwhile. And even if I myself paid for a print run, where would I store all the books? How would I sell and distribute them to readers?

Then I did some research and discovered the amazing world of digital Print on Demand (POD) publishing. This means that you print only the copies that have been ordered, when they’re ordered. You can order just one book for yourself or hundreds of books. The POD publisher will print them in a couple of days and send them to you – or, even better, send them to the bookstore or library service that ordered them, charge them the price you’ve chosen for your book, deduct the printing and distribution costs, and pay you the remainder.

This is how it works. You, the author/self-publisher, send the POD publisher two pdf files – one pdf of the inside of the book, laid out the same way any printed book is, and one pdf of the cover art, with front, back and spine art fitted into a template that the POD publisher supplies. They store these files in their computer and whenever a book is ordered (either by you or by booksellers), this happens:

Isn’t that cool? You can choose from a wide range of book sizes. You can print paperback or hardcover copies with a range of binding types and jackets and types of paper. I can confirm that the printed paperbacks look just like the trade paperbacks you can buy in a bookstore. The only issue I noticed with the particular POD publisher I used (Lightning Source/IngramSpark) was that some of the colours on the cover were lighter than I expected, which I’ve heard isn’t uncommon with digital printing-on-demand. And you can’t do really fancy things with cover design, such as cut-outs and embossed lettering. It’s also more expensive to print per book than if you printed a thousand copies at the same time using traditional off-set printing. However, for a self-publisher, print-on-demand is an affordable and practical way to produce print books. You don’t have to pay warehouse costs and you don’t waste any paper if your books don’t sell.

The other good thing about IngramSpark, for Australian self-publishers, is that they have printing facilities around the world, including in Australia, and they can deposit your book sale earnings directly into your Australian bank account. That’s one of the reasons I ended up going with IngramSpark rather than Amazon Createspace, the other big name in the self-publishing world. I also thought IngramSpark would work well for me because they’re connected to dozens of online bookstores and library suppliers around the world. If you choose to distribute through IngramSpark, you give them information about your book (cover image, book summary, author information and so on) and they send it to all their affiliated booksellers, who then sell the book through their websites and catalogues. If you choose Amazon Createspace, the book is only sold through Amazon sites – which do reach a lot of bookbuyers, but not everyone wants to buy their books from Amazon.

For ebooks, a similar process occurs. The file is uploaded to IngramSpark in a different format (epub rather than pdf) and it doesn’t have to get printed, but it’s still listed and sold through a range of international booksellers, including Kobo, Apple iBooks and Barnes & Noble. However, if you want your ebook to be available for Kindle readers, you need to format it as a mobi file, set up an account with Amazon, and sell it through them. I had no idea which ebook format was likely to be more popular with Dr Huxley’s Bequest readers, so I’ve made it available in both formats. I’ll be interested to see the sales numbers and how much I earn from each.

I have skimmed over a very important step, though. You can’t upload a Word document, no matter how pretty it looks, to a POD publisher. So how do you turn your edited manuscript into formats that will look good when they’re read in either print or ebook form? You either do it yourself, which requires a fair amount of technological and design skill, or you pay a professional to do it for you. Now, remember back when I started this series and I said it could end up being a What Not To Do? Yep, this is the bit where I made All The Mistakes. That’s coming up in the next post.

Previously in Adventures in Self-Publishing:

Why Self-Publish?
What’s This Book About, Anyway?
To Tweet Or Not To Tweet
Designing a Book Cover

A Guide to Australianisms in ‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’

Dr Huxley’s Bequest is about two Australian teenagers, Rosy and Jaz, who live in Sydney and speak Australian English. I think most of their Australianisms make sense in context. However, when I uploaded the Kindle version, Amazon.com was VERY CONCERNED about terms such as ‘esky’ and ‘ute’. So, for those readers who aren’t Australian, here’s some additional information about the Australian terms and cultural references in Dr Huxley’s Bequest.

