Author Archives: Phil

Miss Benson’s Beetles

Phil: Does anyone else look a book up on Amazon and immediately head for the 1 star reviews? I bet I’m not alone in doing this, we all like to see a bit of moaning.

Anyway, for this book, they tell us a lot more about the reviewers than the book itself.

Not yet read books so can’t comment” – well then DON’T!

Packaging ok but book, bought as a gift, was damaged inside and the dust cover was torn. ” – Not really telling us much about the book is it?

This was a good book until it wasn’t. Billed as a friendship saga but ends in heartbreak.” – SPOILER ALERT! Life, even fictional life, isn’t all sunshine and roses.

Anyway, none of that tells us much about Rachel Joyce’s latest story.

It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.

We are in a very different world to today. Margery is a traditional spinster, with all this suggests. Her life hasn’t been easy. Often overshadowed by a terrible tragedy that takes place right at the start of the novel, she has a lifelong passion for exotic beetles, and suddenly sets out to travel around the world in order to discover a specimen rumoured, but not proven to exist. This is a drab world of rationing and slow recovery from conflict. Somewhere were women got married, had children and did what they were told.

Lone women travelling would be very unusual, so she engages the services of an assistant, who initially turns out to be hopelessly unsuited to the job. Eventually though (this is a story after all) they come to understand and support each other.

In many ways, this is a character study of women in the era. As well as our two heroes, there are ambassadors wives on a remote island who have nothing to do other than find ways to stem their boredom. They live a round of social events and craft sessions, always aware that they were very much second-class citizens – and appendage of their husbands. Along come two apparently independent women and this causes some consternation.

If I’m being honest, while I enjoyed the book, you need to suspend your disbelief and also ignore the extraneous POW character who seems to serve no purpose, even when he comes into his own at the end. I’d have simply edited him out entirely, but it’s not my book.

It’s also worth remembering that the 1950s didn’t offer the same level of information to anyone, especially women. Foreign travel was rare and exotic so ending up in the sort of place beetles are found, was a leap in the dark. Travel was hard, but then the normal world wasn’t short of discomfort either. In many ways, Margery escapes a stifling existence in her own, unconventional way.

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We’re 500 miles from comfortable Colganland

Img_4181Phil: When you simply need a book to dip into to relieve the stresses of the real world, then something by Jenny Colgan is a good safe bet. Woman’s Weekly call her “the queen of feel-good” and you don’t mess with them.

Five Hundred Miles from You is classic chick-lit. We have two nurse practitioners who for various reasons need to swop the places they work for three months. Over shared patient notes, they fall in love. You know what’s going to happen from the back cover blurb, and it doesn’t matter. We are here for the journey, not the destination.

What I love about this book is that one of the locations is Kirrinfief in Scotland. Loyal readers will remember the tiny town from Colgan’s previous novels and this adds an interesting twist to the story. Characters who were central to plots in the past suddenly, and quite logically, turn up in the supporting cast here.

If you are in on this, it’s all great fun. For new readers, it makes no difference – but they might be tempted to pick up some older novels and read the back-stories.

Aside from the story telling element, this makes a lot of sense from a writer’s point of view. If you are going to invent an entire town full of characters, why discard them after a single book and start from scratch? If nothing else it saves a lot of work.

Personally, I love the idea that the characters have a life beyond a single story. Nina from The Bookshop on the corner is still dispensing books from her van to as a form of literary medicine. I can imagine that she and the others are still having adventures, and all we need to do to find out more, is open the covers of another Scottish-themed book.

Five Hundred Miles? I enjoyed it. Maybe the culture shock for both characters suddenly finding themselves in either London or Scotland is laid on a bit thick, but them I have travelled north of the border a bit and visited London many times, so perhaps I’m just more familiar with both.

