Charlie Britten's writing blog

Old style Kindle, with keyboard

Old style Kindle, with keyboard

Available from macmillan publishers.  In passing, Dear Reader, please note that I always try to give a non-Amazon link wherever I can for each book I review.  I’m trying to do my bit for traditional publishers, even ones as well established as macmillan.   I do this because Amazon mostly (although not always) scoop up and repackage books which other editors and publishers have done the work on, even though, I have to confess, DR, that I myself always buy from Amazon.  How else would I get books on to my old Kindle?  (Yes, it is an old Kindle now, with a keyboard and no touch screen, but I don’t intend to replace it until it conks out.)

Published early this year, ‘The Life I Left Behind’ is  crime fiction.  Following a long prologue, the book opens with the murder of Eve which appears similar to the brutal attack carried out on Melody Pieterson some years previously.  Both women –  and the dead woman in the prologue – were found wearing a gold chain with a little bird in a cage.  The story moves from Eve to Melody to Eve, back and forth repeatedly, with the result that, for some time, the storyline takes some time to get going.  Eve is bitter to the point of petulance and Melody messed up, unable to move on from her attack, and under the spell of a wealthy but controlling fiance.  At first they are difficult to love but, as the story develops, so do they, with the result that these characters grow upon the reader.  However, DI Victoria Rutter remains a shadowy figure; the only things we really know about her is she agonises about neglecting her children and she likes drinking bad coffee.  In my opinion, for a detective, she doesn’t occupy enough space in the book.

Someone has already been convicted of the attack on Melody and at first the reader is led to believe that he has struck again, but, as the story moves on, doubt creeps in.  Later on we are led towards an obvious murder suspect but there is another twist yet.  The well-structured plot and Colette’s great skill in conjuring up detail, of working through every little part of every action and of every scene, and of portraying emotion in seering intensity, lifts ‘The Life I Left Behind’ out of genre crime fiction into something more literary.

Do I recommend ‘The Life I Left Behind’, Dear Reader?  Yes, definitely.  Colette’s blog is here.  A former journalist and broadcaster, this is Colette’s second novel.

New Bridge at Mostar, Bosnia

The new bridge at Mostar, Bosnia.

Me myself, I spent a focused and enjoyable last Sunday afternoon and evening editing old stories and subbing.  (I usually find subbing a tense business.)  It was good to have the run of the house to check printed pages of snail mail subs in peace and quiet and a log fire on which to burn mistakes.   And, I’ve just learned that ‘Youth Imagination’ has accepted ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’, although it won’t appear until the March or April edition.  Hurray!

 

 

 

 

 

We all know about it being ‘a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’  (‘Pride and Prejudice’, Jane Austen), but there are many many others equally stunning, from proper literature, non-fiction and all the other sorts of writing.  The Pride and Prejudice example is so popular – and  the most quoted – because it accurately presages the novel to come, not just that it’s about middle class characters seeking husbands, but that the writer is funny.  The famous Jane Austen wit.   When you read articles/attend courses on writing, you are always told how important it is to get the first line right – attracting the reader’s attention, drawing the reader in.  Miss Austen, however, hit the mark straight off – amazingly – without MA in Creative Writing, scribbling by herself, long-hand, in rural Hampshire.

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)

‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’  On the face of it, this is the blandest of bland openings.  Is it such a big deal that they couldn’t go out on one particular day?  Initially, it was the ordinariness of this opening that I liked.  I myself have a predilection for novels with very plain titles.  (I wanted to call one of my own stories ‘A Family Day Out’, until wiser counsels (who didn’t share my unusual preference) got me to rename it ‘Cut to the End’.)  For me, a boring title or first line flags up a story about people and character, rather than a piece seeking to wow me with fights and car chases, exotic locations and fanciful creatures, and other themes which would bore me rigid.

‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’  There’s more to it than its ordinariness.  Feel the constraint, the claustrophobia, the closing off of one small respite.

Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ Once again, we are reading about escape, a century later, this time from the chores associated with staging a formal dinner party, to lose herself in the flower markets of London. ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’ the text goes on.

Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier)

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ This one hits the gut straight away. What is Manderley? What’s special about it? Why is mc not there now? Why can she only dream about it? Again, this first line sets the tone. Straight away, I get it that we’re in romance territory, a man and love, drama and tragedy.

Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby)

‘It’s in there all the time, looking for a way out.’ Immediately, I ask myself what is in there. I guess that ‘it’ is an emotion, and already I’m connecting because emotions always seek ‘a way out’, in order to express themselves, and already I’m guessing that this emotion is more like obsession. People and character again. I’m aware (because I’ve read the blurb on the cover) that ‘Fever Pitch’ is about football and, from my personal experience, I know following a football team is all about emotion, leading very quickly to obsession, also that football supporters bring football into every conversation.  But ‘…looking for a way out’ also suggests conflict, trying to find an escape, and hints at the writer’s complex relationship with the beautiful game.  Interesting, I’m thinking, and different.  Later on in the book, Hornby will tell us that watching Arsenal is a chore that he can’t avoid.

Five Months with Solidarity (John Taylor) (non-fiction)

Solidarnosc logo

(CC) Brian Solis. http://www.briansolis.com

‘For some reason a man was taking a photograph of a small red sign, in a sort of side alley, over the entrance to a

cream-coloured five-storey building on the main thoroughfare.  Then I realised I had found the place.’ This first-hand account of an English traveller’s short involvement with the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980, published while it was all fresh in his mind, in 1981, is a gem, a true primary source, and – astonishingly – still in print. Like Rebecca, that first line immediately begs questions. What place has he found? What is this red sign that someone feels compelled to take a photo of? We have to know. We have an idea because we’ve read the blurb, that it’s about Polish Solidarity trade union, whose logo was red on white. This time we’re drawn to something unfamiliar, the ‘cream-coloured five-storey building’ and – we hope – an insight to life behind what was then the ‘Iron Curtain’.

Goodbye to Berlin (Christopher Isherwood)

Christopher Isherwood himself

Christopher Isherwood himself

‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking…’ (Years ago, when I used to be an active member of Writer’s Dock, one of the members whose work I most admired was an Australian who used the avatar Iamacamera, although I’ve only just realised where the idea came from.) We get the idea at once of an invisible narrator, who doesn’t want to be noticed. Not only is taking in everything, without trying to impose his own slant on it, he is without conceit – unlike Leigh Fermor and Buchan below. He is the perfect journalist, who will never ‘become the news’ (as the saying goes). Then there’s the intriguing bit about ‘not thinking’. What does he not want to think about? We already know this book is about Berlin during the first years of Hitler. Is he an apologist? Is it all too much? Again, there are questions and the reader needs to know the answer.

‘My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared.’ This is another Isherwood first line, from ‘Mr Norris Changes Trains’, the prequel to ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. If he’d put that up on a writing site, I think I would have advised him to cut the first and start with the second. I don’t care about the colour of the stranger’s eyes. He was scared and he wanted mc to do something about it. More questions which I need to know the answer.

What of Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) and ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’? Well, that saying doesn’t resonate with me, nor does it introduce the novel. What of A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) and ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ Yep, I love it, especially when it moves on to seasons of Light and seasons of Darkness, echoing first chapter of the Gospel according to St John. But, Dear Reader, you know all of these. I wanted to make this a personal collection, even though two of my first lines are from mainstream classics.

How not to do it. ‘Dear Xan, As I have only just finished piecing these travels together, the times dealt with are very fresh in my mind and later events seem more recent still…’ (A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor)) The first sentence actually goes on for six lines, for heaven’s sake. What do I know about this book? I’ve no idea where he’s travelled, or what sort of travelling he’s talking about, only that he is self-regarding. The same pomposity is evident in ‘During the past year, in the intervals of an active life, I have amused myself with the construction of this tale.’ (Greenmantle (John Buchan)) Once again, we learn nothing about what might follow, only that the author regards it as beneath his dignity. (‘I have amused myself…’)

Dear Reader, I’d love to know about your favourite first lines. Do let me know.

Jam

(cc) moonsun

This afternoon, I was very chuffed to learn that my story, ‘My Friend Simon’, was a runner-up in the Short Story category of the Words With Jam Bigger Short Story Competition 2014. It didn’t win any of the prizes (£300 for first place) but I was thrilled that it nearly got there. A very good feeling. And, yes, I will sub it again, asap, together with my other entry to the comp, ‘Last Hot Chocolate in Mostar’, which no one will touch, probably because it’s about a schoolgirl running off with her teacher. All these editors who say their publications are ‘edgy’ and ‘pushing boundaries’ are too scared to touch it.

 

 

 

 

This anthology of short stories can be purchased from Alfie Dog.  I have just written reviews on it for Goodreads and Amazon.

