Tag Archives: Charlie Britten

Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York

Written by Samantha Wilcoxson

Published by CreateSpace

Review by Charlie Britten

4quills

 

Elizabeth of York, daughter of Yorkist Edward IV of England, was married to Henry VIII, a Lancastrian, in 1486, as a peace-offering, following the Wars of the Roses.  The Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen (published August 2015) chronicles Elizabeth’s life, from six years old until her death aged thirty-seven, after having borne Henry eight children, five of whom predeceased her, including the last, baby Katherine Tutor, to whom Elizabeth had given birth nine days previously.  Elizabeth lived in turbulent times.  She grew up amidst constant internecine war, battles, hostage-taking, rebellions and political executions – the stuff of Shakespeare’s history plays – and King Henry, whose claim to the throne was tenuous, was under constant threat of insurrection.  Her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, whom she called ‘Lady Mother’, was a social climber and the canniest political schemer of her age; she carried on plotting for the Yorkists long after her daughter had become queen, until she was sent away to Bermondsey Abbey – and even that didn’t stop her.  Elizabeth of York’s brothers were the Princes in the Tower, murdered – allegedly – by King Richard III, although, according to Wilcoxson, Elizabeth had a brief fling with Richard prior to her marriage and never could believe in Richard’s guilt.  (I suspect the author herself of being a Richard III-er.)  So, lots and lots of conflict here, and great potential for a sensational blockbuster.

This, however, was not Samantha Wilcoxson’s style.  The Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen is a biography, not a novel and not Hollywood fodder.  Wilcoxson did her research well in that she managed to get under the skin of the age, how people thought and behaved, particularly women.  The fifteenth century was an overtly religious age, a Catholic age.  Wilcoxson never demurred from showing us how Elizabeth, her ladies and her sisters, prayed in every situation, kneeling before an altar in church, before they took any practical action, even as a substitute for practical action.  The author enters into the expectations of fifteenth century women, having Elizabeth’s sister, Cecily, say, in so many words, that she wanted to know who she was to marry and could Henry please let her know.  Elizabeth has to make some compromises, the biggest concerning her simple-minded cousin being a prisoner in the Tower.  Wilcoxson shows Elizabeth, who was known not to be interested in politics, to be ladylike in an old fashioned sense, a devoted wife and mother.

Wilcoxson does not attempt to write the dialogue in Tudor English; if she had, the book would have been very difficult to read, although she might have thrown we readers a passing contemporary word or phrase.  Instead, she wrote the whole biography in modern idiomatic American English, including Merriam-Webster spellings and words such as ‘fall’ and ‘normalcy’ (ouch!).  ‘Autumn’ and ‘normality’ would have been much more appropriate for the biography of an English queen. 

My other issue is Wilcoxon’s unusual perspective on child development.  Whereas one appreciates that children behaved and thought differently in the fifteenth century, Elizabeth’s appreciation of the political situation at the age of six is not believable, nor is her recourse to prayer at that age, whatever may have been written by chroniclers and other primary sources This misunderstanding manifested itself throughout the book, in three year old’s Arthur’s regal bearing during his investiture as Prince of Wales, for instance.

Overall, however, I recommend this biography, of an important, but overlooked, character in English history. 

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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Destiny’s Rebel

Written by Philip Davies

Published by Books to Treasure 

Review by Charlie Britten

4quills

It’s ten days before her eighteenth birthday and her Coronation as Queen of Anestra and Kat (officially Princess Katelin) is dreading a life of royal duties.  Kat’s parents having been killed in battle when she was small, the country is currently ruled by regents, her Uncle Ethabos and Aunt Sirika, whom annoy Kat to distraction.  When her aunt attempts one last attempt to break her (in other words, to bring her into line) Kat helps herself to one last adventure, by scaling down the wall from her bedroom, escaping from the palace and buying a sea passage on The Oyster Shell.  Captured by slavers, she is taken to the land of Lasseny, but the crew of The Oyster Shell, who promised her safe passage when they accepted her fare, buy her back in the slave market.

Lasseny is not a nice place to be, its residents ground down by punitive taxes levied to keep the evil Duke of Lasseny and his son, Count Bassilius (who thinks he’s going to marry Kat), in luxury.  Kat, however, is with new friends: Armus, a cleric; Hedger, a mercenary; Sigzay, a female mercenary, barbarian and Hedger’s girlfriend.  On a quest for missing segments of the Anestran Crown, said to be in the possession of the Duke, Kat and her companions become aware of fighters and armaments being mobilised in readiness for an imminent attack on Anestra.  They set off on a long trek on foot back home, not only to warn the Anestran Court of the coming Lassenite assault, but because Kat knows, in her heart, that she must return and be resigned to her fate.  Then comes the twist, which I did not anticipate at all.

Published in September 2015, this is Philip Davies’s first novel, available in paperback only.  Targeted at the young adult market, Destiny’s Rebel, like many others in the fantasy genre, is set in a fictitious world and a broadly medieval setting, in which royals live in castles and fighters do battle with bows and arrows, bolts and battering rams.  There are no fantasy animals, though, or magic forces, just humans.

What is significant is the modern role of women: both Kat and Sigzay fight alongside men, and appear to have no obvious domestic roles.  Sigzay, however, is jealous of Kat in a bitchy way, which makes her vulnerable, thereby gaining her the reader’s sympathy.  Sigzay is a particularly well-drawn character.  Kat is a likeable gutsy girl, who wins the reader’s confidence within the first few pages, although she has her flaws, which make realistically, and endearingly, teenage.  

