Charlie Britten's writing blog

Available from Le French Book.   (Yes, that really is the name of the publisher!)

I read this book after reading an earlier review by FictionFan, as I was instantly attracted to the idea of a crime fiction story set against the backdrop of the French wine industry.  In the blurb at the end, I was invited to order more books in the series featuring oenologist Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien, but, Dear Reader, I shall decline.

What struck me as I started to read was that I was being invited to share the life of a man whose life was perfect:  a loving wife, an adoring dog (called Bacchus – what else?), a lovely house in the beautiful area of Medoc and a highly successful career as a world authority on wine.  He drank fine wines for lunch and his wife rustled up delicious French meals.  High brow and intellectual, someonFinca_Solano_Tempranillo_Crianzae who appreciated classical music and seventeeth century French literature, he also has enough money to collect art and antiques.  There was a good feel about this main character and the general set-up, which made me realise, very quickly, what had been wrong about the last few books I had read.  I wanted to be Benjamin Cooker and to enjoy his life, whereas I had no desire at all to be the characters in the other novels.   Transporting the reader to a better world, where they can be richer, more comfortable and experience more excitement (without the dangers – obviously) is an essential element in all fiction, even gritty fiction.  Putting the reader into a different skin, that of the main character, where they can be braver, funnier and generally more interesting and better appreciated, is equally important.  This, the authors, did very well.

The character of Benjamin Cooker (since we’re talking about characters) was understated but well-drawn, a perfectionist who couldn’t sleep because he was afraid of not getting a wine quite right in his famous guide, reserved to the point that he didn’t want to mention to his assistant that he had a daughter.   All the other characters – of which there were generally too many – paled into the background.   Like many fictional detectives, he had rather too many ‘very good friends’ who turned up conveniently when they were needed in the storyline.  Cooker’s wife was a bit of a Dora Wexford (see Ruth Rendell)  but she lacked Dora’s comfortable but defined personality.

The work was written in French by French writers and tranlated by Anne Trager,  into American English unfortunately, even though the Cooker character was supposed to be British.  This jarred, not only because of the inevitable Webster spellings and occasional American words like ‘convertible’ and ‘pick up’, but American concepts like ‘high schools’.  That apart, the English style was pedestrian, with many phrases linked with ‘and’, lots of reps and sentences all constructed in the same way.

I haven’t yet mentioned the thrust of the story, the plot.  That is because the thrust of the novel was so wrapped up in Cooker and his wine that the plot was difficult to discern and the sleuthing  impossible to follow.  The reader had to wade his/her way through about a third of the book before a crime occurred – a crime that was scientific, technical and very involved – and then through another third to get to a proper murder, which was never investigated in the usual sense.  The police did not feature at all.  There is no reason, of course, why all crime stories should be about murders and police, although they usually are.  However, Cooker was following all manner of random leads, with great enthusiasm, but they seemed to relate to his art collection, not towards solving the crime, and the link was never properly explained.  As a result, the novel lacked tension.

So would I recommend ‘Treachery in Bordeaux’?  For the feel good factor, yes.

(Image from Wikipedia.)

Hello, Dear Reader.  Remember me?  I would understand if you can’t.  Bloggers are supposed to post frequently – hey ho!  I’m not a good blogger – evidently.

Over the last few weeks, I have been struggling with a short story and just getting the hang of it when REAL LIFE intervened yet again.  Since I last opened the file for that story, my one and only husband and I have been visitated by my beloved son and girlfriend, my favourite daughter and amazing grandson, and various others.  And oh, we’ve started a new term, which involved (amongst other things) writing three very long worksheets on using WordPress and one on using Dropbox, to say nothing of planning lessons, dealing with students’ issues and management’s voracious appetite for statistics.

So, I thought I would make a list of the Writerly Things I Have Learned, during the few years I have gone public with my writing.  (Before that, I had written huge quantities of stuff, mainly novels, but not really shared it with anybody.)  Here goes:

  1. Real Life (see above), which so gets in the way of writing, is a writer’s best raw material.   Dear Writer, don’t knock it.  Some writers will tell you that their writing is the most important thing in their lives.  No, it isn’t.  Your family and friends are.  The more eventful your life, the more resources you have… without resorting to reading it up on the internet.  People like me whose lives have been spectacularly pedestrian are disadvantaged here, although even we have conflict and encounter characters.
  2.  The first bit of advice that the Real Writers on online writing sites told me was ‘Thou Shalt Not Use Adverbs”.  Emphatically.   However, when you read those things called books (even ebooks), you find them littered with adverbs.  Definitely.
  3. However good you think your spelling and grammar is, it isn’t.  My advice would be to write with a dictionary to hand and also ‘New Fowler’s English Usage’.
  4. We all have our favourite words and phrases.  Recognise and avoid them.
  5. You can’t write when you’re exhausted.  If your brain seems to have turned into cottonwool and you’re staring at a blank screen, log off.  However, you might ask yourself how much you want to write and balance that against the things that are tiring you out.  These might even include the day job.  Can you afford to work less?
  6. There are many, many worse writers than you out there and they’re getting published, making mistakes you wouldn’t dream of.   Think about what they’re doing that you’re not.  Maybe they’re better at publicity, better at subbing to the right market or just in the right place at the right time?
  7. Writing is a young person’s vocation.  And they’re doing it very well.  If you’re an older writer, don’t assume that your readers have had experienced the same events and same thought processes as you.  If your mc is an eighteen year old, make him/her behave eighteen, without the wisdom and gravitas of a fifty-five year old… ooh and without patronising either.
  8. Plan your stories.  Yes, I know you’re dying to dive straight in… Hello Chapter 11 Syndrome!
  9. If you write straight on to computer, be totally on top of Word, or whatever wp package you’re using.  You can’t write if you’re battling the software application.  Handwrite on paper and type up, if computers don’t come naturally.
  10. While we’re on IT, save every few minutes and back up at least every week.  For backing up, use a larger device like an external hard drive AND cloud storage like Dropbox – so you’re all prepared when you’re computer goes pop.  In fact, don’t save anything on folders in My Documents at all.
  11. If, while you’re writing, you discard a few paragraphs, save them in a separate ‘dump’ file.  You never know when you might need them again.
  12. Switch off the television when you’re writing.
  13. Read, but not passively.  Analyse what you’re reading:  1st or 3rd person, past/present tense, length etc.
  14. Write about what you enjoy.  If you don’t, no one else will.
  15. Sounds, especially music, are difficult to get on to a page.  Of course, you should mention them, but beware of the issues.
  16. And from Julie Wow:  Try not to compare yourself to anyone else. Tread your own path.Cartoon writerHope this strikes a chord.  Please write in with Writerly Points of your own.

Available from Alfie Dog.  (This is the review I’ve posted on to Amazon and Goodreads, as a member of the AlfieDog reading panel.)

Mrs Ada Harris, an elderly lady apparently working as a cleaner, is sent to investigate two murders in the traditional seaside resort of Upper Markham. Based at an old fashioned hotel, the reader is served up a table d’hote menu with a fixed number of suspects, but not everybody is who they are supposed to be. Moreover, there is a practical joker at work, causing much dissension amongst the elderly guests. Unfortunately, I guessed who the murderer was very early on, although after this reveal there follows a lengthy and complicated explanation of why, and more of who was impersonating whom.

This is cosy crime as its cosiest, tinged with Fawlty Towers and James Bond. There is even a Major! The setting is firmly based in what Lucy Worsley (‘A Very British Murder’) calls ‘The Golden Age’, with characters addressing each other as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, even ‘Miss Elizabeth’ and ‘Miss Katherine’; and saying things like, ‘I’m forgetting my manners’. However, although none of the characters has a computer or a mobile phone, we are given to understand that the action all happened in the twenty-first century. This just doesn’t fit very well.

The author’s vocabulary was in places bizarre, as were her commas. The word ‘covetously’ was incorrectly used several times, as was ‘waiving’, and in one sentence a character ‘nodded in ascent’. In the blurb introducing this book, we are told that Annette Siketa is blind, so presumably she ‘wrote’ this novel using voice recognition software (such as ‘Dragon Naturally Speaking’), which is notoriously unreliable with homophones – or anything approaching a homophone – so we must not make too much of this. On the other hand, she deployed lovely earthy phrases such as ‘When she condescended to speak, her mouth was little wider than a coin slot’ and ‘Miss Katherine had stared at the floor, as though inspecting the carpet for fleas’.

Nevertheless, I read it. An easy and undemanding story.

Well, well, well, this is a good week, because my story ‘Ella’s Holiday‘ was published on CafeLit earlier this week.  Very timely, as it’s all about teachers planning their holidays.  Pity I myself have to go back to work on Monday, not to teach – yet – but to prepare for next year.

With a visit from Jordan (our friend from Houston), a week in the Tyrol and three days in Northern France, it’s all gone very quickly.  I’m also very pleased to announced – der-de-der-de-der – that I’ve finished cleaning out the kitchen cupboards AND the utility room shelves.  I’ve now forgotten about work so completely that, this morning, not only could I not remember my work password, but I couldn’t remember the telephone number of IT Services either.  I did remember the number eventually, though, and I’m now plucking up courage to Look At The Work Emails on my home computer.  I may be gone some time…

 

My review of ‘While No One Was Watching’ (which I referred to in my post of 5 June 2014) has been published in The Copperfield Review.  Hurray!  Many more cheers, though, for Debz Hobbs-Wyatt for writing the book.  (I just did the easy part.)

