Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk (tr. Ekin Oklap)

This is the first book I’ve read by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. It sounded fascinating – a murder mystery set on a fictional Mediterranean island during an outbreak of plague at the turn of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting!

It would be easy to assume that this was a book written in response to the Covid pandemic (I certainly did), but it seems that Pamuk actually started work on Nights of Plague in 2016. Obviously now that we’ve all had experience of living through a pandemic, that element of the novel has taken on new relevance, but it’s made clear that the illness described in the book is a form of bubonic plague rather than a respiratory virus like Covid, so the causes, symptoms, methods of transmission and outcomes are very different. On the other hand, there are also lots of parallels – in 1901, just like in 2020, with no vaccine available the only way to really tackle the progress of the disease is through quarantine and isolation. People protest against the restrictions, members of government break their own rules, and while the crisis brings some communities together it creates division in others.

The fictional island at the heart of all of this is Mingheria, an outpost of the Ottoman Empire with a population made up of both Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The governor, Sami Pasha, is doing his best to implement quarantine measures on the island but they are having little effect and he is being held back by having to wait for official orders from the Sultan in Istanbul. As the novel opens, a ship is on its way to Mingheria from Istanbul carrying the Sultan’s niece Princess Pakize, her husband Doctor Nuri, and the Royal Chemist, Bonkowski Pasha. Bonkowski’s job is to investigate the outbreak of plague, but before he is able to draw any conclusions he is murdered.

With Bonkowski Pasha dead, it’s now up to Doctor Nuri to give advice on quarantine arrangements, while also looking into the circumstances of the chemist’s murder. The Sultan, who has become a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sends instructions that he must use ‘the methods of Sherlock Holmes’. There’s the basis of an exciting story here – yet the mystery element is virtually abandoned until much later in the novel and even when we return to it, it turns out not to be all that exciting after all. Much more time is spent describing the plague and the attempts to get the outbreak under control. With Covid in mind, I found this quite interesting to read about, but the book is written in such a factual and impersonal style it might as well have been non-fiction. There’s a reason for the dry style – we are told at the beginning that the whole book is supposed to be a history of Mingheria compiled by a modern day historian based on letters sent by Princess Pakize to her sister – but it means the book isn’t much fun to read, there’s not a lot of dialogue and there are pages and pages of exposition.

I felt that what Orhan Pamuk was really trying to do was tell the story of the final years of the Ottoman Empire through the lens of Mingheria’s plague response and the political change that follows on the island as a result. He has a lot to say about national identity, the reclaiming of the Mingherian language (almost forgotten as those who once spoke it grow old and die), the challenges of breaking away from rule by a larger power and the tensions between different religious groups who share the same small island.

So, lots of interesting ideas and themes in this book, but I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading it. It was far too long and slow and needed some editing, in my opinion. Ekin Oklap’s translation seemed fine – I think my problems were due to the overall style and pace of the book. I did become quite immersed in it after a while, but I was pleased to reach the end and I think a non-fiction book about the fall of the Ottoman Empire might have been a better use of my time! I don’t know whether this novel is typical of Orhan Pamuk’s work but I’m not really tempted to read any more just yet.

Thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Snow Child to Murder Under the Christmas Tree

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I read this when it was first published and found it a beautiful, magical story – a perfect winter read.

A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s THE SNOW CHILD was a top ten bestseller in hardback and paperback, and went on to be a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.

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Despite having read the first book, which often makes things easier, I struggled to get started this month. I tried linking The Snow Child to other books based on Russian fairy tales, to other books set in winter and to books with snow in the title, but in each case I only got two or three links along the chain before getting stuck. Eventually, I decided to start with a link to another book with ‘child’ in the title: A Word Child by Iris Murdoch (1). I really enjoyed this story of Hilary Burde, a London office worker who thinks he has arranged everything in his life just as he wants it, until a face from the past arrives and throws everything into disarray.

The Hilary in A Word Child is a man; a female character who shares the same name is Hilary Craven in Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie (2). This is one of Christie’s standalone thrillers and is set in Morocco, first in Casablanca and Fez and then in the High Atlas Mountains. Hilary finds herself agreeing to impersonate a dying woman so that she can go in search of the woman’s husband, a scientist who has disappeared without trace. I found this book entertaining but too far fetched and bizarre to be a favourite Christie.

