Tag Archives: story

The Element of Surprise

Wonder Woman (2017 film).jpg

Candice: I had an interesting lunch time walk yesterday. After spending the morning trying to copywrite 20 letters, I felt I needed a break from the laptop and a turn round the block.

Now, I have become very familiar with said block over the last year. When I leave the house it actually becomes ‘which route can we go today without going slightly mad at seeing the same things over and over again?’. I mentally picked my route and set off, a little chilled as the temperature has really dropped over the last few days.

I’m just coming to end of the route and there are some roadworks. They are laying new broadband cable for someone, in fact they have been doing it for over a week and its been a bit of a pain. Thank gawd that at the moment my only commute is the odd trip to school, in the opposite direction.

I watch this black Honda Civic do a three point turn in the road and pull up. I’m thinking they must live in one of the houses and can’t get on the drive due to the work. I then spot one of the occupants get out, hood over his head as he sidles round the side of an unoccupied open back truck, with road digging equipment on the back. Next thing I know he is lifting off one of the pieces of kit.

At this point I jump into action as I realise what is going on. I’ve got my phone in my pocket so I get it out to take photos. I can’t get the attention of the workmen as they are too far away, and its too noisy.

Of course I can’t unlock my photo quickly as I am fumbling around. By this point the driver must have spotted me as the next think I know the Civic is burning off up a side round, passenger hiding in his seat while the Driver has his hand up to obscure his face as he drives past. I’ve managed to get off one photo with the reg of the car.

I don’t know if they grabbed something or not, so run down to the workmen to warn them something might have been nicked. Luckily their kit is chained down on the back of the truck so nothing was taken.

After many thanks from them I walk home, still shell shocked from what happened.

It all happened so quickly, I’m still amazed I managed to register what was going on. If I had been in a car I never would have done, or looking at my phone which is what most people do all day. According to my friends, I am now ‘Wonder Woman’. I’ll take that.

Good books all rely on the element of surprise to keep us engaged and get the adrenaline flowing. A twist, a death, anything to make the reader go ‘Oh’, and then they want to read on to see what happens next. Life can be boring at the moment, so see what you can find – if it’s a crop of bluebells, a text message to an old friend who you haven’t spoken to in a while – to help keep up your ‘element’ of surprise and keep the day fresh. I wouldn’t recommend a robbery every day though!

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Without problems, there are no solutions

When Emma opened her gorgeous little chocolate shop in the harbour village of Warkton-by-the-Sea, she realised a lifelong dream. Love is also blossoming with her hunky beau, Max, who’s slowly healing her fragile heart.

A rival sweet shop and killjoy landlord give Emma a headache, and when a face from the past turns up unannounced, Emma finds herself spiralling down memory lane. With Max’s crazy work schedule driving him to distraction, Emma’s in danger of making some choices she might regret . . .

With close friends, spaniel Alfie, and the whole village behind her, can Emma get the chocolate shop and her love life back on track?

Phil: Spoiler Alert. The book does not end with Emma sitting on the steps of the local war memorial, sucking the dregs from a bottle of Diamond While concealed in a plastic bag and watching the shop burn, consuming the bodies of her landlord and Max who had been having an affair.

Nope, it’s happy ending time, pretty much as you would expect from the cover. All the problems are solved, hunky Max is everything she wants him to be and all the bad choices are forgotten.

And relax.

The Nolan and I have been talking about marketing recently. She explained that if you want to sell a product, the first job is to identify a problem the customer has. Then you tell them how you are going to solve it for them. Simple, ut effective.

That’s what the blurb on the back of the book is doing – setting up a load of problems, with the promise that they will all be solved by the time you close the covers. Let’s be honest, we want that happy ending. Life is rubbish enough and books like this are lovely to wallow in, like a warm bath.

Every story needs a conflict at its core. Without this, it’s just words.

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Something bad is on the way

Phil: I’m reading the excellent All the lonely people by Mike Gayle, but as I look at the book right now, a thought hit me.

I’m 2/3rd of the way through, but I know something bad is going to happen.

The story is partly told in flashback, and so we know where the characters are now, and where they were years ago. And not all the characters are in the Now.

