August 5th, 2015

Hello, friends! I am not presently in North Wales, but our holiday was too lovely not to share with you. This week’s photos are from the Victorian seaside town of Llandudno.

We took an Edwardian tram car up the very steep side of a cliff called the Great Orme (Pen y Gogarth, in Welsh). Here’s the view from the midpoint:


And from the top of the Great Orme:


And then we descended to the seaside, which features one of the longest seaside piers in the UK (not pictured, sadly, as my phone was acting up). But here’s the beach, where bold and overfed seagulls snatch ice creams from the hands of children. (True story.)


Halfway through our ice creams, I was distracted by an extraordinary, piercing, squawking voice. I turned around and saw my first-ever, real-life, Punch & Judy show.


Obviously, I couldn’t just watch the show and move on; I was burning to find out more about this Victorian seaside tradition. As a result, the rest of this week’s post is over at the History Girls and it features, among others, diarist Samuel Pepys, Victorian artist George Cruikshank, and the notorious hangman, Jack Ketch.

Here’s Mr. Punch with Jack Ketch:


“That’s the way to do it!”

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July 29th, 2015

Hello, friends. My whistle-stop internet tour of major tourist destinations in North Wales continues. Today, we’re in Conwy!

Here’s a view from the quay that includes the medieval town walls.


The harbour again, this time with Conwy Castle (Castell Conwy, in Welsh) at the right.


We began our day at the Smallest House in Britain. Here it is, with me standing by the door for scale. I’m about 5′ 2″.


As you can see in the photo above, it’s the end unit in a row of terraced houses. According to the owner/host, there was originally a row of terraced houses to its left, as well, and this smallest house was built to fill the gap between the two rows.

Here’s the main floor.


It’s very cleverly designed: the bench on the left (red cushion on top) has a lid that raises for storage (most recently, it held coal for the fire). A ladder on the right (not pictured) takes you up to the bedroom, which is just wide enough for a narrow single bed and a small table. There are two fireplaces, one in each room, so the home was probably warmer than many a cavernous country house.

The bearded man in the portrait is the home’s last occupant, a 6′ 3″ fisherman. He lived in the house for some 15 years, until 1900, when the Council declared the house unfit for human habitation. On being evicted he travelled around Britain measuring other tiny homes, in order to verify that his was the smallest.

The town has a delightful ice cream parlour, Parisella’s, where we lapped up Welsh honey and honeycomb ice cream. Outside, a twelve-person recorder ensemble played Beatles covers to raise money for charity. (This sounds like I made it up. I promise I didn’t!) Conwy also has a beautifully curated indie bookstore called Hinton’s, with an adorable baby working the register.

We spent quite a long time exploring the thirteenth-century town walls.


View from the town walls!


Sadly, we ran out of time to visit Castell Conwy, or Conwy Castle. (My 7yo took the photo below, hence the inclusion of car and bike.) But having been there since the thirteenth century, I’m hoping the castell will hold up just a little bit longer, until we can come back.


Next week, I’ll report on my first-ever Punch & Judy show by the seaside!




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Summer adventures

July 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. My family and I are presently revelling in the glory that is North Wales in the sunshine. See what I mean?IMG_20150718_134539368_HDR


Here’s some breaking news from Betws y Coed. You heard it here first.


A view from the town centre of Betws y Coed:


The three soccer hooligans in the foreground (red, white, orange) are cousins, aged 6, 7 and 8. Together, they produce an absolutely astonishing amount of dirt, noise and hilarity. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve even been able to slip away to do a little work on many days. (That sounds sick, I know. But I’m really absorbed in this project and it brings me a huge amount of peace and satisfaction to dip into it. I’m not striding ahead, but I’m keeping myself linked to it. It would be hugely stressful if I had to abandon it for the whole holiday.)

And here’s my most recent “office”!


The view from the office:


Another view from the office:IMG_20150719_150325696_HDR

I hope this post doesn’t come off as unbearably gloaty. We’re having a marvellous week and I hope you are, too.

