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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Be brave at work and take a break

Phil: A couple of weeks ago, Candice wrote about being brave and how her taking a big leap eventually lead to the two of us writing books.

She wasn’t alone in taking a leap like this. Back in 2008, I discovered that I was to gain a new layer of management above me. Quite why this was was a bit of a mystery as the role seemed to be covered by someone higher up the food chain, but I applied for the job and as expected, failed to land it.

In the run-up, I had decided that if I didn’t get it, I wasn’t going to hang around. To be honest, I knew the guy running our department didn’t like me much and I wasn’t doing a very good job at handling this. There is a skill to managing your boss and it’s one I’m pretty hopeless at. My tongue is freer of bite marks than it should be!

Anyway, I decided that I would blow my savings on a “gap year”. We’ve mentioned in the past that I’m rubbish at taking holiday so I felt I was owed some big time and if I wasn’t at work, I felt I could take it. People said I was being brave taking a leap into the unknown, but I had a little confidence, although not as much as I claimed.

Sadly, 8 weeks after I left, the economy fell apart. I decided to bin the holiday idea and try to get back into work.

Now, unlike my friend, I don’t just walk into jobs. I hate the application process as much as I hated revising for exams – presumably why I have rubbish qualifications and once managed to apply for 60 jobs in a year and only get 3 interviews. I did manage to secure a couple of contracts looking after websites and it was at one of these that I met La Nolan. I remember starting and hearing about the mystical “Candice” for a week before she showed up after a holiday. Quite how we ended up chatting I don’t remember, but I’m very glad we did. So, our writing partnership is due to both of us being brave in our careers.

It’s Metal Health Awareness Week at the moment and the news is full of people telling others that they need to talk. With so much of our lives tied up with work, it’s here where the biggest problems can be found. I “escaped” a situation I felt was toxic. It wasn’t easy, and had my personal circumstances been different, might have been impossible. As it was it worked out OK.

Since then, I’ve had to jump again – although this time it was easier. Having a “manager” screaming and swearing at you because she’s been doing something she shouldn’t have been and you’ve risked exposing it makes the jump out of a part-time job a no-brainer. I can’t say there isn’t another leap in my future either.

Those suggesting ways people can help themselves in this situation will bang on about “mindfulness” – basically taking yourself out of your metal situation for a while to allow your brain to relax. This usually involves some chanting or meditation. I prefer to lose myself in my imagination.

Read a book that you enjoy – it doesn’t have to be good, just a page-turner.

Write a book. This doesn’t have to be good either, just somewhere for you to lose yourself devising a story. Both Candice and I have found this useful. Heck, we don’t even have to actually write, just the planning process where we bash ideas around is a joy and definitely a break from “proper” work.

Think of it as mentally freewheeling on a bicycle down a hill compared to puffing along up a hill. The wind is in your hair and you just enjoy the ride for a few precious minutes, recovering your energy for the next stuggle.

 

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One Enchanted Evening

Phil: It’s been mentioned on this blog more than once that celebrity authors wind me up.

I don’t mean authors who are famous for writing, but famous people who suddenly decide to put out a book. The publishers know that all it takes is said famous moniker in embossed letters across the cover and sales will be a dead cert. Even if the “name” doesn’t sell the book on its own, they will be an easy booking for chat shows and into Sunday supplements in the newspapers.

A deal is done, handsome advance paid and off they go.

If you think this is because I am jealous, you’d be dead right. It’s almost arguable that the only way to get a bestseller out nowadays is to be famous for something else and then develop a sideline in writing. Or get someone else to develop it for you.

So, how did I feel when I saw this book from Strictly Come Dancing prancer Anton du Beke hit my reading pile via my Mum and Sainsburys?

I mean come on, he’s the dancer with “personality”. The one normally lumbered with the joke contestant. He did a show about jumping through polystyrene walls.

All of which meant I came to the book willow expectations. To be honest, I was hoping for a “so bad it’s good” moment.

Annoyingly, it’s actually (grits teeth) not bad. Quite readable in fact.

OK, the plot revolves around the Grand Ballroom of the Buckingham hotel in London. The main character is the lead show dancer. You aren’t going to be surprised by this.

But, it’s 1936. The drums of war are starting to play. Oswald Mosely and the Mitford sisters are on the scene. Plenty of people quite like that nice Mr Hitler over in Germany, not least the King and Mrs Simpson. It was the era when Viscount Rothermere was happy to write his infamous piece with the headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in both the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. There are riots in the East End where the police stand by as fascists try to force out the Jewish population.

