After the Novel

Fun activities BEFORE THE NOVEL is published

“Being Clever” rather than Telling a Story

Book review: Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

‘I’m not entirely sure,’ Charlie had prevaricated.

McDermid-Trick-of-the-DarkOh no, I thought. Surely not. The Val wouldn’t write like that. But the whole book is a peculiar departure from the usual tight storytelling and crisp arcs you might expect from McDermid. Although this book is copyright 2010 it’s almost as if it sat in a bottom drawer for the past 20 years. And the editor(s) didn’t get around to a close reading before sending to print.

Apart from the adverb issues (of which there are many), there are the cardboard characters and the enormous “tell, don’t show” passages that go on for page after page. Repeatedly.

So what we’ve got is the smarter-than-smart main protagonist and an emotional goddess partner, alongside the stunningly attractive heroine (sort of) and her plain-Jane but oh-so-sharp sister, plus the fiendishly wicked antagonist, and the … . Need I go on.

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Mini cars, mini skirts, punk fashion and punk music

Book review: Stories We Could Tell by Tony Parsons

Parsons-Stories-We-Could-Tell.jpgThis is a wonderful #music #history #novel that was written before we had hashtags dominating our reading preferences. Nonetheless, there are dozens of potential hashtag references dotted through the story: #JohnLennon, #CarnabyStreet, #Mods, #Punks, #Riots, #MelodyMaker and on and on.

So what happens? Terry, Ray and Leon are all music journalists at various stages of development/disintegration, partly trying to grow up. But they’re in an age when we didn’t really have to grow up! Yes, it’s the 1970s and the fashion, music, non-fashion and non-music is tossed around the narrative with happy abandon. Let’s just say that Parsons appears to be a bit OCD about the 70s and the emergence of the attitudes and yoof-kulture of the time.

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A Tale of One City, or, Ian Rankin joins Mills & Boon

Book review: Doors Open by Ian Rankin

Doors Open by Ian RankinWell yes, I have loved the Rebus stories and the wonderful descriptions and depictions of Edinburgh as a character in the Ian Rankin novels. Although he is a curmudgeon of the highest order, there’s still huge humanity lurking beneath the Rebus exterior.

There’s depth of experience of life, there are the wrinkles of bad experiences and bad decisions, plus there are the friends and colleagues, loyal or not, who surround the Rebus plots with lightness or darkness — and all knit together into profoundly satisfying novels.

With Doors Open Rankin introduced a bunch of new characters and surrounded them with the Edinburgh personality with his usual acumen. The streets, buildings, climate and atmosphere are as alive as always. The characters, not so much — in fact hardly at all — and that was a disappointing surprise.

Continue reading “A Tale of One City, or, Ian Rankin joins Mills & Boon”

A Tale of Two Cities

Book review: Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Book review: Canary by Duane Swierczynski

Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in the US of A, while Seattle is possibly the fifth most attractive. I’ll leave the second ranking up to the reader to decide.

In the two books under review, the cities are as much characters as the people, with both the urban areas lending obstructions and help in various ways to the inhabitants.

Past Crimes Glen Erik HamiltonPast Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton is the lesser of the two books, with too many of the characters not much more than a cliche – powerful grandfather, rugged henchmen, foolish minnows, etcetera. If the author had put as much time into developing the characters as he had into the often warm and loving descriptions of Philadelphia and its environs, the book would have soared. As it stands, it’s a rather obvious read of how the ‘hero’ will use his awesome talents to outwit the baddies, the weather, the ocean, asphyxia … you get the picture.

Canary Duane SwierczynskiCanary by Duane Swierczynski achieves so much more, even with a YA hero. Sidebar: are we allowed to say heroine any more? Or do heroines have to be called heros, just like actresses have to be called actors. Or so some would have us believe. And can a book that depends extensively on long passages from the YA’s journal really work?

Swierczynski pulls off every technique to perfection, giving us believable characters, believable plot and action, and very believable outcomes. Sure, there would be other stories very similar to Sarie’s which could end badly – and there a few in the book. But then there also stories where the Davids outwit the Goliaths, even if they occur one in a thousand. Canary is a one -in-a-thousand delight – about both the city and the YA heroine – so rush out and grab a slice of Swierczynski soon.

Top 10 Things Wrong with Girl in the Spider’s Web

Book review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Yes, you are reading correctly. These are just the top 10 things wrong; I could go on for some time, otherwise, and that may not be fair to any brains hoping for a simple afternoon of catching up with the latest “international blockbuster”. Or whatever they’re saying this week.

girl in the spiders web book reviewSo let’s begin …

1. Personality Problems 

Blomkvist went into the kitchen to get some peace and quiet. He was exhausted and wanted to go home.

This is laughable. Blomkvist had just had sex with his lover, a married woman and therefore extra frisson, he had just heard from the most dangerously exciting woman in his life after many months of silence, he had just been shot at, and he was the first to discover a hugely important dead man alongside a highly traumatised autistic boy. Blomkvist would be wired on adrenaline, testosterone and a dozen other synaptic exciters. He would not be a tired wimp!

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The Trouble with So Much British Fiction


Book review: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Book review: When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

One-Good-Turn-coverOnce upon a time you could rely on a majority of British fiction to supply thought-provoking and powerful novels, and the power could rest with the characters and/or the plotting and/or the wit. Ian Rankin, Ian McEwan and Val McDermid all spring to mind, so I thought Kate Atkinson – a neighbour of sorts – might provide similar enjoyment.

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Misogyny Masquerading as Literature

Book review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Devotion-of-Suspect-X-coverWell it was going fairly well, albeit rather tedious with the triangle of the ‘super intelligent men’ all trying to outdo and outsmart and out manoeuvre each other. And, once again, a whole lot of the author telling us who thought what and when and why.

That’s how the initial two-thirds of The Devotion of Suspect X reveals itself. Ho hum.

Continue reading “Misogyny Masquerading as Literature”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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