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After the Novel

Fun activities BEFORE THE NOVEL is published

A storyteller who’s not afraid of characters!

Book review: The Nature of the Beast by Frances Fyfield

Nature-of-the-Beast-coverAfter the rather plot-driven novels of late, heavy on intricate details and wooden characters, how refreshing to come upon an author who lets the characters shine. Frances Fyfield provides a wonderful cast in The Nature of the Beast, each one from minor to major as distinct and intriguing as the next.

The absence of drunk-or-otherwise male detective/cop in the central role lets the interactions between everyone else have almost equal value, and our sympathies are free to roam hither and yon as the stories unfold. For there are many stories here, each rich and detailed and, again, no matter whether minor or major.

It’s a mystery, and maybe a crime thriller, but it’s above all a smooth and crafted tale from a storyteller with a touch that most authors should envy.

Just another moderate-drinking male cop story

Book review: The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

hakan-nesser-the-inspector-and-silence-cover-200pxSo after my poor experience with Nesbo, I looked around for something with a bit of guts and novelty and, even, full-blown storytelling. So when I saw, “favourably compared with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson”, how could I go wrong.

The Inspector and Silence is an Inspector Van Veerteren Mystery and VV spends a lot of time musing about cases, both current and past. And about women, both current and past. And a lot about when and how to have a cigarette, and/or a glass of wine, or a couple of beers, or which dish to choose on a menu, or whether to walk or row or drive, and which music could or should accompany any of the preceding activities.

Continue reading “Just another moderate-drinking male cop story”

Just another drunk male cop story

Book review: The Bat by Jo Nesbo

jo-nesbo-the-bat-cover-200pxI’ve tried but Jo Nesbo is not for me. In fact The Bat is just about the worst ‘drunk male cop with issues’ story I think I’ve read.

Most drunk male cop stories have a girl/woman being abused/raped/tortured/murdered and then another one or two or five suffering similar fates. Meanwhile the drunk male cop goes on a bender or five. Sometime later the author adds a twist so the drunk male cop can find/arrest/kill the bad guy(s). And there’s been nothing in the preceding pages to suggest the drunk male cop has such abilities.

Continue reading “Just another drunk male cop story”

Cultured Insolence of Supériorité

How refreshing to be in a culture that is not afraid of tall poppies, that is as relaxed around excess as it is around elegance. 

The Paris models (surely; in fact there must have been a hundred of them on holiday here, and just in the quarter of my hotel; models, at least, if not real-life celebs, judging by the clothes, jewellery, perfume and hair) at ease at the nearby, cheap roadside kiosk.

The scruffy (deliberate holes in jeans and t-shirt, perhaps; but the dreads were real) workers in the posh hotels, dispensing smiles and scowls in equal measure, retain street cred alongside impeccable manners when the mood takes them.

Yes, I’m back in a French ‘territory’ and had been partially prepared by the airline with its subtle touches like free drinks, free alcohol and free 3-star menu: “Will that be white or red with your meal, Monsieur?”

The touches include the most comfortable ‘economy’ seats on the planet, the high quality audio/visual options, the charger for iPhones and iPads (Marketing Director to Finance Director: “But of course ALL our passengers will need to charge their Apples.”)

Leap in the shuttle bus, glance occasionally at the countryside, but then we’re past the hustle of town/city and at the beautiful white sand beach with the modern three-hotel complex waiting to receive us.

Continue reading “Cultured Insolence of Supériorité”

The Crime is in the Writing, not the Story

Book review: P is for Peril by Sue Grafton

p-is-for-peril-by-sue-graftonThis is Grafton’s ongoing saga about private investigator Kinsey Millhone. It is terrible in many ways. Let’s itemise a few.

Spoilers? Not really, because there is no coherent plot.

One: the central mystery about a missing, highly respected doctor has no connection points. It’s all tell and no show. Having most characters say how marvellous he is/was achieves not much. So we don’t really care how that central story unfolds.

Continue reading “The Crime is in the Writing, not the Story”

The Loss of Storytelling!

Book review: Loss by Tony Black

Book review: The Last 10 Seconds by Simon Kernick

LOSS-Tony-BlackThese two novels are not really novels at all. They are, at best, second-rate submissions for TV scripts for stack-em-high-and-sell-em-cheap filler drama.

Neither book has a storyteller at the helm. Black and Kernick are writers, able to string a few sentences and paragraphs together in a fairly organised way.

Can they tell a tale? No. Can they grab the reader with characters and plot that are anything other than cardboard and copycat? No.