Imo, writing reviews of other writers’ work is a win-win for all hopeful writers.  Firstly, and very obviously, it is necessary to read the novel/short story first, all the time thinking about what is pivotal to the story, characterisation, use of language and, generally, what you will include in your review – which is very different from reading a book casually, for pleasure.  Analysing other authors’ work in this way shows me how to tackle storylines and characters;  the way Debz drip-fed the back story into ‘While No One Was Watching’ was inspirational, something which I will attempt to emulate when I get back to writing The Novel.

I use ‘notes and highlights’ on the Kindle menu to pick out passages for putting into the review, although I rarely refer to them; if I make the effort to make a note about something, it is retained in the best note-taking application in the world – the human brain.  (Tell it not to Evernote!  Or to my students, whom I’m always telling to use Evernote!)  Writing reviews didn’t come easily to me at first, but doing them here, on this blog, when I’m my own editor and therefore more relaxed, I have developed my own style, which helps me to write more fluently when I’m composing reviews for (other) publication.

Secondly, reviews do generally get published and your name appears in well-regarded mags (like The Copperfield, which is at the top of its field (historical)) alongside good authors.  And the editor is used to hearing from you and knows your name when you do a proper sub – that is, a story.

Go on, Dear Writer.  Review something.

Cat Reading Kindle

 

I was about to start this post by reporting that this book must be out of print.  I actually found it for £3 on a secondhand bookstall in St Mary’s Market, Cambridge.  However, I am very heartened to learn that it’s still very much out there, and available to purchase from World of Books and also obtainable to borrow from WorldCat.org.

So who was Angela Brazil? Why is she important? Why is someone bothering to read and review a biography written in 1976? Especially when she is on holiday. Is it the rain pouring down from the Alps, or the parties of bored Austrian teenagers doing karaoke in the bar across the road, in German, to songs I’ve never heard before, and never want to hear again? To all of this, I can honestly answer No… apart from never wanting to hear karaoke in German again.

Angela Brazil wrote school stories for girls, beginning at the turn of the 20th century and was still writing at the time of her death in 1947. As a pre-teen, I lived and breathed school stories: Mallory Towers, St Clare’s, The Naughtiest Girl in the School, the Chalet School series (all 60 of them!) and many, many more. My mother recommended the Chalet School, and Angela Brazil, but, whereas I was readily able to obtain copies of the former from the local library, I never really embraced Angela. I do remember bundles of hardback Angela Brazil books with their faded red and yellow covers, at the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe, below the folds of her flowing New Look dresses, but – children are funny things – I was put off by their general dusty smell and ‘old’ feel. I think I read one; it was about a girl called Nesta, who was adopted by her mother’s rich, childless friend, then returned to her real mother (‘Nesta’s New School’, which is still available on Amazon).

‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’ recounts the very full life of Angela Brazil: not just a writer, but a naturalist and painter, philanthropist, antiquarian, and local dignitary in Coventry, where she lived for most of her adult life. She studied the schoolgirl frame of mind by involving herself in every sort of activity which involved young people in her city, becoming a benefactor to local schools, involving schoolgirls in her new museum and giving massive and elaborate children’s parties. She never married, living, as single, middle-class people did in those days, with her elder brother and sister. The author implies, several times, in so many words, that Angela never actually grew up, that she was a perpetual schoolgirl. Maybe she was on paper, but, in real life, she was grand and domineering. Local poet, Abe Jephcott’s tribute to her after her death (quoted at the end of ‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’) begins like this:

‘At the head of the grand staircase
She received me.
Angela…
Ah! She stood as a statue would
New found in huge Isles of Greece,
Enrobed in gold and jewelled fold
Of emerald green and bright cerise.’

It is clear that her biographer, Gillian Freeman, didn’t like her subject very much, although her analysis of Angela’s work, and of the times in which she lived, is thorough and insightful. She quotes frequently and knowledgably from a wide range of Angela’s books, although sometimes her text is confusing to follow, because the layout on the page makes it difficult for the reader to work out whether he/she is reading a quote from one of Angela’s books or Gillian’s commentary. Also, she doesn’t cross reference fictional characters and real life personages enough; one is left wondering sometimes who exactly is the ‘Mildred’ or ‘Dotty’ about whom she is making such a strong point.

From a social history point of view, this biography is a valuable resource on life in England in the first part of the twentieth century, how people lived, their emotions, standards and attitudes. What Gillian only touched upon was the fact that education for girls was only just beginning at the time Angela was writing; it was both ground-breaking and a novelty for young girls to be together, away from home and able to get up to ‘jolly japes’ like their brothers. Her next point, however, was well-made, that Angela’s world view was otherwise old fashioned, even at the time she was writing it, that Picasso, the Bloomsbury Group, fascism and communism had all wafted over her.

