Charlie Britten's writing blog

Very interesting analysis of book reviews and book reviewing here. This will probably be the last post on the Write On blog in its existing formats. I have many ideas for a transformation.

A Writer of History

Although traditional media remain a source for book reviews, social media and online sites play an ever-increasing role in how readers choose and discuss books. What can be said about the evolving world of book reviews and recommendations?

A 2013 survey showed that online sources dominate when readers look for recommendations. And, while more than half of survey participants get recommendations from friends, we can speculate that the definition of ‘friends’ now includes people known only through social media – another online source. (You can read more about these surveys here.)sources-of-recommendations

Responding to another question, 20% of readers use only digital sources, while 13% of participants said they did not use online sites. Age also plays a role; younger readers are more likely than older readers to consult online sources. Probing further, the survey revealed that Goodreads, genre fiction blogs, and small book review blogs are the top three digital…

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Alison and her mother saw it all from a bedroom window in their house in West Kirby on the Wirral.  The whole of Liverpool was ablaze, a line of leaping flames stretching from left to right, as far as eye could see.   The year and month were December 1940.  Alison,aged seventeen, worked in Birkenhead.  At the time, she was deeply shocked by what she saw, so much so that, more than seventy years on, she cannot put words to her feelings.

Copyright REJ 2016.

Roger watched the bombing of the Docks from Crosby.  The Germans managed to bomb a big ship containing ammunition, which caught fire and did terrible damage to the Docks.  Hundreds of people were killed in Bootle and thousands of homes destroyed, although this was all hushed up because the British didn’t want the Germans to know how successful  they’d been.   But, he remarked, the Germans only managed to put part of Docks out of action.  “Liverpool was too important,” he said,  “as there were no other docks or sea terminals on the western side of country and the London docks bombed.”  Liverpool just had to carry on so it did.  The Pier Head remained standing, also the Liver Building  and other commercial properties surrounding it.  If you visit Liverpool now, you will see them in their Art Deco splendour, amidst dingy concrete and glass.  I’m reminded of that line in In Our Liverpool Home by The SpinnersThank God,” said my old man,” the Pier Head’s still there.”   Roger, aged fifteen, was dying to ‘get involved’ in the war.  Later, he would serve in the merchant navy on Artic Convoys.  He also commented on how slow reconstruction of Liverpool was, as many, many politicians came in with many, many ideas, and none gone on with the job.


In happier times,  Alison and her grandmother walked the length of the first Mersey Tunnel, from Birkenhead to Liverpool, on the day it was officially opened by Queen Mary in 1934.   They became aware of how long it was and how steep in places.   Visitors were allowed to buy a piece of black tiling, from those left over from the building of the tunnel.

Alison is my mother-in-law.  Roger is her husband.   I made a point of speaking to them about these experiences, and wrote them up in Evernote shortly afterwards.  It is so important to write down these things, as otherwise history will slip through our fingers like sand.  Talk to any elderly people at the present time and they will talk about their experiences of World War 2.  Where I live, in Essex, many of the older people I meet used to live in London and experienced the Blitz directly.  Some of them were evacuees.  The little accounts above lack proper dates and accurate figures but you can find those elsewhere.  It’s the impression that counts, the little details, the personal bits which bring the situation alive for historians and writers of fiction alike.
I’ve wanted for a long time to collect together memories like this, events and situations we have experienced ourselves or heard about from our families and friends.  I would like to collate them on part of this blog, suitably tagged in WordPress, as a reference point for everyone.  Would you send me your anecdotes, not just about World War 2, but about anything historical?  We mustn’t let history slip away.

I don’t normally go for non-fiction, but this title grabbed my attention as I was searching for something else on Overdrive (library’s answer to online books).  I read it just a few days.

Bryan Stevenson is a black lawyer, working in Alabama, and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit-making initiative supporting prisoners, largely those on Death Row.  The book covers the period from the 1980s onwards, the first couple of decades seeing an escalation in executions following the lifting of the unofficial moratorium on executions in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s.  In the initial stages Stevenson was not very successful,  but, as time went on, he and his organisation grow in confidence and stature, and the American establishment’s enthusiasm for the death penalty waned.

