Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The monogram murders” by Sophie Hannah

There seems to be quite a fashion for modern novelists to take classic characters created by earlier writers and feature them in new novels. I tend to be a bit wary of this, because each writer has their own writing style. I’ve read more than one modern story featuring Sherlock Holmes, for example, that has fallen far short of Conan Doyle’s brilliance.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I picked up ‘The monogram murders’  by Sophie Hannah, since it stars one of the great classics of crime fiction, Hercule Poirot.

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“The monogram murders” by Sophie Hannah (2014)

The story opens with Poirot as the sole customer dining at a London coffee house, when a harassed-looking woman bursts through the door. She asks one of the waitresses for her ‘usual’ and sits down at a table with her back to the door.

As Poirot watches her, he is intrigued to see her keep twisting round in her seat in order to look at the door. Aware of her distress he gets up, goes over to her table, and asks if he can join her. She agrees, distractedly, still intent on watching the door. He introduces himself as a retired policeman and asks if he can be of any assistance to her.

She reveals to him that she is about to be killed and, in her opinion, when she is dead justice will have been done. The words are barely out of her mouth before she declares she has said too much and beseeches Poirot to leave the crime of her murder unavenged. Before he can stop her, she gets up and runs out of the coffee house, leaving Poirot’s curiosity aroused and his appetite gone.

On the same evening of this curious event, Poirot learns that three people have been murdered at the prestigious Bloxham Hotel. The crime is being investigated by his friend, Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool. For reasons Catchpool is at a loss to understand, Poirot is convinced that the murders are somehow related to the young woman he met in the coffee house.

The novel is written from the point of view of Edward Catchpool (a new character invented by Sophie Hannah), much as Captain Hastings narrated many of Agatha Christie’s original Poirot stories. This struck me as a clever plan by the author, allowing her to present the Hercule Poirot known and loved by millions of readers, without having to copy Agatha Christie’s writing style.

Poirot’s character is reassuringly well reproduced, and his speech and mannerisms nicely in keeping with the character created by Agatha Christie. The voice of the narrator is noticeably different from the original novels, but I didn’t find this detracted at all from the story. In fact, if anything, it added authenticity, because Catchpool and Hastings are quite different characters.

I was so gripped by this book that I found it hard to put down. The plot is ingenious, and very well worked out. I sometimes get a bit lost in the detail when reading murder mysteries but, despite its complexity, I found the plot of ‘The monogram murders’ relatively easy to follow. This, I think, demonstrates the skill of the author, and I take my hat off to her.

I scored this novel 19/20, using my 4 Ps rating system.

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Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The maintenance of headway” by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills seems to me to be a one-off. He somehow manages to convey uneventful tales in a gently comedic, at times slightly unsettling, manner. ‘The maintenance of headway’ is a classic example of his talent.

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“The maintenance of headway” by Magnus Mills (2009)

Ignoring the conventions of novel writing, rather than setting his stories in a specified location, he uses vague language that’s suggestive rather than definite. The novel is set in an unnamed metropolis with a ‘bejewelled thoroughfare’. The description is highly suggestive of London.

Likewise, his characters are never described in anything but the barest of details. The story is written from the point of view of a bus driver, whose interactions with fellow bus drivers and bus inspectors provide the meat of the novel.

Everything about the book is so subtle it’s almost as if there is no plot, and yet there is a story to tell. Although the book isn’t set in a stated year or era, it involves red double-decker buses with automatic doors, and mentions the trialling of a new articulated bus, which gives the reader some sort of reference.

From start to finish, the characters are entertainingly obsessed with the minutiae of operating a bus service. The many acute observations they make provide a fascinating insight into what might be going on behind the scenes of Britain’s transport network. I found ‘The maintenance of headway’ to be a highly engaging novel and have scored it 19/20, using my 4 Ps system.

You can find out more about my scoring method on ‘The 4 Ps’ page, or by clicking here),

Writing

NaNo Update

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) ended last night, on 30 November. As I wrote at the end of October, I was expecting to find the goal of writing 50,000 words of fiction in one month a tall order.

