Tag Archives: reading

Middle England – These aren’t my people

A comedy for our times – The Guardian

Phil: I’m middle-class. I work in magazine publishing. The only manual labour I do involves making model trains. I have been down coal mines, but only at museums. Years ago, I could even follow the plot of The Archers.

It seems I’m not the right sort of middle class though.

Proper middle-class people earn mahoosive amounts of money doing jobs even more pointless than mine. They then spend their lives spending money without any visible means of financial support. Ideally, they will have made a killing in the London property market, sold up and bought a rather nice converted mill to live in somewhere less fashionable. They drink posh wine and eat the sort of nibbles that I’ve read about but would probably ignore in preference to sausage on a stick.

I really wanted to like Middle England. It’s set in the Midlands for a start. There are mentions of places I know like central Birmingham (the library is being built) and Solihull.

Sadly, the characters might occupy the same geography as me, but they live in another world.

Look, our book is set partly in central Solihull. All the characters have jobs. Jobs they do to earn money. We set it there because we didn’t want to set it in London and Solihull is a nice place. Nice enough for Kate anyway. She doesn’t want to jump into the pool that is London. Better be a big fish in a smaller pond than just another in the capital’s shoal. Besides, when she needs to go to the big city, there’s a perfectly good train service with at-seat coffee and WiFi, so she can have the best of both worlds.

Maybe the author lives in a rarified world of London journalists and politicians and so struggles to connect with the rest of us plebs. I’ve long been a fan of the idea that our capital needs to be hived off as a city-state, leaving the rest of us to do things our own way. It’s not that I don’t like London, far from it. It’s just that I know it’s very different from elsewhere, something the inhabitants don’t grasp much of the time.

Anyway, Middle England is supposed to be a satire on the newly formed coalition government (something we also satirise) but it’s not very subtle. A government adviser pops up every so often as a caricature who keeps changing his story without bothering about facts or the truth. I should be right in tune with all of this, yet I didn’t get it.

Talking of story – I couldn’t actually find a plot. There are lots of words, the pages seem slightly more densely printed than normal, but nothing actually happens. I didn’t get the feeling that we were on a journey anywhere. Mind you, I gave up 1/3rd of the way through. Even reading on a train, normally something that gets me into any book didn’t help. All I was left with were characters I didn’t care about.

A pertinent, entertaining study of a nation in crisis – Financial Times

Middle England is the novel about Brexit we need – Daily Telegraph

Insufferably smug – Phil Parker

 

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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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The value of an editor

Phil: I’m still working on the edits I mentioned last week.

Most evenings, after watching Space 1999, I settle down for an hour of approving, or not, corrections to our text.

The vast majority are punctuation. Spotting the red edit text and then zapping it with a right click of my mouse is an interesting game which demands pinpoint accuracy. Watching the little bars on the right-hand side getting smaller and then vanishing is satisfying. Once they are gone, I’ve got all the changes.

There’s a bit of text shuffling and tightening too. I don’t always agree to these changes, there are a (very) few occasions when I prefer our style and since it’s subjective, I let us win. Mostly, to be fair, the excellent Catherine is right and the story flows better for her efforts.

We’ve a few plot points to deal with, and I’ve sorted out a slot in the busy Nolan festive diary for us to go through these. I think she’s doing overtime in Santa’s workshop or something as shes very busy.

A few times though, I’ve read the text and thought, “How the heck did we let that one get through?” or even “How the heck did we write that in the first place?” Frustrating, but now these boo-boos are getting sorted.

The whole process is a bit like having your work marked by a teacher. I suspect everyone hopes their text is perfect, and no-ones ever is, but I can’t help feeling that “Must try harder” could be written at the bottom of this. I’m sure we were slicker when Kate vs the Navy was proofed.

