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Hello!  Thanks for stopping by!  Fiction Can Be Fun is a writing project run by David (@breakerofthings) and Debs (@debsdespatches).   We each post a piece of fiction every month, run a writing prompt once a month and are the originators of #secondthoughts. #secondthoughts are reflections on writing, responses to writing and…well, take a look and you’ll see!

If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the ‘About’ page.

 

Our regular schedule

1st Sunday : #FF Prompt – submission deadline the Friday following @ 2 pm GMT
(or use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page if the deadline is too tight)

2nd Sunday : An original Short story from David or Debs

3rd Sunday : A #SecondThoughts piece from David or Debs
(except for those occasions when we’ve been able to persuade a guest to write one for us!)

4th Sunday : Another Short Story from David or Debs

5th Sunday : on the occasion when these occur, we’ll provide details as early as possible (but typically we’d hope to host a guest post, so do get in touch if you could be interested!)

#secondthoughts: Nigeria

I lived in Nigeria for 6 years and it was only in the last decade that I’ve realised how little I know of the country, the people, of the civil war – despite moving there when it had been going for a year.  Unlike India, Nigeria wasn’t home. It was where I lived, when I wasn’t in boarding school that is.  It was a great place to be young – the weather was tropical and there were extensive opportunities for water sports.  But I was always aware of an underlying current of fear at home, so our lives revolved around our parents and their ex-patriot friends. It was never discussed this fear, never explained, but it was always present. As a result, I never sought to read about the country, despite a decided preference for books written by international authors.

Until recently that is. I’ve now read four – all outstanding – and I would urge you to do likewise. For these are huge talents and wonderful story-tellers, not just writers of Nigerian literature.

First up was “The Fishermen” by Chigozie Obioma. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015 and I read it as part of my annual Man Booker read-alongs. The tale of this Igbo family’s five sons took me back to my first year in Lagos, when a group of us children used to run free, entirely without the supervision of adults. We didn’t get up to anything actively wrong, but we certainly got up to stuff our parents wouldn’t approve of, much like the boys did in “The Fishermen”. The local madman/seer in the book reminded me of the man with the chicken farm who used to rail at us for climbing into his enclosure – not to take chickens, but simply as a dare. The innocence in this behaviour – of both my group and the boys – was bittersweet, for it wasn’t long before we all had to grow up, to face puberty and real life. The superstitions and the seemingly overwhelming drive in males towards violence and vengeance whilst present in Nigeria, can also be found in many other examples of African literature.

I then persuaded my book club to read “Americanah” by Chimamande Ngozi Adiche. Whilst the majority of the story takes place in America,  it is filled with musings on the life of the black american – as seen from the perspective of a black african. And oh are the differences striking, especially to anyone who has experienced life in Africa. Whilst some in my book club found the focus on hair – and how it is dressed – repetitive and irrelevant, I found it the perfect metaphor for the huge gulf which exists between the two. When our heroine, Ifemelu, returns to Lagos, her joy at being home and her discomfort with the female role within Nigerian society all struck strong chords with me. That was the Lagos I remember seeing and hearing about – and although I was only 11 when I arrived, I’d reached my 16th birthday before we left.

“We should all be Feminists” then followed. I won’t dwell on this one long, as it’s a brief book and builds on the thread in “Americanah” of how the female gender is regarded in Nigerian society. Whilst clearly a subject that Adiche feels strongly about, it was all the more powerful as she did not tip into anger and bitterness, but rather demonstrated the love and affection she feels for her country and its people.

“Things Fall Apart” by the man – Chinua Achebe – came next and what a treat. A truly astounding novel. Beautiful, subtle, layered. Absolutely no lecturing, no hectoring, simply gorgeous story-telling. A story repeated throughout Africa, actually throughout the world wherever european imperialism has reached it’s tentacles. An important reminder that many of the world’s ills have been created by the drawing of boundaries to suit the european “owners” of overseas territories. How the fervence of missionaries was all too often backed by the military power of the european invaders. Whether you regard the tale of every day life depicted by Achebe as desirable or not, it was their life and we, the British, imposed our ways, our views, our religion and our ambitions upon them.

