Tag Archives: plot

Evil word counting

Phil: Imagine a world very like the one we live in, but where women have no passports, money of their own, jobs – and are limited to speaking 100 words a day.

That’s how America looks in Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The word limit is enforced by a wristband every female is fitted with at three months of age. Each word spoken is counted and when you reach 101, you receive an electric shock. Keep talking and the shocks become stronger until you “learn your lesson”.

All of this is enforced because of a new brand of “Pure” Christianity that has taken hold. Spreading from the bible-belt, it’s now controlling the White House and everyone else.

As you read, it becomes obvious that people are adjusting to the new normal. Jean McClellan is the main character and we see through her eyes as her sons tell her that according to their lessons at school, a woman’s place is in the home. Chillingly, her daughter wins a prize for not speaking at all. Women haven’t just lost their place in society, they have literally lost their voice.

I found this a scary read. OK, it turns into a thriller towards the end, but the scene-setting is very, very effective.

What makes it especially uncomfortable is that you can see how this sort of thing could happen for real. Vice President of the USA, Mike Pence, won’t eat alone with a woman and has been applauded for this by the religious right. His boss isn’t exactly known for his consideration towards women either.

Don’t think women would all stand up and fight – the rise of the #tradwife movement is sending women back to the 1950s and while they might not be queueing up to wear an electric word-counter, they love the idea that women should stay at home doing what their husband tells them they are allowed to do.

Like all good sci-fi, Vox is a commentary on the present day. It holds up a slightly distorted mirror to our lives and the reflection acts as a warning to things that could happen if we don’t pay attention.

Mind you, I think the Nolan acts as a perfectly effective word counter when we meet, there is a look far more potent than any electric shock that says, “Shut up Phil, and do some work!”

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Killer blurb

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other..

Phil: When I read this on the back of My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite while browsing the new books shelf of my local library, it did its job, grabbing me enough I wanted to read the story. With three books in my hand, I left it but came back a couple of weeks later and searched for it on the shelves.

Set in Lagos, it tells the story of Korede who keeps having the clean up when her sister murders her latest boyfriend.

As a nurse with a cleaning compulsion, she’s ideally placed to help, but when the sister hooks up with a doctor Korede facies herself, things get complicated. She can’t tell anyone about this except a patient in a coma.

Through the story, we learn some backs-story about the girls’ abusive father and his death (not their fault, but they were present) and this might give an insight into Ayoola’s behaviour. That, and she’s a little princess who’s never heard the word “no”.

The book has won awards, but I wonder if this is down to a metropolitan art crowd being excited by a book set firmly in Nigeria and making good use of the rules and traditions of that country. You are immersed in a way no non-native could ever do and some of the characters’ behaviours are appalling by Western standards. If you think the British class system is bad, the Nigerian one is far worse. It troubled me that the “house girl” never seems to warrant a name, nor any consideration for her constant servitude by the main characters for example.

I’m not sure the story every really gets going despite two deaths and a third close-call. The coma patient wakes up and remembers some of the stuff he has been told, but nothing happens with this.

The premise is really strong, possibly stronger than the book itself. Having said that, the setting fascinated me and I’m tempted to look up many of the foods mentioned. Maybe this is the best part – I was really taken to a new world, and that’s what reading should be about.

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The worst Deus ex machina ever?

Deus ex machina: A plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence, typically so much as to seem contrived.

Phil: I like nerdy reading. I like sci-fi. I like space ships and I love the TV show Thunderbirds. Not for the plots, which are mostly rubbish, but for the models and whizz-bang stuff. The twenty-first century doesn’t look as good as it did when Gerry Anderson designed it!

Anyway, I was browsing in an especially nerdy (even for me) shop and spotted book for a couple of quid.

Thunderbirds Lost World isn’t a novelisation of one of the TV shows. No, it’s a brand new (for 1966 when it was published) novel offering a thrilling tale.

Investing the disappearance of two airliners over New Guinea, Thunderbird One and pilot Scott Tracey find themselves crash landing after his craft is hit by a mysterious invisible force. After some escapades that would be impossible to film with puppets, he is rescued by Thunderbird Two.

Separately, a boffin is planning an expedition to the island. He disappears and Scott heads off to find him. They suspect International Rescue’s arch-enemy, The Hood, might have something to do with it all.

Spoiler Alert.

Anyway, it turns out there is a race of being hidden on the island who are using alien technology to do bad things and are planning to take over the world.

Things look sticky for our heroes – they are trapped in jail with no hope of escape or rescue.

Then there is an earthquake, the jail doors fly open, the baddies disappear and everyone gets away to live happily ever after.

Seriously?

Pretty much an entire novel-worth of buildup, the ground shakes and everything is OK?

How on earth did author John W Jennison get away with this?

I had wondered as the bookmark was nearly at the back and we seemed a long way off a plot resolution, but I didn’t see this coming. Can anyone name a more blatant ending thrown in because the author wanted to go down the pub or was just close to their deadline?

(Nerd note: If you have a copy with a dust jacket, it shows Thunderbird One flying over a dinosaur. There are no dinosaurs in the story.)