A gently Christian novel, Destiny’s Rebel evokes the Biblical story of Jonah, who, not wanting to go to Nineveh where God had sent him, ended up in the whale.  The Anestrans worship the gentle good goddess whom they call ‘The Divine’, to whom they owe a distinctively Christian duty of love and obedience, while Lasseny is presided over by the evil devil Ilbassi Note that ‘The Divine’ is a woman.

A thoroughly readable first novel by Philip Davies, a page-turner, but thought-provoking.  Hope the young adults enjoy as much as I, an older adult, did.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog: http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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Visiting Kindred Spirits

By Charlie Britten

museumMy eyes brimmed with tears, one of those moments so intense I wanted to make it end, to run out into the safety of the hire car, the road and the twenty-first century.  Yes, I know it was all fiction and none of it really happened, but L M Montgomery’s Anne Shirley figured as large in my childhood as the flesh-and-blood friends I met in school every day.  And here I was, in this beautiful house, fitted out with its simple and functional furniture, but with lace everywhere – over the mantelpiece, over the tables, in the bedspreads, exactly as it would’ve been in her time.  Anne was here, and Gilbert, and Marilla, and Rachel Lynde, and all the others.  I’d travelled over three thousand miles for this and probably would never return.  I took a deep breath and carried on.

museum 2The Anne of Green Gables Museum is at Park Corner, on the north coast of Prince Edward Island, at a Gothic Revival farmhouse called Silver Bush, the former home of author Montgomery’s Uncle John and Auntie Annie Campbell.  The first Campbells settled in this house in 1776 and the family lives here still, managing the Museum, which appears on Canada’s Historic Places Register and Prince Edward Island’s Register also.  Although the real Lake of Shining Waters is just down the hill from the main museum building, this is not Green Gables, but Silver Bush, as featured in two of Montgomery’s other books, Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat.  It was in this house, which she called the wonder castle of my childhood, that Montgomery felt comfortable, not in the official ‘home of Lucy Maud Montgomery’ in the village of Cavendish a few miles away, which is advertised in tourist literature.

museum 3The Museum has two storeys.  You enter (like Mrs Rachel Lynde in the first pages of Anne) through the kitchen, passing the leaded range to pay at the desk (in summer 2015, $5.50 for adults and $2 for children).  You move through into the lacy Edwardian parlour, where a clock ticks loudly and lugubriously and you see the small organ which was played at Montgomery’s wedding in 1911 to Presbyterian minister, Ewan Macdonald.  You think about small children, sitting still on hard chairs, in their best clothes – hopefully with puffed sleeves – longing for Sunday to end.  A letter in the parlour, written a year before the author’s death in 1942, thanks her nephew for sending $10, because, she tells him, she doesn’t have enough money for the nursing care she needs, even though by this time, Anne of Green Gables was enjoying huge popularity and Montgomery would have been earning from her many other books.

Upstairs are a family bedroom, a child or single person’s room and a hallway, where first editions of Montgomery’s books are on display – not just the Anne books, but a selection of her twenty-two novels, and the short stories she used to submit to magazines in the days before Anne.  You may touch these faded volumes, even read a little.  Hanging on the wall is the crazy quilt Montgomery stitched as a teenager, using any scraps of fabric she could find, and which she finished only after the fashion for crazy quilts had passed, but, as she wrote in her diary, she had had the ‘joy of making’ [1] –  a typically upbeat and stoical comment.  Born in Clifton (now New London) in PEI in 1874, Montgomery’s mother, Clara, died of tuberculosis when the author was twenty-two months old.  Mounted on the same wall is a journal entry, in which the author relates how, as an adult, she encountered a friend of her mother’s, who tells her how Clara entreated her to come and see her baby because ‘little Lucy Maud is so sweet today’. This is what brought me to tears in the warm yellow afternoon sunshine.

There is a danger that the whole of Prince Edward Island will be subsumed by the commercial opportunities offered up through Anne of Green Gables and her creator.  Everywhere you can buy red-haired Anne dolls, stay at several different Green Gables motels, eat at Green Gables cafes, bathe on the Green Gables Shore (the Island’s north facing beach), and, in the Homburg Theatre in the Island’s capital, Charlottetown, see Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, which has been running continuously since 1965.

I’m glad I went to the Museum first, when I had been on the Island only a few hours, because it captured the spirit of Montgomery’s stories, which were about people living a simple life in farming communities at the beginning of the twentieth century, their underpinning stoicism and joy in small things.  Montgomery loved to visit Silver Bush because here she was loved and that loving feeling lingers on.  The last words in Anne of Green Gables, were a quote from Pippa Passes, Browning’s long narrative poem (1841) – significantly – about an orphan.  “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!” whispered Anne softly.”

For more information about the Anne of Green Gables Museum, visit http://www.annemuseum.com.

[1] http://www.gov.pe.ca/firsthand/index.php3?number=43770&lang (From The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Volume II, 5)

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at  http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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Go Set a Watchman

    Written by: Harper Lee
    Published by: William Heinemann
    Review by: Charlie Britten

4quills

When Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-forgotten sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, first appeared in July this year, it was panned in almost every review, but, now the dust has settled and after some long reflection, this reviewer is awarding it four quills (out of five).