Lastly, “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Adiche again. Finally, the story of the civil war. I knew pathetically little and what I did know, came only from the British media, or from what I heard around the ex-pat community in Lagos. Some years ago, I met a man on a dating site. He was Nigerian who’d lived in England for many years because, as he told me “being Igbo, I had to leave after the war.” Knowing I’d lived in Lagos, he assumed I knew the significance of that statement. Feeling ashamed, I didn’t enlighten him of my ignorance. This book finally put that right. Here is the tale of the Biafran war told by Biafrans – the Igbo. I realise that there’s another side to this tale, as there always is, but the significance of foreign interference (or support – depending on your perspective) is unavoidable.

When I sat down to write this I realised – with some surprise – that all three of these  authors are of Igbo origin. But rather than ignore the fresh insight these books have provided me simply because they come from only one source, I’ve made a decision to seek out Nigerian authors of varying origins -such as Wole Soyinka & Helen Oyeyemi (both Yoruba), Lola Shoneyin (Remo), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Ogoni) and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Hausa) – to add to my knowledge of Nigeria. To that end, I’m also following New Books Nigeria where I’m sure to find recommendations to challenge my toppling To-Read list with some great offerings. And, as always, I welcome your recommendations.

Sometime in the future, I plan to revisit this piece to express yet further #secondthoughts of this unique country where I was fortunate to have spent my teenage years.


© Debra Carey, 2018

More flying pigs!

Pigs Might Fly

Let me introduce you to FV1611.

It – or rather she – is a truck and she is sitting at the back of the yard, surrounded by scrap metal and other vehicle parts.  FV means that it is a fighting vehicle, and you can tell that her shabbiness is not just caused by her abandonment in this junk end of the vehicle park.  This is a vehicle that has done some serious work in her time.

FV1611 is a Humber 1 ton (Brit, not metric tonne) payload, wheeled, armoured vehicle designed for the British Army.  Her primary role is troop-carrying and can carry eight blokes: one driver, one corporal/section commander as front passenger and six in the back, three each side. You need to be really friendly with your oppo ‘cos the back of FV16ll is somewhat bijou. And no windows, just little slits, so to make the most of the limited daylight somebody has painted the inside silver all over.  That’s got rubbed and shabby too.

The first of these vehicles, designated FV1600, were built in 1952 and the last models, the 1611 Mark 2s came out in 1955 and they were still in service forty years later, latterly on the streets of Northern Ireland in support of the police.  I did say she had done some serious work in her time.

She was built solid, but today’s elf’n’safety bods would have a heart attack if they went over her! Headroom? That’s a laugh, for a start! Bench seats at the back, no backs to them, no safety belts – not in the front either.  If you have to deploy out of her fast you don’t want your feet getting tangled up in your mate’s safety belt.  It’s bad enough with your own webbing.  And you have to hold your rifle; only the driver has a place to stash his weapon.  Cushions as hard as seasoned oak; but less comfortable.  But you don’t want comfort – you want alert. And there’s only one way out.

The best thing about her was the Rolls Royce engine, but don’t get the idea that she gave a Roll-Royce ride, oh no! Her suspension was as hard as the bench seats and – to get technical – the power : weight ratio was abysmal. No power steering, either, which meant that drivers got pretty sticky in the summer.

No, on the whole there’s not a lot to remember with delight about FV1611, but as I scramble over the junk to investigate further, a lot of memories come creeping in slowly.  I remember some good mates, some no longer with us, some in different worlds of their own, some happy with families.  We had unspoken rules for living together in cramped and Spartan places. What, for example, was in your ration pack was yours, but if you got any extras, beer, sweets, fags they were shared.  You looked after your buddy and he looked out for you.  You were a team.

I felt a prickle at the back of my eyes as I remembered some of those days, days which should not have been but were, and I could not feel regret at being there.  Those were the days when I was young and fit and invincible and the whole world was open to me.

And now my son says, “Careful Dad, that junk doesn’t look secure”, but I am now beside her, opening the driver’s door.  Some vandal has pulled out the speedo and smashed the other instrument glasses, but all the rest is still there.  She’s sad, and shabby, abandoned and forlorn.  Carefully I slip into the driver’s seat and hold the wheel again.  I look around the cab and get a shock – there are my initials just as I scratched them in the paint alongside the windscreen all those years ago. This I do not believe!