The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani (3) is also set in Morocco. The book was written in French and is available in an English translation by Sam Taylor. It tells the story of Mathilde, a young woman from France who marries a Moroccan soldier at the end of WWII and goes to live with him in Meknes. The book describes how she struggles to settle into her new home and tries to find a place for herself in this ‘country of others’.

I seem to have read a lot of books translated into English from French – probably more than from any other language. One of these is The Princess of Cleves, or La Princesse de Clèves to give it its French title. This classic novel was first published anonymously (and translated anonymously too) in 1678, but was later believed to be the work of Madame de Lafayette. It’s set at the royal court of Henri II and is said to be one of the earliest psychological novels.

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (5) was also originally published anonymously. Set in the small village of Mellstock in Wessex, it follows the romance between Dick Dewy and Fancy Day and is a beautiful portrayal of rural life as one season turns into the next. This is an unusually cheerful, uplifting book for Hardy; I often recommend it to people who find him too bleak and depressing!

From under one tree to under another! I think I’ve used Murder Under the Christmas Tree (6) in a previous Six Degrees chain, but it’s too good a link not to use again here. Edited by Cecily Gayford, this is a collection of Christmas-themed short stories from classic and modern crime authors, ranging from Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr to Val McDermid and Ian Rankin.

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And that’s my chain for this month! My links have included: ‘child’ titles, the name Hilary, Morocco, French translations, books published anonymously and ‘under the tree’.

In January we’ll be starting with Beach Read by Emily Henry. Will you join us?

The Mysterious Mr Badman by W.F. Harvey

The British Library are doing a great job of bringing the work of obscure or long-forgotten authors back into print with their Crime Classics series and William Fryer Harvey is another. Better known for his horror stories such as The Beast with Five Fingers and August Heat, he also wrote a crime novel, The Mysterious Mr Badman, which was originally published in 1934. I was immediately drawn to this book not just by the title, but also the subtitle, A Yorkshire Bibliomystery!

As Martin Edwards points out in the introduction, this must be the only crime novel with a blanket manufacturer as the protagonist. His name is Athelstan Digby and as the novel opens he is visiting his nephew in the Yorkshire village of Keldstone. One day he offers to take charge of the village bookshop so the bookseller and his wife can go to a funeral. Digby is expecting a quiet, uneventful afternoon so he is amazed when three men separately enter the shop within the space of a few hours, all asking for a copy of the same book: Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr Badman. Digby is unable to find this book on the shelves, but when a boy arrives at the shop later that day with a pile of old books to sell – including Mr Badman – he becomes even more suspicious. What is going on – and why is that particular book so important?

This is a short novel, so I won’t go into the plot in much more detail…except to say that it’s great fun. There are murders, incriminating letters, political conspiracies, a touch of romance and a lot of humour! With character names like Athelstan Digby, Euphemia Upstart, Olaf Wake and Kitchener Lilywhite, you can see that it’s not a book to be taken entirely seriously, but at the same time it’s a clever, interesting and well written novel and one of the most enjoyable I’ve read from the British Library Crime Classics series for a while. Just be aware that it’s more of a thriller than a conventional detective novel; the mystery is actually solved quite early in the book and the significance of Mr Badman and the identity of the villain are revealed much sooner than you would expect. The fun is in watching Digby team up with his nephew Jim Pickering and Jim’s love interest Diana Conyers to try to decide what they should do with the information they’ve obtained.

As always when I read mysteries written in this period, I was struck by not only how much more difficult some aspects of crime-solving were in those days (no internet, no DNA testing) but also how much easier other aspects were. It was far simpler to trace a particular car when there were so few of them on the roads and everyone would notice an unfamiliar one driving through their village. I really enjoyed watching Digby, Jim and Diana investigate the mystery using the methods available to them in the 1930s, even if they occasionally walk straight into traps that are quite obvious to anyone who reads a lot of Golden Age crime fiction! I also loved the Yorkshire setting, although not all of the novel is set there.

Although, as I’ve said, Harvey is better known as a horror writer, it seems that the character of Digby previously appeared in a book of short stories, The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby. I hope that one will become available as a BLCC book soon too.

My Commonplace Book: November 2022

A selection of words and pictures to represent November’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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I liked the moon, with its soft silver beams. It was at once elusive and filled with trickery, so that lost objects that had rolled into the crevices of a room were rarely found, and books read in its light seemed to contain all sorts of fanciful stories that were never there the next morning.