Firstly, an esky is a portable cooler or ice box, usually made of sturdy polypropylene. Inside is ice or those freezable ‘ice’ bricks, which keep your freshly-caught fish, barbecue meat or canned drinks nice and cold. Eskys are usually big enough to use as a picnic seat or, if your boat sinks, a flotation device. Apparently in New Zealand, they call them CHILLY BINS! New Zealanders have the best slang.

A biscuit is a cookie. I’ve talked about this before.

Australians, including Rosy, are very fond of putting slices of pickled beetroot in their salad sandwiches and hamburgers. We also put canned pineapple on pizza.

A ute, or utility vehicle, is a pickup truck with an enclosed cabin for a couple of passengers and an open flat-bed platform at the back. According to Wikipedia, the Australian ute was “the result of a 1932 letter from the unnamed wife of a farmer in Victoria, Australia asking for ‘a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday and which can carry our pigs to market on Mondays’.” Traditionally, Australian utes have a couple of hay bales and some cattle dogs bouncing around in the back. In Dr Huxley’s Bequest, Jaz’s dad keeps his gardening equipment in his ute.

A eucalypt is a eucalyptus tree or a ‘gum tree’, native to Australia and to other parts of the world. You already know that, don’t you? I don’t know why Amazon.com had a problem with the word. Anyway, there are hundreds of different types of eucalypts, all beautiful and usually home to a lot of interesting and extremely noisy wildlife. Some of these animals are extremely possessive of ‘their’ gum tree:

While on the topic of big bullies, Ned Kelly was a murderous, racist thug who is inexplicably worshipped by many contemporary Australians. He was born in 1854, the son of an Irish convict, and started his criminal career at the age of fourteen when he bashed and robbed a Chinese-Australian farmer. He spent the next ten years stealing cattle and horses, robbing farmers and shops and banks, and killing people. He’s best known for his decision to make body armour and helmets out of old ploughs. This, he asserted, would be bullet-proof. It was, but it was also extremely heavy, which made movement difficult, and it didn’t cover his legs. So when Ned Kelly was finally cornered, the police shot him in the legs and he fell over and was captured, and later hanged. Captain Moonlite is another bushranger mentioned in Dr Huxley’s Bequest.

Finally, Rosy makes a brief reference to ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’. This was a very successful advertising campaign in the 1980s, devised by the Cancer Council of Victoria to encourage Australians to protect themselves from the sun. That’s because Australia is a very hot place and contains a lot of fair-skinned people vulnerable to deadly skin cancers. In the ad, a singing, dancing seagull tells people to Slip on a shirt, Slop on some sunscreen lotion and Slap on a hat:

If I’ve missed anything and you find something confusingly Australian in the book, feel free to ask about it!

How To Buy ‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’

My new book, Dr Huxley’s Bequest, is out this Wednesday, 15 November. I just received my author copies of the paperback. It has a very nice cover:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' paperbacks

And there are illustrations inside:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' pages

It’s also available in various ebook formats.

Which type of book should I buy?

The paperback has illustrations, author notes, a bibliography, a comprehensive index and a pretty cover.

However, the font is fairly small*, so if you prefer large print, I recommend choosing an ebook edition, which you can resize to suit your reading needs. The ebooks are available in two formats. There’s a Kindle (mobi) version for Kindle readers and other devices that have the Kindle app installed. There’s also an epub version, for iPads, iPhones, Nook readers, Kobo readers, and pretty much every other sort of ebook reading device. The ebooks don’t have the illustrations or the index, but do have a search function if you want to find keywords.
*EDITED TO ADD: I’m planning on putting out a new, larger-print paperback edition in January, so if you’d like to buy a print copy but prefer large print, maybe hold off on ordering the paperback until January.

Where can I buy the book?

Here are some of the online stores where you can buy Dr Huxley’s Bequest. I’ve listed stockists according to geographical region, because delivery costs are cheaper and you won’t have to pay currency conversion fees if you buy locally.