So, somewhere in the remaining pages, there are bad things going to happen.

Perhaps I should stop reading and everything will be all right, but that would deny me the pleasure of finishing off the book. I probably should remember that these aren’t real people, but then I’ve invested in them and care what happens. And (I have the surname for it) I’m nosy.

Does anyone else ever feel like this?

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A little man with a big story

Phil: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn takes place in 1625 and follows Nat Davy – a man who became “the Queen’s Dwarf”. Based loosely on a real person, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, it weaves a story around his life from being sold by his father and living as a plaything (initially) of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles the first.

The book is an interesting and enjoyable historical romp. I suspect that if you are a hard-core history buff, you’ll we clenching your fists in a few places as fictitious versions of real events unfold, or at least versions that have been enhanced by imagination simply because there is no other way to do it.

I found it fascinating to read the tale of the English Civil war from the losing side. Nat is firmly embedded in the Royalist camp and even though he doesn’t rate the king highly, doesn’t disagree with the basic idea of someone with the God-given right to rule the country. This is a world, where you find yourself forced to fight, and die, for a cause that you might not believe in. Nat’s brother is enlisted to the Parliamentary side simply by being in the wrong place (at home) when they took over his village. He doesn’t want to fight and has no interest in politics – all that stuff seems a long way away from his rural village in the era before instant communication.

The Queen grows from a terrified 15-year-old the entire country dislikes (she is a Catholic) to a powerful force behind the throne that the country hates.

Nat is devoted to her, and becomes a trusted confidant. Both are outsiders, her because of her faith, him because he stoped growing at ten years old. She lives in a palace full of intrigue and suspicion where courtiers brief against each other and vie for the ear of the king. It all sounds very similar to politics today!

I’m not really one for historical novels, but this is a real page-turner. I’m sure history buffs will find much to criticise, but it’s not a school exercise book, it’s an enjoyable story which has a historical background. My limited knowledge means I didn’t spot any major issues – but the author has stuck to many established facts for the main events in the story. What she has intended is the stuff that wouldn’t be recorded anyway.

 

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The Defamation of Strickland Banks

Album cover for The Defamation of Strickland Banks

Candice: I’ve not been driving around much these days. Usually, a long drive is my opportunity to sort through the thousands of songs I have on my iPod and pick something I haven’t listened to for a while, or something new. Or listen to that new album I have bought, all the way through.

We don’t consume music, books, TV or film in the same way that we used to. Everything’s short and sharp, a quick fix for instant gratification. I buy as many singles as I used to buy when I was a DJ back at University, or I just listen to new songs in Spotify. Occasionally an artist comes along and I think, I might want to listen to your whole album and I buy it on download. I don’t even do CD’s any more, which I used to always have to keep.

This dipping in and out means that the concept of an whole album seems alien to a lot of people, we only listen to the tracks we want to hear. But that doesn’t always mean you get the best stuff, just the dance track which will sell well in the charts.

What I have been doing on my shorter drives in the car is to put the iPod on shuffle, which means it can throw me a weird and wonderful collection of stuff including things I haven’t heard in years. Up popped the other day a song by Plan B, actually from the album Ill Manors, but it reminded me of his ‘concept’ album – The Defamation of Strickland Banks. The album is a story in itself, telling the tale of a man wrongly accused of raping a woman. The premise is clever as each song leads from the other as he goes from having a big night out, a one night stand, court and then jail. The subject matter is tough but the songs relate the feelings of the character as he goes through each stage of the journey and it certainly doesn’t glamourize prison and what happens ‘inside’.

I mentioned it to Phil the other day and he professed to have not heard of the album, and said it wouldn’t be his cup of tea. But Mr Parker I think you need to give it a try. Even if you don’t like the tunes, the lyrics are worth a listen. My personal favourite is ‘Stay too long’ – its got a thumping beat and a catchy hook, though I can’t play it in the car with my daughter as the language degenerates at the end!

