“I’m breaking up on Friday. Can you get your stuff to me a little earlier”
Phil: Ahh, the joys of working from home. Constant reminders that your colleagues will be enjoying some enforced lounging around, while you just see those days as an opportunity for plenty of uninterrupted work.
Christmas is a joy. Despite my friend painting me as a bit of a humbug, I really love the present giving part, the decorations and the cheesy festive music. It’s just that I like it to be weeks away and not looming toward me. All I see is deadlines that always seem to be tightened. Suddenly, you find yourself having to take into consideration other people’s holidays. Holidays that don’t apply to you.
Being able to work at a time to suit me is lovely, but I do miss the days when a bank holiday actually meant something and wasn’t just a vague idea relating to a day that was (for me) like any other.
I know I shouldn’t moan about this. Having seen the Nolan schedule, her festivities are planned like a military campaign. You can imagine a map with little models of child and husband being pushed around by people with long sticks – “14:00 hours, child enters stage left. 14:15 child says line in nativity play. We need to rendezvous before then…”
All this Christmas chaos means the writing has taken a back seat. A couple of weeks ago, I congratulated myself on building up a plot strand I’m working on to 7000 words. That’s where it has stayed since then.
But, this doesn’t mean progress has entirely stalled. I might not be typing, but I am acting the scene out in my mind. Once I find a gap in my schedule, I’ll be turning my mental picture into words. Thinking sessions can take place any time and anywhere. While driving or sitting on a bus. At 3am in the morning instead of worrying about how I’ll get everything done is a pretty good idea too.
Anyway, I need to go. Work to do and I haven’t bought a present for the Nolan yet…
Phil: A couple of years ago (doesn’t time fly), Candice reviewed a book I’d passed on to her – The Christmas Train by David Baldacci. It’s a heartwarming tale set on a cross-country train in the USA. We both enjoyed it.
I hadn’t twigged that the book has been turned into a movie. But it has. So I watched it.
The first thing to realise is that the studio responsible for this is Hallmark. The people who make the greetings cards. As such, you won’t be surprised that the result is a gritty expose of life for struggling railroad workers forced to give up the festive season with their families to mend track.
No, of course it isn’t.
This is comfort TV. You don’t watch it, you wallow as though in a nice, warm bath.
The first change is that our journalist hero is taking the train as a promise to his father, and not because he’d been banned from flying for an air rage incident. This isn’t essential to the story, although anyone trying the book, or reading the excerpt on the Hallmark website, might be surprised to find this out.
A few characters have vanished, but more due to the pressure of time than anything else. Max Powers has an assistant in the book, but not the film. I didn’t miss him.
Perhaps the biggest change is the removal of the jeopardy when Tom and Elenor head out into the snow when the train gets stuck. The book really places them in danger and provides a pivot for their love story. In the film, they get a bit lost, then find a remote ranch and return to the train in a horse-drawn sledge. This apparently causes all the snow to melt or at least it’s pretty much gone in the next scene.
The movie doesn’t need to place them in jeopardy to make the characters realise their true feelings because it’s signposted from the start that they will fall in love again. There’s a bit of bickering, but almost every other character says, “Get back together you pair of muppets” (I paraphrase, but you get the gist).
Don’t get me wrong, the book is unlike all other Baldacci output in that’s a heart-warming tale from the off. You know what’s going to happen. No-one dies.
The film takes this and adds shmaltz. At one point the bartender offers a hot chocolate and asks “One candy cane or two?”. I’m thinking “Sugarcanes in hot chocolate? Noooo. You’d be bouncing off the walls!” but it’s a perfect allegory for the work whoever turned the book into screenplay had to do.
Despite this, it’s not a terrible film You need to be in the mood for it in the same way you need to be in the mood to consume endless Christmas food, but then that’s what the festive season is all about, isn’t it? I do wonder what the author made of it though.
Candice: We’ve not talked about the new book too much recently. Phil has been busy with his modelling career (!) and I have been busy trying to find myself a new job.
You know you need a new job when the thought of going into the office makes you feel physically sick.
That plus preparing for the Nativity at school, Christmas Fayre, Homework and all the other fun stuff that comes with being the parent of a school-age child. Anyway, excuses aside, Phil has been more productive than me and I’ve completely lost my mojo.
The central theme of the book is a theatre company who needs some help. And one of the big shows that they perform is a panto, Aladdin, something that Phil and I both know is important to both funding and crowd attendance in the world of theatre.
Phil has written the bulk of the piece. As an expert in theatre after many years working front of house in a local one he knows more about the ins and outs than I do. My experience is more on stage than off (Darlings). But he decided we needed more research into this Panto in particular and suggested a Nolan Parker day out to go and shout “It’s behind you” and “Oh no it isn’t” at some unsuspecting cast in a very British tradition.
However, I have scuppered the plan. I’ve taken to going to a Panto once a year for about the last 15 years, after I got given free tickets to see Bobby Davro in one a long time ago and loved it. Some of them are better than others, some of them are ruder than others but all are good fun. We particularly like the ones at the Birmingham Hippodrome which are always more adult and risque. This year, however, the main star of Birmingham’s for many years, John Barrowman, has taken himself off into the Jungle instead for some reason.
The In-Laws suggested that we take the small people to one this year. Now I knew that Birmingham would be a no go, and they live down south so we wanted something central. Out of sheer fluke, we’ve ended up with tickets to Aladdin, the show that Phil and I have written into the book. So, when Phil emailed the other day suggesting research, I had to say no as I was already going to see it somewhere else. He’s a bit put out.
I think this one will be slightly different experience than the usual as we will be wrangling three fidgeting children and there are no B or C celebs in the one we have chosen. But I will be absorbing the plotline and performance for another reason this year. Do I need to take my notebook?