It certainly seems odd to read of an ex-soldier who appears not to have visited the capital before, but then I worked with a lady whose squaddie husband managed to travel by train from Kent to the Midlands, including changing in London, and hadn’t found a single place to eat anywhere along the journey. Or at least that was what she claimed, and at the time, even I worked out that saying “He couldn’t find food in London and yet they let him have guns” wasn’t the most sensible thing…

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Bad language

Phil: Listening to a news programme recently where they were discussing something Navy-related, the expert said that the information he had wasn’t “Scuttlebutt”.

Even the landlubbers amongst us would understand that this means his information wasn’t rumour or gossip. According to Wikipedia, it’s the seaborne version of water-cooler gossip.

I’d never heard the phrase before and wish we’d had the chance to use it in Kate vs The Navy.

This got me thinking about other phrases, especially made-up swear words.

I suppose for a sci-fi nerd, the best known is “Smeg” from the TV Series Red Dwarf. It’s never given a meaning in the show, but is a handy non-sweary thing for characters to say. Quite how the advert-free BBC feels about regular mentions of high-end white goods isn’t recorded (I always chuckle when in La Nolan’s kitchen looking at her fridge, but then I’m a bit sad) but whoever came up with the idea is a genius. “Smeg” is perfect, short and slightly aggressive, you really can say it when annoyed.

Sticking with space operas, the other is “Feldergarb” from the original Battlestar Galactica. Swearing in an American kids show was certainly verboten, but you need a phrase for your agitated characters to say and that’s what they came up with. I guess that all the kids picked it up and used the word in the playground (OK, all the nerdy kids) so, like Smeg, it will have entered common usage.

The thing is, does a made-up swear word still count as swearing?

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Sally Parker’s not my mum, and I’m relieved

Sally Parker is struggling to find the hero inside herself.
All she wants to do is lie down.
Her husband Frank has lost his business, their home and their savings, in one fell swoop. Their bank cards are being declined. The children have gone feral. And now the bailiffs are at the door.
What does an ordinary woman do when the bottom falls out?
Sally Parker is about to surprise everybody.
Most of all herself.

Phil: I like Mel Giedroyc. She’s very funny on the telly.

But if this is typical of her literary output, please, please don’t let her near a keyboard.

Sally Parker (no relation) is one of those ladies who lunch. Her husband, a hedge fund manager, pays all the bills. She lives in a gilded cage with staff she doesn’t like, who do all the work. The three kids and one niece, are all nightmare spoilt brats. Her skills are being born pretty.

We know all this by reading the interminable build-up. If you want to know how the other half lives, then you’ll love it. I was bored.

Then it all starts to fall apart. Slowly. There is a financial crash. Husband Frank develops narcolepsy and keeps falling asleep. They lose the house and move through a series of improbable situations to keep a roof over their heads.

Eventually, we end up in Wales at the bedside of a dying aunt – for no reason I could entirely fathom. There, after a bit of trans-misogyny that might have provided a much stronger plotline, everyone ends up standing in a room.

This might work if there was a single character you cared about. But there isn’t. If the who lot had been killed on page two, I’d not have missed them.

It’s tempting to pull out problems, but that’s just going to turn into a rant. We could mention Sally’s good friend Janice who it is made clear, silently fancies Sally and pretty much saves the day without a hint of thanks. Or the wonky timeline where, as everyone individually rushes to Wales, sees Sally suddenly decide to take a days’ employment mucking out at a stable. Or Mikey, the business-minded child constantly being told to shut up when she tries to offer cash to help dig the family out of a whole. I could go on.

In theory, the idea that Frank started out tarmacing as a boy, and ended up by dint of his hard work, a successful fund manager, ought to be interesting – but it just happened. You would have thought that as Sally was party to this from the start, she would be involved and feel part of it. Nope.

The trans story (Warning: Spoiler) that is largely ignored is that Frank’s dad, who he idolised, changed sex but his parents stayed together. That might have provided a thrust for his actions, but we find out about all this in the last chapter.