 

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Giant vegetable news: Life follows art.

The pièce de résistance, though, was a costume he had borrowed from the local amateur dramatics society. Many years ago they had presented a series of plays to local schools promoting a healthy eating message and for part of this the cast dressed as fruit and vegetables. Thanks to their attempts at tackling obesity, the roof of Oswythal House was surmounted by a giant cabbage waving a bed sheet covered in brown marks.Kate vs The Dirtboffins.

Phil: Our book opens with a protestor dressed as a giant cabbage being thrown from the top of a building. (Spoiler alert, he’s fine).

I thought it would be a funny idea, after all, cabbages are amusing, aren’t they? You certainly don’t want to eat them, or at least I don’t.

Last week, what do I see on the news? A man dressed as a giant stick of broccoli for a protest!

 

Oy! Get your own ideas!

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A twisted last post?

Phil: This might be my last blog post. I may not get the chance to write another. The reasons should be clear by the time you reach the end.

Sharing books can be an enjoyable thing. You find yourself presented with something you might not have chosen yourself. Maybe even a complete genre that had previously passed you by.

I’ve never been into books which involve people getting killed. I know they are called “thrillers” but I like to read for escapism, and that generally doesn’t involve me being reminded that I could be killed randomly just because some loon wants to send a message to someone else – usually a detective. I mean, why can’t they just pick up the phone and dial 999? Maybe send a text, or even a postcard?

Anyway, the latest novel to come my way is Twisted by Steve Cavanagh.

I wasn’t really intending to read this but found myself short of books, and I quite liked the orange and black cover which is a bit stylish.

By the end, I enjoyed it. Not just because I found some matching colour cake either.

The plot is confusing. Apparently, the novel is written by JT LeBeau, a mysterious and very, very successful author. Or is it?

You see there are twists, turns and red herrings aplenty.

Halfway through, you think you know what’s going on and the whole thing turns on its head.

By the end, we have an author who is a killer, and a woman with nice shoes lying on a beach.

Now, I know a woman who has nice shoes and is partial to lying on a beach. How far would she go in pursuit of said shoes and sunlounger? Has she got a list of previous writing partners that I don’t know about, all of whom have disappeared in mysterious circumstances? Why does she keep giving me books about people being murdered?

If you don’t hear from me again, please send flowers. And cake….

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Why do authors need an editor?

Phil: A few weeks ago, I enjoyed some delicious home-made custard creams while listening to author Mike Gayle and his editor Nick Sayers courtesy of Kenilworth books.

With 15 books to his name, it was interesting to hear Mike explain what working with an editor entails, and why it is important. Despite being an editor myself, I’d never really understood the role played by someone with the same job title in fiction.

It turns out that the editor plays a big role in shaping and sharpening up the book. They read through and provide the fresh pair of eyes unavailable to a writer too close, and to invested in, the story.

The editor continually challenges the author. Do the characters work? Are there too many of them? Does the plot flag partway through? Does the thing even make sense?

All this after the publisher has shown enough interest in the manuscript to assign someone’s time to work on it.

Mike had worked with several editors in the past and credited all of them with improving his work. I can see how this relationship is important but also how easily it could break down if the suggestions were at odds with the original creative vision.

There’s a special skill in being the editor and managing a potentially fractious author. I did take the chance to ask exactly how things worked out if they disagreed. Sadly, neither would admit to an all-out fight (they both came across as really nice people) but I can imagine some egos getting in the way.  It must be especially frustrating being an editor if the writer keeps ignoring the advice offered.

For team NolanParker, I think we provide at least some of the editor services to each other. You’ll have read in past blog posts how we’ve disagreed with each other over plot points. It’s not always an easy situation, but we respect each other’s opinion enough to be able to get over this each time. After all, we both want our books to be the best they can.

 

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Step away from the epic – think local

Phil: On my recent sojourn to the Isle of Man, my car radio was tuned in to Manx FM and my first purchase was a pile of local newspapers.

I like a world where all the stories are local. For example, while the national news was banging on about Brexit, the lead story on the local radio was about a children’s play area whose opening had been delayed. Another big story is a flume at a local swimming pool that won’t fit together.

You might laugh, but this stuff matters. Big politics is very remote to most of us. For the most part, we don’t really see Westminster having a direct effect on our lives.

The local play area being shut – well what do you do with the kids during the summer holidays? The same question you can ask about the flume.

Now translate this to your reading.

I bet most of your favourite books centre on one or two characters lives. Plot twists are personal, because that’s what we relate to as humans.

OK, sci-fi often grapples with galaxy-wide stories spanning aeons, but those do tend to be the preserve of a small number of very enthusiastic readers. Good luck to them, but I find that stuff achingly dull.

No, the essence of good writing seems to be inventing a small world and keeping your plot within it. If you need further proof, look at the tiny areas covered by popular soap operas, a few streets, a square, or memorably, a motel. Look closely at these little worlds and all human life can be found.

As it is. I bet the delayed flume could form the basis for one of our books…

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