The Ghost Bride by Yangzse Choo (2013)

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Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

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Pendle Hill and the Ribble Valley

‘I call upon the powers of the night to curse this man.’ I yelled the words, holding both arms above my head. ‘I summon the power of the dark moon to strike him down.’ I was bluffing, of course. No witch can summon up powers in that fashion, but a good percentage of witchcraft is the ability to make people believe. And, sometimes, to scare them witless.

The Buried by Sharon Bolton (2022)

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Memory didn’t reveal the past, but some vestige of it, coloured by what happened later and what is happening in the present moment. Memory is at the service of our will. We hide from what it’s inconvenient to remember – or unbearable to acknowledge. How else could we live with ourselves?

The Darlings of the Asylum by Noel O’Reilly (2022)

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Sometimes a thread breaks and there is no picking up of that thread again. This does not happen much in books for it is considered bad writing to leave a thread hanging. Threads like that can unravel, the whole garment made ragged and its shape altered.

Blue Postcards by Douglas Bruton (2021)

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Desperate people tried prophylactics and remedies ranging from quarantine and laxatives to bloody self-flagellation and plague-themed prayer. But the sad fact was that the plague’s spread illustrated nothing so much as the deep interconnection between medieval communities – and their terrible vulnerability to an infection that thrived on human mobility, overcrowding and limited standards of hygiene.

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones (2021)

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Statue of Julian of Norwich, west front, Norwich Cathedral

Grief marks a person, changing them for ever, like a tree struck by lightning. The tree may keep growing, but never in the same way.

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie (2023)

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‘Anyone can fool the world by acting a part. Even the devil can give alms,’ said Mr Sutcliffe.

‘But how can we determine character, if not by actions?’

‘We must look for the intention behind the deed.’

The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe (2022)

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There is no use sighing over the past when the future is ours.

The Mysterious Mr Badman by WF Harvey (1934)

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‘Yes,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I had thought of that.’

‘I suppose you think of everything!’ said Lucy bitterly.

‘Well, dear, one has to, really.’

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie (1957)

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Cover of the 1855 German edition

But it will be better, and more correct, if I say that all evil derives from bad example, and the weakness of our nature lies merely in our being obliged to follow that bad example. Furthermore, I am persuaded that the human race is positively destined to set it.

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by ETA Hoffmann (1819)

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Or is it that if someone has power over you, you just don’t have the confidence or energy or whatever, to challenge them? Because some people have that charisma, don’t they? Born leaders. They tell you they have the answers, in such a way you believe they really do. But just because someone is a born leader, doesn’t mean you should follow them.

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett (2023)

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Perhaps that was the point. You don’t need to be the strongest person in the room. Just the bravest.

The Murder Game by Tom Hindle (2023)

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Tomorrow, tomorrow! Don’t think about it until it happens! You are beginning to dwell on it, and you mustn’t.

The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough (1987)

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Favourite books read in November:

The Buried, The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels, 4.50 from Paddington and The Mysterious Mr Badman

Authors read for the first time in November:

Noel O’Reilly, Douglas Bruton, Marianne Ratcliffe, Claire Keegan, Victoria Mackenzie, ETA Hoffmann, WF Harvey

Places visited in my November reading:

Malaya, England, France, Ireland, Australia, Germany

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November reading notes: November is always a busy month with lots of reading and blogging events taking place, so I’m pleased to say that I managed to join in with most of them. I read several novellas for Novellas in November, finished a nonfiction book for Nonfiction November and was able to fit in books for AusReading Month and German Literature Month as well. Sadly I didn’t have time to read anything for Margaret Atwood Reading Month but do have some of her books on the TBR that I would like to read soon anyway. As you can see I’ve also made a start on some of my NetGalley review copies for 2023!

In December, I’m hoping to read at least one or two books for Liz’s Dean Street Press December but otherwise have no special plans!

How was your November? What are you planning to read in December?

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – #NovNov22

I hadn’t really considered reading this book until my post on the HWA Crown Awards for Historical Fiction, when several of you commented that you had read and loved it. Around the same time, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and again I saw a lot of praise for it, so when I saw how short it was (128 pages in the edition pictured here) I thought I would give it a try for this year’s Novellas in November.

