Miscellaneous Memoranda

The National Year of Reading Read This! prize winners have been announced, after attracting lots of fabulously creative entries from young readers. I think my favourite entry was the knitted Wizard of Oz characters by twelve-year-old Lexi, although the papier-mâché model of James and the Giant Peach by Michelle, also twelve years old, was wonderful, too. (Also, I just discovered that ‘papier mâché’ is French for ‘chewed paper’. Thanks so much for telling me that, Oxford Dictionary.)

Entries in the 2012 John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers are now open, with “young writers under the age of 25 [. . .] urged to enter the competition to share in $5,500 in prize money and have the opportunity to be published online and in the December issue of Voiceworks, Express Media’s literary quarterly.” You have until September to enter your short story or poem, with more information here.

Speaking of young readers and writers, there’s a great new(ish) online magazine for teenage girls called Rookie. I wish magazines like that had existed when I was a teenager. (Sadly, the internet hadn’t even been invented when I was a teenager.)

There’s an interesting article here by Anthony Horowitz about how book covers end up plastered with glowing endorsements from other writers. I’m currently reading a YA novel by an established US author, and the Cassandra Clare endorsement (“A gorgeously written, chilling atmospheric thriller.” CASSANDRA CLARE, bestselling author of THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS SERIES) takes up more space on the front cover than the name of the book’s author. But do book buyers actually pay any attention to these quotes? As the first commenter on the article says, “Probably the only people who would truly benefit from an author’s endorsement are new or little-read authors – exactly the kind of people who (for completely understandable and rational reasons) are least likely to get them.”

I recently read two fascinating articles about successful novelists who decided to stop writing (and, presumably, to stop endorsing other authors’ books). “There’s just too much stress on authors,” said Steph Swainston, author of the Castle series. She was unhappy with the pressure from fans and publishers to produce a book a year, and disliked the modern need for authors to be ‘celebrities’ and engage with social media (“The internet is poison to authors”). The other author, Elizabeth Harrower, was less forthcoming about why she stopped writing in 1966:

“It’s not as though she ran out of things to say – ‘there were probably too many things to say’. It’s not as though her work was poorly received – her second novel, The Long Prospect, was described as ranking ‘second only to Voss as a postwar work of Australian literature’. It’s not as though she was busy raising children – she never married and is childless.”

In the end, she simply says, “[I] realised I just can’t be bothered any more.”

To end on a more positive note, this year The Famous Five celebrate the seventieth anniversary of their first adventure, Five on a Treasure Island. Naturally, the celebratory feast will feature ham sandwiches on crusty bread, hard-boiled eggs, currant buns and lashings of ginger beer.

Foyle’s War

The novel I’m writing now is set (mostly) in wartime England, so when I heard of this television series, I thought I should take a quick look at it. It sounded a bit dull and worthy, to tell the truth, and I only checked it out because I thought it might be useful for research purposes (footage of Spitfires and so on). Well! I was completely hooked by the end of the first episode. I love it, and I can’t recommend it too highly.

Foyle's War

Foyle’s War is the story of a police officer, Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. When war is declared, he decides he wants to do something useful for the War Office, but his superiors insist he remain in his coastal town of Hastings and solve local crimes. This, of course, he does very well. He always manages to track down the criminal, but justice isn’t always done, which is one of the things I like about this series. It’s realistic about the compromises that occur during wartime. Foyle, however, is consistently honest and ethical. He’s also a caring (if undemonstrative) father, and some of my favourite scenes involve his relationship with his son Andrew, an RAF fighter pilot. They rarely hug and they never say ‘I love you’, but the bond between them is clear and strong. Foyle is also a loyal, understanding boss, acting as a sort of father figure to his messed-up sergeant, Paul Milner, and their driver, Samantha Stewart.

I like all the characters, but Sam is my favourite. Thankfully, she’s more than the token female love interest. She does have a brief (mostly off-screen, and not very convincing) romance with Andrew, but right from the first episode, she’s an important member of Foyle’s team. She knocks out a fleeing criminal with the lid of a rubbish bin, and then, when she and Foyle are caught in a bombing raid, gets straight up, brushes herself off and starts administering first aid to the other victims. She wages a relentless battle against men who think women ought to be at home ‘knitting balaclavas for His Majesty’s forces’, but she does it with good humour and good sense. It’s also terrific to see a woman on screen who loves to eat.  (Seriously, I am so sick of fictional girls and women who never seem to consume anything but coffee.) Sam’s relatives, most of whom are vicars, are great, too, especially the uncle who makes his own (undrinkable) wine.

Each episode is a separate, ninety-minute story centred around a crime that involves some aspect of the war, ranging from the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ to Britain’s botched attempts at biological warfare. The crimes can sometimes be a bit contrived and Agatha Christie-ish, but the historical background is carefully researched and a lot of effort seems to have gone into making the sets and costumes as realistic as possible. A shop that’s on screen for less than a minute is filled with authentic 1940s props, for example, and those are real Spitfires taking off from Andrew’s air base. There are a few, very tiny, historical errors, but they haven’t dented my enjoyment of this series (in fact, they make me feel clever for spotting them, so I have a sneaking suspicion the writer put them in on purpose). I haven’t seen the final, seventh series, but I’m looking forward to that. There’s also talk of a spin-off series, set after the war. I’d love to see Foyle paired up (professionally, that is) with Hilda Pearce, the scarily efficient intelligence officer who runs into Foyle several times during the war. They could set up their own private detective agency! And Sam could work for them!

If you enjoy police dramas, or are interested in the Second World War, or just want to watch a lot of terrific British actors, I highly recommend Foyle’s War.