Category Archives: Books

The grass isn’t always greener

Phil: Team NolanParker were chatting a few days ago, talking about work.

Like most people, we have the occasional “issue” with our jobs. I think it’s fair to say that no-one enjoys a job that is entirely trouble-free. Into every life, some rain must fall and when you get wet at work, there is some relief in getting things off your chest with a like-minded friend.

For example, you find yourself lunching in a pub on a sunny day. There is a fullsome gin menu and a large screen about to show the Wimbledon semi-finals. But, completely unreasonably, your boss will be under the impression that you should return to your desk instead of getting slowly blotto while watching sportsmen whacking a ball around and getting a suntan. Personally, I don’t like gin, but could see her point.

En-route to the pub I’ve been reading This is going to hurt by Adam Kay.

The book tells of his time as a Junior Doctor working in obstetrics and gynaecology. There are incredibly long hours, shift changes at a moments notice. Next to no home life, holidays interrupted, days off cancelled, bodily fluids spurting around the place, poor pay and a thousand other “issues”. All of which makes any complaints I have pale into insignificance. At many points, I wondered why he didn’t just chuck it in if someone in McDonalds was being paid better. 3/4 of the way through he explains that it’s the positive outcomes, the successes, the making a difference to someone’s life that keep people doctoring.

It is a cracking read, I’ve been racing through the book, picking it up at odd moments for a couple more pages – helped by the diary style which breaks the text up into short bites.

As Candice says, it’s easy to look at your current position and wish you were elsewhere (in this case, a pub with tennis) but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. To continue with the trite phrases, you can easily find yourself jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. All I know is I don’t fancy being a doctor. I might wield a scalpel occasionally, but the things I cut into don’t bleed, unless I get my own fingers through clumsiness.

One thing this book is good for though, contraception.

In stark contrast to a recent read which to make anyone feel broody, this one will have every woman pointing at her other half’s wedding tackle and saying, “You’re not bringing THAT thing anywhere near me again!”

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Nice work

Phil: When we go to literary events, I often feel that Candice and I aren’t really in the right place. The art establishment doesn’t really have a home for people who just want to write novels for readers on sunbeds.

Last year, we were given a copy of Nice Work by David Lodge and I decided it was time I got around to reading it.

The plot concerns university lecturer Robyn Penrose, who finds herself shadowing factory manager Vic Wilcox. They rub along, disagree and then have a brief fling. The plot is nicely summarised on Wikipedia.

My god, this book is pleased with itself. Witten in the third person, the text keeps showing how clever it is with little asides. To be honest, the print format put me off, and by the third chapter, it was heading for the charity pile. But, I persevered, in the world of Art, books are not there to be enjoyed, they are there to be good for you. A bit like broccoli.

By the end, I enjoyed it, but possibly not in the right way.

You see, I didn’t go to university and have a suspicion that many of the people there simply use further education as a way of avoiding the real world. Yes, there are many valuable courses and we can’t do without them, but I’ve met people who basically have never left school and boy can you tell.

Robyn Penrose is just such a person. She thinks that the most important thing in the world is obscure literary criticism. I’ve no issue with that, the problem I have is that she expects to be able to live in her ivory tower and have everyone else pay for it. Even as I write this, I know it sounds a bit Daily Mail, but when she visits Vic’s factory, it’s obvious that she doesn’t comprehend that those working in the hell-hole conditions are supporting her lovely way of life – just like the landed gentry expected the serfs to toil in the fields so they could lounge around doing nothing. At least they didn’t pretend they cared.

It might be that the author was satirizing this, Robyn and her partner do briefly discuss the idea, but I’m unconvinced. I think she is the hero, especially when we reach the deus ex machina ending with unexpected windfalls and bailing a recently redundant Vic out.

The point is, there is IMHO, nothing wrong with setting out just to entertain people. Life is rubbish enough without someone coming along and snootily laughing at your enjoyable choice of reading matter, and then expecting you to fork out for their luxury lifestyle.