To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, set the world alight, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and rapidly muscling itself on to almost every school literature syllabus in the world.  Although set in the 1930s, its tone and content resonated with public opinion at the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, but, unusually for a book set upon such a pedestal, Mockingbird is worth its every accolade.  Visitors to London may like to take in the staged version, currently running at the Barbican Theatre – warmly recommended by this reviewer. 

Go Set a Watchman was in fact written before Mockingbird, even though its action takes place some twenty years later.  As has been widely reported, editor Tay Hohoff (now deceased) saw potential in the back story of a submission from a novice author, and supported Harper Lee in writing a different story about racial discrimination from a child’s perspective.  Watchman, which was not looked at again until the beginning of this year, features many of the main characters: Scout, twenty-six years old and known by her real name, Jean Louise; her father, Atticus, crippled with arthritis; their servant, Cal, now retired.  Although Jean Louise’s brother, Jem, has died in a tragic accident, he appears in the many flashbacks, along with their friend, Dill.  Several other significant characters are added, including stiff and starchy Aunt Alexander and eccentric Uncle Jack, together with Jean Louise’s unsatisfactory lover, Henry Clinton.  

Like Mockingbird, the narrative rambles off on frequent diversions, but the main thrust of the story is that Jean Louise Finch, who now lives and works in New York, returns south to Maycomb County, Alabama, to find the community, with whom she grew up, gripped by racism, including her family and Henry Clinton, and, most shocking of all, her beloved and revered father, Atticus.  The title of the novel is taken from Isaiah 21:6, ‘For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees”’ (English Standard Version).  Although these words are only quoted directly once, in a Methodist sermon during one of the many flashbacks to childhood, its relevance is obvious, Jean Louise being the watchman who sees the South with fresh eyes and announces in disgust.  Confused, and with the superiority of an adopted northerner, Jean Louise burns with indignation, wondering if attitudes have changed or whether people have always thought like this and she hasn’t noticed.  “I thought I was a Christian but I’m not… Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me….”  

Whereas Mockingbird presents the reader with a straightforward scenario, the noble black man, Tom Robinson, defended by valiant Atticus, against the lying white Ewell family bringing a false charge of rape against him, Watchman digs deep into the inner racist in all of us, and all the muddle and contradictions.  Atticus may attend citizens’ council meetings, with the boring and unimaginative Henry Clinton, to hear racist speakers, but he still waits behind black customers in the grocery store queue.  Probably, this is the novel Harper Lee, a Southerner and a liberal, wanted to write, about life in Alabama in the 1950s as it really was, whereas her editor – as was her job – directed her into writing something more palatable to the readership of the time.  Those who have screamed ‘Atticus is a racist’ all over Facebook have failed to scratch beneath the surface of Watchman or to appreciate that, although Lee has described the mindset of Maycomb in the 1950s, and explained its rationale, she has neither condoned it nor apologised for it.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at  http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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A Place in the World

Written by Cinda Crabbe Mackinnon

Published by Virtual Bookworm

Review by Charlie Britten

3quills

 

Born to American parents working in the diplomatic service, Alicia Collier has never felt sufficiently settled in any one place to call it home. The nearest she comes to it is during her teenage years in Bogota, Columbia, so, when she has to move back to the US, to university in Virginia, she falls for the only Latino around, Jorge Carvallo. At the first opportunity, Alicia rushes back to Columbia, believing Jorge’s vague promise of a job in tropical biology at Bogota University, only to find that no such post exists and that, in that continent, women’s careers are considered not to be important. Alicia and Jorge, now married and expecting a baby, move to a remote coffee plantation, Las Nubes, on the edge of the rainforest, which Jorge is supposed to manage for the family business. At first all is well, but, with the responsibilities of parenthood and financial problems caused by volcanic ash (ceniza) suffocating the coffee plants, Jorge becomes restless, setting off on a Che Guevera motorbike trip. Alicia, on the other hand, cannot bear to leave the coffee plantation, because at last she’s found somewhere she belongs.

A Place in the World encompasses the late 1960s through to the end of the twentieth century. The story arc is straightforward, albeit understated against a backdrop of volcanic eruptions, bandits, narcos, wild animals and, above all, the ever present danger of getting lost in the rainforest. Many things might have happened yet didn’t; the author, who is herself an American environmental scientist, did not go in for hype or thrills. This is a very honest novel, which seeks to chronicle a young woman’s battle with old fashioned social attitudes and male waywardness, her battle to keep the plantation going, against the elements and accepted ways of working which went against what she understood about ecology. Viewed negatively, you could say that this is a story about an American woman who came to sort out the backward Latinos, but that view would have to be balanced against Alicia’s love of all things South American and her acceptance of indigenous people and their way of life. I read this book because, with my son is currently in Columbia, I wanted to get the feel of Latin America and Cinda Crabbe Mackinnon did just that.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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The Photographer’s Wife

Written by Nick Alexander

Published by Bigfib Books

Review by Charlie Britten

3quills

 

Sophie, a struggling fashion photographer, is organising a retrospective of the work of her late father, Anthony Marsden, a famous art photographer of the Swinging Sixties. Her problem is winning the cooperation of her grumpy and withdrawn mother, Barbara, who has stashed much of his work away in her attic. What Sophie doesn’t appreciate is that Barbara has withheld the many painful truths about her father, his photography, his companions and events in Sophie’s own childhood. As she pig-headedly digs out the photos she needs, Sophie is too wrapped up in her own sanitised version of her Anthony Marsden, art photography icon, and her ghastly boyfriend, Brett, with his puerile sexual preferences, to be aware of what she is revealing, or to care about the pain she is making Barbara relive.

