#SecondThoughts: Blotto, Twinks and the new kind of book review

I’ve been becoming more disillusioned with ‘star’ reviews as time passes, so I thought I would pilot a new series here on Fiction Can Be Fun, drawing together approaches from several different sources. We’ll see how it goes: please do let me know if there is anything that you particularly like or dislike about the approach with a comment at the end. For the time-being, we’ll stick this under #secondthoughts, but if it looks like it’s a go-er, we’ll think again.

First up, Simon Brett’s Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter.

Simon Brett has a whopping 57 mystery books in four different series, plus a few other books (the most famous probably being the thriller A Shock To The System, with Michael Caine starring in the film adaptation). The longest running series is The Charles Paris Mysteries; the first of these was written in the mid-1970s. Bill Nighy plays the louche, alcoholic, shambolic, struggling actor, for whom the series is named, in a series of radio adaptions that were updated for the run that began in 1999. (They also had to make some changes to deal with continuity as the stories ended up being adapted out of order).

As I come to write this review, I realise that my experience of Simon Brett’s writing has mostly come from the radio adaptations with Bill Nighy, and from Brett’s series Foul Play, a panel game played by mystery writers. My only experience of actually reading his work is the first book in his Fethering series, which was a book club read. (Fethering is a fictional village on the south coast of Britain, just down the road from the very real Tarring. This probably tells you everything you need to know about Brett’s sense of humour). Brett has been on my TBR list for some time: I spotted Blotto and Twinks in the library recently, and I thought ‘why not?’

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter feels a lot like P.G. Wodehouse having a go at a Ruritanian novel, with a splash of Biggles, or something very much like. Blotto is the ‘spare’ in a ducal family, his elder brother Loofah having taken the seat when their father died sometime prior to the start of the book. Whilst Blotto is more athletic than Bertie Wooster, and very much more heroic, they have about the same capacity between the ears. His younger sister, Twinks, is the brains of the family, and in danger of turning into a Mary Sue type character. To Blotto’s relief, she’s more than happy to let him drive the car, even though she’s hopelessly modern and can change a tyre, something Blotto believes should be left to the working classes.

I read a comment recently about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories which suggested that the mystery was second to the interaction of the characters, particularly the badinage between Wolfe and his leg-man and general factotum Archie Goodwin. This just made me think I need to get back into reading Nero Wolfe stories, because it’s a while since I’ve done so. The reason for mentioning it is that this book is billed as a mystery too, but there’s very little of it, to my mind. Instead we have Blotto and Twinks, a miscellany of characters, including their dreadful mother (who is giving Loofah a hard time because he’s only given her granddaughters so far), and a rather heavy-handed Ruritanian king-in-exile setting.

You’re probably getting the impression that I didn’t like this book very much. There are indeed many things that I found it difficult to engage with, and if you’re selling a book on the one hand as a mystery and on the other on the basis of some loveable eccentric characters, then you want the mystery to be stimulating and the characters to be engaging. There are another nine books, so far, in the series, so maybe I’m being overly harsh in my assessment, or perhaps the books mellow with time, or perhaps you just need to be prepared that the book is not a full blooded (conscious choice of words there) mystery. I find it difficult to recommend this specific book to anyone, but if you enjoy your detective fiction then I would recommend the Fethering books, and I would definitely advise listening out for Bill Nighy as Charles Paris. If I manage to snag a book from that series I’ll keep you updated.

How about you? Have you read any of Simon Brett’s books before? What turns you off a book? What are your expectations for a mystery novel?

How to read when you don’t have time: #SecondThoughts on audiobooks

Last year I took the Goodreads challenge and I thought that a book a week was eminently doable. I was nearly proved wrong, which I was inordinately worried about.  A while ago a was having a cuppa with my friend @RotwangsRobot (Kathryn Harkup, the immensely talented writer of ‘A is for Arsenic: The poisons of Agatha Christie’, and several other pop science books), and she told me this story of two old dears who’d gone into a bookshop and asked for recommendations of twenty absolutely must read titles.  They’d worked out  how quickly they read,  how much time they had left, and done a very simple calculation.  The scary thing is even at 50 books a year, I might be down to 2000 books left to read…and when it doesn’t look like you’re going to have time even for that…Eeep!

Goodreads very helpfully let you know how many books a week you need to read to complete the challenge, and when it started becoming more than one, I don’t mind telling you, I was a worried man.  The challenge is a personal one: you set your own target and then you see what you can do.  So last summer, when I was edging up to a required read rate of 1.5 books a week, I knew I needed a cunning plan.

I’m very lucky with my commute, which is a 20-25 minute walk in either direction. It’s a reasonably pleasant walk, but it’s nice to have something to listen to.  For several years I’ve been listening to a range of things on the BBC iPlayer app, although at the point all this was occurring, I was beginning to think that I’d pretty much listened to everything that I wanted to listen to.  I’d been thinking a lot about audiobooks anyway, so I decided to take the plunge and get an account.  My first book was Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’, read by the superb Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  I was sold on the idea of audiobooks completely.

