‘A Year and a Day’ by Patsy Collins

This is the third of Patsy’s recently published novels, the other two being ‘Escape to the Country’ (which I have reviewed for The Copperfield Review) and ‘Paint Me a Picture’.  After the seriousness of ‘Paint Me a Picture, ‘A Year and a Day’ was pure escapism.

Stella and Daphne, two girly girls down to Stella’s pink slippers, visit a fortune-teller, who tells them what’s going to happen during the next year.  Daphne believes every word but Stella not a word of it.  As the story works through the fortune-teller’s predictions, at various points one or both of the girls, and Daphne’s brother, John, contrive to make the predictions come true… for good reasons to do with the story.  Whether helped along by her prescient powers or not, Stella and Daphne move a long way, from being two emotionally young girls to becoming wives.

Although the story is written entirely from Stella’s point of view, it is as much about Daphne as Stella.  Both characters well-depicted, very likeable and also quite different. What carries the story along is their unshakeable friendship, which takes into its stride what, for any other two chums, might have been contentious issues – such as both of them going out with Luigi (at different times!) and Stella having been dumped by Daphne’s brother.  However, we are never told how the two got to know each other in the first place.

Some serious subjects are touched upon, such as Stella having been a foster child and being unable to re-make contact with her natural parents, but she finds comfort in the warm welcome always given to her by Daphne’s family.  Stella is a strong, and very focussed, woman, who gets on with things.  Finding she has a sound head for business, she also sorts out Mr Clover’s flower shop, where she works.

Daphne’s brother, John, is the most complex, and probably the most interesting, character… as well as starting off the book as the most irritating, to Stella, and to me, the reader.  A policeman, who doesn’t seem to be able to help himself checking window-locks in Stella’s flat or making sarcastic comments about her slippers, he grows on us as we start to see the hurt and confusion inside.

Would I recommend you read ‘A Year and a Day’?  Yes, definitely.  Great fun!

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Birds-of-a-Feather/dp/B002SQ75J8

This was my second Maisie Dobbs story and, having enjoyed the first one (‘Maisie Dobbs’), I was looking forward to it, especially as I was aware that Jacqueline has written a long series.  So what went wrong for me?

Set in the 1920s, we had the setup classic detective story setup, with Maisie in her own office and her side-kick, Billy Beale, the munificent Lady Rowan in the background and flashbacks to the First World War. The plot was well-constructed: the daughter of a bossy and over-bearing self-made man, Joseph Waite, with a string of grocery stores (I kept thinking of Sainsbury’s), had disappeared and Maisie had to find her. Although it earned its place in the crime section with some proper murders, there were elements of a historical novel, with references to the ‘Order of the White Feather’ movement during the early years of the War. However, although the reader was supposed to be outraged by the activities of this organisation, the introduction of conscription (which followed hard on the heels of the White Feather) would have forced the young men affected by its activities into the trenches anyway. Well done to Jacqueline for being honest enough to point this out, but it did spoil the impact.

Although I’m not an expert on the 1920s and 1930s, Jacqueline’s research seemed thorough and she certainly has a feel for the era.   However the historical ambience was occasionally spoilt by her insistence on Maisie wearing trousers – something 1920s women didn’t like doing – and I’m afraid her and Billy’s ‘case maps’ had a Tony Buzan/Mind Genius feel to them. It’s difficult to write about a world which is nearly modern, but where characters didn’t have all the gear we have now. Sometimes the attitudes of Maisie and also some of the other characters were a little twenty-first century politically correct.

What really annoyed me was Maisie herself. She seemed to have developed into a real know it all, guessing links in the plot from the remotest hooks, and with personal and communication skills beyond her thirty years. Without giving too much away, at the end of the story, she tells middle-aged Joseph Waite how to run his life and his family in a way that made me, the reader, squirm.

So, dear Reader, do I recommend this book? No. But am I prepared to give Maisie Dobbs another go? Actually, yes. I’m willing to believe that the Maisie in this book was a blip.

Creative Writing Quals – Do We Need Them?

I’m asking, seriously, not necessarily in a perjorative sense.

My heart sinks, when I’m reading stories on ezines I’m hoping to sub to and I see that the writers they do publish have either attained a creative writing qualification or are in the throes of one. Surely, I used to think, literature is what comes out naturally, original, untrammelled by convention, and in a style which is the writer’s – possibly very quirky – own. After all, GBS dispensed with apostrophes, so why couldn’t I take a few liberties with English grammar and punctuation?

And I like to start sentences with ‘And’ and ‘But’. I sometimes find very short paragraphs effective:

Like this.

I am someone who has written for years but never subbed properly until a few years ago, and… now, at my advanced age, dear… I feel I’ve got to get on with it. A few years ago, I joined several online writing communities, all different in their own way and all approaching the business of writing with varied levels of seriousness. As soon as I posted my stuff, I started to become aware of some of ‘the rules’: thou shalt not use adverbs, nor passive mood, nor use brackets, nor start with speech, nor repeat words; thou shalt useth three dots only after an ellipis; thou shalt spelleth ‘OK’ as ‘okay’; thou shalt show not tell etc etc… and I drunk all this in undigested. Then I examined what I was reading and I saw that sometimes… many times… a lot of the time… rules are made to be broken.

Nevertheless, I have learned a lot from writing communities – and continue to do so. I had pointed out to me some bad habits which I had been ignoring for decades, using ‘and’ too much, for instance, and ‘now’ and ‘suddenly’. I found that, even though I am a very emotional person myself, I wasn’t putting this across. Members of writing communities reviewing my work found some of it dry of feeling, even the passages where I was ‘feeling’ a lot of ‘feeling’ while writing it. In retrospect, I realise that this is the natural consequence of… dare I say it?… suddenly… sharing my writing with other people, after allowing it to hibernate for so long. The experience was salutory, very much so.

