Category Archives: Uncategorized

Review, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (not!)

In this tale, which seems like the female and slightly less funny but more sinister version of The Rosie Project, Eleanor Oliphant is ‘weird’ and fine with being alone and with her routine until she decides she’s in love and is going to do something about it.

The narrative proceeds then to follow someone pursuing this path that would be ‘normal’ for most of the population but through the eyes of someone who doesn’t fit into the social spectrum deemed normal by the media and most institutions in society.

It’s a typical ploy used to exploit ‘other’ points of view so that we can have a laugh at them. She complains about the lack of other people’s manners while behaving in a way that the reader would immediately know is not socially polite. We are invited to look down and laugh at her through her very own narrative, in a sense.

By the end of chapter two I already disliked the book. Half-way through story I could no longer stand the exploitation and mockery of someone who the author was quite clearly suggesting had been abused and traumatised. There are horrible and sickening allusions and I couldn’t take it.

I read a review of the book on Shona Craven’s site and I agree with the following:

The biggest problem with the book as a work of literature is that there is barely a scene in it that rings true. As a character, Eleanor is utterly implausible, a crude caricature. Does she have autistic spectrum disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Some kind of dissociative disorder? It’s barely worth speculating, as she is nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination. No-one like her exists in the real world. And as such, the book has nothing whatsoever of value to say.

But the reason it matters is that this is a book about a character who is part of one of the most marginalised and misunderstood populations in society – care-experienced young people. She is a young woman who has experienced childhood trauma, and moved around foster placements, and struggled to form relationships.

The average person doesn’t know a great deal about the care system. Neither, is seems, does Gail Honeyman, who has nonetheless written a novel about a care-experienced character who at the outset has no friends, no social skills and a ludicrously limited understanding of the world she has inhabited for 30 years. The novel is set in contemporary Glasgow, yet the author seems to have no interest in getting very basic facts right. She perpetuates a number of harmful myths about social services, including that workers conceal vital information from foster carers, that young people are not included in decision-making about their lives, and that trauma-experienced social work clients (whether adults or children) receive no meaningful support whatsoever.

This is an irresponsible book that ‘others’ certain behaviours for effect. It does feel harmful and it’s a sad state of affairs that people think they can understand others’ trauma by reading through the lens of mockery.

 

The last days of Bristol’s libraries

A year from now, Mayor Marvin Rees will begin campaigning for his next term of office and the number of libraries open in Bristol will be down by 63%. Most libraries will only open for three days a week.

There are now 27 funded by the Bristol City Council but after the horrific Conservative austerity cuts to local funding, piled on top of extra responsibilities for social care, there is less money to go around.

[The rest of this post is up on my new blog dedicated to the Bristol Library changes* taking place.

*Being defunded and divested of local control

Bristol author Jeff Dowson talks books, Bristol and his favourite screenwriters

Director, producer, and screenwriter Jeff Dowson, has added novelist to his string of titles recently and has launched his second series of books set in Bristol. His first is based around Detective Jack Shepherd and is set in the current time.

One Fight at a Time (2018) is the beginning of  Dowson’s new series, set in the 1950s and starring Ed Grover. It was a time when Bristol was a broken city and was going broke. Well, Bristol is going broke now too so the latest book feels particularly apt but why start a new series?

“I decided a change of style was needed for One Fight At A Time.  I wanted to write in the third person — Jack Shepherd belongs to a first-person tradition where the reader learns no more than the lead character discovers — and I wanted to sprawl a bit. Use a different writing style altogether.

“I looked around for an historical setting that would give me lots of scope. Ed is an American, in England with the Eagle Squadron long before the US enters the war, who transfers to the infantry before D Day. He battles his way across Europe from Omaha Beach to help win the war, spends another four years in West Berlin trying to win the peace, before being sent home. Just before his repatriation, Ed ends up in Bristol visiting a family he knows, and from there the front story begins.

“I grew up in the 1950s,” Dowson says. “As a kid, I didn’t realise just how bad times were – I was protected from that by my parents who struggled physically and psychologically to get through the years following World War II. It’s only during the last 10 or 15 years that I’ve looked back at that time.

