Tag Archives: book
Phil: A couple of years ago (doesn’t time fly), Candice reviewed a book I’d passed on to her – The Christmas Train by David Baldacci. It’s a heartwarming tale set on a cross-country train in the USA. We both enjoyed it.
I hadn’t twigged that the book has been turned into a movie. But it has. So I watched it.
The first thing to realise is that the studio responsible for this is Hallmark. The people who make the greetings cards. As such, you won’t be surprised that the result is a gritty expose of life for struggling railroad workers forced to give up the festive season with their families to mend track.
No, of course it isn’t.
This is comfort TV. You don’t watch it, you wallow as though in a nice, warm bath.
The first change is that our journalist hero is taking the train as a promise to his father, and not because he’d been banned from flying for an air rage incident. This isn’t essential to the story, although anyone trying the book, or reading the excerpt on the Hallmark website, might be surprised to find this out.
A few characters have vanished, but more due to the pressure of time than anything else. Max Powers has an assistant in the book, but not the film. I didn’t miss him.
Perhaps the biggest change is the removal of the jeopardy when Tom and Elenor head out into the snow when the train gets stuck. The book really places them in danger and provides a pivot for their love story. In the film, they get a bit lost, then find a remote ranch and return to the train in a horse-drawn sledge. This apparently causes all the snow to melt or at least it’s pretty much gone in the next scene.
The movie doesn’t need to place them in jeopardy to make the characters realise their true feelings because it’s signposted from the start that they will fall in love again. There’s a bit of bickering, but almost every other character says, “Get back together you pair of muppets” (I paraphrase, but you get the gist).
Don’t get me wrong, the book is unlike all other Baldacci output in that’s a heart-warming tale from the off. You know what’s going to happen. No-one dies.
The film takes this and adds shmaltz. At one point the bartender offers a hot chocolate and asks “One candy cane or two?”. I’m thinking “Sugarcanes in hot chocolate? Noooo. You’d be bouncing off the walls!” but it’s a perfect allegory for the work whoever turned the book into screenplay had to do.
Despite this, it’s not a terrible film You need to be in the mood for it in the same way you need to be in the mood to consume endless Christmas food, but then that’s what the festive season is all about, isn’t it? I do wonder what the author made of it though.
Phil: Last week, I wrote that I felt the need for a nice, readable story and thanks to my local library had picked up A Brush With Death by Ali Carter.
I’m pleased to say it ticked the boxes perfectly. A pleasant read with a reasonably easy to follow plot that fitted my day. Doing a little digging, apparently this fits into the “Cozy Crime” genre. Think Miss Marple with a little less bite.
The plot is simple enough, Lord of the Manor dies, the police decide it’s murder and artist Susie Mahl solves the crime. I guessed whodunit pretty early in the book, but this didn’t spoil things – in fact I wanted to see if I was right. I was, although the method I had settled on wasn’t quite correct.
There are a couple of areas where the book stands out.
First, we learn a great deal about the English upper classes. If I ever find myself called to stay for the weekend at a great country house, I will have a better understanding of the protocol thanks to this book. We learn that all houses tend to run to a timetable, and once you know this, you can plan your trips snooping around. Stick to the rules, including not marrying anyone beneath your station, and everyone will get along swimmingly.
My main fascination was with the lead character, Susie Mahl, herself. She’s an artist who has found painting dog portraits to be a lucrative job. Handily, it sees her invited to many country seats for the weekend, you need to get to know the pooch to render them in paint. Apparently, this pays enough to buy a house in Sussex and a lot of very expensive luxury underwear. This detail is covered repeatedly.
Why? Because art follows life. It turns out that Ali Carter paints pet portraits and likes luxury underwear.
The most unusual aspect of Susie though is that she is a fairly strict catholic. At one point she goes to mass and also hints at disproval of divorce. Religion plays very little part in British novels, in fact I can’t think of a character who has expressed any interest in this direction. OK, we have Bother Cadfael and Father Brown, but they are monk and priest respectivly – it’s a massive part of their character. What I mean is we rarely see religion being part of a “normal” person’s life in this way.
It’s odd that this should leap out at me. In America and many other parts of the world, religion is a massive part of many people’s lives. You very much wear it on your sleeve. Politically, following the right flavour of God can be more important in the decisions a voter makes than a candidates policies or behaviour. Despite this, I don’t reacall many modern day American novels showing the impact of belief on their character.
My guess is that this is another area where author and character cross over. The interview I linked to above mentions a post-accident pilgrimage, but never explicitly mentions this being a religious one. That’s simply not how we do stuff in Britian. The Church of England is as inoffensive as possible and rarely do we have the zealots found in other branches of faith.
Ultimatly, “Write what you know” is an oft trotted out maxim, and one Ali Carter appears to have taken to heart, with interesting results. Susie Mahl is a stand-out character and will easily carry the three-novel deal Ms Carter has landed. She’d probably make a good TV drama too, something for the Sunday evening wind-down slot on BBC 1. However, I wonder if her faith will make the transition to the screen?
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!
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.
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.
Phil: Book 3 is proving tricky. We need our main character to go through a significant change during the story and it’s all going to be quite emotional. To this end, we’ve not involved her much in the comedy strand, which has progressed quite nicely without her.
The trouble with this is, that we now need to work out her path through the book, and try not to make it either miserable, or unrealistic. There will be no lightbulb moments that aren’t the result of a bit of personal growth. Readers are not to think, “where did that come from?” when Big Moments happen.
So, we meet up in Ikea’s cafe. Not our normal place of “work” but someone needed storage boxes, and it’s not a long way out for me. In fact, on the way I managed to find an interesting shop and was involved in a chat about 3D printers when the “I’m in the cafe” text arrived instructing me to attend.
I had had the foresight to arrive by bus and so when choosing lunchtime supplies, realised that a little alcohol to grease the creative brain cells wasn’t out of the question. To whit, I grabbed a can of Cider Apple and some meatball based food. 0.1% ABV – no slouch me, a couple of these and I’d be outside shouting at pigeons!
After a bit of chat, we felt that it was time to move on. Most of Coventry had decided to bring their children in for the day to add a flourish to the end of the school holidays. That meant the normally tranquil restaurant was transformed into a scene of mayhem, not conducive to producing great works of literature.
Next stop – a pub. We do good work in pubs, but of course, you must have a drink.
My first thought had been tea, but when Miss Prim and Proper ordered lemonade, I changed my order to a shandy.
And it worked. We both feel this book is hard going. There are loads of scenes written, but the love story, apparently so easy on initial inspection, has turned out to be more complicated than we thought.
After an hour or so of debate and pondering, we are pretty certain we’ve nailed it. Some of the work we’ve done needs to be moved in the timeline, a few bits go in the bin. No matter, the plotlines are basically mapped out and they seem to make sense. Candice has written the bare bones of a pivotal scene and sent it to me for added comedy and fiddling.
We are on our way! Now, where did that traffic cone come from?