I have seen it written that, just as you would expect to be taught how to play a musical instrument, so you need to be tutored in how to write. Having once learned the clarinet, I don’t believe this analogy works. When I first took the clarinet out of its case, I couldn’t play it at all until my music teacher showed me how to blow it and fingering techniques. Whereas I wasn’t born with an instinctive ability to hold a pen and form words, I had been taught how to write characers, words and sentences (for quite different reasons) by my primary school teachers. If you teach someone basic html and a bit of css, they can build their own blog in Word Press. In the mechanical sense I can write, Dear Reader. I want to express myself. I want to share a bit of myself with you. Whereas some people may wish to do this through visual arts, performing arts or music, I want to express myself through the written word and I have the wherewithal – a pen, paper or computer – to do this, well, or not so well.

What writing courses – MAs and others – promise is that they will show you how to get your writing acceptable to editors and published. In other words, they will teach you ‘the rules’ and how to tailor your work to current trends. I fear that they would stamp out of you that streak of individuality which will make your work worth reading. (“Come on, Bernard. You need to use an apostrophe in ‘dont’.’ And, regarding your last assignment, ‘Androcles and the Lion’. Quite frankly, dear, editors aren’t taking stories about animals.’) What I love about blogosphere is that there are many people out there who are just writing for the Hell of it, blissfully unaware of any ‘rules’, and expressing themselves very naturally… even with adverbs.

Dear Reader, I’ve never taken an MA in Creative Writing, so I could be wrong, but, having studied information systems with the Open University for three long years and had my interest in computers almost drained dry, I’m not going to take a writing course in order to find out.

Review of ‘Sweetest Enemy’ by Joanna Czechowska

Amazon, October 2012 (http://www.amazon.com/Sweetest-Enemy-ebook/dp/B0088QNB36)

Sequel to ‘The Black Madonna of Derby’.

Whereas the title of ‘The Black Madonna of Derby’ was bang on the nail, I finished reading ‘Sweetest Enemy’ still wondering who the ‘Sweetest Enemy’ was.  As the story started in the Gdansk Shipyards, in the middle of the 1980 Shipyard Strikes, was it Solidarnosc, an organisation which is quite capable of becoming its own worst enemy, as it did in the latter part of 1981 and in the mid-1990s?  But, as this book only touches briefly on Solidarnosc, this is unlikely.  On reflection, this reader believes that the oh-so-sweet enemy was Poland itself, which, having already devoured Zosia, consumes Helena as she searches for her Jewish uncle by marriage, Nathan.  It even affects down-to-earth Wanda who comments that her Polish Catholic upbringing prompts her to genuflect as she reaches the end of the row of seats in the cinema.

This sequel continues the story of the Baran family in England, with occasional scenes in Poland, taking us up to the overthrow of the Communist regime.  Maybe it is because, having read the Black Madonna, I am thoroughly familiar with the characters, but I feel that in this second book they mellow.  The saddest happening was the death of husband and father, Tadek, a grounded and under-stated saint in a family of prima donnas (except Wanda).  I become even more fond of the mature Wanda, who moves firmly into the mc role, and Anna – every mother’s dream daughter – who floats through the life Zosia should have had but didn’t.  Wanda and Pawel’s marriage (in the last book) was not made in heaven, but her last words, as she receives birthday invitations from her husband and Bronek (the man she ought to have married) is that life is good.  No Anna Karenina, Wanda is too real for drama and tragedy.

Aleks (Pawel’s errant father) is the most significant new character, a charming wheeler-dealer, who, amongst other things, dips his hand into Solidarnosc’s donations.  They never rumble him, but, despite his dramatic escape in Bronek’s car boot in December 1981, with Jaruzelski’s soldiers hard on his heels, Poland consumes him too.  Some of the most insightful passages in ‘Sweetest Enemy’ feature political discussions between real Poles Aleks and Pawel, Bronek (who has lived in Warsaw for several years) and the British champagne revolutionary Roger Elliott, concerning who is on what side: Margaret Thatcher against Arthur Scargill; the British trade union movement not supporting Solidarnosc because they instinctively align themselves with the Communist government; Mrs Thatcher talking up Solidarnosc; Pawel saying the British police are right to confront the striking miners.

Like the ‘Black Madonna’, the plotline is complicated and meandering – you might say, character-driven.  One plot-thread which is not followed up is Wanda seeing hallucinations of her late sister, Zosia, and Helena finding a link with schizophrenia in the family.  Zosia’s appearances stop suddenly in Irena’s flat in Warsaw where Zosia died: had Wanda laid the ghost?  This is not clear.

However, Dear Reader, ‘Sweetest Enemy’ held this reader’s attention for the two days it took me to read it.  Was it an easy read?  Yes, if you’re interested in the history of the latter part of the twentieth century, but a younger person may need some explanatory footnotes.  Do I recommend it?  Yes, but I would definitely suggest you read ‘The Black Madonna of Derby’ first.

The Best of CafeLit 2011 – Free Kindle Download

The Best of CafeLit 2011

This anthology, which contains a selection of the stories posted on the CafeLit website, including ‘Penny Carter is Unwell’, written by me myself personally, is available free for Kindle download for today (New Year’s Day 2013) only.  So, if you have a Kindle, click here.

The Best of CafeLit 2012, which will be available on Amazon shortly, will include ‘Visions’, also by me.  Thanks, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, for getting both of these anthologies together.