“The early 1950s is a rich vein to mine – the recovery from a world war, rationing, the black market, extortion, corruption, capital punishment, the terrors of being homosexual, racism faced by the actual ‘Windrush Generation’, soldiers coming home from leave with Lugers taken from dead Germans, the infamous underworld of 1950s club land, the growth of organised crime… the material just keeps on giving.

“Bristol influences my writing to a huge extent. I was born in Blaydon on Tyne, lived in the Northeast until I went university, then moved to Bristol at the close of the 1970s. I’ve lived here ever since. Like Jack Shepherd I know the place.  I want the city to be another character in the stories – like Edinburgh is to Rebus, Northumberland is to Vera, Shetland is to Jimmy Perez, LA is to Jim Rockford. I hope I’m doing that successfully.”

Dowson comes to the Bristol-novel scene with a wealth of experience and I ask him about the difference between screenplays and writing fiction in story form.

“Actually the skillsets merge much more than they used to, thanks to the advent of studio theatres and live multi-tasking technology. But the basic difference is still there. For the theatre you write in words and sentences. For the screen you write in pictures and moments. And you have at your disposal BIG close ups, in which you can see your characters thinking. Just take a look at Douglas Henshall playing Jimmy Perez and watch him thinking… Terrific.

When I started to write Closing the Distance, it was the first lonely thing I had done. Plays and films are collaborative efforts – sometimes involving hundreds of people. What was liberating with the book was discovering the joy of writing sentences again. But there I was, channelling Elmore Leonard, until my agent said, ‘Why is Jack Shepherd doing that?’
‘It’s obvious,’ I said.
‘No, it isn’t,’  she said.
I realised I was making transitions between sequences, visualising them in my head, but not getting them down onto the page. That problem took some serious work to solve.

I’m over it now. The stuff is still lean and fast paced, but it’s much improved.”

Seeing as he is going on to write his fourth book in the Jack Shepherd series and the second in his Ed Grover one, I had to ask for his advice to writers.

“Advice for other authors, oh God… Just write. Whatever else you do. However crappy it reads on the page. Write every day, however good or bad you feel about yourself, or the material… And in time you’ll find something you want to say and the way to say it.”

I ask him if he imagines his stories as screenplays and it’s more out of curiosity about the difference between the two mediums. I imagine that sticking to ‘showing’ what is happening rather than ‘telling’ must be great practice in writing.

“No, I don’t imagine my stories as screenplays; although there is a great deal of the screenwriter in me always. And I think it helps, because as a screenwriter, you have to get to the point. You can’t meander off into side roads or unnecessary thinking. Again, if I can call upon Elmore Leonard… I try not to write the stuff that the reader skips over.

I haven’t the patience or the concentration level to read long books. So I don’t write them. I believe that if you can’t say what you have to say in a riveting story over 350 pages you shouldn’t be in the trade. Books, all books, should be page turners. But no writer should give any reader too many pages to turn.”

Bristol  again feels like it’s going broke and due to the cuts foisted on the council by the Conservative Government, crime writing and thrillers feel like ever-more prominent echoes of reality. While looking through his website I spot a particularly great quotation from famed Screenwriter Cannell and it easily applies to our city too.

“One of my heroes, Stephen J Cannell, said about writing crime stories… ‘All the way through, keep asking yourself – what is the bad guy doing?’”

One Fight at a Time is out now. 

 

 

Louise Conan Doyle stars in her own mystery set in Bristol

Front cover of book Brimstone by John Allen

Californian author John Allen is so convinced that Sherlock Holmes was created by Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife that he has written the first in 12-part series of books in which she is the sleuth. Louise Hawkins Conan Doyle investigates her first mystery in Allen’s book Brimstone, set in Bristol, 1879.

Allen was born in California and first latched on to the idea that Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t have been the writer after he read a 1980s essay by Martin Gardner called “The Irrelevance of Arthur Conan Doyle.” Gardner claimed that Arthur was “too gullible and to easily duped to have created Sherlock Holmes.”

Allen’s thirty year fascination with the true Sherlock creator culminated in his book Shadow Woman published in 2017. He has also published original research about his stylometric method for author identification.

The claims include the theory that Louise and Arthur co-wrote the Sherlock Holmes portion of the first Sherlock Holmes Adventure, A Study in Scarlet while Arthur wrote the Utah narrative of that novel. Louise wrote each of every other early Holmes adventure, up to and including The Hound of the Baskervilles, two of the intermediate stories –those collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes– and Arthur wrote two of those intermediate stories.