“Dad, Dad, come out of there – you’ll get caught!”  But I sit still for a few moments more, not exactly re-living the past but recalling ghosts, and especially the ghost of this machine FV1611 series, Mark 2, modified with bull-bars to take down barricades and extended anti-riot screens, and so heavy to drive and with such a lumbering performance they were nicknamed Flying Pigs.

 

© Alan F. Jesson 2018

 

The End of the World

The atmosphere had been tense for days and the Threat Level had fluctuated between ‘Moderate’ and ‘Substantial’.  Warning signs were clear: skirmishes more frequent, escalating in intensity. It was only a matter of time before disaster struck.  That morning it was clear: the situation was deteriorating.  By lunchtime the Threat Level was at ‘Severe’, and during the afternoon it rose to ‘Critical’.  The world ended at teatime:

“But I wanted the green plate!”

The child wailed, limbs thrashing on the floor.

Later, the child soothed and sleeping peacefully, a toast was drunk to surviving the end of the world – again.

 

©David Jesson, 2018

#FlashFiction: Pigs Might Fly

“Domnhall Ciaran O’Malley: what is this?”

Dom looked up at me and grinned cheerfully, not picking up on the exasperation bleeding through in my use of his full name.  This was either wilful ‘I’m going to bring you round in the end’ obfuscation, or it was ‘this is such a grand idea that no-one could possibly find anything wrong with it’ optimism.  With Dom, it was hard to tell which, and could be both.

“It’s the flyer for our new business!”  You could almost see the enthusiasm congealing on the walls, there was so much of it sloshing about.

“I’ve ordered ten thousand”, he said – and you could hear the leprechauns tuning up their fiddles for a ceilidh in the way he said it, “and I’ve been looking at the costs of getting them delivered.  In the grand scheme of things we can afford it, but we might want to deliver them ourselves, for the exercise like.  We could take half each and then look in at the ‘Dog and Duck’ for some rejuvenation after.”

I sighed.  The flyer was the result of a slightly drunken conversation that we’d had the Friday before.  As with all such conversations, it had seemed like a good idea at the time, and in the face of 10,000 flyers advertising the idea, it seemed…less so.  Also, as with such conversations, Dom had acted as if the matter was settled.  I had clearly failed to a) pick up on how much the idea meant to him and b) follow up with him quickly enough to squash the idea.

PIGS MIGHT FLY – BUT WE’LL DEFINITELY GET YOUR STUFF DELIVERED ON TIME.  The text was in fuschia on an aquamarine background, with a logo of an angelic looking pig holding a parcel.  This was wrong.  Wrong on so many levels.

Dom looked up at me hopefully, a bit like a puppy standing in the wreckage of a living room and waiting for a treat.

I sighed again.

©David Jesson, 2018

 

Pigs might fly

“If the doctor was the killer she would have to have been in two places at once. It’s impossible” Jen said. She sat leaning forward on her brown leather sofa. It was a two-seater, bulky which swallowed you whole if you leaned back into it. A comfortable sofa. Jen was far from comfortable. Her head buried into her hands. “I know it was her Jen. I don’t know why but it was her and you know it too. She’s been taunting us throughout the investigation”, Emily said. She was standing leaning against a white wall opposite Jen whose eyes were still focused on the floor. She brushed her blonde hair off her face using both her hands, stood up and began pacing across the room.

“We have nothing Em. No evidence. Maybe it wasn’t her. Maybe she just hates the authorities.” Jen’s voice filled with resignation. “I mean how could we possibly know it was her. We still have three other suspects. We have to be thorough. It might be time to rule her out.”

“No Jen it was her. I know it was”

“How? Don’t be so stubborn at least try to consider what I’m saying”

“I’m just going to have to show you”

“Show me what?” Jen asked cautiously.