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July 15th, 2015

Hello, friends. Every spring, I feel like it’s been a long, hard winter. (To be fair, I live in Ontario.) Every spring, I worry that the plants are behind. And every June, things kick into high gear. I really should stop worrying.

Here’s a bowl of garlic scapes I snipped the other day. I added some basil leaves and toasted almonds and turned it into a massive batch of pesto. I love digging little tubs of summer from the freezer in November.


Here’s our kale, before I made the mother of all kale salads. We have 3 varieties this year: curly, Red Russian, and Tuscan.


We have a very generous neighbour who periodically pops round and says things like, “Could you use a very healthy zucchini plant?” Yes, we can. We always can. Thank you, Bob!


Our raspberries are doing well, too, despite the lemon balm that’s competing for space in that patch. Our children tend to bolt out the door first thing each morning, stake out the raspberry patch, and come back only when it’s picked over. One day I, too, will eat raspberries from our patch.

IMG_20150712_200615532(In fact I did, right after taking this photo. The kids were asleep.)

We’ve harvested the first round of our snowpeas, but as you can see, the scarlet runner beans are just starting to blossom now.


And we have high hopes for tomatoes. Again, our children graze most of the ripe cherry tomatoes right from the vine, but last year we had enough full-sized tomatoes to last us through the winter. We’re hoping for a repeat.


And that’s our garden at the moment. How is July treating you? What are you up to?

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On re-reading

July 8th, 2015

Hello, friends. One morning last week, as I was still waking up, I had a moment of intense clarity about my work-in-progress: its shape is wrong. I need to restructure the first third of the novel.

As I’m less than halfway through a first draft, I did not welcome this insight. Indeed, I spent a couple of days squinting at the corpus-thus-far-assembled, giving it a poke here and a jab there, as though testing the monster’s reflexes. Still, I think my half-waking vision was accurate. Since then, I’ve made a pile of notes and shuffled some ideas. I can keep some of the sections already written, while others need to be excised. About half of it needs to be rewritten.

Happily, some of the changes I’m going to make mean that I also need to revisit one of my favourite books: Freddy Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral. I’m SO EXCITED to spend more time with my historical boyfriend! (If you’re wondering who on earth Freddy Spencer Chapman is, I’ve blogged about him over at the History Girls.) I’m reading partly to re-ground myself, and also for a detailed timeline. For example, here’s a map that includes some of his journeys in the month of January 1941:

journeys in Malaya, January 1941

(Pedant alert: Freddy didn’t travel to Telok Anson that month. That leg of the journey is included for SECRET WRITERLY PURPOSES.)

But as much fun as I’m having plotting and mapping, the most thrilling part of re-reading The Jungle is Neutral is how much better I’m able to appreciate it. Freddy is as breathtakingly adventurous as ever, of course. But after two years’ research into wartime Malaya, I’m familiar with all the main players. I know the geography and natural landscape. I have a firm grasp on the politics. And I bring this richness of understanding to The Jungle is Neutral. Everything means more.

I make a habit of re-reading favourite novels every few years: Middlemarch, for example, grows and deepens for me every time. I recently read both The Trumpet of the Swan and Pippi Longstocking with my son, and adored them both all over again. Yet I’m not sure I’d have thought to do this with a work of non-fiction, until now. But it’s true, it’s true, it’s true.

Everything means more.

P. S. I finished Paul “Raj Quartet” Scott’s 1960 novel, The Chinese Love Pavilion, and blogged about it at the History Girls. If you read my original blog post, written when I was halfway through the novel, you’ll want to skip down a few paragraphs. If you haven’t… well, brace yourself!

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Cover story: Rivals in the City

July 1st, 2015

Hello, friends. Happy Canada Day, and Happy Fourth of July this weekend!

This week, I’m very excited to bring you some behind-the-scenes images from the cover photo shoot for Rivals in the City.

These pictures were taken in New York by Candlewick Press designer Heather McGee. As you can see, Candlewick used the same model, Amber Ahlquist, to represent Mary Quinn on every cover in the series. What might not be so obvious is that they’re also working with the same costume stylist, makeup artist, and photographer! I’m so grateful for Candlewick’s consistent attention to detail. It makes such a huge difference in the final product.

