Book #Review of The Silent Christmas by @WriterMJLee

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My Book Review of – The Silent Christmas by M J Lee

Independently published

 

Thanks to a cousin who has been researching our family tree, I recently discovered I had a Great-Great uncle who served in the trenches during WWl. He joined at the start of the war as a volunteer in 1914, and just one year later, aged twenty-one, he was dead, killed in action, his body never recovered but is commemorated on the Menin Wall in Ypres, Belgium. How apt then, I should stumble upon Martin Lee’s recently released novella, The Silent Christmas, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, which can also be read as a stand-alone.

Set in both the present day and the WWI trenches, the story centres on the informal football match believed to have taken place between the English and German soldiers during a brief truce on Christmas Day 1914. The first chapter takes us straight to the trenches on December 21st in Belgium, capturing the conditions and possible mind-set of some soldiers, ‘He lay on his back on the hard ground and dreamt of England; picnicking on the grass in front of the bandstand, straw hat tipped over his eyes to shield them from the sun… A shadow crossed his face and he felt a tap against his foot. ‘Time to get up, Tom, we’re moving forward… The men began packing up… As they did so, a solitary shell from a German whizz-bang whistled overhead, landing one hundred yards past the farm. None of the men moved or even ducked; each one carried on preparing to move forward as if nothing had happened.’ We then move forward to the present day and discover Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, asked, just days before Christmas, if she can help shed light on the mystery of several items, namely a label, a silver button and a lump of leather, found in a chest in the attic of her client. Ms Sinclair, who says, ‘Our role as genealogists is to use our research to bring these lost people, the vanished people of our family, back to life,’ agrees, and the mystery begins to unravel.

Written in the third person throughout, The Silent Christmas is a fictional tale exploring the actual events that took place during December 1914, later called the ‘Christmas Truce.’ A real “feel good” story handled with great care and respect, full of hope and love, that is both well written and researched. And, as 2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice it is also particularly poignant.

You can find The Silent Christmas on Amazon.co.uk here and Amazon.com here

 

Writer Martin Lee

 

M J Lee can be contacted at http://www.writermjlee.com, on Facebook at writermjlee and on twitter at @writermjlee. 

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Book #Review of Corrupted by @simonmichaeluk @urbanebooks

 

My Book Review of – Corrupted by Simon Michael

Published by Urbane Publications

 

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Corrupted, the latest book by fellow Urbane published author Simon Michael, is the fourth in a series of noir gangster crime thrillers concerning criminal barrister Charles Holborne. However, although part of a series there is just enough back-story for it to read perfectly well as a standalone. Set in London’s swinging sixties, the author mixes historical fact with fiction, making Corruption a story that sees its fictional barrister, Charles Holborne QC, drawn into the real life investigation of a sex ring scandal that involved the Kray twins and some very powerful but corrupt politicians. The author’s note reads, ‘This is not a true crime novel, but the historical facts upon which it is based did actually occur.’

 

Written in close third person, Charles, the flawed main protagonist, narrates throughout and the story itself unfolds during several crucial months of 1964, namely Friday 26th June–Monday 24th August. Charles, a Jewish East Ender doing well for himself, building his reputation as a brilliant murder trial lawyer, is living with his partner Sally. On the surface all looks well, however, Charles is clearly at odds with himself. ‘An East Ender, born and bred on the wrong side of town, the wrong side of the track and the wrong side of the law, Charles has muscled his way into the Establishment by becoming a war hero, barrister… His acquaintances include Oxbridge graduates with country seats, titles and racehorses; they also include boxers, burglars and con artists. He no longer quite fits in anywhere, and everywhere feels like the wrong place.’

 

Charles is asked to help a young lad called Teddy who has been arrested and accused of murder. Charles agrees to take the case on and in doing so takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of 1960s London including the music, fashion and haircuts of the time. The author also gives the reader a fascinating glimpse of Fleet Street during the sixties, sprinkled with sporadic but fascinating historical facts like the time Charles takes a run past Jack Straw’s Castle–the pub and reputed favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Bram Stoker. However, at the heart of this story is a dark, uncomfortable tale about power, corruption and sexual abuse. Pacey, but often sombre and heart breaking, it also includes great dialogue and some extremely well written courtroom drama. A thrilling page-turner and one I highly recommend.

Remembrance Day, The Menin Gate and Great, Great Uncle William

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When I was a very small child and people asked me when my birthday was, I’d tell them—11th November. “Ah Remembrance Day”, they’d reply, nodding their heads gravely. Understandably, their sobriety confused me. Remembrance Day or not, it was my birthday… and birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions aren’t they? As I got older though, understood better, I realised what an important day it is. Marked on the date of the World War I Armistice (1918), Remembrance Day is a day when—regardless of politics, religion, and race—everyone in the UK and Commonwealth remembers those who have lost their lives in war and military conflict while serving in the armed forces.