What I do see is how all the work is making a better book. When you start to write, people go on about the importance of an editor, but it’s a bill no-one wants to think about if they are honest. The more I look at the plot tweaks and inconsistences picked up, I know we’ve spent our money well. Yes, we should have got most of them ourselves, and many people won’t spot the changes, but every one makes our story a more enjoyable read. Talking of which, I end up reading it too and it’s still a good story.

Anyway, I’ll continue plugging away. I’ve another part of the routine – claiming the days chocolate from my advent calendar only when I’ve done my homework. Everyone needs some motivation!

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Back to work under the gaze of Mariah Carey

Phil: Regular readers will be pleased to know there were no fights in team NolanParker last week in Birmingham last week.

No, we met up in the Museum cafe and enjoyed some excellent tea, cake and chat. As Candice said last week, our problem is that we have more projects than time and this means none of them is making any headway. We need to focus on one, get it down and then move on to another.

First, we focused on eating cake – result – cake was eaten. Well done us!

Next, there was a look at our writing ambitions.

We’ve got 2 books out and a third half-written. But, and it’s a big but, we’ve never been entirely happy with the first one. There’s nothing really wrong with it, the story and jokes are excellent, but it didn’t seem like a finished and polished package.

Kate vs the Navy benefitted from a proper proof-reading. Kate vs the Dirtboffins was proofread, but not nearly as well. Some things you just have to pay for, instead we relied on our (then) publisher.

So, Book 1 has been sent off for proofing and we received the results a couple of weeks ago. As ever, Catherine has done a superb job. We learned a lot about our own book from the list of characters and locations in the accompanying notes. She also complimented up on some aspects of our writing.

But, this still leaves a huge number of changes to be looked at from tiny punctuation marks to sentence tweaks to pick up the pace. Someone has to go through these and I volunteered that someone better be me.

So, last Saturday I grabbed a seat in my local library. Candice being unavailable to supervise me, Mariah Carey stood in for her.  You’d never know them apart except that MK is older. And on a bag of crips. (No, I don’t know why)

I thought a good day we see this done. It wouldn’t, Katherine has been far too thorough. 6 hours and a second location with cake later, I’m only at chapter 10. That’s about 1/3 of the way through the book. After that, I’ll be left with the bigger changes that will need the full team to discuss.

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The Muse by Jessie Burton

Image result for the muse

Candice : I’ve just come back from a lovely week sunning myself in Gran Canaria.  The holiday hit all the usual Nolan criteria – sun, tick (though it took a day or so to appear), pool tick, mini disco, tick and happy child, tick.

We’ve been to Gran Canaria before when she was a bit younger, and I’ve also been when I was hitting the club 18-30 world.  Its a great for guaranteed sun but, to be the honest, its a bit characterless.  Being a volcanic island, they have to import sand from the Sahara to make the beaches yellow not black and its so small you can get from one side to the other in about an hour.  The other half and I discussed holiday options for our next trip and decided we wanted more character – but that’s another post for another time.

However, the sun and pool options meant that I did have time to crack open the odd book and get on with some reading.  I’d struggled to have time to pop somewhere to get a book before this hols so had ordered some of Amazon.  Its harder to pick that way because you do need to have an idea of what you want to read or an author in mind.  I picked Jessie as I’d read ‘The Miniaturist‘ the other year and had really enjoyed it.  It was quirky and different, not my usual read but I was hooked all the way through the twists and turns of the strange story.

‘The Muse’ was similar.  A strange premise of a woman who comes across a painting which has a complicated history.  Set in the 30s and 60s the story twists between the discovery of the painting and the actual painting of it.  But its more than that as it touches on what it is like to be a person of colour in the UK when that is frowned upon, the impact of war on a country and how deceit leads people to do strange things.

In brief, Odelle comes to the UK from Trinidad, degree educated she struggles to find a job until she is taken under the wing of Marjorie, second in command at prestigious art gallery.  Odelle meets Lawrie, who’s once rich family are now struggling after the death of his mother, he has been only left a painting in her will.