Allen says, “I have never been to Bristol. But I have grown quite fond of Bristol from afar, researching it extensively for the Louise stories that will be set there. I’ve walked remotely through Bristol’s streets via Google Maps street level view. I’ve studied old maps of Bristol and refer to them frequently. I’ve studied Temple Meads Station, and New Gaol Prison, and police stations, and pubs, and churches, and the observatory. I would really like to visit, but time and distance and money are considerable barriers.

“Regarding why I located Louise’s first novel in Bristol. I did so because she lived there as a teenager, at least she lived in Clifton. She was a resident student at Badminton School for Girls, and I have the census records to prove it. I discovered them while working on Shadow Woman, and I consider it one of the great discoveries of my effort.

“Louise Hawkins [w]as a resident student at Badminton School in 1871. She was only thirteen at the time, tied for youngest of the students.”

Allen is not the first author to set their Sherlock Holmes-ian tales in Bristol. In Cavan Scott’s Cry of the Innocents, Sherlock and Watson visit the city to investigate the killing of a priest. The series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch has filmed in Bristol a fair few times and you can follow the film trail from here.

The ‘original’ Sherlock, just as in the new Louise Conan Doyle books, never did go to Bristol but the city is mentioned in The Boscombe Valley Mystery where one of the characters visits for three days to be with his barmaid wife. Sherlock will not be making an appearance in the new series either.

Further information is available at the following URL: louiseconandoyle.com.

Brimstone is published 18 May on Amazon

My naivete at Corbyn being in power and a letter to an MP

 

to: “MCCARTHY, Kerry” <kerry.mccarthy.mp@parliament.uk>
date: 6 July 2017 at 17:06
subject: Re: consultations about budget cuts and a question about business rates

Dear Kerry,

Thank you once again for being so open to discussion.
Your question to Sajid about local councils keeping more of their money https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2017-06-26a.346.5&s=Bristol#g362.3) at least puts his response on record, however vague it is.
As a very worried Bristolian I would love to know what you think of the possibility of opposing the cuts that have been imposed on Bristol. Jeremy Corbyn is sure to be in power within months and if we allow the cuts to go through and the libraries and services shut down and cut off, it will be so hard – if not impossible – to get them back.
Is this not the best time to refuse to impose the cuts? Labour are so close to power now and there must be some leverage.
Also, what do you think of the possibility of the Local Government Finance Bill not being debated and passed since it was not in the Queen’s Speech? It is looking extremely unlikely that we will be able to keep 100% of our business rates from 2020, so what do we for the budget already announced?
I am not asking you to reply in place of Marvin, I’m just hoping for some perspective on what’s possible.
Where do you think Glenn Vowles got it wrong in his article?
Thank you so much,
Joanna Booth (@stillawake)
There was no response and our libraries are still in the plans for being defunded, shut down, and turned over to mutual public trusts, which in turn will see many of them defunded and shut down.

Review, The Body Library by Jeff Noon

The Body Library is the second book in the Nyquist Mysteries series published by Angry Robots but this is the first of Jeff Noon’s books I’ve picked up.

There is a fluidness to Noon’s writing that initially made me think The Body Library would be like Ishiguro’s dream-like The Unconsoled. As I read further, however, I felt more like I was in the atmosphere of 1408 by Stephen King or the movie Dark City —  the noir settings and slip-away realities where what’s around the corner can’t be articulated and yet … Things change and reality is different but the writing is well-structured so it’s easy to follow. The writing is as much of a treat as the setting and the story and the characters.

In this magical realism structure, writing such as that below, fits in seamlessly before we go back to the pace of the noir setting.

INK   … his eyes closed and he sank further down into the dark into the flow the fluid all was fluid a black liquid in which his body floated drifted suspended submerged breathing yes still breathing in the liquid in the blackness of the pool he sank down and lay there suspended and dreaming and being read yes being read head to foot every part of him his mind his thoughts his blood and bone his eyes his limbs his heart yes all of him read again and again as a book of flesh where the ink was seeking the stories all the stories of his life every last one being read by the pool of ink in which he lay suspended drifting floating submerged breathing yes breathing still and being read and his eyes…

I loved the story with its world of writing and the mechanics of it all come to life. In 1959, Storyville, Private  Eye John Nyquist is set on the trail of a man who doesn’t seem to be doing much apart from talking to people but as the trail leads to a tower at the edge of the city and an illicit book — the Body Library — he both can’t and can escape.