 

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2018 is particularly poignant because it marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice. It is also the year that my lovely cousin Dean, who lives in Kent, got in touch with some very interesting information. He’d been doing family research (on my mother’s side) and discovered we had a Great, Great Uncle, Corporal William Alfred Tuckley, who is commemorated on the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial in Ypres, Belgium dedicated to soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. The memorial is at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. Since the inauguration ceremony, which took place in July 1928, a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate every night at 8.00pm regardless of turnout or weather. The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ieper (Ypres) and local people are said to be very proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town.

 

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Built in the form of a Roman triumphal arch, the vast, white, Portland-stone walls of the Menin Gate are engraved with the names of some 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lost on the battlefield with no known graves, my Great, Great Uncle William among them. His recorded date of death was 17th October 1915—he was just 21 years old. A very sobering thought when I think of my son who recently had his 20th birthday, and my daughter who is 22. So, this year during the two minute silence, while my thoughts, as usual, will go out to all those who have served and lost their lives, I will also take a moment to spare a special thought for my Great, Great Uncle William.

 

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The Legend of Black Shuck

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Modern day celebrations of Halloween generally involve groups of children dressed in scary costumes roaming from house to house, demanding a “trick-or-treat”. However, traditionally, Halloween is also a time for telling ghost stories. Therefore, with a mind to keep things local (to me) I thought we’d take a look at “Black Shuck”, the name given to a ghostly black dog – supposedly the inspiration behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles novel – said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia.

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Research suggests the name Shuck may come from the old Anglo-Saxon word “scaucca” or “scucca” which means a “demon”, or it may be based on the local dialect word “shucky” meaning “shaggy” or “hairy”. A creature of legend, alleged sightings of Black Shuck vary in both shape and size but usually include a large dog with large red or yellow eyes, or sometimes one huge eye in the middle of the ghostly black dog’s forehead. All sightings describe thick, shaggy black fur, a snarling mouth, and, most importantly, Shuck is supposedly the harbinger of death, an omen of doom, and to see him is to befall a terrible fate before the week is out.

In his “Highways & Byways in East Anglia”, published in 1901, W. A. Dutt says…

“He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.”

 

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An article posted in the Peterborough Advertiser in 1936 states that local people used to shun the A605 road between Whittlesey and Coates during the hours of darkness because of the ‘Shuck Dog’ said to haunt the highway at night. The creature is large, black, has “great yellow eyes”, and “brings sure death to anyone he meets.” However, other stories describe the Shuck as assisting lone women, wandering or lost in the night, to safety.

Perhaps, late at night, if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear Black Shuck howling …?

 

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The Go-Between and The George!

The Past is a foreign country;they do things differently there_ – L P Hartley

I live in a small Fenland town called Whittlesey which is six miles to the west of Peterborough, eleven miles to the east of March, bordered to the north by the River Nene and to the south by Whittlesey Dyke. For such a small town it is rich in history and was once connected to Peterborough and March by the Roman road, Fen Causeway, constructed in the first century AD, which is the approximate route of the modern A605 road used today. Whittlesey also appears in the Cartularium Saxonicum (973 A.D.) as Witlesig, in the Domesday Book as Witesie, and in the Inquisitio Eliensis (1086 A.D.) as Wittleseia.

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Whittlesey in the 1940s.

Recently, while waiting to meet a couple of friends at one of the local pubs in Whittlesey, The George (which you can see to the left in the above photo), a grade II listed building (also rich in history) which dates from the late 18th century and whose landlords can be identified as far back as 1830, I happened to look up, and there on the wall opposite was a framed black and white photo (one of many adorning the walls) of a rather serious, rather dapper looking gentleman. Curious, I moved in for a closer look. Bespectacled and sporting a very bushy moustache, not unlike that worn by Tom Selleck during his Magnum PI days (showing my age now!), his chin resting on his hand in a somewhat contrived pose, the name above his head read, L.P. Hartley. Not to be confused with J.R. Hartley – a fictional character and said author in a popular TV advertisement promoting the Yellow Pages back in the early 1980’s that sees an elderly gentleman trawling second hand bookshops for a book called Fly Fishing – L.P. Hartley was, I discovered, actually a bona fide author of several famous works of fiction (one of which contains one of my favourite quotes – above) with a local connection.

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Leslie Poles Hartley (named after Leslie Stephen, who was, among other things, an author, critic, and historian, not to mention the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) was a British novelist and short story writer, born 20th December 1895 – in Whittlesey. The son of Bessie and Harry Bark Hartley, a solicitor, Leslie also had two sisters, Enid and Annie Norah. While he was young, the family moved to Fletton Tower, a small country estate near Peterborough. However, most of his schooling took place in Cliftonville, Thanet, and Clifton College, Bristol. He completed his education at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read modern history and also met and befriended fellow writer, Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). Some of his early works of fiction were published in the early 1920’s, however, his writing career, much to his disappointment, was slow to take off. It was only during later life that he began to experience serious success. His best-known novels are the Eustace and Hilda trilogy (1944-7) and The Go-Between (1953 – where the above quote comes from), which was made into a film in 1971 starring Julie Christie (a photo of which also sits alongside Hartley in the same frame) and Alan Bates. Offering a critical review of society at the end of the Victorian era, the New York Times described the novel as “a triumph of literary architecture.” The Go-Between was joint winner of the Heinemann Award and Hartley was awarded the CBE in 1956. Hartley died in London on 13 December 1972 at the age of 76, however, I think I can safely say L.P. Hartley was a local boy done good!

