Category Archives: Phil

Tackling the reading pile – library to the rescue!

The book pile

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!

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The future is NOW!

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.

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Perry Rhodan and the terrible sci-fi

Phil: I love a bit of sci-fi and many years ago, picked up a Perry Rhodan book. I think it was the second in the series. It followed Perry Rhodan, the first man to land on the moon in 1971, and his battles to unify and pacify the Earth using an alien spaceship he had found. Imagine the unholy product of a union between Dan Dare and Biggles.

At the time, I enjoyed it and since this was a series, decided I would seek out further books second hand and collect the set.

That was until I realised just how many there were. Well over a hundred I discovered from reading the titles. According to Wikipedia, there are 126 plus spin-off novels.

However, the series has German origins and they published 2950 plus 850 spin-off novels!

That’s some series. We are looking at pulp fiction – cheaply produced novels each containing a story that forms part of a much larger story arc. You also get a couple of bonus short stories in each. Think a novel/magazine combination. I don’t think the concept exists in the same way nowadays, but at the time, this sort of publishing was lapped up by readers.

Anyway, I recently spotted number 34 SOS: Spaceship Titan! in a shop and decided to renew my acquaintance with the series.

Initially, it is terrible. If you’re a regular reader then the sci-fi mumbo-jumbo will make a lot more sense, but it’s difficult for the casual reader to penetrate. There’s no time for a preamble, we are straight into the story so if you don’t know the characters then tough. Mind you, if you do know them then an explanation for new readers each time will be annoying, so fair enough.

The story involves a super new spaceship which Rhodan and chums take away for a flight, land on a mysterious planet and then stuff happens. Space fights, robots, weird aliens, the whole lot. Eventually, they win through, but the story stops before most of the loose ends are tied up. You’ll need issue 35 for that!

Bonus extras include a review of the film Killers from space, rubbishing it in a pretty vicious way and a short story The Eagle Has Landed which just made no sense.

An interesting histroical artefact, but I’m not sure I’ll be looking for any more. Maybe my reading has become more sophisiticated. Has anyone else re-read a book from their past and thought, “How did I like this stuff?”

 

 

 

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Mystery on a postcard

Phil: I recently bought an old postcard for the picture on the front. The postmark is 16th December 1906 and on the back, in tiny, neat handwriting is the following message:

Dear Kittie.

I received your letter last Wednesday, but you only told us half a tale, you didn’t say what time you would get here, nor how you are coming, nor how long you are going to stay.

Write to Annie and tell her or else she is going to give you a good blowing up when you come.

Am going there for Xmas Day as you are coming. Shant we be a happy family. Don’t disappoint us or it will be the worse for you. 

Annie is as busy as a bee getting cleaned up ready for you.

Well ta ta and don’t forget to write to her.

Love from Nancie

Is it a blacksmith or carpenter in the picture?

Who is Kittie?

How could she disappoint everyone at Christmas and how would it be worse for her?

Annie is presumably a relative who will be hosting the “happy family” over the festive period, but it sounds like Kittie isn’t very good at keeping in touch. Perhaps she’s the sort of gel who likes to swan in an out expecting everyone to drop whatever they are doing to attend to her needs.

All in all, a bit of a mystery. Even the question about the picture contains a puzzle – the postcard is a photo from a glen in the Isle of Man, so the picture must refer to something in a previous communication.

You could write a story based entirely around this card. Kittie and Nancie would be sisters in the early part of the 20th Century. Kittie (I see her as the flighty one) has moved to London where she is drinking in disreputable jazz clubs and dancing with men. Scandalous! Nancie stayed at home somewhere in Kent with no more ambition than to marry her sweetheart and have children.

Their father is kind, but doesn’t really approve of what his younger daughter is doing in the capital and insists that she comes home occasionally to placate her mother. When she does, there is the local squire’s son who pursues her but initially she isn’t interested. He follows her back to London and she realises the mistake she is making, possibly when he saves her from some cad who doesn’t have her best interests at heart.

The moral for authors is – if you need a story, look through old postcards. There’s plenty of human interest there!

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To the moon! (and back again)

Phil: I was reminded that a review of Andrew Smith’s book Moon Dust was overdue while sitting in a nearly empty cinema (10am showings are great if you want it quiet) waiting First Man* to begin. The thought almost persuaded me not to open my cinema treat packet of Maltesers.

The book charts Smith’s efforts to track down and talk to every man who has walked on the moon and see how the experience affected them.

We’re only talking about 9 people, 3 have already passed on, but the quest takes the author all over the world. I was fascinated by this – how did he fund his travels? I get the feeling that it was a side project to other work, but still…

Walking on another planet is, let’s face it, the most exciting and impressive thing anyone can ever do. There are many years of build-up, some terror as you sit on top of a bomb that will fire you into space and a huge job list from NASA once you arrive. All the time knowing that every single component in your equipment has been chosen because the person building it tendered the lowest price. You rely on a machine so complex that even if the  agency achieves it’s 99.9% success rate, several hundred parts will fail. There’s no intergalactic RAC to come and rescue you either!