Australia and NZ
Amazon.com.au (Kindle ebook)
Angus & Robertson Bookworld (paperback)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Booktopia (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

North America
Amazon.com (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Barnes & Noble (paperback, Nook ebook)
Chapters/Indigo Canada (Kobo ebook)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

UK and Europe
Adlibris (paperback)
Amazon.co.uk (paperback, Kindle ebook)
Apple iBooks (iBook ebook)
Book Depository (paperback)
Kobo (Kobo ebook)

You can pre-order now and they will send the book to you on Wednesday.

Will it be in my local bookshop?

Maybe, if you ask them to order it for you! But possibly not even then. Bookshops don’t usually stock self-published titles.

Can I borrow it from my library?

Maybe, if you live in Australia. If it’s not in your library’s catalogue, you can ask your librarian to order it. The book is listed with ALS Library Services and it has a National Library of Australia catalogue number.

If you’d like to know anything else about how to purchase Dr Huxley’s Bequest, ask away! (I am planning on continuing my Adventures in Self-Publishing series of blog posts so you can find out more about How Not To Make The Same Mistakes I Made.)

Oh, and Dr Huxley’s Bequest is also listed on Goodreads, if you feel like leaving a rating or a review.

Read an Excerpt of ‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' front coverI’ve updated my website with an excerpt of my new book, Dr Huxley’s Bequest.

There’s also a virtual tour of the real places explored in Dr Huxley’s Bequest, but it will probably make more sense after you’ve read the book. Teaching resources will be available for download in January.

Dr Huxley’s Bequest will be available in paperback and in ebook versions (epub and Kindle) later this month. I’ll put up links when it goes on sale.

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Designing a Book Cover

The first piece of advice most self-publishers hear is that there are two areas in which they must get professional help: editing and cover design. I’ve previously discussed how useful a professional editor was in preparing my manuscript of Dr Huxley’s Bequest for publication. Now I’m going to talk about cover design.

A book’s cover is a vital part of selling the book to readers, so it’s important that it conveys the book’s ideas, genre and audience in an efficient but attractive manner. There was no way I was going to attempt to make my own book cover, because I have no design expertise whatsoever. I am, however, able to recognise bad book covers and I could see that a lot of self-published book covers were absolutely terrible. Most of the companies that offer services to self-publishers include reasonably-priced cover design, but cover samples on their websites are universally awful – cheap-looking, genre-inappropriate fonts, ineptly Photoshopped across generic images. I really think this is one area where you get what you pay for.

I wanted my book to look professional, so I searched the professional directories of Australian book designers and eventually found Nada Backovic, who had lots of experience working with Australian publishers, was willing to work with a self-publisher and could fit into my publication schedule and budget. My first task was to prepare a design brief for her. This contained technical specifications (for example, the width and length of the book and the text that needed to go on the front and back cover and the spine) but was mostly about the information that the cover needed to convey. I sent Nada a one-page synopsis of the book, a sample chapter and a description of who the book’s buyers and readers would be. My book, Dr Huxley’s Bequest, involves the characters embarking on a quest to identify thirteen objects, so I gave Nada a list of these objects and included photos of those that might look good on the cover. I included some of the illustrations from the book, photos of the real-life setting, and some book covers that had appealed to me, for books about similar themes or for similar readers.

This was the stage when I began to understand the concerns of traditional publishers about marketing this particular book. It wasn’t that I’d doubted them when they said it would be too difficult to market (presumably, they knew more about book marketing than I did). It was just that I didn’t fully comprehend all the practical implications back then. I have to admit, Dr Huxley’s Bequest is a weird book. It doesn’t fit neatly into one marketing category, the way a Regency romance or an action thriller or a paranormal horror novel would. This meant that I ended up with a design brief full of contradictory statements. It’s non-fiction, but it’s a mystery story so it needs to look entertaining and fiction-y! But it’s full of history and science and ethical questions, so the cover needs to convey thoughtfulness! But also humour! And it should appeal to teenage girls, but I don’t want it to look all pink and glittery and stereotypically feminine! Oh, and it also has to appeal to parents and teachers! And I hate yellow covers! Don’t make it yellow!