To me songs can be just as interesting as books. They tell their own story and after often created as a cathartic experience for the writer. Phil and I write stories, but to a lot of artists their album is a story. In this case it’s a very clever one and I encourage to go back and visit this album even though it’s 10 years old if you fancy dipping into something new.

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Hit the road with Rosie Lewis. And her big, pink, tea van.

Phil: Some light and fluffy reading from me. I love tea. I love campervans. More importantly, the cover design tells me nothing horrible is going to happen, and right now, that’s what I need from a book.

Things don’t start well for Rosie Lewis. A workaholic chef, the book opens with her husband running off with a younger woman. In the tight-knit world of posh London restaurants (the ones with menus, cutlery and a dress code, not the sort I frequent) is the last to know about this, and decides, in a moment of red-wine induced madness, to chuck it all in and hit the road with a mobile tea shop.

She joins the festival circuit, meets people, re-assesses her life, blends a lot of tea and finds a bloke. Some mildly bad things happen, but in the end, it’s all OK. As I say, this is just the sort of book I need right now.

It all sounds like a nice life and I’m sure there are plenty of people who will idly dream of chucking in the 9 to 5 grind to sell dreamcatchers and spiritual rocks. Then realise that it’s cold in the winter, some idea how to fix your van is a good idea and when it rains, you’ll be living in mud.

As I say, I enjoyed the read, but, a few aspects bothered me:

How did Rosie get so drunk she forgot she had bought a pink campervan the night before. OK, an ill-advised eBay purchase I can understand, but she negotiated with the seller over the price and delivery, then drunk enough to wipe her memory?

Campervans aren’t massive, even the big ones, yet as well as the sleeping area, toilet and shower, Rosie seems to have a pretty well-appointed kitchen in her van. And a deck out the back. Come on, I’ve been in a van that is home to a funfair owner and even that didn’t have its own deck.

When did the Internet lose its capital I? The nerd in me wants to point out that they were really referring to the World Wide Web most of the time, but we’ll let that go as I can hear Candice rolling her eyes.

Never mind, that’s really not the point. This is all about dreams and finding yourself by taking a sharp left in your life. I’ll just re-read the bits featuring cake and enjoy my own dreams.

 

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Meet me at Pebble Beach by Bella Osborne.

Meet Me at Pebble Beach

Candice: I was very lucky recently to be able to escape the confines of the UK and travel abroad. It was not without its dramas, up to 48 hours before flying we were going to Spain but then it was all change and we managed to book to go to Rhodes. I don’t think I slept properly for two nights wondering what we were going to go.

Now to some it might seem silly but I had got to the point I really needed a break from the monotony of getting up, logging on to my computer in the other bedroom and then logging off at the end of the day. The odd walk around the block, bike ride and now trip to the gym is not enough for me. And I’d got to the point I REALLY needed a proper break as I was getting arsey with people.

With travel and pool holidays comes book reading. Again with COVID my usual route of picking up some stuff from the local second-hand bookseller had gone out of the window. So I decided to buy some books from Amazon based on some names I knew and their advice. I also bought some paper and some digital as, for once, I wouldn’t be raiding the hotel library either.

I’ve got a selection of things to review from the break, some good, some not so good. I’m starting with ‘Meet me at Pebble Beach’ only because it really annoyed me.

The book itself is fine, it follows Regan; a girl who is all over the place in her life, hates her job, doesn’t have enough money, someone who really grates on me to start. A work colleague tricks her into thinking she has won the lottery and that starts the ball rolling on her eventually sorting out her life. She gives up her job, starts her own business and then finds herself along the way. The story trips along, though you can tell in places that it was written as a four-part series as there are a few extraneous storylines that would fill out a serial but are too much in a book.

The book is set in Brighton and, without giving too much away, it all sorts its self out in the end. But the thing that annoyed me – the title. At no point does she or anyone else say ‘meet me pebble beach’ , they go to the beach over the course of the story but it isn’t central to the book. I kept waiting for something to happen related to the beach, and it didn’t. I might not be a perfectionist but this really bugged me, especially as the cover featured beach huts which also don’t feature in the story. It was like the person who created the cover had not read the book, or the synopsis.

