Category Archives: Phil

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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In search of Fillern Holm.

Phil: If you’ve read Kate vs the Navy, you’ll know that the action takes place on an island called Fillern Holm, which can be found in the Bristol Channel, not far from Weston-Super-Mare.

It is of course, completely fictitious. Loosely based on Cockatoo Island in the far more exotic Sydney harbour, we made it up as there isn’t really anywhere suitable to hide an old navy base in the UK, and if we can’t go to Australia, then neither can the characters in our books!

Anyway, I was down in Weston a few days ago and found myself staring out to sea, or at least where the sea should be. On the horizon was a lump, dimly visible through the mist.

Could this be Fillern Holm? Does it exist after all?

Sadly not, it’s actually Steep Holm, according to the map. An uninhabited lump of rock. It was fortified in the 1860s though, and these defences were updated in WWII including the building of a barracks. All this means that it could just be a suitable stand-in for Fillern Holm in any future film or TV adaptions.

Talking of settings for drama, perhaps there is another candidate at Weston. Just off the coast is Birnbeck Pier.

More dereliction, but this time with some buildings. No missing battleships though. Perhaps those will just have to stay in our imagination.

Buy Kate vs the Navy for only 99p from Amazon.

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Recognising yourself in a book

Phil: Working through the huge piles of books passed on to me from La Nolan earlier this year, I’ve just read Wilde About the Girl by Louise Pentland. Not a book I would have picked up myself, but I really enjoyed it.

The plot concerns a year in the life of Robin Wilde – single mother, makeup artist and generally, pretty much together woman. She’s got a useful collection of friends and relatives. Even the ex-husband isn’t written as a monster or complete incompetent. There is a new bloke on the horizon, but he’s not the main plot strand in that annoying way many chick-lit books seem to manage.

Instead, the focus of Robin’s like is her daughter Lyla. Well, that and work. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this – the child is the apple of her mother’s eye, but not the only thing in her life. It’s almost like the author managed to write about real life!

Now, I don’t have kids, but I’ve seen friends lives change as they sprogs arrive on the scene. Pentland doesn’t turn the child into a mobile nightmare, but actually makes you feel that spending time with the youngster is fun. If you aren’t broody before opening the cover, you might be by the end.

One aspect that rang true for me was when a new man came in to Auntie Kath’s life. Kath is the rock Robin relies upon and Lyla loves her. When Colin turns up, even though he makes widowed Kath happy, Layla hates him for replacing her late husband. Eventually, they are reconciled but it reminded me of myself.

When I was very young, we lost my Grandad. Even though we didn’t live close, apparently he and I were very close. A few years later my gran took in a lodger for the company and a little income. He was (as I recall) about the same age as my grandad would have been and apparently, I behaved terribly towards him, presumably thinking he was replacing my grandad (he wasn’t, he was just a lodger unlike Colin in this book). Like Robin, my parents had to find a way to reconcile us, they did it and we were fine after that. I was so young I don’t remember not liking him, but I could see what Lyla was going through.

The book is broken up into several sections, each of many chapters, and they all seem to contain an “incident”. One is terrible, but you wouldn’t know this from the cover or blurb. There, we find the stakes ramped up – unnecessarily in my opinion. This book nips along a decent pace, the characters are all pleasant to know and not too cartoony in most cases (OK, some of the school mums maybe) and there is a bit of pathos too. Colin could just be a cypher, but on a trip to the Lake District, we see into his soul a little, but only a little.

I think this is the middle volume in a Trilogy. To be honest, I don’t feel the need to read the others as this is such a strong standalone story, would they spoil it for me?

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Right book, wrong time?

Phil: Why do we like a particular book?

I’m wondering because I’ve just abandoned Sheila O’Flanagan’s How will I know?

I didn’t even make it to the end of the first chapter. Something about the writing style jarred with me. There’s a lot of description of the main characters day, and to be honest I just got bored.

It must just be me though, as this is (according to the cover) and bestseller.

My thinking is that were I lying on a sun lounger I’d have stuck with it and probably if not enjoyed it, at least passed time pleasantly. As it is, I need to be grabbed by the story fast. There’s too much going on in my head to plough through a book which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

This happens all the time of course. If you want a book published, you have to be lucky. The right person has to read your pitch at the right time. If they want vampire books, it’s no good pitching historical romantic fiction. But if they want the new Price and Prejudice, the best book about a blood-sucker in the world won’t get anywhere.

OK, putting your book out everywhere increases the chance of a hit, but there’s still luck involved – which I say to make everyone feel better. How do we know the slush pile that Harry Potter came out of didn’t have another boy wizard further down? And wouldn’t that be annoying?

And imagine the editor reading How will I know? had been in the same frame of mind I am at the moment. They would have been shouting, “Stop describing the contents of your kitchen cupboard!” instead of “Fire up the printing presses, we’ve got a hit on our hands!”

Not every book suits every taste every time. That’s what we keep telling ourselves. That and people who don’t like our books are idiots…

 

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Is it June already?

Phil: How did it become June already?

I’m sure someone has nicked about three months of this year because I’m sure I missed them somewhere along the line…

Looking at the files for Book 3, I see that we’ve not added anything to it since April. That’s pretty poor. Admittedly, we have ideas on a side project that has taken up quite a bit of brain space, but sadly, real life has taken over for both of us and priorities change.

Are we beating ourselves up about it? No.

For a start there is cake. Yummy cake. We still meet up planning to think book and end up chatting instead.

Then we’ve come to the conclusion that writing should be fun. Proper writers describe it as a dreadfully painful exercise, but you know what, that sounds rubbish. Hours of moaning and agony to produce a “worthy” book that people might aspire to read, but never actually bother.

No – the books are to be a dream. We will make progress, but generally when we are enjoying it. This means getting our heads around the idea that we aren’t likely to become best-selling authors, but as the chances of this are very slim unless one of us becomes famous, we might as well accept it and just enjoy the ride. More than can be said of me when I ended up on a child’s spinning teacup roundabout half an hour after eating one of the slices in the photo.

Anyway, I suppose it’s also worth looking back to see how my new years’ resolutions are going.

Do less work – Well, I am getting more efficient at doing work. I’ve figured out that I’m more productive on the computer in the afternoon and evenings, so the non-typing parts of my work are fitted into the morning, something that seems to be working well.

Promise less – Still rubbish at this.

Go out for more walks – This is a bit hit and miss. Some days I hit my “Move Minutes” target on an app on my phone, sometimes not.

Read more books – Big tick. I’ve read a lot of books, but still not fast enough to keep up with the numbers heading my way.

Read fewer magazines, or at least only those that I need to – I’ve stopped taking a few periodicals and buying less of others. I think this is working.

Sleep more – Can’t say this is much different. Maybe a little better, but sometimes much worse.

Basically, 5/10, must try harder all round.

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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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