Small Things Like These is set in a small town in Ireland during the winter of 1985. The weather has turned cold and frosty and Bill Furlong, coal and timber merchant, finds his deliveries very much in demand, with customers desperate to heat their homes. Seeing how his friends and neighbours are struggling, Bill knows how lucky he is to have his own business and to be happily married with five lovely children.

Just before Christmas, Bill delivers coal to the local convent and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed, worrying about her hungry baby. Bill is left greatly disturbed by this encounter, particularly as he himself was the child of a single mother and if it hadn’t been for the kindness of his mother’s employer who helped to care for them both, they might also have been sent to a convent. His wife, Eileen, advises him not to get involved, but Bill continues to feel uneasy about the girls working in the convent laundry and the way the nuns are treating them. He knows he will eventually have to make a decision – but what will it be?

This is a quiet but powerful story, with the details of daily life in a small Irish community beautifully described. It didn’t feel like the 1980s to me, though – if I hadn’t known I would have thought it was set at least a few decades earlier. Maybe that was intentional, as some stories really are timeless. Considering how short the book is, Bill’s character is fully developed and his emotional dilemma is portrayed in depth.

Before reading this book, I had never read anything about the Magdalene Laundries, which were run by convents and were really homes for unmarried mothers and ‘fallen women’. There were allegations of women being beaten, punished and treated as slaves and although the last of these laundries closed in 1996, the Irish government didn’t issue an apology until 2013. Through Bill Furlong’s story Keegan explores the question of complicity and whether by staying silent when we know something is wrong we can be held partly responsible. This aspect of the book reminds me of A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, which looks at another scandal within the Catholic Church.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve come to the end of a hugely popular book feeling that although I liked it and found a lot to admire, I didn’t manage to love it the way everyone else did. In this case I think I just wanted a little bit more. It ended quite abruptly just as I was getting really interested in it and I would have liked to have known what happened to the characters next. I’m sure other readers will have thought it was the perfect length and ended in exactly the right place! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more by Claire Keegan and will think about reading Foster for next year’s Novellas in November.

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by ETA Hoffmann

Translated by Anthea Bell

Last year I read a book based on ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and although I wasn’t impressed, it left me longing to read something by Hoffmann himself. I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to read The Nutcracker, so I decided to see whether one of his other books appealed to me more. That’s how I came across his 1819 novel, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which sounded absolutely fascinating!

This very unusual novel could almost be described as two books in one. First of all, it’s the autobiography of Murr, an exceptionally intelligent tomcat who lives with the magician and alchemist Master Abraham. As a kitten he secretly teaches himself to read and write and proceeds to educate himself from his master’s library. Having had a series of adventures, he decides it’s time to write his memoirs…but his pages accidentally become mixed up with pages from a very different book:

When Murr the cat was writing his Life and Opinions, he found a printed book in his master’s study, tore it up without more ado, and, thinking no ill, used its pages partly to rest his work on, partly as blotting paper. These pages were left in the manuscript – and were inadvertently printed too, as if they were part of it.

This other book turns out to be a biography of Kapellmeister (conductor) Johannes Kreisler, a musical genius and friend of Master Abraham’s. Kreisler’s story unfolds alongside Murr’s, with a few pages of one followed by a few pages of the other, often breaking off mid-sentence as the end of the page is reached. Murr’s sections are marked with ‘M. Cont’ while Kreisler’s are headed ‘W.P.’ (Waste Paper). However, despite the Kreisler biography being printed on ‘waste paper’ and seemingly finding its way into Murr’s book by chance, the two stories are linked by the character of Master Abraham and, towards the end, there are hints of a much stronger connection between the two.

I found Murr’s story great fun to read. He has a strong and unique narrative voice, being vain, precocious and over-confident, but still with the qualities of the cat he is and always will be – he has an instinctive wariness of dogs and is easily tempted by a bowl of milk. His memoirs are told in chronological order, describing his kittenhood, his self-education, his romance with a beautiful female cat and his uneasy but close friendship with Ponto the poodle, who is less well-read but wiser in the ways of the world.