If any of us needed convincing, Stevenson makes a powerful case against capital punishment generally, and in the USA in particular:

  • Miscarriages of justice.  Ergo, wrong people convicted.   In the stories Stevenson writes up, this happens a lot.   Walter McMillan’s was a case Stevenson pursued vigorously, despite obstacles put in his way, by the judiciary, the police and politicians.  In McMillan, he sensed the quiet certainty in the tone of someone who is innocent.  EJI secured McMillan’s release after a long legal battle, although, sadly, the poor man was so traumatised by being on Death Row that he died prematurely through dementia a few years later.
  • Law is expensive.   Therefore poorer people, especially people of colour, are badly represented or not represented.   In a number of cases, the legal advice initially offered to defendants was so bad that Stevenson was able to ask for legal review.
  • Racial prejudice.  Death Row is overwhelmingly populated by black people.  At the beginning of the time about which Stevenson was writing,  courts and juries would always find in favour of the white party and inter-racial sex was viewed as an act so vile and disgusting that any defendant practising it would automatically be found guilty of all other charges.  And if he wasn’t already indicted, a crime would be found and pinned upon him.  A lot of what Stevenson reported arose out of fear and hysteria.  Alabama boasted of being ‘To Kill a Mockingbird Country’, yet replicated all the racial prejudice Harper Lee excoriated.
  • No appreciation of domestic abuse.  Women and sons of abused mothers were found guilty of killing family members and stepfathers, but no account taken of their circumstances or the abuse that had occurred beforehand.
  • Children and young teenagers were being tried under the adult legal system and held in adult jails, where they were liable to be raped.
  • Prisoners who were mentally ill, or had learning difficulties, were tried and convicted, with no account taken of their mental state, or understanding.
  • Conditions on Death Row were inhumane, with prisoners being kept in solitary confinement or in cages, and goaded and provoked by prison staff.
  • There is no humane method for judicial killing.  The electric chair is inefficient, taking several minutes to kill someone by burning.  Apparently, the smell of singed flesh is overpowering.  As doctors are barred from attending executions by their Hippocratic Oath, execution is carried out by prison officers who frequently bungle the job.   The drugs needed for lethal injections are prohibited from sale in the United States and have to be acquired illegally abroad.

Stevenson also wrote about the toll his work had upon him, how he felt when he was unable to prevent a client going to the electric chair and how at one point he nearly gave up.   He told us about his working class upbringing and the solid Christian values instilled into him by his mother, and his grandmother whose own grandparents had been slaves.

However, the end of the book was upbeat, with the number of executions dwindling and state after state stopping using the death penalty.  It was a grim read, and gory in places, but, when it’s all true and happening in our own life time, the reader has to cope with it.  In actual fact, the narrative was readable throughout, balancing failures in one chapter with a more hopeful strain in the next.   I finished the book, full of admiration for Stevenson’s energetic prosecution of justice and his gathering success.  One of his most poignant anecdotes is about how a judge entered an empty court room just before the start of a hearing to find a black man sitting in there by himself.   The judge tries to hustle him out, telling that he must wait for his counsel.  ‘I am the counsel,” Stevenson answered him.

Just Mercy is available from the author’s website.

When Katie Devine meets her doctor for sex in his consulting room, they are interuppted by three prurient schoolboys who have climbed a tree to watch, but manage to fall through the skylight.  This is not comedy, however.  Katie’s abusive husband, Hank, murders the doctor in his own home.  Losing her job as school administrator and therefore unable to afford to continue living in her trailer, Katie returns home to Cedar Branch, where she grew up, to live with her brother, Sam.  Hank’s truly evil brother, Ray, pursues her, alleging that Katie harmed her own teenage children and nobbling witnesses who might give evidence against Hank.  The storyline builds to stupendous climax, which lurches from crisis to resolution back to crisis, taking some astounding turns and twists, underpinned by Brenda’s thorough understanding of Quakers and their theology… but I’m not providing a spoiler.

