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20,000 words

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Candice: So there is often a conversation when we get just past this point in book writing where Phil and I will go “How are we ever going to get to 80,000 words?”

This time around we are motoring along, with over 20,000 words in the bag and, with an overnight in a hotel for me this week and a long flight for Phil coming up, we will easily get to 30,000.

I’ve been busy putting together the random collection of ideas we have already written into one document so we can see how the flow is working and what gaps we can spot.  Though we have already had a few plotting sessions often, even with something written down, we can go off piste as an idea takes us, and then you have to work out if it will fit with everything else. A perfect example is a forgotten chapter, written months ago, that references a character than Phil has brought back, but with them having a different name and the chapter having an end that doesn’t fit with our timeline.

After an hour over tea in Solihull Library the other day we’d pinned down a few more things in my spreadsheet, both plot lines and dates and then spent a pleasant hour and a half drafting up 1500 words each, before the high stools that we had to sit on gave me so much back pain a lunch break had to be called.

At the moment I can see us creeping towards that magic number easily, we’ve two chunky plot threads that need to be fleshed out and then a big finale which always takes at least a third of the book.

So don’t knock the spreadsheet.  Though I have to say I think we’ve hit that point much earlier this book, it just shows how you fine tune your art every time you do a new one.  We’ll have this book out by Christmas…

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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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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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Running for my Life

Phil: A book about running? Read and reviewed by Phil? Shome mishtake surely…

OK, so this is a looong way from my normal reading. Candice does the running in this partnership. I tried it once and hated it, much like I’ve hated going to the gym, even though I have forced myself to pay a visit 2 or 3 times a week for years at a time twice in my life.

Lets’ get this straight. I don’t just dislike going in a sort of half-hearted way because it’s boring (it is) but because many times I found myself sat on some sort of machine paralysed with misery. Do you ever find yourself thinking depressing thoughts in the middle of the night? Thoughts that become blacker and blacker the longer you are awake? Thoughts that fly away like so many butterflies when dawn breaks? It’s like that except the flying away bit.

Endorphins are something I had to look up in the dictionary, not something I ever found on a cross-trainer.

It doesn’t help that I am rubbish at going to the gym. Aided by staff who couldn’t be bothered to turn up for booked programme reviews, I went through the motions but without enough intensity to really do any good. If I’d turned into a ripped and buff Adonis, I’d probably still be going. Sadly, a jelly with a little bit of muscle tone was the best I could achieve.

I envy my writing colleague many things, but number 1 is her love of exercise.

Anyway, I saw Running For My Life advertised and thought it looked interesting. Maybe I could be inspired into fitness. A couple of days later, loitering in my local library, there it was on the “New Books” shelf. From there, it was in my bag via the checking out machine faster than Usain Bolt can run 100 metres.

Rachel Ann Cullen is best described as “damaged”. She has issues with depression, body image and pretty much everything else. A classic chubby child, her mother, hostage to her own mental illness, would feed her as much food as she wanted, and she wanted lots.

The book chronicles her university life, disastrous relationships with men and all-encompassing love of running. Starting as a way to lose weight, the book takes us through her life showing how running made things better – right up to the day she ran her first London Marathon. Running helps her define who she is. It provides a release from life, a source of friends and even her own business.

Did it make me want to don my trainers and pound the street?

No.

Because the book isn’t so much about running, it’s about setting and achieving goals. The pleasure you can have from pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and achieving things you didn’t think you could – be it running for ten minutes, beating your PB in a marathon, setting up your own business, exiting a depressing job, dumping a partner who is wrong for you.

I read the book in a sprint – 3 days while doing other things. Like your first jog, the early parts are slightly hard work and I was tempted to give up. Reading the book as an observer, it’s easy to see what the main character needs to do, but then you have to remember this isn’t a story, it’s someones real life. The role of Rach is played by Rachel Ann Cullen and it to do it.

Ultimately though, it’s an interesting read with loads of insight into the world of someone with a metal illness who found a way to beat her demons, ditch the Prozac and chisel out a new and fulfilling life.

You can read Rachels’ blog here.

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