The storyline is well-executed, with hooks and twists skilfully planted, building up to a gradual, and believable, reveal, even though, at times, Nick Alexander found it necessary to ‘tell’, rather than show, the reader exactly what is going on. Being a child during the London Blitz has made Barbara emotionally resilient, but with low aspirations. All she wanted was a man who could provide for her, and a family, not all the baggage of the Swinging Sixties. When complications and aspirations came her way through Tony Marsden, she dealt with them all phlegmatically, his inadequacies as a man, a husband and as a photographer. Of course, Barbara is the real hero of this story, but she is not an attractive character, nor is Sophie, a supercilious art snob. Brett is repulsive, Tony irritating and predictable, and none of the other characters won me over. Even though each character is well drawn, well understood by the author and distinct from each other, it is difficult to enjoy a book when you can’t warm to anyone on the page.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWorkThe Short Humour SiteMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School

Written by David Turner

Published by Yale Press

Review by Charlie Britten

2quills

 

Every British schoolboy or schoolgirl is desperate to go to boarding school at some time in their life, tantalised by Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers series (girls), Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series (boys) and more recently by Harry Potter (both sexes). The Old Boys, published in March 2015 and written by David Turner, former education correspondent for the Financial Times, is not about ‘jolly japes’, but a very serious, thorough and well-researched account of the British public school system from the very first such establishment – Winchester College, founded in 1394 – to the present day.

Winchester, like many public schools that followed it, started out with charitable intentions, as a free educational facility for boys from poor families, subsidised by commoners who did pay fees. Of course, the commoners rapidly overtook the non-fee payers in numbers and in status, with the result that, within a hundred years, public schools had become the place where arrivistes with money but without noble status or connections could purchase the latter, alongside a classical education. The Old Boys chronicles riots by boys, bullying and poor accommodation. Many of the problems which beset schools today were present from the beginning: huge class sizes, with teachers frequently asked to supervise two classes at once; the standard of teaching on offer being so poor that parents hire extra tutors; well-connected parents making a nuisance of themselves to teachers until their darlings were awarded better grades.

Although Turner’s work includes a lot of fascinating information, backed up by excellent primary sources, his treatment of the topic is disorganised and off-putting. The book starts in an uninviting way, with some long captions to illustrations, which don’t have much meaning as the illustrations are not displayed with them. Chapters are very long and, although the book attempts to tell the story of British public schools in chronological order, rather than by topic, the result is meandering. For instance, the reader is amidst a discussion of the impact of sport on the curriculum when suddenly we move on to homosexuality. Turner does not discuss girls’ public schools in any great detail, but that is not the brief he set himself.

Although The Old Boys has been promoted for the ‘general interest’ genre, it is, in truth, one for academic historians.

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Charlie Britten is a contributing reviewer for The Copperfield Review.

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The Cunning Man: A Hippo Yeoman Anthology

Written by John Yeoman

Published by Amazon

Review by Charlie Britten

3quills

 

Published in December 2014, The Cunning Man is a collection of historical crime stories featuring the impoverished Elizabethan apothecary, Hippo Yeoman, whose sideline is solving mysteries. The crimes he is required to solve include the theft of a bowl from a locked room which it is ‘impossible’ to enter, the plight of a milliner faced with ruin because she can’t read Latin, vandalism of books and a dead man found in a privy built for the personal use of Good Queen Bess in anticipation of a Royal Visit which never happens. The writer moves Hippo around sixteenth century London with the sort of assurance that is based upon sound research, and occasionally brings some real people into his plots, including William Camden, headmaster of Westminster School and author, and well-known courtiers.

It is curious that the main character has the same surname as the pen-name of the author, John Yeoman. (I gather from his website that this is not his real name.) I didn’t warm to the protagonist Hippo Yeoman. He isn’t smug or a know-it-all (as detectives can be) or have other obvious vices, except a tendency to whinge, especially about his poverty. The problem is more that his character is not clearly defined, with the result that I didn’t get to know him.

Hippo also appears in two novels, Dream of Darkness and Fear of Evil (both published in January 2015) and in another short story, “The Hog Lane Murders” (published in February 2015). As well as being there for the reading, these works, which John Yeoman calls ‘fictionals’, include footnotes hyperlinked to what he calls ‘clever tips’ – for writers – about how they were written. Each story has about twenty such footnotes, all of which are easily accessed using my classic Kindle, although obviously this sort of interactivity would be no use on a printed version. The ‘tips’ provided by John Yeoman, who runs the writing website ‘Writers Village’, are pitched at a beginners/improvers level and often appear to reflect his personal opinion, as in, for instance, ‘Humour is a dangerous thing. Too many one liners and the author leaps out of the story, grinning at us…’ Although many of the footnotes are insightful, his approach to writing is mechanistic, with lots of named tools such as ‘The Indispensable Incident’ and ‘a character signature’, which could lead those following his tips to write technically correct literature bogged down in technicalities. Nevertheless it’s a clever idea and good use of multimedia.

