Reviews of ‘The Dark Marshes’ and ‘The Secret of Lakeham Abbey’, both by Sally Quilford

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!)

‘The Woolworths Girls’ and ‘Atonement’: Two Reviews

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.

More Cliches

WordPress stats tells me that it’s eleven days since my last confession… er… my last post.  Oh dear, oh dear.  Bad Blogger, me.  Two nights ago, I started writing a follow up to my post of 2 May, about cliches, but, being very tired, I rambled.

First, the additional character cliche:

Down to Earth Yorkshiremen yorkshire-rose-cropped

He calls a spade a spade, speaks as he finds and treats you as fam’le’.  He says things like happen and by gum and regards all bloody southerners as unfriendly.   The Brontes, living in Haworth most of their lives, never felt the need to mention this stereotype – funny, that.  Interestingly, WordPress’s spellcheck recognises Yorkshireman but not Yorkshirewoman.

Me, I was born level with the Wash, in Leicester, where we address each other as me duck and have our own special word – mardy – for sulky and uncooperative.  Children in my primary school were forever going mardy.  The people of the East Midlands, who have no delusions of grandeur yet still a strong sense of identity, tend to be devastatingly and unsentimentally realistic, imo.  Btw, the former Roman city of Ratae (how’s that for awarding reps?) has produced just a few writers:  C P Snow, Su Townsend, Joe Orton (playwrite, one of the ‘Angry Movement’) and – a treasure I have just come across in the last few days – Susannah Watts, an Anti-Slavery Poet of the early nineteenth century, who wrote The Slaves’ Address to British Ladies

Think, how naught but death can sever
Your lov’d children from your hold;
Still alive- but lost forever
Ours are parted, bought and sold!

(You see how I rambled?)

The other cliches (below) are standard word/phrase cliches:

Aircraft DoorsDoors to Manual

This is supposed to be a snobbish reference to Carole Middleton, mother of the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate), having once been an air stewardess.   Whoopety-doo-dah!  Is there anything wrong with being an air stewardess?  My sister-in-law has worked for Virgin Atlantic for twenty years and – do you know? – we still speak.

Flavoursome

Whenever I hear this, I think of added salt and sugar.  It has a good flavour does very well.  Better still, try and describe the taste.  If you’re trying to include all senses in a piece of writing, flavoursome does not cut it.

Health Issues

If someone has health issues, he/she is not feeling very well.  Say so.   Essex students sum this up very well.  Tutor: “Where’s Dylan today?  He’s not in class.”  Other student’s answer:  “Nah.  He’s well ill.”

The Latest Thinking

Usually used at work.   It means This is what the bosses want us to think.  I’m going along with it, because I want to stay in this job/I really don’t care.   I haven’t thought it through, though.  A few months down the line, the organisation will be in chaos because whatever it is doesn’t work – but, never fear, the next latest thinking will come along soon.

Finally, a word about the word for…

Toilet

Apparently, we mustn’t say toilet because upper class people say lavatory, as in a Conservative sitting on top of a volcano.   It’s a very long time since we bothered about what posh people said and did.   Don’t the lavatory-sayers sneer at ‘the toffs’?  Such people must be so insecure that they don’t like to admit that they urinate and defecate.  Real old money has no such problems.   Should they need to avail themselves of the conveniences, they will normally say so at several decibels.  “Frightfully sorry.  One just simply must have a crap.”

Reading this through, I wonder if I’m just being old fashioned.  I hope not.  Anyone else have any cliches they would like to share with us?

The week after next, we’re off to Yorkshire (if they’ll still let me in after this post) where we hope to visit the Bronte Museum at Haworth, via Leicester, where I hope to visit Abbey Park, setting for my short story Burnt Down, which appeared on Sudbury Newstalk.  I’m on the ACW More thanWriters blog on Saturday 13 August, btw, writing about modern slavery.