However, Audible is a pay-for service, although once you have bought the book, as long as Audible is viable, you can listen to the book over and over again, even if you suspend your subscription.  But even though I have a tendency to go for long-‘reads’ (a contributing factor to my lack of progress against my GoodReads target), with the commute and listening to books whilst I do chores like the washing up, I could easily listen to 3-4 books a month – and I’m not prepared to spend that much!

What to do? What to do?

Shortly after starting with Audible, I was in my local public library and I spotted a sign advertising audio and e-books, which could be checked out on an app from the comfort of your own home. Bingo! Problem solved.  

The RBDigital app is not quite as smooth to use as Audible, and there are all sorts of books that I would like to get hold of, which aren’t available.  But given the range that is accessible, for free, and all the new books that I have found, it has been like discovering reading all over again.  In the space of the last six months or so, I’ve listened to around 20 books, put a serious dent in my virtual TBR (and then refilled it) and only been mildly disappointed once (the narrator didn’t distinguish been the voices enough so it was difficult to follow some of the conversations).  I was a lot disappointed with one of the stories, but that would have been the case whatever the format!

Listening to books is a very different experience to holding a book in your hands and sinking down into a favourite chair with a cup of tea, but as such opportunities are currently in short supply, I thoroughly recommend listening to books.  As a writer, it’s also helpful because it reminds you that people won’t just be reading your words, but listening to.

And I might just get through 3000 books…

What’s your experience of audiobooks?  

© David Jesson, 2020

#Secondthoughts: Kill Your Darlings

If you follow the writing community on Twitter, and indeed on other social media I expect, you will frequently see bits of advice done up nicely, almost like a little gem of a motivational poster.  Nice font, an appropriate pic, the whole shebang.  Some are new-spun, most are bon mot or bon juste extracted from the sayings of well-known names, some still alive, some no longer with us and some from quite a long time ago.

I’ve noticed that should you be so inclined, you could probably do a nice bit of meta-analysis and group such advice into a relatively small number of sets.  One of these is “Kill your darlings”, although this is probably an extreme version of “make them suffer”, the point is that you need to be prepared to be horrible to the characters you love, not just the ones that you think deserved to be offed.  This isn’t just a case of editing out a secondary character who just isn’t pulling their weight, oh no.  You might have to kill off a much-loved character…

“Make them suffer” is justified on the basis of making the character grow.  I don’t know how much Dickens actually liked Sidney Carton as a character, but he did “kill off his darling” in order to show how much the character had grown – “It is a far better thing I do now, than I have ever done before”…  But is making your character suffer, and even die, all that it sometimes seems to be?

Two thoughts before we continue.

  1. I watched Strike recently, the TV adaptation of the first two ‘Cormoran Strike’ novels by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling).  I guess I’ve broken the first rule by watching the adaptation before the book, but to be honest, whilst I love a detective novel, when I saw the brouhaha when the book was launched, I really couldn’t be bothered, not even with after seeing this summary.  I quite liked the show: the casting was brilliant, and the key actors brought a warmth and humanity to the whole thing which meant that I didn’t feel that I’d wasted my time watching it. But.  The whole thing was clichéd beyond the point of being ridiculous, and frequently made my teeth itch, which was a shame.  Cormoran Strike, in particular, is such a bundle of “let’s make his life difficult” ideas that it is no wonder that he drinks so much, and incredible that he ever gets anything done.  If an alternate turned up in a Jasper fforde novel, he would probably be there to take industrial action.
  2. Do things always need to grow to be worth reading about?  As an example, lets look at P.G. Wodehouse.  It’s difficult to find as much energy expended to return things to the status quo as you find in a P.G. Wodehouse story once the balance has been tipped, and yet the stories remain popular, to the point that they are almost imprinted on the collective consciousness.

As with most things to do with writing, at least part of the answer is probably to do with your audience.  Sticking with detective stories, sometimes you want something quite cerebral with an unexpected detective being brainy and pulling the strings, and sometimes you want roof-top chases.  Sometimes it’s all about an every-person blundering into things and sometimes it’s the trained detective doing it by the book and getting on with the job (albeit guided by their gut/nose/other part of the body as appropriate).  You could argue that Miss Marple goes through some kind of growth – she has to learn to accept the success of her nephew and the consequent financial support that he provides and she has to deal with her increasing fraility.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that death is a part of life, and we shouldn’t not talk about it – an unexpected character dying in an unexpected way should shock, but not be shocking, if you see what I mean.  But as writers, and indeed as readers, we should be open to other forms of shock, and other forms of growth.  People die every day – the “crude death rate” is currently under 1% (81 people in every 10000 per year) – but it doesn’t affect everyone, everyday.


© David Jesson, 2017

#secondthoughts – Enid Blyton

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I grew up reading her works – absolute lashings of the Famous Five, Mallory Towers, St Clares, and the Adventure series, with bits of the Secret Seven and the Mystery series thrown in for good luck.

I felt entirely betrayed when my boarding school experience didn’t match that portrayed by her in Mallory Towers and St Clares. But with the wisdom of age (and hindsight), I wasn’t a happy teen and a vast number of my peers appear to have enjoyed the experience (although I’ve not interrogated them over how well their experience matched the Blyton stories).

