I’m looking up bad words in the library

Phil: Progress on our next book hasn’t been rapid recently. Both Candice and I are living very busy lives at the moment and things are getting in the way of writing. We’ve bashed some idea around via e-mail, but it’s not the same as meeting up in person, and it certainly doesn’t get the word count up.

Easter meant that the people in my office were away, leaving me in peace to catch up on some work, and with a day off that I decided would be given over to novel-writing.

Since I work from home, a trip to the local library would be a good break too. iPod on, laptop out, words written.

It’s odd working in the library. I keep looking around and remembering it’s where I learnt to swim.

You see, Leamington Spa is over-supplied with rather useless old buildings that eat council tax but can’t actually be used for anything of benefit. Worse, if you try to do anything with them, you face the wrath of those desperate to pickle the town in aspic in an imaginery verison of 1910.

Still, the conversion of swimming pool to library has worked well. Centrally located, it has enough space for books and a gallery full of reference works and tables for students or itnierant writers. These are popular. So popular that people go out to lunch or shopping leaving all their worldly goods in their space so no-one else grabs the seat. If you want a free laptop, just hang around until one of the students has wandered off…

Anyway, it worked. Almost 5000 words down. A great new plot strand developed and a few changes to our plans made once the characters started to do their thing on the page.

Thanks to the free WiFi, I was able to work out what the sound of someone being sick looks like in letters. I also checked out the plots of several plays that form part of our plot. OK, I did slope off for lunch (taking my stuff with me) and a refreshing half of rhubarb cider to lubricate the creative juices, but then it’s my day off…

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The Lubetkin Legacy – Two Stories. One book.

Phil: You don’t read many books where a block of flats is a central character, but in The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka, the building plays a central role in the plot.

Story 1 – Lily Lukashenko dies and her dying words to son Bertie are “Don’t let them get the flat.” He has been living with her since the breakup of his marriage, unable on his actor’s salary, to afford anything else. To be fair, his acting work seems to be mostly “resting” and grumbling about the success of George Clooney. To be fair, George probably can’t quote Shakespeare as well as Berthold, but that’s as good as it gets.

In an effort to avoid eviction, he moves the lady from the next door hospital bed in to impersonate Lily with modestly comic effect, especially if you consider the names of Eastern European meals to be amusing.

Along the way, there is much rage about the problems faced by people relying on the state for an income. Officialdom comes calling many times, although one particular functionary eventually lifts Bertie out of his gloom.

Story 2 – Violet is a young Kenyan-born woman who gets a job in the city working in “wealth preservation”. This turns out to be tax avoidance and plundering African countries funds by overcharging the health services for basic supplies. She quickly grows a conscience and decides that the dream job really isn’t.

The two characters are neighbours and interact sporadically. There is a plot involving building plans that involve grubbing up a patch of cherry trees to be replaced with executive flats.

If I’m honest, Bertie ends up OK, but pretty much nothing else nice happens in the end. Violet is back in Kenya working for an NGO, but her efforts to expose dodgy dealings don’t go well. The trees get cut down. One character dies due to lack of money. If this is what The Times considers “A joy to read”, then I can only assume the reviewer likes seeing poor people get a kicking. Even those officials who went into public service are worn down and cynical. Everyone assumes that bad things are just going to happen and you might as well accept it.

One of the central plot strands, that Lily had an affair with the architect Lubetkin who designed the flats and left her a tenancy, is never tied up. Bertie finds a plan under the sofa but that’s it.

I’d planned for this review to be a bit more upbeat, but after a couple of days mulling the book over since finishing it, I’m just becoming more miserable about the story. I think that’s partly the point. Lewycka has written several other books including the well known A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and I suspect that these are also full of downtrodden people. You certainly feel for the characters (OK, I certainly do, maybe the Times doesn’t) and the lives they are trapped in.

The contrast between people working in “wealth preservation” and those at the bottom of the pile constantly being ripped off is pretty powerful. Very much a serious message wrapped in pretty paper.

 

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Death of a Bore

Phil: My pile of books to read has been going down and I found myself recently with a selection that while appealing, didn’t grab me. I felt the need for a proper novel with a story that I could fall into.

Dropping into my local library, I spotted Death of a Bore by M.C.Beaton on the shelves. As one of the dullest people you could wish to meet, I wondered if she was writing about me, and there is a picture of a steam train on the cover. Perfect. Out came the library card and the book came home with me.

First up, under the author’s name is “Author of the bestselling Agatha Raisin series”. I’ve heard of these but this book is from the Hamish Macbeth series of mysteries. I remember those, televised by the BBC back in the mid-1990s with Robert Carlyle in the lead role. It seems that this is so long ago, the more recent Raisin series, also televised a couple of years ago (but only on Sky so I haven’t seen it) is considered more of a selling point by the publisher.