Emily raised her hand. Nothing happened for a moment. Then Jen jerked forward as if she had been in a car accident. As she turned around she saw her body floating. She let out a scream, but no sound came out. She turned over to Emily who was drifting towards her. Emily was pointing at something. Jen followed her finger towards some sort of portal. The dust throughout the room aligned towards it like it does with sunlight through a window. They drifted through it and ended up in at the scene of the murder. “Now watch” Emily said. The doctor appeared out of nowhere. The victim was sitting in his seat still alive. Emily and Jen were there and saw everything but couldn’t interact with their surroundings. They were there but weren’t there at the same time. The doctor took out a gun and shot the victim through the forehead and disappeared. Jen screamed but no one heard her. Her voice turned into an echo. She looked over to Emily whose body was fading. She raised her hand towards Emily and immediately jerked back into her body in the present day. She had time travelled. What had just happened. “Emily what just..” she was cut off immediately

“You just time travelled sort of. The doctor is the killer and that’s how I know. I know, impossible but well that’s what just happened”

© Adi Gajendragadkar, 2018

 

Flying Pig

Wednesday started out as just another day. Sean had already left for work, leaving his morning detritus in the kitchen sink for Janet to deal with. Clean up and food prep done, a quick touch of make-up later, Janet headed to work. When she arrived, there was more than the usual buzz. A crowd had gathered round Suzie’s desk. Sighing, it was Valentine’s Day, Janet could guess Suzie was now wearing a ring. And so it transpired. Forcing a bright smile, she suggested congratulatory drinks at lunchtime, before heading to her office. Door shut behind her, she took a deep breath and buzzed “Tom, can you come through when you’re ready?”

Minutes later, Tom bustled in carrying coffee, notebook tucked under his arm. Avoiding her eyes he said “shoot” whilst holding his pen poised. Janet laughed, it got her every time he did it. Tom had been her PA for a year now and he was anything other than the perfect secretary bird. Instead he was whip-smart and very ambitious. Together, they were rising through the ranks rapidly. He raised his eyebrows …

“Another V-Day without a question being popped?”
“Oh come on, I thought I was safe in here.”
“Whatever ….”
“Yes OK, it’s yet another year.”
“And he knows this is what you want now, right? You’ve stopped all the independent woman, don’t want a ring nonsense, haven’t you?”
“Uh-huh. He looked at me like I had two heads before going to the pub!”
“Ah well, it’s only 9, there’s plenty of time for him to pull it together.”
“Yeah right … and pigs might fly! So, this spring conference, shall we run through the to-do list?”

Two hours passed before they broke for more coffee. Janet made a quick call, ending it as Tom returned with filled mugs …

“Erm Janet, you might want to look out the window.”
“Whatever for?”
“Well, you know those big things that fly over the Super Bowl in America?”
“Goodyear blimps?”
“Yeah, those. Well, there’s one outside … and it looks like a pig!”
“Yeah right, really funny Tom!”
“No really, you need to look. And … it’s pulling a sign. Seriously Janet, you need to look.”
“Oh for goodness sake, how’m I expected to get any work done around here?”

Through the window she read “Janet Bradley, Sean says will you marry me?” Turning as the office door office banged behind them, they saw Sean taking to bended knee. Smiling smugly, he held out a small box … containing a diamond ring.

 

© Debra Carey, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#FF Prompt: Pigs might fly

flying-pig-outline-clipart-best-clipart-best-9639613

How’s 2018 been for you so far? Resolutions going well, or already ditched? Here’s a little prompt for you to play with for February – it could be something absurd & unbelievable, a wild & wonderful dream, a February 29th type story (even though there isn’t one this year!) Whatever you like … just get those trotters airborne.

Word count: 100-500
Deadline: Friday 9th February 2018, 2pm GMT

 


A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line.  

Two caveats if you want to go down this route: if you want to retain the copyright, then you will need to state this, and this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

 

At a loose end

Earlier in the evening I had been absolutely, positively, no room for quibbling, drunk.  Not wasted, not merry, but, never-the-less definitely, drunk.  I’d gone beyond being a bit loud, beyond talking a little too fast, and through to the next stage, which for me meant discussing philosophy.

The excuse for this inebriation was that it was the blue period after Christmas, when everything feels a little flat.  Christmas and New Year’s parties are a distant memory; the excitement of the season has passed, resolutions have been made (and broken) and there is nothing now to look forward to until Valentine’s (or the cheap chocolate on the day after).  For some years my friends and I have held a fancy-dress competition party at the end of January to fill this void and to give us something to look forward to.  We’d met at a bar, gone for dinner, moved onto another bar – and then somehow lost them in the next move.  I’d made a rather desultory search, and this being New York in January, and bitterly cold, I’d given up quite quickly and ducked into an Irish pub that I’d not seen before.