Once you’ve splashed down, been hauled out of the sea and returned home, what do you do next?

The astronauts’ answers to this are fascinating. Some stay in the system fighting to get man back out into space and back to the moon or even Mars.

Others drop out and start painting as a way to try to make sense of the experience they have been through. Alan Bean cleverly includes dust from his space suit badge in his paints so everyone buying a picture owns a little bit of the moon. This doesn’t appear to be a cynical marketing ploy, more a way to convey the experience.

Along the way, there are insights into the world of the Apollo programme. Astronauts weren’t that well paid. They didn’t receive media training, even though they would become some of the most famous people on the planet. Wives were expected to be part of the show, but not get in the way. Space bases aren’t situated in bustling towns and Cape Canaveral was basically a swamp when they all first moved there.

This is a portrait of a very different world from the one today. It’s all history and not even recent history. Apollo was a bubble of optimism where the US, while bogged down in the Vietnam war, offered a chunk of the future. Kids who had grown up on science fiction thought they were seeing the first days of something great, little realising that a couple of missions in, the public would be so bored of the whole thing that the TV networks couldn’t be bothered to show landing live.

An enjoyable read, it probably helps if you are a little bit geeky and love space things as the author experiences the wide-eyed wonder of meeting his heroes. Some turn out to have feet of clay, but most are still clad in moondust.

*Review: Armstong is taciturn.

 

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It’s like the Da Vinci code – but funny!

Phil: A few years ago, Jonas Jonasson scored a hit with his book The hundred year old man who fell out of a window and disappeared. Now the lead character, Alan Karlsson is back.

In the first book, much of the action was played in flashback with stories telling how Karlsson had travelled the world, largely by accident, meeting pretty much every famous person over his lifetime. He stumbled into situations, often altering the world without really meaning to.

This might remind you of the film Forest Gump, Forest always being in shot during pivotal moments in history.

It all reminded me more of the Da Vinci code. Turn the page and the plot has summoned up yet another famous face to move things along. Over 100 years, Alan had certainly got around a bit and the idea of slamming all these notable names into one story was fun.

However, the new book takes place over a much shorter time, but with no fewer “characters”.

We get to meet Donald Trump, Lim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. To make matters more convincing, real-life history has been employed with Karlsson involved in uranium smuggling while the big players, especially Putin, control the world like a chess game.

Jonasson uses his characters and the story to satirise the world and it sort of works. At the end, everything becomes a little heavy-handed and a bit miserable, but not unrealistically so.  Cynics might suggest this “never planned” second book has appeared because the publishers put their author in an arm lock until he promised to write it, but I’m inclined to believe the introduction where he says there was a lot to say. A bit anyway. Maybe the appearance of a Mercedes catalogue helped too.

The story is full of cliches, unlikely conincidence, and very minor characters who have a very bad time of it. This might be realistic, but people being collateral damage always makes me feel uncomfortable. I know they aren’t real, but I’m stupid this way.

Despite the reservations, it’s a fun read, especially if you pay any attention to the news and can spot the events being satirised.

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Going where no man has gone before

You were recently selected as a potential candidate for P.O.W.E.R. (Professional Organization of Women of Excellence Recognized).
Our organization provides a powerful network of women who will mentor, inspire and empower each other to be the best they can be. Women understand the need to connect with other like-minded professionals and the importance of added exposure.

Phil: I’ve been receiving this e-mail twice a week for at least a month. I’m not sure what their vetting procedure is, but I’m thinking that it falls at the first hurdle. Unless you consider the first hurdle to be, “Has an e-mail address” rather than gender.

While I’m happy to mentor, inspire and empower people, although “each other” sounds a bit like a cult, or an orgy, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed in the door. A quick look at the website suggests that door would be in America anyway. The woman fronting the video on the home page looks a bit scary too.

While they have been busy spamming me, I’ve actually had women’s groups on my mind. At our last planning session, we decided it would be a good idea to send Kate, or lead character, to a local women’s networking group. It brings her into contact with people who can be both useful and entertainingly anoying. She has an ulterior motive, but the result isn’t quite the one she hoped for – but ultimately IS good for her. I’ll say no more or SPOILERS!

It’s a good example of how Team NolanParker works. After chatting with Candice, who has been to groups like this, I wrote the first few pages of story. They were OK, but I wasn’t really feeling it.

My words went over to the Noaln and a couple of days later came back much expanded. And improved.

I’d laid the foundations, which freed her to add all the good bits. Maybe the words needed a woman’s touch, or maybe I provided enough inspiration to get her creative juices flowing. Whatever, it worked.

I have been the only man working in an office-full of women, but I am not (despite what the P.O.W.E.R. network thinks) a woman and can’t always get into the right mind. That’s why writing as a pair works so well, I don’t know how anyone does it on their own.

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