Anyway, thanks to snow cancelling an event I was supposed to devote a weekend to, I decided to read the book in a day. The chance to do this rarely occurs but it’s lovely when you can devote the time to it. Proper relaxation.

Is the book any good?

Let me start by saying that Marion Chesney (M.C. Beaton) is a breathtakingly prolific author. There are 33 Macbeth books, 28 Raisin ones and 76 others according to Wikipedia. She is a writing machine!

So it’s no surprise that this isn’t the greatest work of fiction ever. I’ve read books with more depth, less clunky narrative and more polish. Characters are paper-thin much of the time and I didn’t really warm to Hamish much.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. That Hamish on the page bears no resemblance to Robert Carlye is a bit odd, but then Morse on the page isn’t much like John Thaw and people deal with it.

The style really reminds me of Agatha Christie. It’s a bit of a pot-boiler but who cares? I’ve tried to read books that were allegedly much “better” and gave up on them. This rattles along nicely and entertained me for a few hours. If you have a sunbed to lie on or just want to read for pleasure, its all good stuff.

Since the plot revolves around an authors murder and one of the things he does is inspire the local villagers to write, it’s odd that this has done the same for me. I think our books are every bit as well-written as Death of a Bore so there’s no reason that people shouldn’t enjoy them every bit as much as they obviously enjoy these.

Entertainment and inspiration. Not bad for a snowy Saturday afternoon.

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Lessons from Ken Dodd

Image from RuddyMuddy on Twitter

Phil: I can’t claim to have been one of the late Sir Ken Dodd’s showbiz friends, but I did meet him a couple of times while working at a local theatre.

Once, while minding the stage door at some time past midnight, he came off stage and pointed at my shoes.

“Crikey”, he said, “Those are fine feet, are you a policeman?”

I replied that I wasn’t to which he added, “Well, you know what they say about blokes with big feet…” and then swept off to his dressing room with a chuckle.

The amazing thing about Ken (never Mr Dodd) was that he’d arrive at the venue looking every bit of his 80 years. A small, quiet old man.

Yet the moment he got on stage, he came alive. The Ken in my anecdote was buzzing, almost as though there was electricity flying off him. This was after a 6-hour show too.

So, lesson 1 – If you are doing something you really love, you’ll never feel better or more alive.

In all the tributes, it’s been said by many people who you never knew when a Ken Dodd show would finish. The rumour was that every night management would have to haul him off the stage so the staff could go home.

This is a good story, but not strictly accurate.  Yes, the performances would go on a long while. No other act gave a longer show, but the staff knew when he would finish. Usually 1am on the first night, 12:30 on the second. Hidden from the audience in the wings was a clock which Ken kept an eye on.

Lesson 2 – If you want to be good at something, you need a professional attitude.

Ken didn’t just hang around telling jokes until he got bored. He honed his act through the study of comedy. Learning to play an audience, he only kept the jokes that got a laugh. Yes, material stayed in the act for many, many years – but only if the audience enjoyed it. In many ways, this is just like editing a novel. You take out anything that doesn’t add to the reader’s enjoyment. After a while, you are left with pure gold.

Legend is an over-used term, but it’s appropriate here. There will never be another Doddy, but if you aspire to his status, you better put the work in like he did.

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Simple stories = compelling narrative

Phil: A couple of weeks ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon in the Electric Cinema in Birmingham watching the 1973 film Westworld.

For those not familiar with this Michael Crichton written and directed film, the story follows a couple of guys heading off on holiday to the new and amazing Delos resort in 1983. Phenomenally expensive ($1000 a day!) they promise that “”Boy, have we got a vacation for you!”.

Indeed they have. Guests stay in either MedeivalWorld, RomanWorld or WestWorld, sharing the locations with incredibly lifelike robots who that can fight, kill or shag to their heart’s content.

This being a film, things go wrong. The robots develop some sort of virus (the first time this had ever been mentioned) and malfunction. Eventually, they kill all the guests except our hero. He finds himself pursued by Yul Brynner wearing the all-black costume last seen when he appeared in the Magnificent Seven. This time, he is an unstoppable robot gunslinger and the final third of the film is taken up with a chase around the park.

Brynner hardly speaks, or runs during this, making him a proper, menacing unstoppable force. I’ve seen the film before and it’s still edge-of-the-seat stuff.

“So, why have you illustrated this with a low-res picture of a dinosaur?”, I hear you ask.

Well, this screen grab comes from one of the greatest computer games of all time – 3D Monster Maze.

Launched in 1982 for the Sinclair ZX81 computer, the premise is simple. You are in a maze along with a T-Rex. You can’t see the beast, you have to run around and find the exit. If Rex sees you, he will give chase and probably eat you.