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 Charlie Britten is a contributing reviewer for The Copperfield Review.

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The Amber Keeper

Written by Freda Lightfoot

Published by Amazon Publishing (Lake Union Imprint)

Review by Charlie Britten

 3quills

Millie’s life changed forever in 1911, when she became governess to Countess Olga Belinsky’s children.   One of the most evil characters ever to appear between book covers, a woman who refused to breastfeed her howling, newborn baby, Countess Belinsky defines this novel.   Sexually voracious, manipulative, spiteful, greedy and self-serving, I believe that Freda Lightfoot created her as an allegory for everything that was wrong in Imperial Russia.   Her husband, Count Vasily, on the other hand, was a sweet, public-spirited man, in the mould of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

This is a novel with two settings and two casts of characters, one featuring Millie in St Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, and the other Millie’s granddaughter, Abigail, in the English Lake District in 1963.   The Russian thread was as harsh and unrelenting as the steppe, with the workers’ anger bubbling beneath the veneer of tinkling sleigh-bells and fur-lined hats.   By contrast, Abigail’s was about her making peace with her family, after having eloped with a French chef – family saga stuff, much gentler.   However, despite a tinny transistor playing Please, Please Me in chapter one, this reader didn’t pick up a 1960s feel.

Freda Lightfoot has written over forty family sagas and historical novels, featuring northern England during the first half of the twentieth century.   This was the first one set outside her own country, but it was thoroughly researched, including details like St Petersburg tram drivers refusing to permit the poorer people to board their vehicles because they assumed they were drunk all the time.   Although the Tsar and Tsarina became real when the Belinskys referred to them as Nicky and Alix, Freda’s accounts of the course of the Revolution were too long and factual, often leaving her characters as onlookers.

The Amber Keeper title is enigmatic.   Is it to remind the reader of the Amber Room in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, or of Abigail designing and selling jewellery?  But, as the novel progresses, the amber connection is revealed, closing the gap between Millie’s story and Abigail’s.   Countess Belinsky’s nastiness pervades to the very end.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to  Every Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket. She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at  http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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While No One Was Watching

Written by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

Published by Parthian Books

Review by Charlie Britten

5 quills

 

Living in dirty chaos, eating fast food, and obsessed with statistics, journalist Gary Blanchet is losing it, his job on a local newspaper in Texas, his wife and his son.  Sent out to report on a missing child, Gary finds the little girl with an old lady, Edith Boone, who has escaped from a care home.  Edith tells him she is looking for her own daughter, Eleanor, who disappeared in Dallas many years ago, on 22 November 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated.  Gary is wondering if he has found a story for his newspaper at last when he hears of a shooting at the local high school which his own son, Tyler, attends.  By a stroke of luck, Tyler is away sick that day, but this doesn’t mean he has no involvement, as Gary discovers bit by bit.

The story about Edith Boone and her missing daughter won’t let Gary go.  He persuades editor, Al, to let him pursue it further but doesn’t get anywhere until, on Al’s insistence, Gary consults psychic, Lydia Collins.  Lydia is the best thing about ‘While No One Was Watching’, the character that warmed my heart and took this novel out of the ordinary.  A middle-aged black woman living in reduced circumstances (but not in poverty), surrounded by cats and memories, but few real people, Lydia is ‘retire-ed’.  At first, the reader is led to believe she is content to be so, but little by little, we learn of the circumstances that brought about Lydia’s retirement.  This author inserts her flashbacks in byte sizes.

This novel has two first person narrators – Gary and Lydia.  Lydia uses her chapters to share her world view, her gentleness and her firm traditional values, based upon what people she has loved have impressed upon her.  Some of Lydia’s family have not treated her well but there’s no bitterness.  Sometimes the reader doubts if she has a psychic gift at all, or merely an unusually insightful understanding of the human condition; at other times, we are sure it’s the real thing.

With Lydia’s help, Gary, Al and Tyler find out about Edith Boone and her missing daughter, but it doesn’t follow the pattern they expect.  Increasingly they are drawn into the events in Dallas on 22 November 1963.  Debz interweaves historical facts into the storyline with a light hand, always in context and never leaving the characters or the plotline of her novel, although she does drop in names like ‘Jack Ruby’ and ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’, and places like ‘Dealey Plaza’ and the – inevitable – ‘grassy knoll’, on the ready assumption that all readers are familiar with them.  As 1963 is now over fifty years ago, I suspect many younger ones are not.  However, this is the story of Lydia, Al, Gary and Tyler, more than it is a historical novel, about a school shooting or even about Edith Boone and her lost daughter.

As well as being a writer, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt is well-known in the UK as a publisher and editor.  She works full-time for Bridge House Publishing as well as running her own children’s publishing company, ‘Paws n Claws’, and is the editor for the fiction website ‘CafeLit’.  Although last year (2013), she was the winner of the Bath Short Story Award with ‘Learning to Fly’, ‘While No One Was Watching’ is Debz’s debut novel.  She is currently working on a second.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to Fiction At WorkEvery Day FictionMslexiaLinnet’s WingsCafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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Daniel and the Pussycats

By Charlie Britten

I expect him to be more discreet.  In the circumstances. Yet there he is, as usual, stretched across the floor, backside in the air, nose to the carpet and facing Jerusalem.  With the window open. “God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, hear your servant, Daniel.”

