House of Glass

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I requested this book from my local library within minutes of reading the Guardian review because I have a Pavlovian response to any book set in the early 20th century, coupled with jealousy that I didn’t write it myself (or, more accurately, didn’t get it published because House of Glass shares many memes with my first book, including gardening porn, Indian childhood, and difficult heroines). _____ 3 Gifts for the writer-reader: (1) Lovely, lyrical, often intensely poetic prose. Nice use of poetic fallacy; a heatwave of tension and climactic thunderstorm; corny – but worked. (2) A well developed heroine: feisty and questioning – so we, too, get lots of answers. Interesting and relevant back story and a consistent voice. (3) Tension and shock: I was genuinely jumpy reading the 1-2 pages when things going bump in the night; an effect achieved by short sentences, repetition, and lots of detail. _____ 3 things for the reader-writer to consider: (1) Take care to weave dates, ages and other specifics into the narrative. I got confused. I thought A was shagging B until I realised there was a 30 year age gap. (2) Avoid the long good bye. The 50 page slog post-denouement explaining life, the universe and everything (including the usual emotional tics of the Great War; Somme, mud, shell-shock) was pleasant but ultimately unsatisfying, like lingering in a cooling bath. (3) The Guardian review describes House of Glass as “part cheerful romp”. I didn’t get that but I was unsure what this book was… A Gothic drama? A historical romance? A country house mystery? A social commentary on debauched landed gentry and salt-of-the-earth farmers and gardeners (roll over DHL) and/or the fate of women 100 years ago (pregnant and shamed, young and abused, widowed and mad). And that I asked myself: did it matter so long as the reader is swept along by the story and feels herself part of that world? #amwriting #amreading #gothicnovel #historicalnovel #romance

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War Graves

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Howitzer

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Shell Burst

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The Unreturning Army

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If you’re reading this…

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If you’re reading this… Last Letters from the Front Line, by Siân Price (2011). This book does what is says on the tin: A selection of letters written by serving soldiers from the Neopolianic Wars to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was fascinated by the common themes in #GreatWar letters and those written by 90 years later: love for family; acceptance of fate and pride in being a soldier; attention to practical matters; frequently humour – and often religion. Take this written by Second Lieutenant William Binning in France in 1916: —- “Don’t grieve dearest mother and father. I should so much have liked to live and show you what good there was in me but still I am happy for I have done something. I shall be happy in His care and will look forward so much to our reunion … Give Belle, Annie and Johnnie my very best love … I have tried to do my duty … I am enclosing a holograph Will so you can get (my money) without difficulty.” —- And this, written by Guardsman Neil Downes in Afghanistan in 2007: “Well I guess by now you have heard the good news. I am up in heaven now with grandad and nana – sure they are stopping me pulling the birds. Well don’t be mad, don’t be sad. I died doing what I had to do and that was serving the British (Army) … I love you and I will see you all again … I have told my parents to leave you some money out of my insurance.” —- A final word from another modern-day soldier; a farewell message recorded by Master Corporal Raymond Arndt: “Should this disk be read then the worst has happened and I have died. I ask only that people try to understand what I am trying to do, and not to be mad or hate the army … I’ll keep the beer cold till we meet again … ‘And when he gets to the pearly gates / To St Peter he will tell / One more soldier reporting, sir / I’ve served my time in hell.’” #history #soldiers #BritishArmy #amreading #amwriting

