Review of ‘We That Are Left’ by Juliet Greenwood

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

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.


Review of ‘The Museum of Fractured Lives’ by Sally Jenkins

Available from Sally Jenkins’ blog.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb

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.

Notebook of William Hartley, who was Walter Hartley (1846-1913) was appointed professor of chemistry at the Royal College of Science for Ireland in 1879.

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?

Review of Three Simon Serrailler Novels by Susan Hill

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.


New Year Resolutions For Writers (and Human Beings)

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.