Gillian also discussed in detail the physicality between the girls and their teachers, and their extravagant language, how they frequently referred to being ‘in love’ with a friend. Moreover, one of Angela’s heroines was named ‘Lesbia’. But Gillian knows and understands her subject, and the age in which she lived, well enough to recognise innocence and naivety. Women in the nineteenth century (the era where Angela belonged) did have very intense friendships and used very emotional words.

Well, dear Reader, are you still with me? Sorry this post is so long. Do I recommend this book – yes. Did I enjoy it, on a personal level – yes. More than that, though, I believe that Angela Brazil is very important in literature and in women’s literature in particular, because she wrote the first proper school stories for girls. Everything that came after – your Enid Blyton and your Chalet School, possibly even Harry Potter – developed the theme that Angela began, even if we haven’t read her output.

Please bear with me a bit longer, if you can. One of the reasons I’m now in Austria, in the Tyrol, close to Innsbruck, is because of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, which started off here. I can confirm that the area is every bit as beautiful as Elinor said it was and, after a bit of Googling, I discovered that Elinor has a memorial in Pachenau, which is close to here, and also that there is an organisation called ‘Friends of the Chalet School‘.  They don’t make school stories like they used to.

Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Library in Information Centre at Pachenau, Austria.

Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Library in Information Centre at Pachenau, Austria.

Available from BBC.

This book is a tie-in to accompany the BBC4 series of the same name (which I didn’t watch, because I don’t watch television).  Even though it is not an academic publication, it reads very much like one, in that it is thoroughly researched, with facts thoughtfully presented and synthesised to generate new information, and the author’s views balanced with meaningful comments from (real) academics… And P D James, who, as always, made more sense than the rest put together.

The author tackles the issue of why we Brits find murder fun. Indeed, why do we? We are a tasteless, prurient lot, soaking up all the salacious gory bits about true crimes and fictional ones. And we do this in a different way to the Americans. In fact, in what Lucy describes as ‘The Golden Age’, we liked our murders served up deadpan, with a few lines about a dagger and perhaps a very small patch of wet blood on a dinner jacket, after which we moved on to the Cluedo-like puzzle of  working out whodunit. The Americans on the other hand preferred a celeb detective, with a massive ego, snarling and drawling from a screen, not a printed page. But it wasn’t always so. Difficult as this might be for some of us to believe, detective fiction existed pre Agatha Christie.

Lucy takes us through the course of murder stories from Thomas de Quincy (Confessions of an English Opium Eater) in the 1800s to Scandi Crime – or does she? She takes through the appetite for true crime in the nineteenth century, including the salacious interest generated in the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and Jack the Ripper, and many Victorian authors and authoresses of which I’d never heard. She wrote about how murder fiction was presented, as ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ with woodcut illustrations, and how, even in those days, authors and readers tended to be female.

She then discusses what she calls ‘The Golden Age’, that is detective fiction written between the two World Wars, and particularly the female quartet consisting of Agatha Chrisite, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, who wrote what has also been called ‘cosy crime’ – Butlers in Conservatories, middle-class, country houses.  Lucy rightly points out that these detective novels were written in a comfortable way because, in the age when they were being published, readers, who were recovering from one war and being psyched up for the next, needed reassurance.  However, a lot of her other criticism of this genre reflects fashions in writing style and could be levelled at much literature written at this time, that characters were thin and stories were plot-led. The author also got her knickers in a twist about ‘The Golden Age’ being so ‘middle class’ –  maybe the middle classes should have nothing written for them at all?

The point where I really take issue is that, at the end of the book, she moves on far too fast from her ‘Golden Age’ , through thrillers and Noir to the present day, with a glancing reference to Scandi.  Lucy has completely missed out the generation that followed the ‘Golden Age’, still with their roots in ‘cosy crime’, even with a few servants in their earlier works… but moving on and gradually becoming darker  – writers like Ruth Rendell, P D James and Kate Atkinson.  Whole swathes of other modern writers she doesn’t mention either : Alexander McCall-Smith (the cosiest of them all) and Ian Rankin, and many, many more, some cosier than others.  Going back the servant issue, she could have made more of P D James’s preoccupation which cleaners as suspects in many of her later works.  The author could also have mentioned detective fiction in children’s literature, and possibly explored why it is that young teenagers often move on from children’s and YA books to Agatha Christie.

So would I recommend this work?  Yes, I think so, but more work needs to be done.  I believe her conclusion to be incorrect:  I think cosy crime, with its links in the ‘Golden Age’, is alive and thriving.

 

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