Rant over.

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Rain stops reading

Remilia Scarlet - Rain

Candice: Phil’s written about abandoning a book in a recent blog, and then finding one that touches a cord.

I’ve had a similar issue myself recently.

The last few months have been a rollercoaster with a new job and things outside work throwing a few spanners in the works.  I’ve struggled to concentrate on books or TV shows as I’ve had so much going on in my head.  Walking to walk today in another bought of torrential rain hasn’t helped with the vibe. I realise I need a piece of complete escapism.

So far I’ve started and given up on – One Enchanted Evening by Anton du Beke.  Too light and fluffy, I can’t remember the character names and I’m not in the period ‘Downton’ mood.  Saving that one for the sun lounger

The Librarian of Auschwitz about Dita Kraus – an incredibility important subject but far too sad for me at present.  When they starting talking about sending families to the gas chambers I just can’t read any more.

One of the books both Phil and I have enjoyed recently is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, recommended to us by Liv from Writing West Midlands, a very quirky story of a random political initiative to bring salmon to a Wadi in the Yemen and based on the author’s experiences in industry and government.

The title would put me off straight away, but the story just reminds me of when I worked for Birmingham City Council. A politician would decide that the idea put in front of them was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and that everything need to be done to drive this idea forward, without actually thinking the whole thing through.   There is a human side to the story too, it’s not all about fishing.  It is the most bizarre book, written from lots of different viewpoints, but yet it works and is quite amusing.  Don’t take my word for it, give it a go.

Anyway, I think I have finally found my book for my mood.  It’s called The Temptation of Gracie and tells the story of a woman returning to Italy, 40 years after she left, to return to her true love.  I’m still only one third through the book but I’m enjoying the vision of the beautiful flower-filled fields of Tuscany and the swarthy Italian men.  There is young love in the present and in the past and stories of hot, steamy days.  It’s exactly what I need to take me away from the constant UK rain.

In few weeks I’ll be able to escape to my next holiday and perhaps some of the books I’ve given up on I’ll give a second chance, it’s easier to focus on something when you have a longer time to read it.  I do try and read everything I buy as its good to broaden your horizons and read things other than Crime Fiction and Chick-Lit, but also sometimes it’s just good to just disappear.

Hopefully, the rain will stop soon too…

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The Last Hour

Phil: Books make great Christmas presents. Carefully chosen, they tell the recipient that you have thought about them, and yet they are so easy to wrap.

My friend is interested in Roman history and when I spotted The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom, I thought that a novel set in Rome during the empire would be perfect.

A few months later, it came back to me, enjoyed, but described as “a bit Dan Brown”.

Now I’ve had the chance to read it, I’m not sure about Mr Brown, perhaps a bit Leslie Charteris.

The plot concerns Ballista, a Roman soldier and confidant of the Emperor. He learns that there is a plot to assassinate his friend an hour before sunset the next day. All he has to do is fight his way across Rome and speak to the Emperor.

In the way seems to be most of the official armies and police of the city. It seems the plotters know who he is and have the ability to spread his description almost instantly to their men.

Fortunately, like Charteris’s Saint, Ballista is indestructible. He is beaten, stabbed, slashed, half-drowned and he just keeps on going. OK, his motivation is that with the Emperor out of the way, vengeance will see his wife and family killed, but even so, for 350 pages, he’s either fighting or running. There’s a brief respite among some Christians for a kip, but precious little food. By the fourth chapter, his bloodstream must be 100% adrenalin.

This aside, I enjoyed the descriptions of Rome itself. The author has done his research and we learn a lot about the society – how honour and family matter. The various tensions between different races, the conflict between religions.

The finale at the Colosseum fascinated the engineer in me with descriptions of various trapdoors to lift beasts and prisoners into the arena. Less appealing is the details of how people met their ends in the arena. Sadly, I suspect that entertainment like this would prove just as popular today if it were Saturday evening television.