I sneak a glance at the street below.  “Dad. Don’t. Please.”

His gold and silver jewellery jangle around his wrists as he draws himself into a sitting position. “Judith,” he says in his dead serious voice, like he’s telling me off for using Babylonian swear-words. “I’m praying for the freedom of the Children of Israel.”

“Dad, puh-leese… Not now. Not after King Darius’s decree.”

He raises one eyebrow. “What decree?”

“Dad. Don’t be like that. The one about praying to any other gods except him.”

“Now my little Judy doesn’t need to worry her pretty little head about Darius and his decrees,” he says, pulling himself to his feet.

“But he’s put it in writing, in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which-“

“…Cannot be changed.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“Dad, you’ll get thrown to the lions.”

He laughs as he slips his feet into his leather sandals. “Will I heck?”

“It’s only for thirty days, Dad. Can’t you not pray for thirty days?”

“Office politics, pet. I work for His Majesty, don’t I? It’s all done to impress the satraps and the other administrators. And they, my little flower, report to me.” He leans over to kiss my cheek. “Off to work I go.”

“Mum wouldn’t have wanted you to put yourself into danger like this,” I say, as he turns to go downstairs.

“Your mother, bless her, was of the tribe of Benjamin, and she feared the Lord,” he replies, wagging his finger at me. “She’d have done the same.”

“No, she would not,” I shout back. And, if she were alive, he would’ve listened to her.

 * * * * *

 He’s at it again at midday, farting as he prostrates himself. He had a good lunch.

That afternoon, I hang out with the other girls as usual, but I set off for home later, meaning to avoid Dad’s next pray-in. As I approach our street, I hesitate at the corner. Everything’ll be all right, won’t it? I don’t dare look.

I can’t stand there all day. I walk on. A crowd is milling around by our house, but there’s always somebody waiting about for Dad, wanting him to petition Darius about something. Two soldiers are leading a man through our gate, his legs in irons and his torso trussed up with rope. Oh no, I think to myself, we’ve been burgled.

“Excuse me,” I say, as I push through the crowd, running through in my mind what might’ve been taken. “Excuse me.” But they are making too much noise to hear my girly voice. “Let me through. Please. I live here.” Nobody even turns around. I have to shove my way into a place where I can see over people’s shoulders, losing one of my sandals, by the way, but I really don’t care.

The soldiers are nudging the burglar forward with their spears but there he is, nodding at the crowd and thanking them for coming, as Dad might’ve done. “All a big mistake. See you all later,” he says in Dad’s voice. The evening sun catches his heavy black hair, highlighting every fleck of flint grey and the shiny bald patch on top.

“Dad,” I cry, “Dad.” I run towards him, throwing out my arms, but the sharp points of the soldiers’ spears crash and clatter, iron upon iron, as they cross in front of me. More words well up in my throat, tumbling over each other, jamming at the base of my tongue and striking me speechless. Yet, inside my head, “I told you so, Dad” rings out loud and clear.

I stand on one leg then the other, the dust and rubble of the street pressing in between my bare toes.

“Judith,” he calls across the baying crowd. “Judith.  Go to the palace.  Now.”

I stare at him, his words jangling in my head without meaning.

“Listen to me, Judith. Go to Darius.”

Behind me the rabble are shouting, “Lions, lions, lions.” As the soldiers lead him away, their cry changes to “Hebrew. Jew. Yid.”

* * * * *

The servants, watching and listening in our courtyard, fall away when I rush in. My father’s cloak lies over a chair and his wine cup sits on the table, half-full, as if he’s coming back to drink it. I study the marble pillars in the hallway, counting them, five on the left and four on the right, then the carpet, following its whirly pattern with my eye.  In this city of Babylon where I have lived all my life, I am quite alone.

Someone clears his throat.

I start, my broken heart juddering inside my body.

“You’d better be getting yourself off to the palace, Miss.” It’s Hassan, my father’s manservant, squatting in the corner.

“Me?”

He says nothing.

“I can’t.”

“If you don’t, I will. Though Darius’ll more likely listen to Daniel’s daughter than to a servant.”

I listen to the unnatural stillness in the house. I realise that silence has a sound of its own.  I nod a slow nod.

“I’ll come with you,” he says, scrambling to his feet. “Shall I find you another pair of sandals?”

“Yes please, Hassan.”

We walk beside the River Euphrates, where the mosquitoes hover in black clouds, buzzing around our sweaty faces.  On we go, past the temples of Shamash and Marduk, amidst the ordinary city folk of Babylon doing normal things like eating, drinking, and telling off their children in the warm evening sun. How I wish my today was ordinary.

At the palace, every obstacle is placed in my way. His Majesty – may he live forever – is taking a bath, in conference with the satraps, at dinner.

“I’ll wait,” I say in a firm voice that surprises me. I sit on the ledge around the fountain in the entrance hall. Hassan lowers himself on to the dusty floor a few feet away, watching me through half-open eyes. Officials speak in hushed tones, their footsteps becoming softer and fainter as they vanish down long, stone corridors. Every time I hear a new voice, I start on my hard stone seat. When Darius appears, surrounded by torchbearers and busy courtiers, everyone leaps to their feet. Uncertain of protocol, I hesitate, but, when I realise that his royal progress isn’t going to pass by me and my fountain, I race after him crying, “Your Majesty, your Majesty.”