Phil: Last week, I wrote that I felt the need for a nice, readable story and thanks to my local library had picked up A Brush With Death by Ali Carter.
I’m pleased to say it ticked the boxes perfectly. A pleasant read with a reasonably easy to follow plot that fitted my day. Doing a little digging, apparently this fits into the “Cozy Crime” genre. Think Miss Marple with a little less bite.
The plot is simple enough, Lord of the Manor dies, the police decide it’s murder and artist Susie Mahl solves the crime. I guessed whodunit pretty early in the book, but this didn’t spoil things – in fact I wanted to see if I was right. I was, although the method I had settled on wasn’t quite correct.
There are a couple of areas where the book stands out.
First, we learn a great deal about the English upper classes. If I ever find myself called to stay for the weekend at a great country house, I will have a better understanding of the protocol thanks to this book. We learn that all houses tend to run to a timetable, and once you know this, you can plan your trips snooping around. Stick to the rules, including not marrying anyone beneath your station, and everyone will get along swimmingly.
My main fascination was with the lead character, Susie Mahl, herself. She’s an artist who has found painting dog portraits to be a lucrative job. Handily, it sees her invited to many country seats for the weekend, you need to get to know the pooch to render them in paint. Apparently, this pays enough to buy a house in Sussex and a lot of very expensive luxury underwear. This detail is covered repeatedly.
Why? Because art follows life. It turns out that Ali Carter paints pet portraits and likes luxury underwear.
The most unusual aspect of Susie though is that she is a fairly strict catholic. At one point she goes to mass and also hints at disproval of divorce. Religion plays very little part in British novels, in fact I can’t think of a character who has expressed any interest in this direction. OK, we have Bother Cadfael and Father Brown, but they are monk and priest respectivly – it’s a massive part of their character. What I mean is we rarely see religion being part of a “normal” person’s life in this way.
It’s odd that this should leap out at me. In America and many other parts of the world, religion is a massive part of many people’s lives. You very much wear it on your sleeve. Politically, following the right flavour of God can be more important in the decisions a voter makes than a candidates policies or behaviour. Despite this, I don’t reacall many modern day American novels showing the impact of belief on their character.
My guess is that this is another area where author and character cross over. The interview I linked to above mentions a post-accident pilgrimage, but never explicitly mentions this being a religious one. That’s simply not how we do stuff in Britian. The Church of England is as inoffensive as possible and rarely do we have the zealots found in other branches of faith.
Ultimatly, “Write what you know” is an oft trotted out maxim, and one Ali Carter appears to have taken to heart, with interesting results. Susie Mahl is a stand-out character and will easily carry the three-novel deal Ms Carter has landed. She’d probably make a good TV drama too, something for the Sunday evening wind-down slot on BBC 1. However, I wonder if her faith will make the transition to the screen?
Phil: My slightly unconventional job often leaves me feeling I’m keeping lots of plates spinning at once. Sometimes this is energising, sometimes I need to get my head somewhere else for a little break. Reading a book is great for this, but it has to be the right book.
My reading pile is growing, but nothing grabs me as the perfect candidate. Watling Street, The Seabird’s Cry and Prisoners of Geography have all come my way via my family and I’m assured they are excellent reads. From the enthusiastic descriptions and a quick look at the blub on the back of the cover, I think this is probably right. The only trouble is, they are fact-filled books. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning stuff and if it’s well written, I’m a happy man, but, pummelling my brain with new knowledge isn’t what I needright now.
Candice passed me The 50:50 killer. The cover design tells me it’s not chick-lit, something confirmed by the synopsis on the jacket. It’s one of those gruesome Police procedurals that she loves. Hopefully, it’s not one of the really gruesome ones. I suspect she thinks I’m a little bit of a wuss as I avoid those. After the last one I decided we should only meet in public places…
Anyway, there’s nothing on the pile that will do the job, so while strolling back from the Post Office yesterday, I dropped into our local library and grabbed something random from the new books shelf. A Brush with Death looks like a light whodunnit without a hint of blood or gore. The main character is a typically English amateur detective who paints for a living. Pets mostly, so we are on safe ground I think.
Reading the first few chapters, I’m safe enough. It won’t be groundbreaking but I get to disappear into another world for a few minutes, which is exactly what I need.
All this relates to our continuing literary efforts. We have firmly pitched the Kate vs series as pleasant reads. There’s a little bit of bite, but both books, and the third instalment due next year, will work well on a sun lounger beside a pool. Candice will be happy to demonstrate if required!
Phil: Looking for a photo album a couple of days ago, the book Sci-fi Now fell off the shelf. As soon as it hit me (literally) I remembered how much I enjoyed reading it many years ago.
Published in 1978, the pages are basically a list of films, loosely clumped together in genres and commented on by critic Alan Frank. At the time, the big news was the first Star Wars film, which he reckons to be a masterpiece. I can’t disagree, but even I felt at the time it was given a disproportionate amount of space in the pages, probably just to sell copies.
What I also found were details of dozens of other films that I’d never heard of. In the pre-VHS, at least in our house, land, there was little or no chance of me seeing these obscure and dated films. I could dream though, that and scan the TV listings in case any ever turned up. Remember, these were only 3 channels in the UK back then, so the chances were slim but sometimes I got lucky. The arrival of the slightly arty Channel 4 helped, but the chances are anything would be on so late that I couldn’t watch and get up for school the next day.
Re-reading some of the reviews, I was reminded of the curse of science fiction films – real life catching up with the film-makers imagination. Punching keys to work a computer? Why, when we can just ask Alexa (or Siri or whatever the thing on my phone is called) now.
Worse, how futuristic and distant the year of 2018 must have seemed back in 1978 when the makers of Rollerball chose to set their dystopian world in it.
The future is great, until it starts to look dated.