When narrative structure becomes legislated and mandatory, abstract experimental works become intoxicating. The writer’s life becomes a metaphor for the human condition, which Noon brings to life and then deconstructs again. And when you break down life there’s always some pain right in the middle of everything.

A great read with a creepy child and a place where you can check in any time but you can never leave.

The Body Library is published on April 3 2018.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

It’s a shame really that Tom Hanks is so rich that he immediately garners huge publicity for his book without it needing to be any good. These stories could have been good. There’s a lovely touch of humanity to all of them and a great way of noticing the little details that make up characters.

The ‘atta boy’ from the first story, the effort to not slip in the snow in the second story because Virgil has a prosthetic leg, the light touch of the social influencers in an actor’s interview schedule. The little bits and pieces are there but the narrative arcs fall clumsily right around the middle of each piece.

You can’t fill a story with funny and touching details and assume it will make up for having no purpose. Short stories are tough work and they may take a lot less to construct than a novel but that makes them even more important.

I imagine that fans will love this collection as there are traces of Hanks throughout. He uses the details well and it’s an opportunity to catch a glimpse of his life that isn’t hidden too much. The wealthy man who has nothing to do but is happy with his life, for example, but blended with characters from Saving Private Ryan and every interview schedule in “A Junket in the City of Light”.

They are nice enough stories. They could have been better.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks is out now.

Review, Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno

Alberto Alemanno is an academic and an advocate for citizen lobbying and this book fits in well with both of those narratives. The content is well-researched and comprehensive without losing focus on the main purpose: how to lobby as a citizen.

I admit I was a bit impatient about getting to the lobbying part, which doesn’t get addressed until the 30% mark of the book. The theory is important, however, and since I quickly waned in my interest after finding out what lobbying is and how to do it — with some specific and concise examples and a handy instruction section — I can appreciate the effort that went into the first part of the book.

The instructions on how to lobby are clear and accessible and dispel the notion that only a few well-placed people or corporations in society can take part in this type of activity.

One of the latest lobbying actions Alemanno took part in was trying to get glyphosates banned through the EU. The chemical that has been linked to health concerns was renewed for five years through parliament but it could have been renewed for fifteen years. Citizen lobbying has helped in limiting the renewal to a much smaller space of time.

After years of campaigning by NGOs and citizens about its alleged harmful health effects, demonstrated by the four million signatures collected by the European Citizen Initiative (ECI) ‘Stop Glyphosate’ supported by WeMove and Avaaz, no decision-maker could turn a blind eye to such concerns.

Alemanno writes about lobbying the EU but there are legitimate avenues for citizens to have their voices heard in local arenas too and instructions can be found for those as well. When efforts are harnessed in the right way we can all make change happen to a certain extent.  Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society reveals various routes  other than through the traditional forms such as voting. This is called citizen-lobbying and through these years of austerity it’s a nice start to be given directions about how to help.

One example in the UK is the Petitions Committee that provides a mechanism for people’s opinions to be heard. If a petition receives 10,000 signatures, Government will provide a response; if it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will be debated in parliament. So far there have been 44 responses and two debates in parliament.

This book feels like a positive addition to our times, which aims to empower when all around feels like a disempowering exercise to benefit corporations and those already in power. A small read for a greater purpose.

[Also see this book review on the LSE blogs]

Lobbying for Change by Alberto Alemanno available through The Hive (which benefits local bookshops)

Every Which Way Crochet Borders by Edie Eckman

With crochet, a title such as Every Which Way Crochet Borders is beautifully literal. The borders are delicate, colourful, and well explained. The explanations are clear and concise. There is some preparatory content before the borders are written out in patterns.

There are 139 new border designs with step-by-step instructions and symbol charts. The instructions are clear enough for beginner crocheters, and the patterns are creative and fun enough for more advanced hookers.

The styles are creative and fresh, which is brilliant in crochet because there is so much information and so many patterns already out there. I loved this book and would buy it myself. I’d use it for knitting and crochet projects.

Every Which Way Crochet Borders by Edie Eckman is out now.

Writing challenge 2017

Write for five minutes a day [see link].

Also, is Scrivener worth using?