He has to stop because I’m standing right in front of him.

“Oh… um… May you live forever. I’m Daniel’s daughter.”

“Er,” he says, flicking at a minute speck on his purple robe and not looking at me at all.  “Er… You look very like him, my dear.” He’s really old, his face all wrinkly and wizened.

“Please, please… My dad served you well, your Majesty. Didn’t he? He was an honest and a good administrator. Don’t do this to him. Please.” I sound feeble, even to my own ears.

Darius steps around me. “The laws of the Medes and the Persians can never be changed,” he says, his voice filling the corridor ahead. A courtier moves his head up and down in enthusiastic nods.

“All he did was pray.” I take huge strides to keep pace with him.

“Well, we’ll see what his invisible Hebrew God can do to save him now,” says Darius. A servant swings open big embossed doors. In a moment they’ll close behind him and he’ll be gone.

“He led the Jews out of Egypt,” I cry after him, ignoring the sniggers before, behind and beside me. “He divided the Red Sea.” More titters. “He brings thunder and lightning.”

“All gods do thunder and lightning.” The courtier who’d been bowing shoves me aside.  “Run away, girl.”

“Take my advice and get out of Babylon,” he adds. “His Majesty’ll seize all Daniel’s property, you know, and his servants… and as for you yourself…  Do I need to spell it out?” His tone’s kindly. I think he may have visited our house.

With slumped shoulders, I return to the fountain. Darkness has fallen outside, total blackness except for the torches leading down the palace steps. For the whole night, I sit and pray. Oh yes, I pray.  “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, hear this daughter of Zion. Free your servant Daniel now. Please, please, Lord. Free Daniel… Daniel… Daniel. Free Daniel, please.”

Hassan sleeps on the stone floor. Guards stand by every doorway, leaning on their weapons and shuffling their feet. From time to time, they cast a cursory glance at the Hebrew girl gazing into the fountain, intent upon clear water tumbling into a boiling pool.

“Oh God of Abraham, please, I beg you, free Daniel now. Oh Lord, close the lions’ mouths.  Oh Lord, oh Lord, free Daniel, please.” There I am, breaking the laws of the Medes and the Persians all night long, in Darius’s own palace. If only Dad could’ve done it this way.

I must have slept awhile, my body balanced upon the narrow ledge around the fountain.  I awake to see forks of lightning bringing the palace courtyard into harsh white daylight for an instant, then dropping it back into black night. Moments later, mighty thunder rips through Babylon, rumbling, gurgling, slashing the sky asunder, then grey lines of rain beat upon the palace roof like pebbles.

“Praise the Lord,” I dare to mouth. “Praise God in his sanctuary.”

A servant, his soggy clothes clinging to every contour of his skinny body, rushes over to Hassan. “Come on, Miss,” says my father’s manservant, jerking his head towards the main entrance. “Darius’s gone to the lions’ den.”

The din upon the roof has ceased, the storm finished as suddenly as it started.

Dawn breaks as we go back through the city, me in sandals struggling to keep up with Hassan’s long, barefoot strides. On our arrival, the first thing we see is Darius’s litter, then the king himself, still in the purple robe he wore yesterday evening, its sleeves torn as if in mourning. He paces around the boulder blocking the entrance of the den, barking laconic commands at the soldiers attempting to move it, hardly drawing breath before he starts again. “Come on. Come on. What’s the matter with you?” He places his chubby hands on the sandy rock, as if he himself is about to push, but he doesn’t. Instead he runs round to the other side, calling, “Come on. Come on.”

“Come on.  Come on,” I say after him.

At last the rock shifts, crunching gravel underneath it and revealing the mouth of the cave. I strain to look inside, but see nothing, because – to my shame – I dare not venture any closer, even though I know my dear father lies within.

My eyes upon Darius, I wait. He waits. We all stand there, sneaking glances left and right, our sweat hanging like dew in the arid desert air. Once more, I pray in my head.  “Oh Lord God, bring back Daniel. Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.”

On my last syllable, I spot his hand. With my dead mother’s ring upon his finger, it claws at the coarse dry grass around the black den entrance. Another hand, then his blue, gold-braided mantle, as clean and fresh as when he put it on yesterday morning.  “Dad,” I cry.  “Dad.”

“Judith, watch where you put your feet,” he snaps, as I rush over to hug him. “There’s lion crap everywhere.”

I have to back off as Darius also falls upon him, promising him honours and riches, and the services of His Majesty’s own physician.

“I’m fine,” says Dad, stretching out his arms. “You know what, Judith?  I saw an angel down there. A real one. Wearing a white frock and with proper wings.”

“But Dad, the lions-.”

“Pussycats, my little flower. Just pussycats.”

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWork, Every Day Fiction, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She has also written a couple of book reviews for Copperfield Review. She writes because she loves doing it.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War. Charlie lives in southern England with her husband and cat. In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.

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Paint Me a Picture

Written by Patsy Collins

356 Pages

Published by Amazon and Smashwords

Review by Charlie Britten

Receives:   

Mavis Forthright surveys Portsmouth’s Round Tower with a view to hurling herself down into the swirling grey sea. The seagulls scream above her head, their raucous calls giving voice to her anguish in a way bottled-up Mavis cannot.