The last few months had been busy and I’d decided that whilst I would take it as seriously as ever, I would go low-key, minimalist if you will, albeit meticulously researched.  I’d ended up dressed as an officer in the merchant navy circa 1900, based on the fact that I’d found an officer’s hat, by chance, in a flea-market.

I shrugged off my pea-coat and laid it across the back of a high backed bar-stool, and hopped up on the next one.  The bar was pretty empty.

“Guinness, please.”  I looked at the bottles on the wall behind the barman, and on a whim, “Oh, and a chaser of Lamb’s”.  I didn’t normal drink either chasers or rum, but the Navy proof spirit seemed fitting somehow, and I hoped it would warm me up.

****

And now it was later, much later.  And, somehow, I’d bet my immortal soul, somewhere along the way.  And now, I was very, very sober.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole thing – did I really have a soul? Could it be traded via an IOU? But I’d gotten more and more uncomfortable as the play had gone on, that little piece of paper apparently worth a significant amount to everyone round the table.  It had gone back and forth numerous times, and now it was in the pot of the final hand, with a pile of doubloons and sovereigns and Double Eagles and gems and who knew what else.  My lips were dry; my mouth was dry.  In front of me, arranged neatly, were my hole card, the eights of spades and clubs and the aces of the same suits – two pairs, an average sort of hand.   Some would even say a weak hand – there are 858 distinct ways of making two pairs, that is to say, if you prefer, odds of 20:1.  And yet part of my hind-brain was clamouring for attention, telling me to beware, telling me to look at the cards more closely.  Except it was me against the malevolent eyes glowering at me from across the table: everyone else had folded and now I was all-in, and so was he.  I couldn’t believe that the stakes were so high on such an apparently open game as five stud poker.

Pretty much everyone round the room looked slightly odd in the way that they dressed: some little tell, which made me think that they didn’t really belong to the 21st Century.  Most of them were pretty jovial.  One or two were serious, but friendly.  But the man across the table from me had a thin, ascetic, face: sunken eyes, which were red-rimmed, and hollow cheeks gave him the look of fanatic.  His suit was old fashioned in the extreme, the shirt – what was not covered up by a beard that was long and wiry – was rather dirty. Involuntarily, my gaze kept returning to the eyes: everytime I looked I began to sweat.  The eyes were dark and mesmeric and yet my fancy was that I could see the fires of hell dancing in their depths.

My opponent had the beginnings of a flush – the 5,6,7,8 of diamonds.  The 4 or 9 would sink me, and any other diamond would make things unbearably uncomfortable.  I had called, and he flipped over his hole card…a sigh rippled round the small, fug-filled room: the ace of diamonds.  There was a part of me that wanted to just flip my card over, like I was pulling off a band-aid.  There was a part of me that wanted to make some kind of cool quip.  There was a part of me that knew that my throat was too dry, that I would cough like my larynx was filled with cotton wool.  There was a part of me that knew that come what may, I needed to make this theatrical.

I could swear that there were flames dancing in those black eyes staring at me across the table, but perhaps it was just some strange effect from the darkness of the eyes surrounded by the red eyelids.   As though I were trying to stare down some dangerous animal, I kept my gaze fixed on the face opposite.  Without looking down I reached out, put my hand over the card, slid it towards me with my fingers flat, pressed to the table.  In all this time, there had been no word spoken by myself, my opponent, nor anyone else.  Slowly, oh so slowly, I turned the card over with the minimum possible movement of my hand; my arm appeared not to move at all.  I still didn’t look down.  The room exploded in cheers, my back being slapped.  The eyes across from me flinched first and looked.  A snarl formed on the lips and he looked as if he would fling the table in my face.  He got up, violently flinging the chair backwards and it tipped over as he barged out of the door noisily, curses and imprecations in harsh Russian sizzling the air.  I finally looked down.  The ace of hearts.  A full house, and I had beaten his flush.  There were only three cards that I could have turned up to win this game, and somehow, I felt I had done it in style.

The next few minutes passed in a blur.  Someone commented on the time.