This distracted from the book as I was waiting for the scene at Pebble Beach to happen as I expected it to be central to the book. I didn’t and I felt deflated at the end. A lesson to us all – the book cover is as important as the content.

 

 

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The Authenticity Project

Phil: As we’ve mentioned in the past, I’m rubbish at taking holidays, but I felt I needed a break and decided that last Saturday would be a reading day. My plan involved doing nothing more than lounging around with my nose buried in a book.

But which book? The reading pile is tall and I didn’t want something that I’d have to slog through.

My choice: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley. Reader, I chose well.

Six strangers with one thing in common: their lives aren’t always what they make them out to be.
What would happen if they told the truth instead?

Julian Jessop is tired of hiding the deep loneliness he feels. So he begins The Authenticity Project – a small green notebook containing the truth about his life.

Leaving the notebook on a table in his friendly neighbourhood café, Julian never expects Monica, the owner, to track him down after finding it. Or that she’ll be inspired to write down her own story.

Little do they realize that such small acts of honesty hold the power to impact all those who discover the notebook and change their lives completely.

Artist Julian Jessop writes the truth about his life in a notebook and leaves it for others to find. They add their own “truths” as the book travels around them. Julian is desperately lonely, Monica wants marriage and children, even though she wonders if she should, and so on.

The premise is really interesting. What are we really like in the depths of our soul? How does this compare with the face we show to the rest of the world. I suspect that everyone hides some deeper secrets but wear a suit of armour. We’ve written our main character, Kate, like this and it’s not an original premise. How the idea is handled is what matters.

I liked all the characters, admittedly some more than others. Cleverly, there is someone most of us can identify with in the cast list. I’m very much Monica who abandoned her life as a city lawyer after a colleague faces up to the horror that all those extra hours at work are just a way of escaping life and does something terrible. As you read, you wonder what you would do, how should you change things in your own life?

OK, this is light fiction and so you need to suspend disbelief occasionally. The flimsy book seems to survive its travels well and finds just the right person in the right frame of mind no matter where it is left – but then the story would be a lot shorter if it had been chucked in the bin in the cafe. I don’t want a documentary, this is fiction, entertain me!

Aside from that, everything worked for me. I particularly liked Instagram star Alice, based very much on the author, whose very public perfect life is the result of a lot of effort, lies and clever photography. I’m fascinated by “influencers” and their apparently perfect lives. It’s summed up by Alice realising her kitchen might look like everyone’s dream, but it doesn’t feel like home. How often have I watched Grand Designs and wondered what those picture-perfect houses that cost a fortune are actually like to live in day-in-day-out?

Sadly, Alice’s is the only story not neatly tied up by the end. Everyone else reaches a pleasantly satisfactory conclusion. Exactly as a feel-good novel should do.

I consumed this in a couple of sessions – just what I needed. Now I’m refreshed and ready to go again.

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The machine starts? What can we learn from stories?

Phil: A few days ago, the government floated the idea that everyone 50 years and over should be shut away for the duration of the pandemic. While they quickly denied that they had suggested the idea to some excitable tabloid journalists, it stuck in my mind. Partly ‘cos I’ve just reached the age of being locked up and doubt that government food parcels, if they are part of the plan, would include Tunnocks teacakes.

At the same time, I was discussing the prospects of going to public shows and exhibitions on my blog.

Both there and on other bits of social media, I find plenty of people who quite like being locked down. Not in a purvey way (stop sniggering Nolan) but a mixture of introversion and social anxiety means they are quite happy being told not to go and mix with other people. A couple said they were quite happy ordering everything online and chatting via video calls. Hunkering down at home and shutting the world out is appealing.

This put me in mind of the short story, The Machine Stops, by EM Forster. The story describes a world in which most humanity lives in isolation underground in standard rooms, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global machine. This gradually breaks down, but acknowledging this isn’t allowed.

You can read the full text here.

Now, doesn’t that sound a bit like the natural extrapolation of all those happy to shut themselves off from real contact? Unknowingly, Forster is showing us our potential future.

We see it in film too. Look at the people in Disney’s Wall-E. Locked in their mobile seats endlessly staring into a screen.