‘Love, Laughter, Tears’ is an anthology of seventeen womag stories (previously published by ‘Women’s Weekly’), by

Old fashioned Women's Weekly cover

(C)Flickr.com

Hilary Halliwell, who has had about 150 womag stories published.   What I didn’t include in my reviews were these pointers for wannabe womag writers (like me):

  • All Hilary’s main characters were either elderly middle-aged, at about retirement age or beyond.
  • All Hilary’s main characters were female.
  • Shifts in points of view were frequent.  (Gosh, I’d like to try that on any writing site you’d like to mention!)
  • Many of the stories were about trivial things, like garden shows and Christmas puddings, but the ones I enjoyed most were more substantial.  The more substantial stories include three about adoption: one about a middle-aged woman finding her birth mother; another about an adult woman traced by the son she had given up her son for adoption twenty five years ago; the third about foster parents adopting their foster child.  Others concerned a much-loved father with Alzheimer’s, death of parents and spouses, and illnesses with same, including the big C.  Topics Hilary didn’t cover, however, were divorce or any sort of strife between spouses, teenage rebellion or any sort of conflict between parents and children; all husbands, wives, sons and daughters were loving and supporting.
  • Storylines were gentle, some to the point of hardly being there at all, more like a friend telling you about
    Old fashioned women's magazines.  Good Housekeeping.

    (c)Flickr.com

    something that had happened.  ‘You know, we had this foster child, bit of a disaster to start with, but we adopted her.  Nothing really got in the way.  Her brother and sister were fine about it and social services didn’t make any problems either.’  Absolutely no twists.  Did I mind, Dear Reader?  No, actually.  Stories like these are like soft velvet on the troubled and stressed soul.

  • Hilary hit the emotional button every time, but never the fear button, never the tension, anger or pain buttons.  Even the flower show story drew attention to mc’s loneliness and the Christmas pudding story to a mother’s need to be in control of Christmas.
  • Mcs rarely had well-defined character, but other characters did.  You can see why.  It’s what I call ‘mc syndrome’, as showing mc’s character when the reader is seeing everything through his/her eyes is very difficult.
  • All Hilary’s stories seemed quite long ‘for womag’ –  although I wasn’t in a position to count on my Kindle.
  • Occasional spelling and grammar errors – ouch!

An awful lot to learn!

On another tack, my review of ‘The Amber Keeper by Freda Lightfoot has been accepted by Copperfield Review and will be published tomorrow.  Hurray!  Also, Meredith Allard, editor of Copperfield Review, has asked me to become a regular reviewer, which I’m very happy to do.  As Copperfield is a journal of historical fiction, it will give me the appropriate kick to get reading more and more historical stuff.

Onwards and upwards!

1950s Woman on Cover of Magazine.

(c)Flickr.com

Available from Juliet’s blog.

According to ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon,  ‘We That Are Left’ grow old.

A historical novel set in Cornwall during and after the First World War, Juliet Greenwood’s ‘We That Are Left’ is, I suppose, a sort of coming of age story, except that the main character, Elin, is a married woman.  The plotline meanders but it’s there.  Even at the beginning of the book, Elin is not happy with the way her husband, Hugo, a former Boer War soldier suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, marginalises her and generally treats her as a little girl.  When the war comes, Elin is left to manage her estate, Hiram, by herself, and does so very well, with the help of pacifist, Jack Treece.  Then Hugo returns home in 1918, with, as his manservant, the ghastly Connors, who has already tried to worm his way into their household several times.

Other characters include Lady Margaret Northolme, otherwise known as ‘Mouse’, although it is unclear why she is so called, as her character is the complete opposite of her name.  Headstrong, not in the least interested in marriage, passionate about car driving and flying, Mouse heads off to the front, determined to see a bit of action, only she gets too much and pays a high price.  The cast of characters is full of strong women – Alice the blue-stocking, Ida the divorced wife, Catrin the go-it-alone Welsh farmer – counter-balanced by what used  to be called MCPs (Male Chauvinist Pigs), the latter not so convincing as the former.  For me, Mouse’s father is too much of a old fart Victorian pater familias;  there is no love there, no aristocratic toleration of eccentricity, and why is he so keen to get her married off, when she has no need to enter matrimony for money or position?    Connors, however, is a wheedling, nasty villain, who enrages the reader every time his name appears on the page and every time he opens his mouth to make a contemptuous remark to Elin.