Can they fit in the product placement? Oh yes. Black should receive excellent ‘royalties’ from Marlboro (mentioned every 10 pages or so), Royal Superkings (occasional mentions), Next, Stone Island and Crombie clothing, Palmolive hair products, Saab, Nissan and Fiat car companies, Doc Martens (mentioned every 50 pages or so) etc. You can imagine how clumsy, awkward and stuttering the story reads with so many brand names on every other page. Did I also mention the beer, whisky and soft drink brands?

Continue reading “The Loss of Storytelling!”

The Harlan Coben problem

one-false-move-287pxWriters, yes. Storytellers, not so much!

It’s taken a while but I think I now know what’s troubling me with so many “Award-Winner” and “International Best-Seller” books, especially of the crime-thriller variety.

Having been an avid reader for years, the recent dissatisfaction with certain books could have been put down to over-familiarity with the genre. But now I think that’s not it. The real reason has to do with intent.

The craft of writing

There are many aspects to writing, among them style and engagement. You may like a writer’s style and, in some cases, not care too much about how close a book stays to a genre. You may get hooked into a story and go with it, style be damned.

But ONE FALSE MOVE (a Myron Bolitar novel), re-read recently on holiday, suddenly made my issues clear.

The book is not a story. The characters are cyphers but in a bad way. In a “Frasier” bit-part kind of way. It’s like Coben wants to be a TV scriptwriter rather than an author. The clever quips (at least one per 5 pages) soon become tedious as they fail to tell us about either the character OR the story. All they tell us about is the writer.

Is the writing good?

In Coben’s case, yes. The writing’s good IF it’s for a TV episode full of clever but ultimately throw-away quips (did I mention “Frasier”). There is plenty of “style” to the writing, in the same way that a rap star over-emphasises certain traits for effect, like MC Hammer’s trousers. But the trousers do not make a great song.

Myron and Win are a 12-year-old boy’s super-heroes – super-smart, super-strong, super-prepared, super-successful-with-girls. Are they believable? Not one iota. Can they stand if we suspend disbelief? No. That’s because, like “Frasier” or “Friends”, the characters are too OTT. Nobody is quite as innocently dumb all the time like Joey, and nobody is as airtight competent as Win.
The Joeys and Wins are fine on TV because they are here-today-gone-the-next-minute. You’re not having to read 80,000 words that depend on the character.

Is the storytelling good?

In Coben’s case, no. Let’s be clear. I don’t care for the style, at least not in the way Coben strains to make it work over the whole book. But I could excuse that if the story held real interest, or had a stunning finale. But hauling all those words and quips along, just to get to the old chestnut of the super-rich man and the super-attractive maid – surprise! – er, no.

I guess I shouda known – the “vicious young mafioso on the make” blurb – that Christian Science Monitor recommendation on the cover – by the award-winning author (but for an older book, not this one) – and the weird recommendation by the Houston Chronicle (“a heavy hitter like Robert B. Parker”).

And there is the difference. You could say Parker’s CEREMONY and Coben’s ONE FALSE MOVE are similar. Like Ferraris and Toyotas are similar – they’re both cars, right? Parker is gritty, unconstrained, open-ended and a chronicler of life. Coben is smooth, up-tight, middle-class-closed and a chronicler of TV-style and feather-weight non-life.

Youth, Revisted. Yoof, Remixed.

Megan-Abbott-credit-Drew-Reilly-340x2501Megan Abbott has voice. She has a sharp, reckless, barbed and poetic voice, all at once, often on every page.

The voice – more accurately, the voices – are of Abbott’s protagonists and bystanders. Abbott teases, illuminates and weaves, perfectly, those inner thoughts and often half-spoken conversations that capture teen and pre-teen minds.

end-of-everyTwo of Abbott’s books – THE END OF EVERYTHING and DARE ME – tell stories, yes. But these are not “Field of Dreams” macho stories. These are not stories of men finding redemption, new purpose, forgiveness – all wrapped in a soft, honeyed end-piece.

It’s always been a jungle out there, no matter whether a right of passage is in a forest or a desert, no matter if the backdrop is an asphalt jungle or a school gym, nor if the date is 1812 or 2012. The battles still rage – armies of soldiers or neighbourhoods of cheerleaders – the result is the same.

But Abbott flips the lid open on girls, tweens, teenagers and young women in a breathless gallup, her first-person prose always believable, drawing pictures of characters both intelligent and incomplete.

daremeThe mysteries in the books – for both are who-dunnits – are gripping and yet Abbott paces the action and inaction with a deft hand. When the pace drops, we’re interested in seeing the young minds of the protagonists in their struggles to piece experiences together, even those well beyond their maturity level.

Enid Blyton wrote adventures, often with fantasy leanings, with happy endings. Megan Abbott writes thrillers. Hard-boiled, noir thrillers. Don’t let the gloss deceive you!