Since the computer was very basic, there wasn’t any sound. Instead, we had subtitles. The words “Rex has seen you” appearing at the bottom of the screen sent a shiver through the player as it was time to run or be dinner.

Graphics were low resolution as you can see, but it didn’t matter. Played in silence, this was properly spooky. OK, we weren’t used to first-person points of view in games back then but this just makes things more claustrophobic.

The game is really, really simple. But utterly addictive. You know what you’ve got to do and since there are only 3 keys for movement, how you’ve got to do it. It’s just you and a dinosaur.

Which is pretty much how WestWorld works.

We can put ourselves in the position of the “prey” in this particular hunt. The predator is unstoppable (Spoiler: In theory) but we will our hero to escape. Whatever plot holes there are (how are the guests stopped from fighting, killing and shagging each other rather than the robots in  MedeivalWorld and RomanWorld?) we cast them aside and get caught up in the action.

In fact, this is such a simple and effective plot that Crichton pretty much used it again in Jurassic Park (see, dinosaurs again) and James Cameron did it in The Terminator. I’m sure readers could suggest others. So, feel free to have a go in your novel too!

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Dead Girls Dancing by Graham Masterton

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Candice:  Its been one of the most strange weeks here in the Nolan house.  I spent most of last week at home with a combination of an inner ear problem and then flu.  By Thursday I was resolutely fed up with seeing the same four walls.

I did fight back at the weekend and go to the gym, but now I feel like I’ve taken a step backwards as, though I am back at work, I don’t seem to have any energy.  Not even Salted Caramel Teacakes are helping to perk me up.

It did give me time to some reading, as well as watching a lot of the winter Olympics (go people throwing themselves down a hill at speed on a tea tray).  My book of choice was ‘Dead Girls Dancing’.  I’d picked it up in the supermarket as it looked like a nice juicy police procedural, just my cup of tea.

So there was I about half way in when I started to get a surprise.  I’d already found the book quite gory, the dancers of the title were spectacularly killed at the start by an explosion which burned them on the spot.

The book is number eight in a series, so I’d picked up bits about the protagonist having lost a husband and son, as well as another partner, due to her job as Detective Chief Inspector.  She’d just started a new relationship, with a guy, but then it got more complicated.

The book revolves a splinter IRA group, targeting a diplomat from the UK come to talk about Brexit.  The dancers being killed is just a side story, it demonstrates how ruthless the killer is.  By half way he’d shot one of his partners who wasn’t on board with his plan, put a knife through another’s hand and watched a gang rape of a woman who was going to tell the police what he had done.

So I’m sitting in the lounge at the weekend with my daughter, she’s watching ‘Mr Maker’ and the next scene starts.  I suddenly learn ways to use Nivea I’ve not heard of as the main character has a three-way with her new beau and one of her female work colleagues.  Not really what I was expecting.

To be honest I really didn’t like this book.  I found the story line jumped around a lot and was quite implausible.   And it was just so NASTY.  At the end of the book her dog gets kidnapped due to an unrelated case she is working on and the book closes with her dog returned, dead.  I turned the page expected something else uplifting to help drag me from this darkness but nothing.  I actually had to read something else to get a good night sleep.

So, I won’t be tackling Katie Maguire books again.

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Behind Her Eyes

Phil: Reading a book is often about the journey rather than the destination.  Plots can be summed up in a few lines and if you really want to know what happens, Wikipedia will probably fill you in.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is an excellent case in point.

On the cover, something designed to look like a sticker (it isn’t) promises “The most shocking ending you’ll read all year”. The publishers have bagged #WTFthatending on Twitter. On the back, John Connolly entreats browsers to “Read it now before someone spoils the ending.”.

And that someone won’t be me.

The story revolves around single mum Louise who devoted her life to her son but finds that she needs to get back into the world of work. David is her new boss, but just before she meets him at work, the bump into each other in a bar and enjoy a furtive (an initially regretted) snog. In the early stages, the plot covers the embarrassment of having got off with someone you then have to work for and the uncomfortable situation this provokes.

Very quickly, we meet Adele, David’s wife. She befriends Louise but doesn’t know she knows David as anything other than a colleague. Louise is lonely and fascinated by Adele so she doesn’t say anything to David. Nor does she tell Adele her secrets about her husband.

And that’s about as much as I can tell you.

The story is great at gradually unfolding. The author never lies to the reader, but you are constantly changing your opinion of the main characters. This draws you in gradually until the book has to be consumed in great chunks of reading.

Everything is told from the characters point of view, with the chapter title explaining who’s eyes were are looking through. Just as in real life, each one has a slightly different take on matters. As a reader, we think we have a handle on the various duplicities, but do we? Adele says, “The truth is different to different people” and she’s not wrong.

You could skim this, jump to the end and find out what happened. That would be a mistake. Enjoy the journey.

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