This is Brenda’s second novel, following The Quaker Cafe.  ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ is more ambitious than ‘The Quaker Cafe’, which had overtones of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.   It’s a story about the white underclass, what Eminem called ‘trailer trash’, a sector of society that hasn’t featured in many novels I’ve read.  (I’m being careful here because I’m no expert on American literature.)  The moral compass is very broad, condoning Katie’s affair with her doctor, because she’s in an abusive relationship, and applauding her for suing his estate for professional misconduct.   On the other hand, we have the Quakers’ robust moral tone, especially regarding violence, and their stoic bravery during the crisis at the end.  I don’t think we can really call this Christian fiction.  quaker

‘Home to Cedar Branch’ involves a huge number of characters, some of whom only feature for a few pages, or even a few lines.   It’s the American custom in literature suddenly to plonk a police officer, or a bystander, into the middle of the action, with lots of details about who he is and his everyday life, then abandon them.   Some characters, like the elderly Quaker farmer, Leland Slade, are always there but only take the stage much later.   Others deserved more wordage, like Katie’s daughter, Savannah, a devout Christian who allowed her uncle to insinuate himself into her good graces by implying that her father had turned to Jesus and was innocent anyway.  Her sense of betrayal later on is under-played.  Similarly, Katie’s son, Dusty, who won’t speak to her, indeed won’t come out of his room, is too easily sorted out by good wholesome Sam and Quaker friend Ben.   The Quakers don’t appear until late in the story and this works.  I was disappointed that, out of the major characters in ‘The Quaker Cafe’, Billie had a minor role only, and Liz Hoole, the main character, was omitted altogether, even though her husband and son featured.

Another feature I enjoyed, in both ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ and ‘The Quaker Cafe’, was the way in which the American love of sport, particularly basketball, is incorporated into the lives of the characters.  Very authentic.

Although this is not a literary work, we writers have much to learn from Brenda’s writing technique, particularly her splendid descriptions of characters and their actions, like when Anna, the elderly Quaker, a ‘barrel of a woman… balanced herself by putting a hand on the end of each pew’.  This is where characters come alive.

Great stuff.  Thoroughly recommended.

I cannot find a direct, non-Amazon link to this book, but do take a look at the reviews on Brenda’s website.

By the way,  I’m on the ACW (Association of Christian Writers) More Than Writers blog tomorrow (13 September 2016).  Do drop in.  You don’t have to be an ACW member to comment.

I retired on Friday, 11 September 2015, that is, almost a year ago.  I’d been with the same further education college, part-time but mostly full-time, for twenty years, teaching IT to 16-19 year olds who thought they knew everything about computers.  And most of their parents believed they did too.  This time last year, I was looking forward to a short holiday in Bruges… and then nothingness.  My beloved aunt in Canada asked me what I was retiring to and I sort of busked it, saying I’d be all right.   It’s been a funny old year, and now is time to take stock.

This is what I’ve done over the year, roughly in date order:

Green TickLooked after beloved grandson for just three weeks, plus a few odd days.  ‘Being there’ for him, as I anticipated, was just not very practical, seeing as he and my daughter live in Sussex.   Also, I’m not very good at playing with toddlers.  I run out of ideas very quickly.

Green TickI’ve become more active in the ACW (Association of Christian Writers).  Tick.   I’m competitions manager.

Green TickI’ve cleared out just one room in our house.  I seriously believed we were going to sort out the whole house, and the attic and the garage…  Well, my husband could do the garage… and the attic.  Reader, he didn’t.  And I didn’t, except that one room, although it included the filing cabinet containing all our papers.

Green TickI did Nano.  I wrote my 50,000 words in November, but, of course, that’s not long enough for a proper novel.  You’ve finished but not finished.  I eventually finished the first draft at the end of February, but editing still needs doing.

Green TickI visited India.

Green TickI found some part-time work.  Tick.  An enormous tick.  And what am I doing?  Teaching IT, but to adults, not to youngsters, which is different, and still time-consuming.

Green TickI’ve done more at church.  I’m secretary of the PCC and have, so far, led two services.  I’m also studying the Course in Christian Studies (which is an Essex thing, a basic course in Christianity and the church).

Green TickI’ve joined a real face-to-face writing group.

