Tag Archives: characters

Nice work

Phil: When we go to literary events, I often feel that Candice and I aren’t really in the right place. The art establishment doesn’t really have a home for people who just want to write novels for readers on sunbeds.

Last year, we were given a copy of Nice Work by David Lodge and I decided it was time I got around to reading it.

The plot concerns university lecturer Robyn Penrose, who finds herself shadowing factory manager Vic Wilcox. They rub along, disagree and then have a brief fling. The plot is nicely summarised on Wikipedia.

My god, this book is pleased with itself. Witten in the third person, the text keeps showing how clever it is with little asides. To be honest, the print format put me off, and by the third chapter, it was heading for the charity pile. But, I persevered, in the world of Art, books are not there to be enjoyed, they are there to be good for you. A bit like broccoli.

By the end, I enjoyed it, but possibly not in the right way.

You see, I didn’t go to university and have a suspicion that many of the people there simply use further education as a way of avoiding the real world. Yes, there are many valuable courses and we can’t do without them, but I’ve met people who basically have never left school and boy can you tell.

Robyn Penrose is just such a person. She thinks that the most important thing in the world is obscure literary criticism. I’ve no issue with that, the problem I have is that she expects to be able to live in her ivory tower and have everyone else pay for it. Even as I write this, I know it sounds a bit Daily Mail, but when she visits Vic’s factory, it’s obvious that she doesn’t comprehend that those working in the hell-hole conditions are supporting her lovely way of life – just like the landed gentry expected the serfs to toil in the fields so they could lounge around doing nothing. At least they didn’t pretend they cared.

It might be that the author was satirizing this, Robyn and her partner do briefly discuss the idea, but I’m unconvinced. I think she is the hero, especially when we reach the deus ex machina ending with unexpected windfalls and bailing a recently redundant Vic out.

The point is, there is IMHO, nothing wrong with setting out just to entertain people. Life is rubbish enough without someone coming along and snootily laughing at your enjoyable choice of reading matter, and then expecting you to fork out for their luxury lifestyle.

Rant over.

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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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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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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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Mystery on a postcard

Phil: I recently bought an old postcard for the picture on the front. The postmark is 16th December 1906 and on the back, in tiny, neat handwriting is the following message:

Dear Kittie.

I received your letter last Wednesday, but you only told us half a tale, you didn’t say what time you would get here, nor how you are coming, nor how long you are going to stay.

Write to Annie and tell her or else she is going to give you a good blowing up when you come.

Am going there for Xmas Day as you are coming. Shant we be a happy family. Don’t disappoint us or it will be the worse for you. 

Annie is as busy as a bee getting cleaned up ready for you.

Well ta ta and don’t forget to write to her.

Love from Nancie

Is it a blacksmith or carpenter in the picture?

Who is Kittie?

How could she disappoint everyone at Christmas and how would it be worse for her?

Annie is presumably a relative who will be hosting the “happy family” over the festive period, but it sounds like Kittie isn’t very good at keeping in touch. Perhaps she’s the sort of gel who likes to swan in an out expecting everyone to drop whatever they are doing to attend to her needs.

All in all, a bit of a mystery. Even the question about the picture contains a puzzle – the postcard is a photo from a glen in the Isle of Man, so the picture must refer to something in a previous communication.

You could write a story based entirely around this card. Kittie and Nancie would be sisters in the early part of the 20th Century. Kittie (I see her as the flighty one) has moved to London where she is drinking in disreputable jazz clubs and dancing with men. Scandalous! Nancie stayed at home somewhere in Kent with no more ambition than to marry her sweetheart and have children.

Their father is kind, but doesn’t really approve of what his younger daughter is doing in the capital and insists that she comes home occasionally to placate her mother. When she does, there is the local squire’s son who pursues her but initially she isn’t interested. He follows her back to London and she realises the mistake she is making, possibly when he saves her from some cad who doesn’t have her best interests at heart.

The moral for authors is – if you need a story, look through old postcards. There’s plenty of human interest there!

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Going where no man has gone before

You were recently selected as a potential candidate for P.O.W.E.R. (Professional Organization of Women of Excellence Recognized).
Our organization provides a powerful network of women who will mentor, inspire and empower each other to be the best they can be. Women understand the need to connect with other like-minded professionals and the importance of added exposure.

Phil: I’ve been receiving this e-mail twice a week for at least a month. I’m not sure what their vetting procedure is, but I’m thinking that it falls at the first hurdle. Unless you consider the first hurdle to be, “Has an e-mail address” rather than gender.

While I’m happy to mentor, inspire and empower people, although “each other” sounds a bit like a cult, or an orgy, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed in the door. A quick look at the website suggests that door would be in America anyway. The woman fronting the video on the home page looks a bit scary too.

While they have been busy spamming me, I’ve actually had women’s groups on my mind. At our last planning session, we decided it would be a good idea to send Kate, or lead character, to a local women’s networking group. It brings her into contact with people who can be both useful and entertainingly anoying. She has an ulterior motive, but the result isn’t quite the one she hoped for – but ultimately IS good for her. I’ll say no more or SPOILERS!

It’s a good example of how Team NolanParker works. After chatting with Candice, who has been to groups like this, I wrote the first few pages of story. They were OK, but I wasn’t really feeling it.

My words went over to the Noaln and a couple of days later came back much expanded. And improved.

I’d laid the foundations, which freed her to add all the good bits. Maybe the words needed a woman’s touch, or maybe I provided enough inspiration to get her creative juices flowing. Whatever, it worked.

I have been the only man working in an office-full of women, but I am not (despite what the P.O.W.E.R. network thinks) a woman and can’t always get into the right mind. That’s why writing as a pair works so well, I don’t know how anyone does it on their own.

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Boozing our way through the difficult third novel

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?

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