While not the worst celebrity novel out there (Hello Celia Imrie), it’s a book that would have benefitted from being written by a nobody and then beaten into shape with the help of an editor. Someone who would have picked up the pace in the first half (“one fell swoop” takes half the book), ditched the unnecessary narcolepsy storyline, and the pointless stuff about the doctor which doesn’t do anything for the plot. The deeper issues might have been turned up – the trans stuff and also the aunt they all rush to visit by the end. All the stuff about Frank’s business partner having repeated breakdowns seemed both odd and tasteless too.

Maybe, part of the problem is that I don’t live in this world. I don’t even come into contact with it. If I and my friends lived the ladies who lunch life, then I’d identify with more than just the surname of the lead characters.

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Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd

Phil: Some stories require the reader to suspend their disbelief to enjoy them. Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd by Jonas Jonasson asks you to put your disbelief in a bag, take it down to the bottom of the garden and bury it.

Full of mad ideas and improbable coincidences, the story doesn’t make sense if you insist on being Mr Literal when reading. You will find the idea of a Swedish Nazi art dealer abandoning his illegitimate son in the desert to be eaten by lions a touch improbable.

You’ll also be stuck when the son doesn’t get eaten by lions, instead, being brought up by a Maasai medicine man. And when the son runs back to Sweden, his adoptive dad decides to track him down. All of this while we have a couple of fake (or not) paintings and an advertising executive helping people take revenge on others.

It is mad. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In style, the book has a lot in common with the work of Tom Sharpe. Perhaps less dodgy sex (although the dealer does become known as “goat-sex man” for various reasons not involving sex with goats) and violence, but still that craziness where the rules of the real world don’t really apply. Or at least, not in the way we expect them too.

There is a lot of plot in these pages too. Most books would be happy with about half as much, but in this respect, it’s like a very filling meal which is so tasty that you can’t help eating a little more than you really should.

If you like absurd stories, then try it.

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Don’t fall down the research rabbit-hole

Phil: Have you ever found yourself on Wikipedia reading up on something and unable to resist clicking on a related link? At the time you tell yourself it’s relevant to the topic, but then there is another link, and another. And another.

You start reading about tractor production in post-war America and half a day later you’re learning about the proclivities of minor German aristocracy in 1830.

It’s addictive, something to do with dopamine in your brain, and the urge to procrastinate while kidding yourself that any education is good. I mean, who doesn’t need to know about flat-roofed pubs for example?

I’ve just finished the enjoyable Funny You Should Ask book by the QI Elves. It’s full of unrelated facts such as what would happen if you tried to dig through the Earth, or what causes deja-vu. If you enjoy odd snippets of information, it’s a good fun read.

The most useful fact in the book isn’t in the main text, but the introduction.

When writing for the quiz, they start with the answer and then craft a question around it. Working the other way around means endlessly researching as they fall down the rabbit-hole (named after the rabbit-hole Alice falls down in Wonderland) finding linked facts when they should be working.

I’m not sure this will help cure my procrastination, but maybe it will do something for you. In the meantime, I need to go a read up on The Auburn and Lidcome Advance. You never know when knowledge of old Australian newspapers will come in handy!

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Without problems, there are no solutions

When Emma opened her gorgeous little chocolate shop in the harbour village of Warkton-by-the-Sea, she realised a lifelong dream. Love is also blossoming with her hunky beau, Max, who’s slowly healing her fragile heart.

A rival sweet shop and killjoy landlord give Emma a headache, and when a face from the past turns up unannounced, Emma finds herself spiralling down memory lane. With Max’s crazy work schedule driving him to distraction, Emma’s in danger of making some choices she might regret . . .

With close friends, spaniel Alfie, and the whole village behind her, can Emma get the chocolate shop and her love life back on track?

Phil: Spoiler Alert. The book does not end with Emma sitting on the steps of the local war memorial, sucking the dregs from a bottle of Diamond While concealed in a plastic bag and watching the shop burn, consuming the bodies of her landlord and Max who had been having an affair.

