Tag Archives: story

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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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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In search of Fillern Holm.

Phil: If you’ve read Kate vs the Navy, you’ll know that the action takes place on an island called Fillern Holm, which can be found in the Bristol Channel, not far from Weston-Super-Mare.

It is of course, completely fictitious. Loosely based on Cockatoo Island in the far more exotic Sydney harbour, we made it up as there isn’t really anywhere suitable to hide an old navy base in the UK, and if we can’t go to Australia, then neither can the characters in our books!

Anyway, I was down in Weston a few days ago and found myself staring out to sea, or at least where the sea should be. On the horizon was a lump, dimly visible through the mist.

Could this be Fillern Holm? Does it exist after all?

Sadly not, it’s actually Steep Holm, according to the map. An uninhabited lump of rock. It was fortified in the 1860s though, and these defences were updated in WWII including the building of a barracks. All this means that it could just be a suitable stand-in for Fillern Holm in any future film or TV adaptions.

Talking of settings for drama, perhaps there is another candidate at Weston. Just off the coast is Birnbeck Pier.

More dereliction, but this time with some buildings. No missing battleships though. Perhaps those will just have to stay in our imagination.

Buy Kate vs the Navy for only 99p from Amazon.

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The Last Hour

Phil: Books make great Christmas presents. Carefully chosen, they tell the recipient that you have thought about them, and yet they are so easy to wrap.

My friend is interested in Roman history and when I spotted The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom, I thought that a novel set in Rome during the empire would be perfect.

A few months later, it came back to me, enjoyed, but described as “a bit Dan Brown”.

Now I’ve had the chance to read it, I’m not sure about Mr Brown, perhaps a bit Leslie Charteris.

The plot concerns Ballista, a Roman soldier and confidant of the Emperor. He learns that there is a plot to assassinate his friend an hour before sunset the next day. All he has to do is fight his way across Rome and speak to the Emperor.

In the way seems to be most of the official armies and police of the city. It seems the plotters know who he is and have the ability to spread his description almost instantly to their men.

Fortunately, like Charteris’s Saint, Ballista is indestructible. He is beaten, stabbed, slashed, half-drowned and he just keeps on going. OK, his motivation is that with the Emperor out of the way, vengeance will see his wife and family killed, but even so, for 350 pages, he’s either fighting or running. There’s a brief respite among some Christians for a kip, but precious little food. By the fourth chapter, his bloodstream must be 100% adrenalin.

This aside, I enjoyed the descriptions of Rome itself. The author has done his research and we learn a lot about the society – how honour and family matter. The various tensions between different races, the conflict between religions.

The finale at the Colosseum fascinated the engineer in me with descriptions of various trapdoors to lift beasts and prisoners into the arena. Less appealing is the details of how people met their ends in the arena. Sadly, I suspect that entertainment like this would prove just as popular today if it were Saturday evening television.

The story moves at pace, but I found myself getting as tired as Ballista should have been. It’s hard work reading this as you try to follow yet another gruelling punch-up. A fair few people are killed by our hero simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and without Roman sensibilities, I found that a bit hard. Realistic maybe, but I’m a bit of a wuss about this sort of thing.

Towards the end, there is a seed of doubt in Ballista’s mind about the Emperor. Power has corrupted and it may be that the man simply isn’t worth saving. Maybe the conspirators are right and he needs to go. That’s the trouble with dictatorships, there’s no easy way to replace the man at the top. Needless to say, the seed falls on fallow ground and there’s never any real option other than to save the man, to protect Ballista’s family.

By the end we see Ballista earning a phyric victory. As a hero of the empire, he’s promptly shipped off to lead the legions, well away from his beloved family. There is obviously a sequel planned, but you’ll need (I suspect) to limber up for more crunching action if you fancy taking it on.

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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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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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