Some say we should learn from history, but it’s just as important to look at the worlds writers have conjured up for us. After all, we are the first people who can deal with our problems in this way. When I was a kid, the Interweb was science fiction. Mail order existed, but only by telephone. Grocery delivery was unheard of. Now, for many, there is no pressing reason to leave the house, and we are constantly told many excuses not to do so.

Imagination is a powerful thing. We should harness it.

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Relaxing reads for taxing times

Phil: Here’s a handy hint. Don’t publish a blog post about how you are starting to feel more comfortable with the current situation. It’s a prelude to your metal state heading downhill fast for several days. Just shut up and read some books. To help, here are the two most recent that I’ve finished in my regular post-lunch tea and reading sessions.

Warning: Contains Spoilers. Or at least spoilers if you’ve never read any chick-lit before and can’t spot the bleedin’ obvious plot lines.

The Hidden Cottage by Erica James

Mia Channing appears to have an enviable life: a beautiful home, a happy marriage, a job she enjoys and three grown-up children to whom she’s devoted. But appearances can be deceptive…

When the family gathers for her son’s thirtieth birthday, he brings with him his latest girlfriend, who, to their surprise, has a nine-year-old daughter. Then, before the birthday cake has even been cut, Mia’s youngest daughter Daisy has seized the opportunity to drop a bombshell. It’s an evening that marks a turning point in all their lives, when old resentments and regrets surface and the carefully ordered world Mia has created begins to unravel.

You’d think from the blurb that this is all about Mia, but the main character is Owen Fletcher who buys a cottage in Little Pelham. The cottage was part of his childhood when he lived for a while in the village. He’s one of those annoying people in novels with bucket loads of cash but no obvious way of earning it, but we let that pass because he’s not a dick. I did have a “what does he DO all day?” moment, but in the current situation, adults not actually doing much to fill the hours doesn’t seem so odd.

Anyway, this is quite involved with Mia’s three children and most importantly, overly controlling husband, all walking on eggshells with each other, finding their way in the world, loving and losing etc. The actual main romance isn’t prominent in the book. It’s there, but takes up very little of the story compared to the rest of the characters, and is all the better for it.

I’d say that this is the thinking readers chick-lit with some well worked parallel storylines, especially Mia’s marriage and Owen’s childhood. There are a few shocks along the way too. Maybe the supporting characters in the village are a bit cartoonish, but the background hangs together well enough not to be obtrusive.

I read this one in small chunks, but it’s one of those books I’d make little bits of time during the day to grab another chapter of.

A Summer Scandal by Kat French

When Violet moves to Swallow Beach, she inherits a small Victorian pier with an empty arcade perched on the end of it, and falls in love immediately. She wants nothing more than to rejuvenate it and make it grand again – but how?

When she meets hunky Calvin, inspiration strikes. What if she turned the arcade into an adult-themed arcade full of artisan shops?

Not everyone in the town is happy with the idea, but Violet loves her arcade and business begins to boom. But as tensions worsen and the heat between her and Calvin begins to grow, life at Swallow Beach becomes tricky. Is it worth staying to ride out the storm? And can Violet find her own happy ending before the swallows fly south for the winter?

Violet inherits a pier and apartment in the childhood town her mother refuses to return to. There are secrets from her grandmother who died in mysterious circumstances. And her neighbour is hunky Calvin Dearheart.

Reader, she shags him.

She also turns the pier into a series of workshops for those making things for the adult entertainment industry. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but a couple of them were “That’s really a thing?” moments. You don’t want to search for them on-line either on a work computer.

I wasn’t wild about this, the idea that you’d turn the centrepiece of a pier into a series of workspaces where the most public-friendly thing on offer would be a leather whip seemed odd. Artisan workshops would work, but I suspect that the Great British Public aren’t ready for X-rated goods while strolling along the seaside.

To be honest, the characters are all ridiculous, but it’s all played straight and so the book gets away with it. There are more historical parallels, outrageous coincidences and the ending is a bit weird, but overall, it’s everything the cover suggests. Light fun with a happy ending. Just like that that the pier’s customers are expecting.

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