Here’s a shot of Crystal Thompson (stylist; behind model) and Souraya Hamdi (makeup artist) at work.

photo 1

Victorian dresses often came in two pieces: a shirtwaist (ie, a blouse) and a skirt. As you can see here, this one is a single garment. It fastens at the front because, as a woman without a ladies’ maid, Mary Quinn would have to dress herself. Dresses that buttoned down the back were a sign of social status: the lady who wore those would have a maid who helped her to dress and undress.

photo 2

Here’s photographer Scott Nobles checking light exposures. Models seem to spend a huge amount of time getting prepped and waiting around, and a relatively short time actually being photographed.

photo 3

A few minor costume adjustments, between shots.

photo 4

And makeup, too. Perfectly historically accurate Victorian makeup, of course.

photo 5

I love the juxtaposition of jeans and pocket-cameras with 1860s costume!

photo 6

And there we are. I know I’m biased, but I love seeing how much effort goes into the creation of a book cover. Thank you, Candlewick!

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Almond-Orange Cake

June 24th, 2015

Hello, friends. My family is still somewhat under the weather and I’m short on blogging time, so this week I’ll share my new favourite cake. It’s based on this grain-free almond layer cake recipe with a few little changes: increasing the butter slightly, replacing milk with orange juice, adding orange zest. This makes an incredibly fragrant, not-too-sweet cake. When both filled and frosted with buttercream, I find it a little too rich. But with just a layer of buttercream filling, in the manner of a classic Victoria sponge cake, it is pretty much perfect.

Almond Orange Layer Cake

1 cup butter

1 cup sugar

zest of one orange

4 eggs

1/2 cup orange juice

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups almond meal/flour

1/2 cup coconut flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter two 8-inch round cake pans and line them with parchment. (The cakes get stuck without the parchment.)

Cream together butter, sugar and orange zest. Add eggs, one at a time. Add orange juice and vanilla extract.

Sift together almond meal, coconut flour, baking powder and salt. Add this to the butter-sugar mixture and mix well. (It’s a very thick batter.) Divide batter between cake pans, smooth tops, and bake for 18-25 minutes, or until golden brown.

Once cooled, make a sandwich of the cakes, using about 1 1/2 cups of vanilla buttercream as the filling.

Hope you like it!

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On writing mystery

June 17th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week, my family is either fighting or has succumbed to a nasty, gastro-ish, high-fever bug that’s making the rounds. I assume you don’t need photographic evidence of our misery. Instead, here are Parts One and Two of a group interview I did with Susan Hughes of Open Book Toronto. It’s about mystery writing for children and young adults, and the interviewees include Norah McClintock and Shane Peacock.

Writing Mystery for Kids, Part One

Writing Mystery for Kids, Part Two

Oh, and here are some strawberries. Those who follow me on Twitter know that last year, chipmunks and robins ate all our strawberries. EVERY. SINGLE. BERRY.

This year, we stretched nets over the strawberry beds and TA DA!


Even from beneath this virus’s heel, I feel smug and triumphant when I look at this photo.


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June 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m halfway through a novel by Paul Scott called The Chinese Love Pavilion. I know, I know: SKETCHY TITLE ALERT! Don’t worry: this is, and will remain, a PG-rated blog.

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

Cover of the 2013 edition (University of Chicago Press). The pavilion on the cover looks very little like the pavilion described in the novel.

Mostly, it’s research for my novel-in-progress (which is set in Malaya during the Second World War). The Chinese Love Pavilion (another suggestion from my well-read friend Mary Alice Downie) takes place mostly in Malaya just after the war, so I get to experience another writer’s vision of the place. I’d heard excellent things about Scott’s Raj Quartet – four linked novels set in India during the twilight of British colonial rule. I also knew the first novel of the quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, was adapted as a miniseries by the BBC in 1984 to massive acclaim.