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NaNoWriMo logo

The first week was very encouraging, with my daily word count suggesting I would surpass 50,000 words before the month was out. Then it all went pear-shaped.

After that first week, I struggled to get anything written. Days passed when I added nothing at all to my novel. On the better days, it was often a battle to get even a few hundred words down. My motivation had disappeared. The story no longer inspired me and I questioned why I was trying to achieve 50,000 words in such a short space of time. My writing limped towards the end of the month, stopping for long rests between forced phases of effort, ending up yesterday at just over halfway to the goal.

On the down side, by the end of November I had failed to achieve the required word count and had lost interest in what I was writing about. On the days when I failed to write, or made myself write merely for the sake of boosting the word count, I was left feeling despondent.

On the up side, I have now written 26,075 words of fiction I wouldn’t have written if it hadn’t been for NaNoWriMo. Even if I never add anything more to the story, I consider those words to have been valuable writing practice.

The other up side, and the best thing about this project for me, was meeting and corresponding with a writing buddy who was undertaking the same challenge. Unlike me, she did achieve the full word count in the allotted time. Despite this not being my success, I feel delighted for her and inspired by her persistence and dedication. She reckons she’s between half and two thirds of the way through her novel and intends to keep on writing daily until the end of December, by which time she hopes to have finished the first draft.

Looking back over the past month, if I wasn’t writing every day, what was I doing? The answer to that question is more obvious to me now than it would usually have been in any other month. During NaNoWriMo I was always thinking about when I would next sit down and write, which made me more aware of how I was spending my time. I discovered that much of what I do on an average day is incompatible with writing. Preparing meals, general housekeeping and, most enjoyably, reading, are all things I do on a daily basis that take up time I might otherwise spend on writing.

As my writing buddy pointed out, it’s a question of balance. During NaNoWriMo she noticed that in making time to write every day she had to sacrifice other things. I remember several occasions when I sat down to write, usually straight after lunch, when I decided against doing it because what I really wanted to do was read. Once or twice I ignored this urge and made myself write, but more often than not I chose reading over writing. Mornings are nearly always my busiest time of day, and by early afternoon the prospect of relaxing with a good book is often too tempting to resist. I don’t feel bad about this because regular reading of other people’s work helps me to recognise and appreciate good writing, which I think is helpful for my own writing. Also, relaxation is a key ingredient for a happy life, and reading is something I find particularly relaxing.

To conclude, I failed to complete NaNoWriMo, but I think I learned some important lessons through taking it on. Congratulations to all of those who did succeed, I take my hat off to you.

Book review · Photography · Writing

Book review: “Call of the undertow” by Linda Cracknell

Set in the north of mainland Scotland, this was, I thought, an interesting story with an unusually open ending.

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“Call of the undertow” by Linda Cracknell (2013)

The main character, Maggie Thame, is a cartographer who escapes Oxford for the wide open spaces of Caithness. She’s 40 years old and divorced with no children. She doesn’t know anyone in Caithness, and has arranged to rent a cottage she’s never seen on the outskirts of a village.

As she settles into her new environment, she walks for miles around the coast and countryside. During one of these rambles she meets Graham, a wildlife ranger, who introduces her to one of the teachers at the local school. The children are engaged in a map-making project and Maggie is invited to come and speak to them. She’s not keen, but accepts the invite and turns up to give her talk.

One of the children catches her eye, a floppy-haired urchin who might be male or female. The mysterious child sits apart from the others, avoided by classmates but apparently tolerated by them. She learns that his name is Trothan Gilbertson and he’s considered a bright, but rather peculiar, boy.

One day Trothan turns up at Maggie’s door with the map he’s been making. Reluctantly, Maggie invites him in and has a look at his map. She’s amazed by the detail, and unlike the maps his classmates have been compiling, Trothan’s covers a large area he has mapped by walking all over the place. She shows him how she makes maps using her laptop and explains the way in which cartographers build maps in layers featuring different types of information.