Out On A Limb

Looks like this is my month to be out of step. For example, “no serious reader of hard-boiled fiction should ever miss a moment of Dave Robicheaux in action” and etcetera.

Yep, this is about: “James Lee Burke … one of the best writers of crime fiction in America. His prose is an uncommon mixture of taut realism and poetic eloquence.”

Well, no. His prose is an all too common mixture of “tell don’t show” from a writer who’s got the awards/status/recognition to be able to churn out second-rate books without editors saying whoa!

There are even occasions in Pegasus Descending where Burke explains that anyone in law enforcement will say …

It seems Burke has asked for the “inside” on uniform wisdom and swallowed the hype, believing it is “expert” opinion. He just loads the book with whole slabs of this hokey wisdom.

Meanwhile, internal consistency is woeful. All through the book we’re told Lefty is cruel to women, obsessed with being cruel to women, and loves to beat them with his fists.

So at the end of this book-so-tedious-by-half-way, we have Lefty stripped down and torturing someone. Except, he’s torturing the guy friend of the woman he really hates, while the woman is sitting bound on the sidelines. This is rubbish. If  there was consistency in the book, and if Lefty wanted information from the woman – or the guy – he’d be torturing the woman and making the guy look on.

This is not “hard-boiled” fiction at all. It’s just hard to read.

A Correct Review

Mainspring by Jay LakeIt would seem Jay Lake has created a wonderful alternate universe. No, not in his book Mainspring but in our ordinary world.

Lake has been praised by many notable sf and fantasy scholars – Locus, SFReviews, Hal Duncan and Paul Di Filippo to name a few.

Lake has been compared to Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Jose Farmer and China Mieville. Even, some say, to Gene Wolfe.

This is all wonderful fantasy and would not matter, except. Except that Mainspring is a very minor work. The central conceits are, perhaps, grand, but the writing is overblown. The writing is scriptural and, often, thinly disguised.

Lake writes from the perspective of a young puppy who has just been introduced to a new ‘playground’ and so bounces around, enthusiastically and energetically. Like his central character Hethor, Lake sniffs in the corners and gallops across the expanses. It is delightful to watch on occasion, but not for a whole book.

By two-thirds of the way through Mainspring this reader was tired. The dei ex machina had worn my interest waaaay down, sorely. I no long cared if the puppy – sorry, Hethor – was saved by another opportunistic (and implausible) plot device. I no longer cared about the sniffing around the corners of the internal philosophy of the book.

There are a couple of elements to the book that could make a worthy short story or two. But then the seriousness of the situation grabbed me. Tor Books decided to publish another book in the same vein, Escapement, also by Lake.

Where are the editors to harness this rogue alternate universe? Who will save this ‘correct’ person from the Lake-Tor steamroller? Where is there anything like the depth of Our Lady of Darkness by Leiber or the scope of Riverworld by Farmer to save me? Please ….

Karaoke Horror – Rabies (film review)

Everything about this 2011 movie from Israel is crisp. The camera work is lean and clean, capturing everything in gorgeous colour and clarity. The acting is competent, believable and they all look great. The script is clever and has plenty of twists and turns.

Rabies movie reviewSo why does the Rabies fail at so many levels? It’s film karaoke, folks. The perfect backing track is there. Everyone knows the words like they wrote them. Everyone can sing/act/pretend in a note-perfect way through the whole song. But no-one is Quentin! Or Madsen! Or Uma! Or Liu!

I don’t know if the directors (Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) shot scenes once, twice or a hundred times, but there is plenty to love about the look of the film. Just like you love the look of a hot young redhead singing a great version of Janis Joplin on American Idol, or a striking metrosexual singing Bowie with guts and passion.

But where is the USP? What really stands out about this movie? To be honest, just that it is an almost perfect copycat horror-thriller.

Rating: 2 stars

Brilliance sans Frontiers – The Zero Hour (film review)

This 2010 feature film from Venezuela is an astonishingly good telling of a ‘stock’ storyline: good boy becomes bad, then becomes good, then vacillates, then ….. in the end!

The Zero HourAnd watching the movie it is impossible not to switch between your expectations of how the many storylines may develop. Secondary characters become major, major characters meet unexpected ends, and all the whole you’re not exactly sure which of the many sides you’re on.

The script is TIGHT! The action zooms along right from the opening sequence, yet this is not in the style of dazzle-with-explosions (and forget the rest). The humour comes from an extraordinary tense and dangerous situation. Spoiler warning: there is lots of death. But nonetheless the script carries each character through their moves with remarkable skill and clarity. In many cases just a few words can speak volumes.