The Chinese Love Pavilion, published in 1960, is about a friendship between two Englishmen in the colonies. The narrator, Tom Brent, is younger and in search of a shape for his life. He meets the unconventional, charismatic Brian Saxby in 1930s Bombay and, over the course of a whiskey-soaked evening, falls under his spell. This sets up the men for long conversations about the soul, fate, and the meaning of life. I have a limited tolerance for cod philosophy at the best of times, and that limit plummets when the “exotic” East is used as a picturesque backdrop for these kinds of musings. However, I stuck with it.

The story then skips over the Second World War and picks up in 1946 or so, when a war-injured Brent is brought to Malaya and instructed to find Saxby. Apparently, Saxby is hiding out the Malayan jungle and might be responsible for the revenge-slayings of some Chinese civilians. The metaphysical novel morphs into a kind of homage to Heart of Darkness, with Brent travelling deeper into jungle-dark territory to find his legendary but tortured friend. Promising, right?

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

An early edition

Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was this appalled by a well-reviewed novel. The self-indulgent metaphysical musings drove me nuts, but I am predisposed to like most things thriller-ish, and the pacing of the novel’s second half is excellent. Also, Scott is gifted with an extraordinary sense of place. His descriptions of the Malayan landscape are vivid and entirely convincing, and his eye for natural detail is impeccable.

However, there’s one massive problem with the novel that (from my current perspective, 3/4 of the way through) taints everything else it attempts: the way it handles prostitution. Women – specifically, the sexual services of young Indian and Chinese girls – are the common currency of this novel. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Here are three conversations from the novel, in the order they occur:

At a restaurant in Bombay, where Brent and Saxby have just dined:

“[The girls are] clean. Clean now, you understand, not later. Later the bloom goes. Disease enters.”

“Does he sell them too?”

“To us first. Honoured guests. Then to others.


When Brent visits Saxby after a three-year gap:

“The little one holding the curtain so patiently, is for you. She is an untouchable, and, I am told, a virgin.”

I looked from Saxby to the girl and back to Saxby. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

He smiled. He said, “I have always been accommodating to my friends.”


In small-town Malaya, where the officer-in-charge offers Brent the use of “his” designated prostitute:

“Did you like her?”

“Yes, I liked her.”

…”Well while you’re here she’s yours. It all comes under the contract but you’ll probably like to give her the occasional present.”

“It’s very hospitable of you. What about you?”

“I’ll manage, I expect.”

Do you see the progression here? Prostitution is first an economic fact, and then a gesture of welcome between friends, and finally a common courtesy, like a cigarette or a cup of tea. I wondered, at first, if this obsessive attention to prostitution could be read as a kind of critique of colonialism, or a comment on the moral effects of the British imperial project. But no.

In a still-later scene, Brent describes a prostitute named Suki “who by European standards was no more than a child and looked absurdly fragile in his beefy arms”. This is an isolated moment of light-hearted physical contrast in a novel that otherwise takes itself extremely seriously. Significantly, it features a young woman who, if she was “European” – that is, worthy of civilized treatment – would be “no more than a child”. I don’t think the word “beefy” is an accident, here. It’s an evocation of what’s familiarly, essentially English. And the “beefy” Englishman who holds Suki – a loud-mouthed but fundamentally loyal and reliable soldier – has the approval of all characters. Could the subtext be any clearer? Child prostitution is a harmless joke, as long as the women are brown and the men are white.

*Let us all pause for a moment to bellow in rage and disgust.*

I am going to finish this novel, because I need to be as thorough as possible in my research. I remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that something towards the end of the book will demolish all my objections. But I’m sad and afraid I’m on the right track.

I have a terrible taste in my mouth right now. What are you reading, friends? What do you recommend to cheer me up, when this thing is over?

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Nona Baker

June 3rd, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m currently time-travelling in the colony formerly known as Malaya. I’m interested, specifically, in the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War and how different groups of Malayans responded to the threat.