After his first visit, Trothan makes a regular habit of calling in at Maggie’s cottage, where he sits and works quietly on his map while she works on hers. She asks him if his parents know where he is and he agrees to take a note home to his mum from Maggie letting her know what’s going on. Their unusual friendship continues for some time, until one day Trothan disappears after visiting Maggie’s house. Initially, nobody but Maggie seems to be bothered by this, assuming the boy will turn up sooner or later when he’s finished wandering around the countryside. Hours turn into days, days into weeks, with no sign of Trothan.

The police call round to see Maggie, asking questions in a rather accusatory manner. The stress of Trothan’s disappearance interferes with her work and she starts of feels as if everyone is blaming her for Trothan going missing. The situation comes to a head when she meets Trothan’s parents on the beach and Nora, Trothan’s mum, physically attacks Maggie.

Once she’s got over the shock, Maggie is determined to see Nora again, to talk to her about Trothan. After a difficult start, an understanding, even a friendship of sorts, builds up between them. When Trothan’s parents arrange to hold a service of commemoration for their son, Maggie is surprised, but pleased, to be invited. Her attendance at this sensitive event cements her connection to the village.

The book ends with certain issues left unresolved, which I might have thought would leave me feeling dissatisfied. On the contrary, I thought the ending was skilfully and satisfyingly written. Aspiring writers are often told it’s important to tie up loose ends before completing a novel, but this book proves that if the story is told well enough, the reader doesn’t need all the answers. I think the author made the right decision about this, because I was strangely pleased to have been left pondering possible outcomes.

Book review · Photography · Writing

Book review: “Secret asset” by Stella Rimington

After retiring as Director General of the UK’s security service, MI5, Stella Rimington turned her hand to writing. Her first book was an autobiography, published in 2001, which I read earlier this year. Although I enjoyed it, I found it rather restrained and lacking the punch I had been expecting. I later discovered the reason for this. Before it was published, the book had to undergo a vetting procedure by British security’s top brass, who demanded she remove some of the more fascinating pieces of information.

It was with some interest, therefore, that I picked up one of her novels. With a fictional piece, she would presumably have much freer rein to include the oomph I had been looking for in her autobiography.

Unable to get my hands on the first of her series featuring MI5 officer, Liz Carlyle, I settled for the second, “Secret asset” (there are, to date, nine Liz Carlyle novels).

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“Secret asset” by Stella Rimington (2006)

I was not disappointed. The high drama I had been hoping for in her autobiography was very much in evidence in her fiction.

I don’t know how much of what takes place in this novel is close to real life situations experienced by MI5 officers, but I found the whole thing believable because of the author’s background. Having a unique insight into the security service enables her to write with authority on the subject.

The story involves the investigation of a terrorist group based in London, and gives a vivid portrayal of the dangers faced by secretly recruited agents or sources who pass on information to the security services. It was interesting to read the fictional version after learning about the real thing in the autobiography, and I found the portrait of the agent particularly convincing.

As a protagonist, I found Liz Carlyle a likeable character. She enjoys her job and is respected by her colleagues, and although she’s the main character it’s clear she’s just one part of a well-connected team. Along with her fellow MI5 officers, and the occasional MI6 collaborator, she follows the trail out of London to Oxford, a place she knows well having been a student there.

I enjoyed the combination of locations in the book, from London’s side streets to the academic atmosphere of Oxford and I felt the book moved seamlessly from one place to another. I found the ending satisfying and when I finished the book I had only one regret: that it hadn’t gone on for longer. It left me wanting to read more in the series, and I look forward to tracking them down.

Book review · Photography

Book review: “The light between oceans” by M L Stedman

I picked this book up in the library thinking my mum might like to read it, but in fact she hasn’t had the chance yet because I’ve been hogging it.

It was first published in 2012, the debut novel of an Australian writer who now lives in London. Recognising its cinematic appeal, Stephen Spielberg’s Dreamworks company snapped up the rights in the same year and have already made it into a film, due for release this September.

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“The light between oceans” by M L Stedman.

The story is set in Australia, just after the First World War, and centres round the life of ex-soldier, Tom Sherbourne. Unlike many of his friends and colleagues he has come home in one piece, and takes up the opportunity offered to ex-servicemen to train as a lighthouse keeper.