The Buckingham is in the middle of this with many of the Nazi-fetishising upper classes meeting there.

It’s also a world of two halves – upstairs and downstairs. Dancer Raymond de Guise straddles both worlds. He comes from one, but has to fit into the other.

This is not the sort of topic you’d expect from the author. Yes, the glitz and dance stuff (he does bang on about this a bit) but the gritty bits? That was a surprise.

It’s a fat book but an involving read. Getting going through the first couple of chapters took effort but once you are, this is a page-turner. In the sense of a good, entertaining read.

The only problem – I’m sure Mr de Guise is supposed to be not unlike Mr du Beke. But the moment I read about his curly, black hair, every time he popped into my mind, all I could see was the man from the Go Compare advert and I’m sure that wasn’t supposed to happen!

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Dealing with Change

Change?

Candice: Phil and I have both been dealing with change recently.

We’ve had upheaval in our work environments which means we are trying to find out what the new norm is.   I’m commuting to a new role which means I have had to work out the new logistics of child drop off and pick up as well as how to get to work.  This even involves what shoes to wear as it is a 15-minute walk from the railway station to my office.

It’s been mental fun, as I work out where is the best place to park in the morning, what train pass I need, when to buy my pass, etc. down to how I am now going to fit in going to the gym my number of required times in the week as I don’t get home until past 6pm.  That time is fine in theory, but going straight to the gym means I miss seeing my daughter in the evening, something I don’t want to do every night.

I’m now a month in and still haven’t got it right.  Things like the fact you can’t get a parking space at my local station after 8am are causing an issue, as well as discovering that a snarl up in the town centre means an earlier train still just about gets me to school in time for pick up.  Sometimes I have to say the whole thing is melting my brain.

I’ll get there eventually, but this is the reason that people don’t change jobs, especially when they become parents, the logistics are too much to deal with.

My daughter is not a big fan of change either.  She’s not been happy about the fact I can no longer drop her off at class or pick her up early.  And this morning we’ve had tears as we’ve signed her up to tennis lessons this term, and she was adamant she doesn’t want to go.

What I do know is that she will be fine.  Every time we suggest something different she gets upset, and most of the time she comes back all smiles after a day at the holiday club or swimming lessons saying it was great.  It’s just getting over the fear of something new.  I understand as I feel the same.  I do like change, but I also know that I find it challenging, but putting myself through this widens my opportunities and makes me try new things.

Many years ago I sat an airport waiting to fly to America for the summer, to work in a summer camp, worried about what I had signed up for.  It was the best thing I ever did.  I left my job to do it and wasn’t even sure how I’d get on working with kids (I’m not a big fan) but I loved every minute and had experiences I still think about now.  And I walked straight back into a job when I came back.  This is has set me up for doing similar things over the years, I’ve been to Australia and New Zealand on my own, and loved every minute.

With change comes new opportunities and we have to embrace them.  If I hadn’t changed jobs eight years ago, I wouldn’t have met my writing partner.  If I’d hadn’t opened my mouth and started chatting to him I wouldn’t have been two books down and one more in the pipeline (though frustratingly not any further along at present, that’s another blog post).

Go on, give it a go.

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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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The Hideaway

Phil: In the book tsunami from my writing friend is a new title – The Hideaway by Sheila O’Flanagan.

I can guess why she picked it. The front shows a sunny villa and the back cover talks about “the enchanting Villa Naranja in Spain”. This is sun-lounger reading in every respect. Opening it in winter is going to make you want to jump on a ‘plane for a bit of sunshine.

The story revolves around Juno Ryan, an Irish radiologist who discovers that her boyfriend is married. Worse, she finds out he’s married when he’s killed in an earthquake. Along with his wife and child.

For obvious reasons, this upsets her and she ends up taking up the offer of a few months unpaid holiday at a villa in Spain.

There is a pool, complete with Greek God style poll cleaners. Regular chick-lit readers won’t be surprised what happens there. It is not the end of the story though.

In fact, the book splits reasonably nicely into three parts and getting it on with the pool boy is in the early stages. After that, things progress and you see Juno start to recover and grow as a person. She conquers some of the demons that hold her back thanks to her family as well as those caused by her relationship with a married man who lied to her.

The story is deeper and far more involved than most sunlounger fiction. It’s light enough to be pleasant, especially the running cat story arc, but involving enough that you are pleased you are reading it. The ending isn’t quite what you’d expect from the first half of the book.

Summing up, the book is better than the cover would suggest. You can enjoy this while covered in suntan lotion, but it’s just as good while supping a warming cup of tea in the rain.

 

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