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Tuesday 31 May 2016

Writing – analysing a writer’s work-1

Many years ago, when I embarked on writing fiction, I studied a good number of novels in an attempt to see how they worked – paragraph structure, dialogue, scene changes, pace, characterisation, etc. It’s a useful exercise for beginners.

I’m going to post the occasional analysis in this blog, though it’s a little invidious, analysing a writer with only one sample of his (or her) work, but here goes.

The Writer: Peter Cheyney
The Work: It Couldn’t Matter Less, 1941 (reviewed in my blog here)

In his day, Cheyney was very popular indeed, his books selling two million a year, and towards the end of his life even five million. He adopted a spare, sometimes cynical yet humorous style, and employed a secretary to write down his dictation, very much in the manner of Barbara Cartland.

Naturally, tastes have changed since Cheney was famous. Yet fans of crime fiction will still derive enjoyment from his tales that involved hard-bitten detectives and beautiful dames, decidedly influenced by the American school of crime writers.

Nowadays, a few of the things we look out for in editing clearly didn’t apply then. Notably, word-repetition on the same page, paragraph or even sentence. And people ‘begin to walk’, ‘began to think’… all the time, it seems.

The norm was for fresh speech always to begin on a new line/new paragraph. This helps to fill the pages, though it can become stilted. For example:

            Callaghan went to the sideboard and poured out some bourbon. He came back with the glass in his hand. He said:
            ‘I’d like to hear all about it. I’m very interested.’
            She threw him a quick glance. She said:
            ‘I’m not quite certain as to whether you’re taking me absolutely seriously…’
            She drank some champagne. She said:
            ‘…’ and so on.

Of course it’s out of context; we’re watching a black and white movie and Cheyney has to move the characters in the set. 
            Even so, the phrase ‘in his hand’ is doubtless superfluous – where else would he hold the glass?
            Can a glance be anything but quick?
            These are minor quibbles.
            Throughout, even when there are only two individuals in the scene, there’s an over-emphasis on ‘he said’/’she said’, when it should be obvious who is speaking.
            Now, the action can be linked to the speech, dropping the ‘she said’, thus: She threw him a sharp glance. ‘I’m not quite certain as to whether you’re taking me absolutely seriously…’

            To the modern editing eye, these are weaknesses in style. Yet at the time, they doubtless comprised ‘the style’ for the period. Cheyney invariably produced two books a year for an eager readership that was more interested in story than style. Quite right, too, and let us not forget it: the story is the thing.
            As this is the fourth in the Slim Callaghan series of novels, Callaghan reminiscences about the other women in his life from previous cases – which is a neat touch, showing that his adventures are linear and not divorced from his reality, unlike some adventurers who never change or reflect on past cases.
            One of the attractions of Cheyney’s writing is doubtless his wit. After a heavy bout of drinking that necessitates him taking a couple of aspirin tablets, he goes off whistling a tune, ‘It Was Good While It Lasted.’ Like James Bond after him, Callaghan was a prodigious drinker, imbibing liquor day and night, at all hours, and driving a Jaguar as well. (The roads were less cluttered then.)

‘Callaghan came to the conclusion that he was drinking too much whisky. He ordered a large Bacardi.’ (p42)

            And Callaghan’s a chain smoker, as well. (Publishers risk the ire of do-gooders – those folk who want to rewrite history to conform to their modern prejudices - if they re-publish these books in an unexpurgated edition! I jest: many of his books are available as e-books, and some paperbacks can be had for reasonable prices.)

            Callaghan turned and flicked his cigarette into the fireplace. He said:
            ‘I always mean it. When I kiss a woman I always mean it like hell. Let me show you…’
            He showed her. [End of chapter 7]

            No sex is depicted, though suggested, and there’s plenty of flirting and seduction.
            Callaghan’s sidekick is a Yank called Nikolls, and he’s always relating episodes from his past, usually involving a woman:

‘She’s the sorta dame who falls for every guy who makes a pass at her. She oughta be called Dandruff. She’s always fallin’ on some guy’s collar.’ Another conquest from Chicago: ‘She was sorta fond of love. In fact I christened that dame Muscles because she was in every guy’s arms…’
            Private detectives like Callaghan have a code, despite the sleaze they swim in. ‘People like Lionel are little people. They love in a small way and hate in a little way. Most murderers are mean.’ (p151)
            Then more than now, I suspect, people were keen on catchphrases, and Cheyney was no exception, attempting to create one for the book title:

            Gringall cocked an eyebrow.
            ‘That’s a new one,’ he said. ‘I never heard that one before… “It Couldn’t Matter Less”… But then you know all the catchphrases.’ (p106)

            And he used this:

            ‘Thank you for nothing,’ said Callaghan. ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ (p232)

            Which reminds me of the phrase ‘Be seeing you’ employed often in The Prisoner original TV series. ‘I’ll be seeing you’ was an old phrase by the time of this book, being a song title for the Broadway musical Right This Way, 1938.