I suddenly realised that the man standing next to me, whom I’d been thinking of as my host, had been my challenger to brief drinking game in the bar, and had inveigled me into this backroom.  His fancy dress, was more involved than mine, but still with a nautical theme: he was dressed in the finery of an 18th Century Captain.  He placed the IOU for my soul in my hand and pulled out a fancy lighter, flicking it open and lighting it in one movement. He lit the slip of paper, muttering something about “can’t be too careful”, and then guided my hand to an ashtray.

I wasn’t quite sure of the etiquette here, but I felt the need to earn some good will – everyone seemed pleased that I beaten the evil looking man, but the sense of strangeness rolled back over me.  I called for a round of drinks, paid off the evening’s tab for the whole room from my winnings.  One chap, rather swarthy, and with a similar appearance to my erstwhile opponent had been gazing at a certain silver coin all evening.  In all other aspects he had been a friendly soul, and there was certainly nothing sinister in his eyes, but his entire play had been around the potential to win this one specific coin.  Whilst no numismatist, I was reasonably confident that the coin had an inherent value far beyond the face, and this coin was probably the least of the coins that I was struggling to pack away in my pockets.  On a whim, I slid the silver coin over to the strange man He beamed, and winked as he placed the coin into a leather pouch.  Those who had observed the exchange politely acknowledged the action, and I felt that I had earned goodwill of inestimable worth.

The Captain linked arms with me and pulled out a mobile phone, which seemed completely anachronistic.

“We’d best get you home, before you get into more trouble” he said, and you could almost hear the twinkle in his voice.  He thumbed open an app on his phone: the way I felt, the movement of his thumb over the screen took on cabalistic significance, but I was pretty sure that really, he was just calling an Uber.  We stepped out into the street.  By this point, I felt that nothing could surprise me, but I was wrong.  Around the corner came a horse drawn coach, lamps flickering wildly on the sides as the driver pulled up sharply crying “Boston by dawn!”.  I must have looked panicked, because my new friend said “It’s alright, he can still make Boston after he drops us off”.

“Where would you like to be taken?” he asked kindly, as he opened the door into the coach and helped me up.  I stuttered out my address, and my friend, said “Ah! Good!”, and then he repeated it to the driver, adding “And take us via the Brooklyn Bridge, would you, Peter?”

The Brooklyn Bridge was a little out of my way, and there would be very little worth seeing at this time of ni-…the morning.  Sunrise was still hours off and, whilst New York is never completely silent, we were certainly in the quietest part of the night.  The horses picked up speed.  I blinked, or thought I did: in reality I must have dozed for a few minutes, because as I opened my eyes, we were swaying onto the Brooklyn Bridge.  We couldn’t have made a 15 minute taxi-journey in the blink of an eye…could we?

The coach drew up on the bridge, and the Captain got out.  “Well, good night” he said “I’m sorry you got caught up in that – I thought you were one of us, and then it was almost too late.  I pick up my ship here, so I will bid you fare-thee-well.  Peter Rugg is to be trusted, and he will see you home safe – but don’t accept the offer of a trip to Boston!”.  I hardly knew what to say, so I said nothing, simply bowing as we shook hands.  The Captain walked off along the bridge.  Peter Rugg seemed to be waiting for something, and whilst I was impatient to be home, I was a little scared and so said nothing.  In our respective places, we watched the Captain.  At some seemingly random point, he turned and waved, and as he did so, the mast of a ship cut through the bridge.  He grabbed the rigging, and waved again as the ship carried on down the East River.  Peter flicked the reins and we were off.

Did I doze again?  I don’t know, but another blink-nap and I was outside my building, waving off Peter Rugg, who insisted that the account had been paid, but was persuaded to accept a double-eagle as a tip, before he set off into the darkness, once more crying “Boston by dawn!”

I went into my apartment building and tried to set my muddled mind straight.  What had really happened tonight?  Was this wealth really mine?  What was I to do with it?  Was I in trouble?

© David Jesson, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

#secondthoughts: Fools & Mortals

Debs and I met through a book club. It started with just three people, Brave New World, and a less than ideal venue…(we weren’t anticipating the dance class in the pub where we chose to meet). From the beginning we took it in turns to choose the book and we had a rule that the book needed to be one that none of us had read – the idea was that we wouldn’t have an emotional investment prior to the novel and wouldn’t be heartbroken when a much loved favourite was ripped apart by others. When it came to my first turn to suggest a book, I couldn’t quite make up my mind, so I suggested a short list of three, and the others voted on this.  By the time that Debs joined the club a few years later, we had a pretty established format of a short list of 5-8 books, sometimes with a theme. Incidentally, the book we were discussing at Debs’ first session was an unusually long one for us – This Thing of Darkness – but one that we all loved, an infrequent situation for us!