Here in the west, many people don’t learn about WWII’s Pacific theatre of war at school. Certainly, my own education focused on France, Britain and Germany, with a dash of Russia and Italy, and a rousing finale by the United States of America. However, there was also a Pacific War and its Axis aggressor was Japan. The most famous incident in the Pacific War, the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, was just one part of a multi-pronged assault. On that same night in December, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The next month, the Japanese turned their attention to Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and northern Australia.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941, the local population was an ethnic mixture of aboriginal peoples, Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a small percentage of white (mainly British) colonists who controlled the colony’s industry, politics and, of course, wealth. In the prelude to one of military history’s most ignominious defeats, the British failed to take the Japanese threat seriously. Their attitude is well represented by the the Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas: when informed of the invasion, he reportedly said, “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.” Far from shoving the little men off, however, “Fortress Singapore” fell to the Japanese in just 70 days.

By the time the British surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942, nearly all white civilians had evacuated – and had done so, very conspicuously, at the expense of the local non-white population. One remarkable exception to the white flight was Nona Baker, “a parson’s youngest daughter” from Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

Nona Baker

Nona Baker first travelled to Malaya to keep house for her brother, Vin (V. B. C. Baker), who was general manager of a mine at Sungei Lembing, “the single largest tin mine in the world”. Before the war, her brother was the most powerful man in the region, universally called Tuan Besar, or “Big Master” in the Malay language. Nona became known as Missie. Vin Baker seems to have been a classic Victorian paternalist in his management of the mine and his workers. Nona believes that “he was a king and father to the people, and they certainly adored him”.

When the Japanese invaded, Vin couldn’t conceive of a British defeat. Even as the Japanese advanced rapidly south through Malaya, Vin refused to leave his community. He made plans to hide in the jungle with Nona: after all, it would be only a matter of weeks, or perhaps a couple of months at most. Three trusted workers built Missie and Tuan Besar a hut in the jungle and stocked it with a primus stove, paraffin and tinned food. Still, denial prevailed. When the Japanese Army rolled into Sungei Lembing, Vin and Nona were quite rattled: “In the hurry of our departure, I had seized the tool kit from the car and taken it with me, instead of carrying something which might have been of some use.” They also forgot to bring any reading material, an omission they bitterly regretted during their long, idle days in hiding.

As it turns out, they weren’t in hiding for a few weeks or months. Nona Baker remained in the jungle for THREE YEARS. Despite the danger of being caught by the Japanese or betrayed by spies, their faithful servants visited them every ten days in the jungle to bring them fresh food, coffee, paraffin and news. (The servants also had Vin’s false teeth repaired, again at immense personal risk: the dentist who fixed the dentures recognized that they were made in Europe.) After the first year, Vin and Nona’s supply of money ran out and they took the decision to go live among the orang bukit, or “hill people”: a euphemism for camps of Communist guerrillas who lived in the jungle and actively resisted the Japanese occupiers.

Nona and Vin were welcomed by the Communists, both out of principle (Nona says that she never saw a refugee turned away by guerrillas, even when food was extremely scarce) and financial savvy (Communist leaders recognized that they could raise funds locally, using Vin’s name). For three years, Nona and Vin lived as very few white people had ever done, in Malaya: on terms of relative equality with local people.

In 1944, Vin Baker died of illness – a combination of malaria, dysentery and beri-beri. He’d suffered from bouts of depression since going into hiding, and these must have contributed to his weakness. What’s much more remarkable is that Nona Baker survived. She gives a few dutiful reasons for her persistence: wanting to demonstrate that not all British were cowards and quitters; looking after Vin; the need to tell her mother, after the war, how Vin died. But there must have been something beyond that – an essential desire to learn, to know, to live. Despite her self-effacing explanations, Nona Baker was an extraordinary woman.

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

Nona Baker was briefly famous after the war, when she was delivered into the care of Force 136 (the equivalent of SOE in Southeast Asia), contributed information to Freddy Spencer Chapman‘s report on local Communist organizations, and returned to England. But it was only in 1959 that she felt able to dictate a memoir of her time amongst the Communists. It’s called Pai Naa: The Story of Nona Baker. (Pai Naa, the name she was given by the guerrillas, means something like, “White Nona”.) Nona Baker remains the only documented white woman to have survived the war by living in the jungle. While it is true, as she admits, she was only “busily saving my own skin”, it is remarkable to have her even-handed portrait of life amongst the guerrillas. It’s an intimate record that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

(This post also appears today at the History Girls.)

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