Nope, it’s happy ending time, pretty much as you would expect from the cover. All the problems are solved, hunky Max is everything she wants him to be and all the bad choices are forgotten.

And relax.

The Nolan and I have been talking about marketing recently. She explained that if you want to sell a product, the first job is to identify a problem the customer has. Then you tell them how you are going to solve it for them. Simple, ut effective.

That’s what the blurb on the back of the book is doing – setting up a load of problems, with the promise that they will all be solved by the time you close the covers. Let’s be honest, we want that happy ending. Life is rubbish enough and books like this are lovely to wallow in, like a warm bath.

Every story needs a conflict at its core. Without this, it’s just words.

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Lockdown is turning me into Bridget Jones

Phil: With all restrictions in place and our worlds clamped down hard, communications between members of team NolanParker have taken a turn for the weird.

“4067 steps. 2 trains. No cake” I message. “10009” comes the reply.

Basically, we’ve started becoming competitive on the numbers of steps taken during the day. Occasionally, I even win.

Since many of my strolls involve bits of the countryside where I might see a train (how I miss the days of travelling this way) and occasionally, there is a cake pickup involved, I bundle those into the message too.

Trouble is, it all sounds but Bridget Jones. Her diary lists the number of calories eaten, cigarettes smoked and units of alcohol consumed.  At least our messages are a bit healthier!

I suppose describing ourselves in numbers is all we have left at the moment. It’s not like talking about the weather is much fun, and we’re all bored of chatting pandemic!

 

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Something bad is on the way

Phil: I’m reading the excellent All the lonely people by Mike Gayle, but as I look at the book right now, a thought hit me.

I’m 2/3rd of the way through, but I know something bad is going to happen.

The story is partly told in flashback, and so we know where the characters are now, and where they were years ago. And not all the characters are in the Now.

So, somewhere in the remaining pages, there are bad things going to happen.

Perhaps I should stop reading and everything will be all right, but that would deny me the pleasure of finishing off the book. I probably should remember that these aren’t real people, but then I’ve invested in them and care what happens. And (I have the surname for it) I’m nosy.

Does anyone else ever feel like this?

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Booky loses to the pandemic

Phil: As I go for my evening allotted segment of allowable exercise, what we used to call a stroll, I pass by my local library. Which is shut.

Not just shut because I’m walking at dusk, but shut, as it has been for most of the year, because of Covid restrictions. Sadly, if you are stuck at home, you’ll need to find another way to access books.

That’s fine if you have an e-reader, the library service has developed clever ways to lend electronic books. They have even created a click and collect service from the larger locations. What’s gone is the pleasure of perusing bookshelves, waiting for a title to leap out at you. The random book you didn’t know existed, but will enjoy once you open the cover, is denied to you.

Second-hand bookshops suffer the same fate. How I miss the higgledy-piggledy nature of the shelves. You never know what’s going to be there – apart from many copies of whatever best-seller has dominated the charts recently – books decades-old rub shoulders with more recent releases. There’s the sense of adventure and the slightly odd smell. Bookshelves crammed into odd spaces to handle the stock. Peering around corners to find a topic and then tripping over it in a pile on the floor.

I know we can still buy new books, and fair play to those local shops offering some sort of service in these difficult times, but I like old books too.

And what do you do with those on the read pile? All the charity shops you’d drop them off to, and replenish your stocks from, are shut as well. There’s going to be a lot of books in landfill I’m afraid.

Let’s hope this is the last #worldbookday when getting your hands on a book is difficult. A time when we all need to be transported from reality into a different place for a few hours, and yet are denied this pleasure.

And let’s hope the Nolan and I can meet up for coffee and plotting. It will save us a fortune in postage swooping books by mail, and the chance of a proper chat is far better than the daily swapping of numbers of steps walked each day.

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