Green TickI’ve learned to live on a lower income.  When I retired, my head knew that I would have less money, but my heart didn’t.   If you’re earning a reasonable salary (I never earned mega bucks) and extremely time poor, you spend, just to survive.  In the first six months after retiring, I had to buy two computers (one for my son, who has much less than I  – in fact, I don’t know he survives) and one for myself.  These purchases almost broke me.   This has been the biggest thing for me.  Now I budget like Silas Marner, to the penny.  If, over the last twelve months, I haven’t bought your book, I’m sorry, but that’s the reason.

Green TickI’ve started to learn programming.  They laughed at me at my old college when I said I wanted to do this.  It’s been an ambition since about 2000.  My dear friend, Felicity, will tell you how I attempted Visual Basic in her classes in 2003, but, although I passed City and Guilds Level 2 under her guidance, she found me ‘not a natural’.  Now I’m making slow progress through Python.

Green TickI’ve been on lots of walks.  This is husband-driven and ongoing.


Things I haven’t done:

XI haven’t submitted lots of short stories and have them published, only a few.

XI’ve haven’t sorted out the garden.  Reader, there is some good stuff in there at the moment, like my dahlias, my roses and my tomatoes, but a lot of weeds and nettles too.

XI’ve never had a story accepted by a woman’s magazine.  Although I’ve written several and I’ve, just this last week, finished a nostalgia piece, I’ve not tackled this properly.

XI haven’t redone the church website.   It’s still on the list of things to do.

XI haven’t cleared out the kitchen cupboards.  (They really need it.)

XI’m not doing any regular exercise, eg swimming or keep-fit.  (Ooh, I should’ve added  put on weight in the things I’ve done.)


So, do I recommend retirement?  Yes, on balance, even though I’m still working part-time.  I do believe that part-time is what people in their sixties need.  They’ve still got a lot to give, but they’re not so career-driven and want to do other things than work.

The Secret of Lakeham Abbey (cover)You may recall, Dear Reader, that some time ago, author Sally Quilford made a guest appearance on this blog.  At that time, I hadn’t read ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’ (the book she was promoting) or its prequel ‘The Dark Marshes’, so, now I have read them, I’m reviewing both, in this post.  I always prefer to read books in order, so I tackled ‘The Dark Marshes’ first.

These two novels are the start of a mini-series, concerning the Marsh families and Lakeham families, although the action in ‘The Secret’ occurred approximately a hundred years after ‘The Dark Marshes’, so no characters appeared in both.  I would’ve been quite OK reading them in the wrong order, as there was very little reference to ‘The Dark Marshes’ in ‘The Secret’, except a garbled, rumour-based version, which readers of the previous book would know to be incorrect.  I think the point that Sally was trying to make was that ‘mud sticks’ and nobody’s interested in the truth, especially if it’s less sensational.  If I have to choose a genre for these two books, I would go for historical crime, because the action in both takes place over fifty years ago and both have a crime theme, particularly ‘The Secret’, which is Agatha Christie-like, in that everybody gathers together at the end while the detective evaluates who did what.  However, only a few references are made to historical events.  Both novels are written as a series of testimonies, written by characters stating their different points of view, resembling letter or diary format, but not quite.

‘The Dark Marshes’ concerns Henrietta (Hetty) Marsh who is much sinned against, by almost everyone else, yet remains sweet and gentle in an authentic Victorian way, inviting to tea her two aunts, who have plotted against her for years, because they might be lonely.   Some of the most intriguing passages are from the testimonies of the aunts, who use Capital Letters quite Randomly and display every Small-minded Prejudice of their own time, and those before and after.  The plot is complex and involves many different characters, but Sally holds it all together in her usual adroit fashion.

‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’ has a tighter plot and shorter timeframe.  The protagonist – the detective – is fourteen year old, wheelchair bound, Percy, who seems to have swallowed a thesaurus (lexicon, onomasticon).  Generous, vulnerable and tenacious, he is determined to clear the name of housekeeper, Anne Pargeter, who has been convicted on two counts of murder and, moreover, is pleading guilty.  He is a delight to read about.  Some of the most emotive passages come from letters from Anne herself, however, resigned, composed but fearful.  Both Percy and Anne belong to their own era, immediately post WW2, in that they are stoical and plucky, not sorry for themselves or introspective.