The story moves at pace, but I found myself getting as tired as Ballista should have been. It’s hard work reading this as you try to follow yet another gruelling punch-up. A fair few people are killed by our hero simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and without Roman sensibilities, I found that a bit hard. Realistic maybe, but I’m a bit of a wuss about this sort of thing.

Towards the end, there is a seed of doubt in Ballista’s mind about the Emperor. Power has corrupted and it may be that the man simply isn’t worth saving. Maybe the conspirators are right and he needs to go. That’s the trouble with dictatorships, there’s no easy way to replace the man at the top. Needless to say, the seed falls on fallow ground and there’s never any real option other than to save the man, to protect Ballista’s family.

By the end we see Ballista earning a phyric victory. As a hero of the empire, he’s promptly shipped off to lead the legions, well away from his beloved family. There is obviously a sequel planned, but you’ll need (I suspect) to limber up for more crunching action if you fancy taking it on.

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Read what you don’t know

Hot MessPhil: Authors are told, “Write what you know”, but my latest read is the complete opposite.

I couldn’t be less like Ellie Knight from the book Hot Mess if I tried – and I think that’s a good thing. At least it’s a break from my “normal” life, which I think is pretty much the point of reading.

Ellie is newly single and spends most of the book looking for lurve, or at least shagging her way through Tinder…

You guessed this from the cover, didn’t you? It’s pink. There is a shoe. The writing is a sort of scripty font. This is proper chick-lit. And of course, I didn’t buy it, or dare read it outside the house.

It’s quite fun. For a long while, you are wondering if there is actually a plot, but eventually, things start to tie up and by the end, you feel you’ve been on a journey with the character and had a laugh along the way.

Apparently, London is full of girls for whom this is a documentary, but as I say, that’s not me.

By the end though, there was something annoying me.

The story is told from Ellie’s point of view – but she doesn’t tell us everything. Several times events take place where you would have expected us to know what’s going on, but she “remembers” to tell us a bit of back story all of a sudden. Maybe it’s me, but I felt a little short-changed especially at the end when everything gets tied up.

Don’t get me wrong, this was an enjoyable, and for me, eduactional, read. Perfect for the side of a pool where everyone else is the colour of the cover.

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The Beachside Guest House

Phil: Vanessa Greene books get vintage teacups on the cover. As far as her publisher is concerned, that’s the rule.

Odd, because this book concerns three friends who drop out of their lives and set up a guest house on the Greek Island of Paros.

No teacups there.

I can’t help feeling Ms Greene is being let down here. The cover says “snuggly heartwarming and safe story”. Inside, there is plenty of plot that is safe enough for early evening Sunday television, there is also a bit of bite.

Disillusioned charity worker Rosa finds financial irregularities with her bosses daughter. Bee is about to get married to her childhood sweetheart. They drop everything, including Stuart, Bee’s fiance who I think gets a rough deal, and head to the location of their most important holiday together.

Rosa buys the old windmill guest house they remember staying in, they restore it and return the place to being a successful business.  There’s some heart-searching along the way, an old boyfriend returns and departs. New love is found. So far, so chick-lit. Nothing to disturb the sunlounger there.

Bite arrives with Iona, trapped in a psychologically abusive relationship. Years ago, she lost contact with her friends, but they didn’t forget her and use the move to reestablish contact. The chapters written from Iona’s point of view are genuinely chilling as we see how her boyfriend is controlling her. By the third chapter, you are past the point of willing her to leave, you want him smashed in the face with a heavy or sharp object.

The three women’s stories are journeys – each one grows and changes thanks to their involvement in the project. It is heartwarming, and I suppose you know from the start that everything is going to be all right in the end, but then that’s what we want from a book like this. There is a hint of a sequel right at the end, perhaps the author liked the characters so much she wasn’t ready to let them go?

The cover still intrigues me though. Is “the brand” more important than the contents?

 

 

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Having the faith to put yourself in the book

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?

 

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