Tag Archives: Books

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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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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Pitch battle

Writing West MidlandsPhil: We’ve mentioned in the past that one of the trickiest stages in getting a book out there is working out how to pitch it. We know what’s on the pages and reducing this down so it can be explained in the duration of an elevator journey has always proved impossible.

We’re not alone. Nearly everyone who has completed a novel feels the same way. Which bits do you leave out?

Luckily, Writing West Midlands runs a day-long course to help. We both paid up and went along – two heads are better than one after all.

The 14 attendees first had to talk to someone else for two minutes about themselves. Not easy, but I managed it without boring my victim to death. Then we had to do it again. At this stage, the rules said no mentioning your writing.

Then we moved on to proper pitching. Pair up (Candice and I were deliberately and sensibly kept in separate groups) and explain your novel in 2 minutes. Repeat another 3 times to different people.

The repetition is important. Each time you find yourself modifying your pitch to pack more in, or to keep it under the time limit. Doing this several times in quick succession sharpens you up.

After lunch and a pep talk from the tutor, we were back at it again. This time there were another 7 attempts.

I felt I was getting better at this each time. My best effort was 1:53 and that seemed to be pretty good. I’d managed to get the start of the pitch down pretty tightly I thought and as I went around the room, the second half where I tried to include more details of our characters exploits was coming together.

Finally, it was time to pitch to the room. Speaking to the entire group was more of a challenge to most and pitches I’d heard earlier got a bit less focussed when faced with a crowd and no time limit. One thing became apparent as we went through this process, most people were writing literary fiction, not our commercial stuff. I guess that’s no surprise, Arts (with a capital A) organisations like “serious” material. There doesn’t seem to be anyone supporting those who just want to write fun stuff. Maybe there should be.

My effort seemed OK to me, but then Candice had a go and dropped the listener straight into the middle of our first scene. I didn’t feel so clever after that…

It was interesting that our efforts were more performance than a straight pitch. We were selling the book rather than just trying to distil the contents into 350 words. That might be something to do with our backgrounds and past experiences, or just that we are a bit more flamboyant than most. It’s possibly down to the type of book we are selling too. I don’t feel the need to take anyone through the wringer on my pages. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, a couple of the books sounded really interesting but not a light read, it’s just not our style. The tutor also suggested that our book was very filmic in style – something others have said to us. Perhaps we should be pitching a screenplay, but where do you start with that?

Anyway, as far as our pitches go, do we have the right approach? Apparently not quite but we got some pointers at the end and a few things to go and think about, but that’s why you go along to these events.

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Wondering about the war

Candice: I seem to have read a few books about World War II recently.  Not specifically by choice but its just the ones I have picked up.

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The first was given to me by my ex-boss as a Christmas present.  Its called ‘All the light we can not see’ and follows the story of two sides of the war.  One is Marie-Laure, a blind girl who is displaced, with her father, from Paris to the coast at the start of the war.  The other is Werner, an orphan living in Germany who has an uncanny ability with radios and mechanics.

The two stories run in parallel as Werner is spotted by the Nazis and taken off to a camp to be made into a perfect soldier, and Marie-Laure finds out why she and her father ran, as he has been entrusted with the safekeeping of a precious diamond from the Museum he works in.

The second is ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ and relates the story of Jack Rosenblum, German Jew who has traveled to the UK before the War and is desperately trying to find his place after the annihilation of most of his family and race at home, accompanied by the British nervousness around someone with a German accent.

In his pursuit of a perfect Britishness, Jack ups sticks from his London home and successful business and moves to Dorset to build a golf course, something that will make him an equal with his peers.

Two very different books you say, well yes, but undercut with the same dark story of the horrors of war.  The first does not shy away from representing the way that your take away someone’s humanity by drilling them everyday, and how this can create a world that would think concentration camps are a good idea.    Jack sees the other side as his wife particularly struggles to cope with the fact she will never see her family again, as they were unable to get visas.  How hard must have that decision been, who can leave and who can stay.

Neither were books I would normally read but I enjoyed them both, even with the dark subject matter.  Sometimes its good to step out of the comfort zone and read something other than the ‘sunlounger’ read.  And also, never to forget what happened in that war, so it never happens again.

 

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Life’s too short for dull books

Phil: I’ve an admission to make. When I resolved to read more earlier this year, I also resolved to do something that would make that easier.

I resolved to give up on books I wasn’t enjoying.

Yes, I know. Every book is the result of hundreds, nay thousands of hours work by an author. They have done their best and part of me says I ought to stick at it and see every book I open through from start to finish.

But, that’s not me any more.

No. If I’m not enjoying a book, it’s heading for the charity pile. I read for pleasure, not because “it is good for me”. I can’t see the point in struggling through a book, especially a book of fiction, if I’m not drawn back to it when I find odd moments free during the day.

I console myself with the thought that not every book suits every reader. The photo shows The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken. Initially, I quite enjoyed the first person perspective of a finicky character happily serving in the same hotel for years. He loves routine and rules and the slightly old-fashioned feel of the place. Then a beautiful woman appears as a guest of one of the regular customers and he falls apart. At this point, I gave up. He would have seen attractive people before, so why was he instantly serving the wrong food to people and collecting unordered drinks?

Reading reviews on-line, it seems I’m not alone. Others love the book and good luck to them.

On the same basis, I’ve just given up on Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. I tried, I really did. This is a classic and it would have been nice to have ticked that box. Sadly, I found it insufferable. To me, it’s a book you find funny because you are TOLD it is funny. Others will doubtless disagree.

As for Gulliver’s Travels – I can only assume it became popular because there was literally nothing else to read.

So, I will read what I enjoy. Does that make me a bad person?

 

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Having the faith to put yourself in the book

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?

 

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