The strongest part of this work  is the vivid scenes at the front, ruins and devastation all around, women demeaned by rapes, children – like eight year old, Lisette – left without a home or living family but clinging on to a scrawny puppy.  Most colourful of all were the accounts of the guns shaking the field hospital, as nurses – and any other available helpers, like Elin – moved men with terrible wounds or men who are dying, into the basement for safety.

The English style, I didn’t really notice, which must be a Good Thing.  What I was aware of, however, was that Juliet like to begin sentences with ‘But’ and ‘And’.  Me too.  It works.  It makes sense.  As someone who aspires to write historical fiction, I learned a lot, particularly about writing a historical novel, which is not a history book, but about characters living during a particular period.  ‘We That Are Left’ is always Elin’s story, with whole parts of the War campaign not mentioned, which is as it should be.  If I am to criticise, I would say that the attitudes of many of the characters, especially the women, are too twenty-first century, and the opinions prevalent at that time, on matters like pacifism and divorce, are glossed over.  Surprisingly, votes for women, a truly burning issue at that time, is only raised once.

So would I recommend ‘We That Are Left’?  Yes, of course.

British Legion Poppy

wikipedia.org

Well, Dear Reader, you haven’t asked me about my New Year Resolutions again.  I feel sensitive about these now, seeing as you pointed out how ambitious (er, unrealistic) they were.  Do you remember number 9?

I will learn JavaScript, php and programming in Visual Basic.

During the weekend, I started to teach myself JavaScript through Code Academy.  I worked my way through the first set of exercises.  I learned how to count the number of letters in a word, how to set up a prompt, if statements and how to do simple maths, but then I got stuck when writing code about going to a Justin Bieber concert, increasingly aware that I was learning alongside teenagers who might be my students.  I am still stuck, DR.  I’m sure that it is very important to know the basic theory but what I want to know is how to use JavaScript to do things on a website, and Code Academy is not telling me that… yet.

Available from Sally Jenkins’ blog.

The inspiration for ‘The Museum of Fractured Lives’  came from the author alighting – purely by chance – on the website of The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb.  (There is a similar museum in Brussels too, by the way.)  In 2011 the Zagreb museum was the winner of the EMF Kenneth Hudson Award for demonstrating the most ‘unusual, daring and, perhaps, controversial achievement that challenges common perceptions of the role of museums in society’.  Now, I want to go myself!

Back to Sally Jenkins’ book, this very short work consists of a prologue, which takes the reader through how the Museum came to be set up, followed by what are, in reality, three short stories told in dialogue to the main character, and then a final chapter entitled ‘Last Word’.  The three short stories (Maxine’s Story, Karen’s Story and Pete’s Story) were well-written, painfully emotional love stories with well-drawn and believable characters, all with tragic endings – obviously.  Ideal for someone who wanted to read one complete short story during a lunch break or a commute.  But, try, instead, to envisage this book as a museum, with a main stand as you enter, explaining the museum’s concept and purpose, three more stands, then a summing-up stand as you walk out.  An interesting idea, well-executed.

Hope your New Year writing is going better than mine.  I’m now looking back on my New Year’s Resolutions in some embarrassment.  As two commenters pointed out, they were a bit ambitious, more of an – extreme – wish list than proper resolutions.  Ouch.  However, what I have read several times over the last few weeks, in writing blogs and in print writing magazines, is how important it is not to write safe, how writers must be prepared to expose themselves by describing raw emotions, even the embarrassing ones, without looking over the shoulder to wonder what hubby/wife, mother, sons and daughters will think.  What made Sally Jenkins’ three short stories so moving was the colour of the emotions she showed us, not just in the main characters but in others as well.

The authors who have written about this have applied this adage particularly to sex scenes, something I’m so useless at I don’t even attempt it.  Often it is difficult for writers to get properly in touch with heightened emotions, especially when we are not feeling that way at the time, or when we are tired.  Not sure what the answer is, unless it is to write down in The Notebook exactly how we feel at the time we’re angry, hurt, depressed or whatever.  Should we reach for The Notebook during sex, perhaps?

If you would like to read these books for yourself, here they are:

Three Simon Serrailler novels, one after the other, were my Christmas present to myself.  Not cheap, as Kindle books go, but the workwoman (or novelist) is worthy of her hire.  They are the most recent of a series of eight, but I’m sure there’ll be more.