Writer-Director Diego Velasco must surely have a wonderful potential for the future based on this fantastically good movie. And fantastic is what I love from movies, so here’s hoping there’s lots more to come from a new star of the Latin-American melting pot.

Rating: 5 stars

Lost in Translation: See How They Fall (film review)

See How They FallPretend all they like but some French films are poor and get significant praise despite being pretentious flops.

This travesty of cinema is laden with cliche after cliche: the idiot-savant, the dour businessman, the reckless metrosexual, the misunderstood wife.

Plus, of course, dark close-ups, dark transitions, dark sequence captions and dark character expositions. Did I mention dark?

But seriously, See How They Fall is cinema 101 and I wouldn’t care if the director was the son of a whole line of brilliant cinema patriarchs. It is nouvelle-crap.

Although it is from 1994 that does not mean the previous hundreds of years of storytelling should be ignored. So sorry, but them’s the breaks! The non-dark, non-closeup camera work saved what little day there was in the film, so just hauls it out of the 0 star trashcan.

Rating: 1 star

Sight Unseen – Two Months of Film Trailers

There are definite swings and roundabouts in the release schedules of movies, and we appear to be heading for a feast after the past 6 months of mostly famine. Herewith a Dazzling Dozen of potential highlights, although we have reservations about some being able to achieve their hype!

Kiera-Knightley-in-A-Dangerous-Method

A Dangerous Method – David Cronenberg
Relationships between doctors and patients take on more extreme ramifications when the doctor is a psychoanalyst. Kiera Knightley plays a wonderful role as the crazy/sane/victim/yearner who challenges the opposing ideas of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender).
Potential = 5 stars


The-DescendantsThe Descendants – Alexander Payne
George Clooney again, yet here he swings between convincing parent and his usual persona. His struggle to connect with his two daughters when his wife is ‘absent’ in various ways is well drawn. With Judy Greer, Amara Miller, Shailene Woodley.
Potential = 4 stars


The Girl With The Dragon TattooThe Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher
The American version of the film, with Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth. A fantastic book and a great Swedish film version will probably remain as the best entry to the Millennium trilogy. Even the trailer for this US version is weak.
Potential = 2 stars


J EdgarJ. Edgar – Clint Eastwood
Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Eastwood about an American icon! Um, no. Every character and every scene in the trailer looks wooden, obvious, hackneyed and overlong. And that’s just the trailer! With Naomi Watts, Dermot Mulroney, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench (all playing typecast roles).
Potential = 1 star


Ides-of-MarchThe Ides of March – George Clooney
Presidential hopeful who discovers the dirty side of politics! Um, no. Even Ryan Gosling, Clooney, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood couldn’t drag me to see this, even if they knocked on the door in person.
Potential = 1 star


In TimeIn Time – Andrew Niccol
Science Fiction of the Thriller type pits Justin Timberlake against a corrupt regime that allows life or death on a fickle whim. His struggle is eased by the support of Olivia Wilde and Amanda Seyfried, while Vincent Kartheiser and Johnny Galecki handle the bad guy roles.
Potential = 5 stars


Martha Marcy May MarleneMartha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin
Reclusive folks up in the hills who run a little cult! Hell yes! But seriously, this trailer looks a hundred times better than all the other films of the same ilk. With John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson.
Potential = 4 stars


MelancholiaMelancholia – Lars von Trier
Another thriller with a sci-fi twist, with Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as two very different sisters who have extra stress on their relationship when a new planet is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. With Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, Alexander Skarsgard.
Potential = 5 stars


Rum-DiaryThe Rum Diary – Bruce Robinson
Hunter S. Thompson is a rich vein for salacious yet enticing stories, and Johnny Depp brings the film alive with a gonzo portrayal, ably assisted by a plethora of brilliant actors, actresses, script lines and director. With Amber Heard.
Potential = 5 stars


The-Skin-I-Live-InThe Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodovar
Antonio Banderas in a chilling role in a trailer that reeks quality and tension. Obsession and corruption are interwoven in a combination of science fiction and chiller. With Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes.
Potential = 5 stars


Straw-DogsStraw Dogs – Rod Lurie
This remake, with James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, will in no way compete with the original – which was both groundbreaking and inspired. However, this version will appeal to a whole new audience, especially with the support of James Woods and Alexander Skarsgard.
Potential = 4 stars


The-ThingThe Thing – Matthijs van Heijningen
Promoted as a “prelude” to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 film of the same name, the trailer positions Mary Elizabeth Winstead to take over the fantastic Sigourney Weaver role of inspired-woman-against-evil-alien-thing! On the strength of the trailer alone, Winstead achieves this level of magnificence. With Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen.
Potential = 5 stars

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