Book #Review of Before The Fall by @JulietWest14 @panmacmillan

A great war.
A powerful love.
An impossible choice.

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My Book Review of – Before The Fall by Juliet West

Published by Pan; Main Market Ed. edition

A tale of forbidden love, Before The Fall is beautiful, poignant and heartbreakingly sad. Set in London’s East End during the First World War, this is a fictional tale based on true events.

Hannah Loxwood is the struggling young mother of two children, namely 4-year-old Alice and 2-year-old Teddy. Her husband, George, one of many young men who has voluntarily enlisted to fight in the Great War, is across the channel, fighting. To help make ends meet, Hannah and her children move into the home of her older sister, Jen, and brother in law, Alec, and to help pay her way Hannah takes a job offer in a local café. There, she meets Mr Blake, Daniel, a welder. “This man, he’s not like your average docker. He’s well built all right, strong like you have to be, but there’s something unusual about him. A word comes to my mind – elegant – and I tell myself not to be so daft. It isn’t a word I’ve thought of before, let alone said.” Hannah quickly realises she is drawn to the quietly intriguing Daniel in a way she neither expected nor anticipated. The feeling, as it turns out, is mutual. “All the single girls in London and he has to fall for a soldiers wife … beautiful, odd, vulnerable.” Nonetheless, Hannah is a married woman; social norms must be observed at all times. Hence Hannah and Daniel must do their level best to suppress any thoughts or feelings that go beyond friendship. However, as the war rages on, Hannah finds herself wondering if her husband will ever return home again – and if indeed she actually wants him to.

Well researched, full of fascinating historical details, including police statements, newspaper reports and witness statements, Before The Fall is a brilliantly crafted, superbly written novel. The characters are well rounded and believable, especially Hannah, written in the first person – whom I became highly invested in – and Daniel, written in the third person. The author’s prose is wonderfully captivating and highly evocative – I could see the smog, smell the river, feel the hunger, and sense the desperation. However, although set amongst the fear and uncertainty of war torn London, this is not a war story but rather a mesmerising, realistic, and haunting tale of love. It is also a story about the plight of women, their sad indictment and the difficulties they faced if caught challenging a ruthless wartime society. A sensitive, powerful, must read.

 

#Review – A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray @whjm ‏

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My book Review of A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Published by Oneworld Publications

This year marks the  100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK.  Also, on March 8th, it was International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, observed annually since the early 1900’s. I therefore thought it appropriate to review a book that was both fitting and relevant to both these historic events.

A History of Britain in 21 Women is written by Dame Jenni Murray; probably best known as Radio 4’s presenter of Women’s Hour and whom I had the very great pleasure of meeting last year. These short biographies are a personal selection chosen by Murray to present the history of Britain through the lives of twenty-one women, whose lives embodied hope and change, who refused to surrender to established laws of society, and, who still have the power to inspire us today.

In the introduction Murray, born in 1950, states that growing up “the role of a woman was to learn how to be a good wife and mother, do the cooking and cleaning and nurture those her around her.” She quotes Thomas Carlyle, circa 1840, who said ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ and as a young girl growing up in Barnsley in the 1950’s and ‘60’s that’s pretty much what Murray believed. However, it was education that made her question the expectations placed on women, and after attending a wonderful girls’ school she began to discover many women that had influenced history and also challenged the assumption that a woman’s place was in the home.

Murray writes about, to name but a few; Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni tribe who fought bravely against the Romans to preserve a social structure that had been practised by, and was so important to the women of the tribes of Britain, namely equality; Aphra Behn, the first English woman playwright to earn her living by her pen; Astronomer Caroline Herschel, after whom a crater on the moon is named; And, computing pioneer Ada Lovelace. We are also given an insight into the courageous account of writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840) entitled ‘Account from Paris of a terrible Operation – 1812, who, when she discovered she had breast cancer and under the insistence of specialist surgeons, underwent one of the first recorded mastectomy’s at a time when there was no effective anaesthetic – ouch! She was 59 years old at the time and went on to live until the ripe old age of 88!

Written as biographies in small chunks, A History of Britain in 21 Women is well researched, informative and entertaining. Dedicated to “all the young people who need to know” it is an illuminating, easy read offering a great deal to both women and men of all ages. However some of Murray’s omissions were interesting and there was one woman in particular whom I felt wasn’t deserving of a place amongst such great individuals – but that’s purely politics. Nonetheless a thought-provoking read finishing with a timely reminder that we still have a way to go and the fight for gender parity must continue.