Villified for her racism (naughty Golly) and her entirely hands-off relationship with her own children, is she a fallen icon, or just a woman of her time?

Much of what was written at the time demonstrated the lack of enlightenment that was commonplace. Racism and mysogny were so prevelant as to pass beneath the radar of most; certainly I’ve heard many readers tell of re-visiting old loves and being shocked not only by the presence of both, but by the fact that they simply hadn’t noticed before.

As to her lack of mothering, we are comparing her behaviour to the entirely hands-on norm we now have. For many at the time (especially those who shared her social background), children were not a large part of their parents’ lives. In fact, I wonder whether her books provide an example whereby ideal children display a terrific ability to entertain themselves, in a delightful twist on being seen and not heard.

Whilst the children do get themselves into scrapes, they are always together. There is a collective and that collective provides protection against the type of trouble our children face now. Is it that children are more solitary these days, or perhaps families suffer from a greater geographic spread and so we no longer grow up with a gaggle of relations.

Another positive is that character traits such as honesty and loyalty are well-regarded,  whilst lying and self-absorption are demonstrably a ‘poor show’. I’ll step over the gender and racial stereotyping for the moment and say that whilst she portrayed an older world, a more ideal world where the sun shone more, they provide a fun and light-hearted balance to the many excellent tales of reality and life in the real-world. As adults, we all enjoy the occasional light and fluffy read, why shouldn’t young children?

#secondthoughts – David Eddings

David Eddings, if you’ve not come across him before, is one of the big names in fantasy.

#Secondthoughts is a series that Debs and I are starting to explore writing: the journey of, reactions to and reflections on writing.  We’re hoping that we’ll be joined by others along the way.  For this inaugural one, I’m going to reflect on a body of work that has probably had a huge effect on how I think of Fantasy novels and the second thoughts I’m having now that I’ve got my eye in as an editor (day job, mainly) and now that I’m getting serious about my non-job writing.

David Eddings, if you’ve not come across him before, is one of the big names in fantasy. He has written about not one, not two, not three but four separate fantasy realms.  Up front, I’m going to say that it later transpired that his wife had a big hand in co-writing almost all of the books he wrote, but when they were starting out the advice was that a husband and wife team/multi-authors would be problematic, so only his name appears on the books.

I started reading the Eddings’ books when I was in my early to mid-teens – I think that’s probably true of most of the readership. They were still writing into the early part of the new millennium, but by then I’d moved on for all sorts of reasons, so I didn’t get round to reading the last series, The Dreamers.  I might one day, but the TBR pile is pretty big (and growing).  Anyway, when you’re that age, the Fantasy trope is pretty much a given, especially if there’s a bit of magic, some sword play and the world to save.  And the Eddings oeuvre was pretty readable: a friend loaned me the first four books in one series (The Belgariad) and I was itching for the final book, so when I stumbled over a copy in bookshop I bought it and read it straight through twice in less than 24 hours.  I think I got the entire second series (The Mallorean) for a birthday and read the lot over half-term.  There were a fair few summers when I would undertake to read the whole lot through again.  It was a similar story (excuse the cliche) a few years later when I started on the Elenium and the Tamuli.

What really works for me about these series is the world-building: whole nations are involved, in some cases whole continents.  There are numerous cultures, some of which are intimately bound up with their local geography and geology.  There are some brilliant and memorable characters and, as I write this, in my mind’s eye many of the scenes from the novels are evoked and play out.

The journey of my second thoughts begins with a stand alone novel, the Redemption of Althalus.  At university I was reading for a degree, spending a bit too much time on archery and reading a lot of new things (I really shouldn’t have worked my way through six books of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in one semester).  A few years along and one of my friends at archery was also a big reader and a big fan of Eddings and several other of my favourite authors.  (Bonus points if you know why she was put out when I proposed a toast to the Walker Evans Memorial Society, whilst minding the barbecue…).  She was a big fan of RoA.  I’d been putting it off, I can’t remember why now, and even then it took me quite a few years to get round to reading it, but I eventually did, in part because of the remembered recommendation.  It was absolute tosh, and not the good kind.  I think that my friend had latched onto a particular character, and forgiven the book a lot of its faults.  There are some really good ideas in there, but my guess would be that the book did not have an editor, or if it did, one that couldn’t stand up to the writer.

Roll on a couple more years and I decided to sit down and reread the Belgariad.  I couldn’t do it.  The magic, the glamour was gone.  I found the writing verbose and clunky, it didn’t have the same flow.  Maybe I’ll give it another try in a few years.  We’ll see.

O _ o

So, my second thoughts on the writing of David and Leigh Eddings: there are some really great ideas in there, and if you are an aspiring writer, particularly of Fantasy, you can learn a lot about world building.  I’d also suggest that you can learn a lot about writing – clearly they were doing something right, given the number of copies sold and the significant fortune left to charity when they died.  But I also think that there are lessons to be learned about how not to write. For example there might be a couple of tropes that aren’t used, but I’m not sure what they are off hand…