Here are the links to ‘The Dark Marshes‘ and ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey‘.  Both are Amazon links, which goes against the grain with me, but, I understand that ‘The Dark Marshes’ was self-published through one of the Amazon self-publishing arms, and the website of Crooked Cat (who published ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’) is being refurbished at present.  (Sally must be furious!)

You can find these two books here: ‘The Woolworths Girls’ by Elaine Everest and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan.

I can’t tell you how long it’s taken me to get those two links up and running, using the iPad and Premier Inn wifi on one bar!  I’m disappointed only to be able to give you the Amazon link for ‘Atonement’ but I’m sure that the Booker short-listed author will survive.

A strange coupling, you might think, and an accident of circumstance that I happened to be reading these two books at the same time – together with Sally Quilford’s ‘Dark Marshes’ which I will continue next.  I don’t often read more than one book at a time, but I found that each provided relief and contrast to the other, particularly making me think about  what is Lit-era-ture and gets one on the Booker shortlist.  It also led me to ponder a Facebook post by Sally Quilford of a few days ago, which I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing.  Sally writes genre fiction, and does it very well, with numerous books to her name.  (This pathetic wifi won’t allow me to look it up and find out exactly how many.)  But Sally, who has taught me in the past, is now embarking on a creative writing degree at OU, amongst other things, to confront the dreaded literary genre.  (Whoops.  Literary is the opposite of genre fiction, isn’t it?  Wash your mouth out, Charlie!)

‘The Woolworths Girls’ is about girls working at Woolworths, as you would expect.  It’s a great concept for a novel, which, together with the girls in purple uniform on the cover, was what attracted me to it.  It seems to attract a lot of other readers too because I was sixth in the queue for this title when I reserved it on Overdrive.  Set in the Kentish Town of Earith and at the outbreak of World War 2, it chronicled the fortunes of Sarah, Freda and Maisie, in love and war, literally… but not literaturely.  This was genre fiction.  It had a distinct womag feel, actually.  Like all successful, traditional stories for women, it had a warm family feel at its centre. Ruby Caselton, Sarah’s grandmother, was the rock to which all the girls resorted in times of trouble, although I did wonder exactly how many rooms she had in her semi in Earith.  The storyline rattled along, admittedly with huge gaps between plot happenings, improbabilities and some things which didn’t ring true.  For instance, why weren’t the girls called up for war service, as my mother was, and made to join the women’s forces, the Land Army or work in a munition factory?  But the characters were well-defined, distinct and belonged to their era.  In fact, they displayed a valiant wartime spirit.  The only character who didn’t work was Sarah’s snobby mother.

‘Atonement’ is set roughly in the same period, but in a Woodhouse-lookalike country house,  with less self-belief than Woodhouse and less likeable characters, even though  each character was described in tedious detail.  I understand, from a novel-writing site I’ve been visiting recently, that authors should write down answers to a hundred questions for each character; McEwan did his hundred – and more – for all characters, I’m sure.  He also described every setting minutely, taking, in one instance, three pages to tell us about the scenery as two charters walked from the country house to a lake, then related the incident, which was the reason for the scene, in about one page.   I must admit, Dear Reader, that I skipped a lot, and I don’t think I missed much.  This lack of balance bothered me.  There was another section, one meandering event after another, describing the retreat to Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force, which went on for chapters, without saying very much, or rather making pints that could be made in one chapter – I skipped the latter part of that too.

In our family, ‘Atonement’ is one of those stories that everybody loves to hate.  I found it better than I expected.  After the boring soldiery bit, the story moved on to nursing in London during the war, which I found much more interesting, but that may just be my personal taste.  At this point we also got to the actual ‘atonement’ itself, which promised to be exciting, but failed, in my opinion, because it wasn’t properly justified.  I have to say I found the plot unbalanced because it took us about 200 pages to get to the inciting incident, there was no proper crisis and the resolution took place too quickly.  So that’s Literarure.  That said, for a writer, there is much to learn from McEwan’s descriptions, even if there were too many of them.

So we have to go and start off our day now.  We’re going to Hardwick House in Mansfield.  I’ll finish with a photo of the inside of the Richard III Centre in Leicester, which is housed in the building of the school where my dad used to teach.

RIchard III Centre, Leicester, relict of  Alderman Newton Boys School.

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