Following his training, he is given charge of the remote Janus lighthouse, off the southwest of Australia. His departure point from the mainland is the small town of Partageuse, where he spends a few days before being shipped out to Janus. During that time he meets Isabel Graysmark, a young woman born and brought up in Partageuse. After his departure to Janus, they correspond by occasional letter via the supply boat and end up getting married, with Isabel joining him at the lighthouse.

They’re very happy together but dearly want children. After suffering a series of distressing miscarriages, Isabel feels her prayers have been answered when a small rowing boat washes up on the shore containing a tiny baby girl and a dead man. Tom is keen to send a signal to the mainland straight away, as per lighthouse regulations, but Isabel quickly forms a strong bond with the baby, leaving Tom with a dilemma. They concoct a story about the circumstances, suggesting that since the baby is wrapped in a woman’s cardigan but there’s no woman in the boat, the baby’s mother must have gone overboard, leaving her cardigan behind. The dead man is presumably the father, and so the baby has become an orphan, in need of love and care.

Tom is not entirely happy, in fact he’s deeply troubled, about not immediately alerting the authorities, but he gives in to Isabel’s pleas to leave contacting anyone at least until the next day. By the following day, however, Isabel is no keener to let go of the baby than she was before and Tom’s dilemma grows.

The front cover of the book states: “This is a story about right and wrong and how sometimes they look the same”, and the theme of right and wrong is what makes this book particularly interesting. Throughout the novel questions are raised about decisions taken by the main characters and, as in real life, it’s not always clear which decision is the right one. A decision that’s right for one person could be wrong for someone else, and the difficulty is in finding a solution that’s best for those with the most to lose or gain by it.

At the beginning of the book I was fairly sure how I felt about Tom’s decision, but thanks to M L Stedman’s skilful storytelling I became less certain about subsequent issues of right and wrong as the book went on. It wasn’t until near the very end of the book that I appreciated the New York Times quote,“A moving tale…prepare to weep”. The last few pages did indeed make me cry. If the film keeps the same ending as the book, I’d advise anyone going to see the movie to take a good stock of tissues with them.

Writing

Travelling hopefully

Welcome to my writing portal.

“… to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve been labouring over my fiction for the past few years, in which time I’ve completed one novel, more or less completed another one, and started another two. Although it sometimes seem as if I’ve been trying for ages, four or five years isn’t much in the writerly scheme of things.

Becoming a successful published author requires a number of attributes, among them patience and determination. I’ve been getting quite a lot of practice in both of these areas. I initially sent out my first novel to several agents in 2013. The rejections left me feeling demoralised and dispirited, and were almost enough to persuade me to give up. After a while, however, I regained confidence and decided to keep going.

I’m still getting rejections, but they don’t upset me as much as they used to. Perhaps I’m getting used to receiving them. I expect there are rookie writers who submit a novel and strike it lucky straight away, but they must be in a small minority. In my case, the clouds of rejection have produced a number of silver linings.

Having been gifted lots of time to revise and edit my original work, the novel I first sent out three years ago is considerably different from the one I’m sending out now. I’m sure it would benefit from yet more tweaking, but I think it’s significantly better than it was. During times when I felt I could no longer face re-reading my novel, I had a bash at writing short stories and a series of stories for children. I joined a free online short story writing course, which I found enlightening and inspiring. Changing tack like this has proved surprisingly refreshing.

I’ve often read, in general advice to writers, that finding an agent is even more difficult than getting  published. I didn’t understand that until I tried to find an agent myself and discovered how quickly and easily they reject submissions. (I say quickly, but in fact the average rejection time for me has been 26 days between my submission and the agent’s response). I’m still sending out that first novel but I’m trying a different approach, going directly to publishers instead of agents. Only time will tell if it’s a more productive option.

My intention with this blog is to chart my progress towards publication. It may be that I never find a publisher or agent willing to take me on, but I’m only 44 so if I can stay well and alive for a decent length of time I might have half of my life ahead of me. If I’m still trying by the time I reach my 80s, at least I’ll know I’ve given this writing lark my best shot and I can be happy whatever the outcome.