Kreisler, by contrast, is a very different personality – quiet, nervous and melancholic. His story becomes very convoluted, being intertwined with the lives of German royalty as he finds himself at the fictitious court of Prince Irinaeus of Sieghartshof and is drawn to two young women, Princess Hedwiga and her friend Julia Benzon. I found this much less interesting to read than Murr’s story, although if I’d had more knowledge of early 19th century German society and its intricacies it’s possible that I would have appreciated it more. At times I struggled to stay engaged with the Kreisler sections of the book and found myself looking forward to rejoining Murr. I’ve read that Hoffmann apparently based Kreisler on himself and used him as a character in several of his other books – and again, maybe if I’d know more about Hoffmann himself this would have had more significance for me.

My Penguin Classics edition of the novel contains two volumes of The Tomcat Murr which were published between 1819-1821. Sadly, Hoffmann died in 1822 and a planned third volume was never completed. That’s not really a problem, because the second volume does have quite a satisfactory ending, but there are still a lot of loose ends that aren’t tied up and it’s slightly frustrating not knowing how the story would have concluded! If you’re interested in reading the book, I can recommend this particular edition – the translation by Anthea Bell is very readable and there’s an excellent introduction by Jeremy Adler (best read after finishing the book), as well as notes and suggestions for further reading.

Have you read this or anything else by Hoffmann? I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 34/50 from my second Classics Club list and also counts towards this year’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life

The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough

I acquired a copy of this book when it was published in a new edition in 2015 following Colleen McCullough’s death that year. For some reason, despite loving The Thorn Birds (which I read long before I started blogging so have no review to link to here), I had never read any of her other books and was looking forward to this one. Then I read that there had been accusations of plagiarism when the book was originally published in 1987 due to it apparently being so similar to LM Montgomery’s 1926 novel, The Blue Castle, and that put me off for a while. However, I was looking for something to read for Aus Reading Month (hosted by Brona of This Reading Life and thought I would give it a try. I was unsure whether I could also count it towards Novellas in November as there were 224 pages in my edition (more than the upper limit of 200 for a novella) but several of those pages turned out to be an excerpt from another McCullough book, so I think it counts!

The Ladies of Missalonghi is set in the early 1900s in the small town of Byron in Australia’s Blue Mountains. For generations the Hurlingford family, descendants of the town’s founder, the first Sir William Hurlingford, have held all the power in Byron, owning most of the land and running almost all of the businesses. Only the male Hurlingfords are able to inherit financially, so any unmarried or widowed women find themselves impoverished and relying on the charity of their relatives. Thirty-three-year-old Missy Wright is one of these women; she has never married and lives with her widowed mother, Drusilla Wright (formerly Hurlingford), and spinster aunt, Octavia, in a house known as Missalonghi after the Greek town where the poet Lord Byron died in 1824.

Plain and dark-haired in a clan of tall, blonde Hurlingfords and always dressed in brown to save money, it is now looking likely that Missy will remain single, but she has never given up hope of one day owning a red dress and escaping from her humdrum existence. The romance novels provided by her librarian friend Una are her ‘only solace and sole luxury’ – until one day a stranger arrives in Byron. His name is John Smith and he has bought land in the valley nearby. Has Missy found a way to escape at last?

The Ladies of Missalonghi is in many ways a typical romance novel but it’s an enjoyable one and has a few elements that I found particularly interesting. First, there’s the portrayal of the fate of unmarried women in the years just before World War I, women like Missy, Drusilla and Octavia who lack financial independence and have limited options for improving their position in life. The women of Missalonghi have been treated badly by the men they are forced to rely on for support and scorned by the wealthier, more privileged Hurlingford women. Missy is determined to see these people get their comeuppance, but I won’t tell you how she goes about it as that’s part of the fun of the story!

There’s also a supernatural element that I wasn’t expecting – quite a subtle one, but it’s there and I’m not really sure that it was necessary, particularly as it only emerges at the end and there weren’t any clues to suggest that it was going to happen. On the other hand, it fits with the whole fairy-tale feel of the plot (with Missy as Cinderella). It was actually the romantic thread of the novel that I found least interesting as there didn’t appear to be any chemistry between hero and heroine and their relationship seemed to be based on lies and deceit.

As for the plagiarism issue, I have never read The Blue Castle so can’t comment. McCullough denied the allegations, saying the similarities were unintentional – she had read the book as a child and the details must have stayed with her subconsciously. Whether that’s the truth or not, I can’t see why an already successful author would do something like that deliberately, knowing she would be found out. I’ll have to read The Blue Castle one day to see what I think.