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Chronicle of Youth

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Testament of Youth (1933) is perennially moving and, for better or for worse, still helps define our response to #WW1 but for an authentic and visceral insight into what it was really like to (a) be Vera Brittain and (b) live through the early years of the War in a provincial English town, a chilly Oxford college and a miserable nurses’ home, then read her diaries, published as Chronicle of Youth in 1981. —- Reading Chronicle, I alternated between wanting to slap the young Vera for her snobbery (almost obligatory at the time) and superiority (in her defence, she bewitchingly pretty, seriously clever, and unbelievably hard-working) – and hug her for being so unpopular and uptight, so emotionally vulnerable, so naïve – and so desperately unhappy so much of the time. Like the author of Testament, the author of Chronicle demonstrates no understanding of the wider causes of the Great War and holds no strategic overview; she simply describes, day by exhilarating, excruciating day, the creeping onset of hostilities and gradual realisation of horrors. And, since there is no benefit of hindsight and no poetical honing of emotions, the cruel spikes of sudden death and each crashing wave of grief are all the more terrible in their rawness and incomprehension. (Although, as when watching Titanic for the umpteenth time, one desperately hopes that just this once the iceberg may float on past…) —- There is a further fascinating difference between Testament and Chronicle; the telling of VB’s relationship with Roland Leighton. Whilst Testament revisits this into a sweetly conventional love story, the latter hints at the tangled web of emotions and uncomfortable ambiguities on both sides – and it is precisely this untidy authenticity that makes this book (usefully read in tandem with Berry and Bostridge’s biography Vera Brittain: A Life) so gripping for a novelist. —- I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, nothing – not even Alicia Vickander looking beautiful in her beret or Sam Claflin acting tortured in his dugout – beats reading contemporary accounts of the #GreatWar all their bigotry and bravery, heartbreaking idealism and false hopes. #amreading

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Pilgrimage

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Love is Blind (reading-as-a-writer 15)

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I’ve liked William Boyd ever since I read A Good Man in Africa when I was myself a good woman in Africa. We’ve had our ups and downs but Love is Blind is a definite Up. Smart, elegant, gripping story-telling; no more and no less. When I grow up I want to write like William Boyd. —- Gifts for the writer/reader? —- (1) Character. No big exposition. Built up little by little, layer on layer; subtle hints, delicate clues – and, suddenly, we really care about this selfish, short-sighted, chain-smoking young Scotsman and his peripatetic life in the first decade of the 20th century. —- (2) Understatement. Act 1: Brodie falls in love with the woman who will define the rest of his life. Act 2: Brodie wins and then loses the love of his life. Act 3: No spoilers; let’s just say it’s not quite Happy Ever After. Could the love affair be more, um, passionate? Could the lost love be a bit more tragic? Possibly – and, in the wrong hands, probably – but the telling is perfect as it is and I’ve learnt a lot; the impeccable lens of the story-teller, the telling details, the significance of what is left unsaid. —- (3) Time passing. As a novice, I am particularly challenged when required to describe the passing of time or the passage of a physical journey. How to avoid ugly jumps in the narrative style? How to maintain dramatic tension? How to describe yet another train journey? (There were so many train journeys in the early 20th century!) #amwriting #amlearning #bookstagram

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Shellshock case notes

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Another afternoon @nationalarchivesuk immersed in #WW1 medical records, this time for victims of neurasthenia (latter #shellshock) admitted to various English hospitals. I feel for the doctors; faced with a catalogue of vague physical symptoms (commonly abdominal pains, headache and shaking), no modern imaging or other diagnostic tools, under pressure to declare men fighting fit. Not easy, either, for men in France who may themselves be endangered by a dithering colleague – as one memo from an exacerbated commanding officer suggested: “This man is absolutely useless and we are anxious to get rid of him”. Many of the medical assessments are detailed and holistic; written by doctors who clearly listened to their patients. Peacetime occupations are noted (bookmaker, motor mechanic, engineer), precipitating events analysed (“continual heavy fire … stupefied him”, “father drowned on Lusitania, brother killed in France”) and other anxieties – often domestic or marital – are remarked on. Treatments included sedation with bromide or valium, rest in bed (often “outside”), milk diets, hot baths, massage and (occasionally) “faradic” or electrical treatment (often refused). Sometimes a senior opinion is sought, with pithy outcome: “I think soldering doesn’t agree with him” (discharged unfit) and “always complaining … the idleness of hospital is certainly not improving his mental condition” (returned to regiment). On one occasion a more experienced MO intervened and apparently sat down and talked to the patient after noting: “no abnormal mental symptoms – he has seen notes and naturally worried – he has not been reassured and the whole circumstances explained to him”. Some of the records are particularly sad: The 22-year-old 2nd lieutenant found in “state of exhaustion”, the 17-year-old private who “fainted when shells came over” – and the soldier hospitalised who went for a walk, returned “quite cheerful” to hospital and then cut his own throat. These aside, many of the men appeared to recover after a couple of weeks of milk diets and bed rest and were then sent either to convalescence or on sick furlough, often with advice thereafter for “light duties”. #GreatWar

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