It is a measure of Nada’s professionalism that she did not run screaming into the night when she received this brief, but instead quickly produced eight attractive, appropriate, non-yellow cover roughs. Four of the covers featured lots of images, effectively conveying the idea of thirteen historical objects. But these covers looked a bit cluttered and the book’s theme was already being conveyed by the subtitle, A History of Medicine in Thirteen Objects. So I concentrated on the other four covers, which were based around a single illustration of a cross-sectioned skull, with a pink tongue sticking out. It was a really good, strong image that related to the book’s themes, but I worried it might look a bit too serious and gory and put off some potential teenage girl readers. Then I noticed that some of the other covers included a composite image of two of the thirteen objects, a stone bust of Hippocrates and a skeleton illustration from Vesalius. Nada had cleverly combined them so that the Enlightenment skeleton was leaning upon the Classical bust, looking down on it with fondness and some amusement. That was it. That was the image I wanted for the cover.

But there was also the font to decide on. It’s amazing how the lettering for a title can convey so much information about the book’s readership. In the end, I thought an elaborate Victorian-style font would fit the title best, once some of the flourishes had been removed to make the lettering easier to read. The subtitle and author information would be in an old-fashioned, slightly wonky typewriter-style font that helped to convey the non-fiction nature of the book. I considered fonts that looked more ‘junior readership’, but ultimately, I didn’t think they worked. Readers drawn in by a wacky, zany title font would expect a light, fun, super-easy read and that’s not really what the book is like. It does have jokes and pictures, but it’s also fairly long and aimed at thoughtful readers.

Then came a series of small tweaks to the placement and colour of the images and text. For example, at one stage the bust of Hippocrates was staring off the page, which I thought drew the reader’s gaze away from the title, so Nada tilted Hippocrates slightly on his base, which also made the image look a bit more dynamic and amusing. I’d initially wanted the colours to be plain red, white and blue, but Nada correctly pointed out that the cover would look warmer with a cream background and more red. (We even experimented with pink text and then a pink background. It didn’t work.)

Then there was the back cover. There wasn’t much space once the text was in place, but it needed some pictures. I wondered if one of the medicinal plants mentioned in the book might suit and fortunately found a lovely red opium poppy from a historical botanical collection, as well as some vintage bee illustrations (honey also makes an important appearance in the book). Nada had the good idea of adding the poppy to the front cover, weaving it through the beard of poor long-suffering Hippocrates, then she stuck some bees on the book spine, and then we were done!

One thing I forgot to mention, which is important for self-publishers on a tight budget – if you want to use fonts or photos or illustrations, you may have to pay licence fees, unless you’re very careful and clever about your choices. In the case of Dr Huxley’s Bequest, I was able to locate appropriate historical images that were in the public domain or covered by Creative Commons licences (that is, free of charge but I needed to acknowledge the licence holder in the book, which I did). The only image I paid for were the vintage bees, which cost $36 from iStock. It’s important to note that some photos, even historical ones, can cost thousands of dollars to use. I have no idea how much it cost my American publishers to use the beautiful Frances McLaughlin-Gill photograph on the cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, but I’m sure it was a lot. (It was totally worth it, though. That gorgeous cover was responsible for a lot of readers picking up the book and then reading the whole series.)

Oh, so I guess I’d better show you the cover of Dr Huxley’s Bequest. Here’s the front:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' front cover

And here’s the back cover:

'Dr Huxley's Bequest' back cover

Previously in Adventures in Self-Publishing

Why Self-Publish?
What’s This Book About, Anyway?
To Tweet Or Not To Tweet