Some authors are so prolific that it is possible to circumvent our rules, whilst still maintaining (some of) the spirit.  For example, I am a huge Pratchett fan, but had not read any of the Long Earth books when they turned up on one of Debs’ lists.  This month we read Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell: we have a huge Cornwell fan in the group, but she’d not read this one.  In fact, Cornwell, with only one or two others, is an author that has come up twice, the first book of his we read being The Last Kingdom. I’ve not seen the TV version of the Last Kingdom so I can’t coment on how it compares.  I wasn’t a big fan of the book: it should have ticked a lot of boxes for me, but I think I just didn’t warm to the main character.

I was intrigued by the idea of Fools & Mortals, especially as the group had opted to read Bill Bryson’s brief biography of Shakespeare a few years ago.  (We’ve been going for more than 15 years now, so we’ve covered a lot of territory).  I’m out of practice in terms of writing reviews and so this is not really intended to be one.  Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that I quite like Sarina Langer’s approach to reviewing, which is not so much as to offer a subjective star rating, but to pick up on the things that she likes and the things that she thought could be improved. One of the things that I have found myself doing more frequently as increase the time spent writing is to ask the question “what would I do differently, if I were writing this  book?”.

Before we get to that, it is probably worth noting that (a) I did search for some reviews of the book, and the consensus seems to be that it is a 4* effort, and, (b) outside of Amazon (where, at the time of writing this post, there were 205 reviews) I’ve yet to find a compelling/reasoned negative review.

So what did I like?  I liked the opening a great deal: I thought it was intriguing and sucked me in completely. (The Cornwell fan in the group thought it rather obvious, and didn’t like it.  Ho hum.  As an aside, the best meetings we’ve had are around books that split opinion).  It was an excellent start and the epilogue echoes this to give the story a nice symmetry.  I quite like the main character, who is very much of the time.  He is not an anti-hero, but neither is he especially heroic – he is a self-confessed thief, but is a reliable narrator.  I learned something, and I think that the tings that I learned were even true in some respects!

I have two major, linked gripes.  There is a plot, but it’s a bit thin, and as a consequence the book feels as though it has been padded:  there are quite large chunks of Shakespeare’s works in the book and there is a great deal of repetition.  Take ceruse, for example.  Ceruse was the name for the paste made from white lead and vinegar that was used to whiten the skin.  Unsurprisingly, given the the book is set late in the Elizabethan period, ceruse is mentioned 11 times  –  perhaps the biggest surprise is that it is not mentioned more frequently.  Sometimes things were added to the paste – Cornwell describes the property mistress of the acting troupe trying out various dyes to give a green hue to Puck’s make-up at the first presentation of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The use of crushed pearls is also mentioned: in a theatrical setting it is used to make the skin sparkle slightly in the candlelight.  We were reminded of the crushed pearls almost every single time, and I got a bit fed up with this being rehashed.

I think the plot felt thin because the book couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be.  I was going to complain about the fact that there is very little ‘action’ (in this sense peril) until almost halfway through the book, but in thinking about it, this wasn’t necessarily the problem – the problem was that the action felt rather contrived.

What would I do differently?  I was going to say “Nothing!  I wouldn’t write this book!”, but that is perhaps being too flippant.  The book did give me an idea, which I will make a note of and I might even revist, which would require  reasonable amount of research, but might be quite fun; it does need time to mature.  But if I were to take Fools and Mortals itself…hmmm….I think what could be quite fun is to reduce the book to novella length and then treat that as the first third of the book, the first Act.  There are two other acts that could work well (and a scholar could probably find several others).  Within my back ground reading, I found out that the Globe was built from the materials of another play house, called the Theatre, which was removed from its site following a dispute with the landlord, stored and then rebuilt.  Also, we tend to forget that Shakespeare lived not only in the Elizabethan era, but also in the Jacobean.  Managing this transition must have been fun…

So how about you?  What things have you learned about your writing by reading other people’s work?