Recently released from years of isolation at home, caring for her bad-tempered mother, Mavis cannot cope with real life, other people and her new job. Nevertheless she delays her appointment at the Round Tower because… she’s promised to lend a book to someone… she falls into conversation with a stranger in a cafe… and she needs to paint pictures for her weekly art classes. Her workmates call her ‘old sourpuss’ but gradually she opens up, to a different sort of pain. Set in Portsmouth, England, the author mentions local landmarks and streets, which non-local readers cannot hope to follow, but which nevertheless reinforce the strong sense of place.  Like the fog in Bleak House, the lashing rain builds up the atmosphere, of ordinary life carrying on, unsatisfactory and unspectacular.  By rights, this should be a grim tale, but Patsy Collins’ optimism breaks through the downpour; in the same manner Dickens also takes his characters down into the depths of human degradation, then raises them up again.

Although Paint Me a Picture doesn’t follow a neat plotline, the strong narrative thread held this reader’s attention throughout. The author draws out the character of Mavis – a singular singleton, a real old maid in the twenty-first century – through a detailed narrative style, relating small happenings which loom large in her restricted mind, like buying a cake in a cafe and bringing Nescafe into her mother’s house where hitherto only tea had been drunk. Other characters pass in and out of the story, seen through Mavis’s judgemental eyes, all with stories of their own, like ‘the boy’ who convinces himself that she is his natural mother.

In Paint Me A Picture, Patsy Collins moves a long way from her women’s magazine roots. This is the novel she has taken ten years to write, interspersed between many short stories and her first book (Escape to the Country). It was worth the wait.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWork, The Short Humour Site, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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Escape to the Country

Written by Patsy Collins

273 pages

Published by Creative Print Publishing Ltd.

Review by Charlie Britten

 

Although Patsy Collins is well-known as a writer for women’s magazines, with some 200 stories to her credit, Escape to the Country is her first novel to reach the shelves and the e-book catalogues.  Published in May this year by Creative Print Publishing Ltd., it is available from Amazon in paperback (£7.49) and also in Kindle format (£4.11).

In Escape to the Country, Patsy remains true to her ‘womag’ roots, with a small number of believable characters, driving an uncomplicated – but watertight – plotline.  Although this is an easy read, like Alexander McCall Smith, Patsy beguiles us into serious and thoughtful content and, as in his work, the more meaningful the point being made, the lighter the style of writing.

Patsy’s short stories tend to gravitate towards women at work and Escape to the Country is no exception.  When financial adviser, Leah, is accused of mishandling the account of Mr Gilmore-Bunce, one of the most important customers of her employer – the exquisitely-named ‘Prophet Margin’ – she is disappointed when Adam Ferrand, her boyfriend and an employee at the same company, does not give her the support she needs.  Suspended on full pay but feeling wretched, Leah takes a holiday with Aunt Jayne, farmer of Winkleigh Marsh.  On her way there, she encounters tractor driver, Duncan, good-looking, wholesome and rural; she is attracted at once, because, amongst other things, ‘He didn’t smell of aftershave or fabric conditioner’.  Leah expects to be refreshed by rural air, good food and the jolly company of Aunt Jayne, but, as she finds out, there is no escape, even to the country.  Not only do her problems at Prophet Margin follow her in her head and on her cellphone, but Mr Gilmore-Bunce turns out to be Aunt Jayne’s neighbour and landlord, with whom, actually, she gets on very well.

Having herself grown up on a farm, Patsy demonstrates a thorough knowledge of modern farming.  This work celebrates the slower and kinder way of life, but without the slightest trace of sentimentality.  Birth a cow?  Well, of course.  How?  ‘Presumably you don’t actually check her into the maternity ward at the vet’s and get her to fill in a questionnaire about epidurals and birthing pools.’  Get the cow pregnant again?  Take her to the AI (artificial insemination) man, obviously.

The character that leaps off the page is Aunt Jayne, who is as unlike a traditional ‘maiden aunt’ as possible, giggly, feisty, with her own admirer, Jim, and full of ideas as to how Leah might facilitate her love-life.  Jayne is strong, not just as a farmer who can lift heavy bags of animal feed, chop wood and use farm machinery, but in facing down possible cancer.  Duncan is Darcy-esque, exuding male probity, although not as ‘proud’ or as distant, but, as women, we all embrace a Darcy.  A wealthy yuppy, Adam has some of the attributes of a Wickham, but, unlike Jane Austen’s version, he never seduces the reader, not even for a few chapters.  A potential criticism is that Adam comes across as ‘unsatisfactory’ too early in the story.

It takes time to get to grips with main character, Leah, because, although Patsy writes in the third person, the whole narrative is written from Leah’s point of view and she is the lens through which we see other characters.  However, as the story develops, we gain insights into an intelligent, professional woman being belittled and emotionally stunted by her lover, and how she gains the confidence to drag herself out of that situation.

Patsy has completed two more novels, including Paint Me a Picture, which was published in September 2012.  She is a lady to watch.

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Charlie Britten has contributed to FictionAtWork, The Short Humour Site, Mslexia, Linnet’s Wings, CafeLit, and Radgepacket.  She writes because she loves doing it and belongs to two British online writing communities.

All Charlie’s work is based in reality, with a strong human interest element.  Although much of her work is humorous, she has also written serious fiction, about the 7/7 Bombings in London and attitudes to education before the Second World War.

Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat.  In real life, she is an IT lecturer at a college of further education.

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