Simon Serrailler is definitely at the Waitrose end of crime fiction, as far away from Noir as you can get, yet too realistic, too human and too of this moment to be ‘cosy crime’.  We are told in great detail about the single malt whisky he drinks, the beer he takes in tasteful, understated pubs where he can be alone, what he eats, what he wears

Cup of Coffee

(c) Wikipedia

and how he likes his coffee.  In fact, during the course of the three books, gallons of filter coffee (no doubt Fair Trade and responsibly sourced with respect to the environment) was imbibed by all characters.  We hear about his quiet flat in the cathedral close with all white decor, succour for an unreconstructed loner, with few close friends, but who, nevertheless, is part of a loving family and who works well with police colleagues.  It was Lindsey Davis who said, some time ago, that fictional detectives seem to arrive in the world without families or friends; she gave her Falco a querulous mother, a ne’er do well father and sister and loyal friend, Petronius.  The Serrailler family however are loving and supportive, with Simon’s triplet sister, Cat, occupying as much space as Simon himself.

I’m really glad that I read the these books altogether because, although each one carried a separate detective storyline, there were other – equally important – threads that continued over all three:  Simon and Rachel’s affair;  the hospice running out of funds, with implications for Cat’s career and the Jocelyn/assisted dying theme; the deteriorating relationship between Richard Serrailler and his second wife, Judith; Emma’s bookshop.  In fact, having been carried along on a roller-coaster through ‘The Betrayal of Trust’, I felt quite cheated when I reached its abrupt end because, although the crime story had been concluded, these other issues hadn’t, but it was good to reconnect with them again immediately in ‘A Question of Identity’ and ‘The Soul of Discretion’.

For me, one of the best things about Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler books is the large number of sympathetic characters, about whom I want to read.  Cat is a treasure, without being a saint, and she, her situation and her life Hangman Gamestyle are totally realistic; the secret is that Susan has made her vulnerable, so gaining the reader’s sympathy.  Rachel, however, is a cold fish; I’m not sure if I want in here for the long term.  If I was to make a criticism of the Serrailler set up, it would be that there were too many characters, with people popping in and out of the main stage and some inevitable loose ends which do not get addressed.

The detective elements of the stories are well-constructed and tight, the first two books containing definite twists which I didn’t anticipate, and the third finishing with an escalation which took people and scenarios into unexpected directions.  Susan’s knowledge of police procedures is well understood and unobtrusive.  Also, she refuses to dole out crime cliches like the detective-who-can’t-get-on-with-his-boss-who-keeps-demanding-Results (with a capital R);  Simon Serrailler works well with both his chief constables.

Would I recommend you read Simon Serrailler, Dear Reader?  Yes, definitely.

 

No, I’m not going on a Dry January, Dear Reader.  Undoubtedly, it would clear my head in the evening for writing, but you can take things too far.  Readers who have taken a look at my About page will see that, in Decembegirl_writerr 2012, I vowed to complete The Novel and get one of my stories between the covers of a womag by the end of 2013.  Oh dear, oh dear.  I’ve failed, Dear Reader, I’ve failed.   So here we go again.

  1. I will prepare to rewrite The Novel.   More historical research is needed and I can work on that.  Baby steps, Dear Reader, baby steps.  If other conditions are right, I might do it as a NaNoWriMo.  I will then write a synopsis for The Novel, because, if it does not work in its synopsis, it won’t work at all.  After that, I will plan The Novel chapter by chapter – Denise, I wonder if you’ll pick this up through Facebook?  (Years ago, when I first wrote it, Denise was my novel-writing buddy and she was shocked that I didn’t plan at all.)
  2. I will improve my description skills, by practising describing everything.
  3. I will read, and review, more historical novels.  What’s the point of having a history degree, Dear Reader, if you don’t use it?  (Yes, I know I haven’t used it at all since achieving it in 1976.)
  4. I will read and analyse more womag stories.  Fact:  all successful womag writers buy, read and enjoy magazine stories every month.
  5. I will cure myself of my addiction to crime (fiction… you knew what I meant, DR ).

    Lerida Figs

    Creative Commons Flickr

  6. I shall stop eating sweet things, especially dried fruit in the cupboard.  It’s a pity that those delicious dried Lerida figs are on the same shelf as the tea caddy!
  7. I will drink more water and squash.  Good for complexion and general health.
  8. I will exercise more.   Mm… lack of detail here.
  9. I will learn JavaScript, php and programming in Visual Basic.  This blog will be transformed, DR.

In the mean time, I have to work to earn my crust, so may be I’m allowed to read… just a little bit… more crime fiction.

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