The painting weaves a tale of a Foreign diplomat and Art Seller in war besieged Spain, where his wife and daughter are trying to fit in.  His wife struggles with depression, his daughter a gifted artist who is ignored by her father.

The daughter falls for one of the servants who is also an artist and through a twist of fate (orchestrated by the artist’s sister) her painting is represented as his to her father.  Fame and fortune follow for the man, but he doesn’t want to take the glory of his girlfriend’s work.

War breaks, and the family and artist are separated and some end up back in the UK, with the final painting in their possession.

When Lawrie shows the painting to the gallery it causes uproar, an undiscovered work by this celebrated artist.  But all is not as it seems and Majorie becomes cagey, Odelle thinks she is hiding something about the painting.

The story twists and turns nicely, with an added plot twist I thought I’d worked out but wasn’t quite what I expected.  The book is well written, and unlike other stories where it moves from different story lines I didn’t struggle to keep up with who is who.

Being able to read it over a few days definitely helped but one to recommend.

 

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Where do character names come from? Is that me?

Phil: Where do the names of your characters come from?

I was idly flicking through Jack the Station Cat and the Snail Trail recently, when I spotted that one of the characters was Mr Parker.

That’s odd, I thought. Could that be me?

I’m not sure when author Alan Cliff wrote this book, but we have corresponded by e-mail a while ago on one of his non-fiction books. Maybe he was searching for names and our chat inspired him to pluck mine out of mid-air.

I suppose I could ask, but I think I’ll just stick with the warm feeling that it might be me.

 

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The Guilty Party by Mel McGrath

The Guilty Party: Dive into a dark, gripping and shocking psychological thriller from bestselling author Mel McGrath by [McGrath, Mel]

Candice : I bought a collection of books from Sainsburys before jetting off to a lovely holiday to Majorca earlier in the summer.

As it always the way, and what happens when you buy books from a supermarket, the selection was limited to chic lit or crime drama.  I picked this one up because it looked a little different.

The premise is built around four friends who meet at university and then stay connected over the next ten years. Their lives change – one gets married and has a child, one comes out as gay, one becomes wildly successful as a business man, and one gets left behind.  But they have something that ties them all together, they are all serially unfaithful to their partners and keep a record of their relationships by photographing their conquests naked and posting pictures on a shared ‘black book’.  Their appetite for competition and  being sexual predators drives them to stay in touch even though, by the time we enter their lives, they don’t seem to really like or trust each other.

The story is held together with a central premise; they have all been to a festival and on their way home a fight breaks out, in the ensuing melee they see a girl being raped.  The next day she turns up dead, drowned in the Thames.

Meeting a month later one of the party is unsure that the story she has been spun by her friends about the rape is the truth, she wants to tell the police what she has seen but they are reluctant to spill the beans. Why, she is doesn’t know but as the weekend in a remote house unravels it seems that each member of the party had more to do with the deceased than it first seems, and each has something to hide which informing the police would expose.

The book is hard to read as it flits between the view points of each of the four characters, and both past and present, so you struggle to keep up with what is going on unless you read it in long stretches.  It also struggles with empathy, as each character is exposed as someone is isn’t that likeable; the play each one off against the other, and don’t seem to care about anyone else but themselves.

Many years ago I read ‘Gone Girl’ and felt a similar way about that book. I read it to the finish as I wanted to know what happened with the characters, but I didn’t really like any of them or care that much what happened to them.  This seems to becoming a more prevalent style of writing, both in novels and TV shows, where every character is so flawed you don’t particularly want to root for them.  I recently watched ‘The Affair’ and felt this too.  It probably gives a truer version of the world, but I’m not sure I want to see it.  I want escapism not nasty reality.  I can watch the news for that.  I’ve got no doubt however that this book will get optioned soon as it seem to fit with what TV and film producers are looking for these days.  I don’t think I will be watching.

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