You read his books for the story, the wit and the period touches.
I’d be tempted to read another Cheyney novel, maybe one of his ‘Dark’ series of espionage novels (1942-1950).

Cheyney died in 1951, aged 55.

I recommend viewing the dedicated website for more information, and for old Cheyney book cover art:

Monday 30 May 2016

Book review - Truth Lies Buried

Truth Lies Buried by Lesley Welsh is published on 7 June. I was fortunate to read an advance review copy.

First off, I like the clever title, juxtaposing Truth and Lies. The addition of Buried is made very clear at the outset when a local gangster is interred in a shallow grave, thanks to Sam Riley, ex-Army, who’s doing it for a very potent reason. We’re not privy to the fact that Sam  is a woman until page 25, but I don’t think this can be a spoiler as the cover features a woman: Samantha wants to spend the rest of her life with the deceased’s wife, Monica. Unfortunately, Monica also has a son, Brando – ‘Reservoir Pup’, Sam calls him: ‘just eleven years old and already a greedy, heartless little tosser.’

By now you should have a very strong flavour of the tone, the dry and dark humour of the book. To be savoured.

There are some great lines dropped in the narrative, too many to list here, but here are a few: ‘Carver’s voice always threw me, that high-pitched squeak emanating from his bulky body. Years before, a bullet in the throat had left him talking like a mouse on helium.’ Some more: ‘The Gangster, His Wife and The Lesbian.’ (p36); ‘…your knight in shining Armani,’ (p47); and ‘They say Orientals are inscrutable but they’ve got nothing on lawyers.’ (p80) Acute observation is evident, and couched in fine prose, for example: ‘Rubbish flew about like tattered birds…’ (p225)

Sure, there are clichés, but this is a first person narrative so Sam would use them, even ‘my blood ran cold’ – because that’s how most people feel and think in a threatening situation.

Throughout, Welsh captures Sam’s voice to perfection, her emotions and strength of character, notably when she undergoes a transformation as she gets to know Brando, a great wise yet vulnerable character, eleven going on thirty. A number of chapters are third-person, and these enable the reader to get into the minds and under the skin of other characters, particularly the despicable Monica. Lenka is a fine surprise, too! As Sam says, ‘She really was something else.’ (p315)

To relate the storyline in any detail would be to spoil the discoveries along the way. For there’s a dark incident in Sam’s past that has poignant bearing on her present situation. Twists and turns in the plot kept me flipping the pages, whether that’s the good suspense, the cat-and-mouse with the DI, the confrontations with the other gangland members out to carve up Monica’s inheritance. There are many instances where the tension is raised in fraught moments. Sam’s encounter with a local hood on the threshold of the house is gauged just right.

Deaths lead to more deaths, and it all starts spinning out of control among the godless… The local gangsters have to contend with Chinese triads and Russian mafia, as well. I found the action scenes to be well-choreographed, tense and believable.

Sam is a rounded character, and opinionated, too, which is good; for example, her view of the PC crowd: ‘I loathe these people, the ones who have implanted these admonitory words in our brains. What kind of screwed-up Orwellian nightmare are we living in when a simple act of human kindness comes with cautionary, defensive and even reproachful strings attached?’ (p129)

Irony, pathos, it’s all here, and Welsh is superb on relationships – the good and the bad.  ‘Maybe we are all haunted in one way or another. But some of us have more persistent ghosts.’ (p248)

I’d offer one caveat: if you’re averse to raw language, then don’t read gangster novels. Truth Lies Buried contains quite a lot of swearing; this is about raw gangster environment, after all, but it never came across as gratuitous, but character- and situation-driven. And of all the gangsters we meet, perhaps Monica the Moll is decidedly the worst!

As hinted at already, despite the grimness of gangland violence and threat, there’s plenty of humour, black and light. ‘He was straight from the Ugly Agency. Looking for an interesting character for a new film are you, Mr Spielberg? Want to frighten the living daylights out of the kiddies, do you? Then I know just the man for the part.’ (p314)

There are dark moments, since this is the underbelly of what passes for the human condition: ‘… an uneasy feeling settled on her shoulders like a dark shroud and she couldn’t shake it off.’ (p337) We sense that as we read on, wanting Sam to overcome the many obstacles in her path.

Welsh has created an intriguing and likeable heroine in Sam. ‘…Some people have clean hands but dirty soul. You have dirty hands but clean soul, I think.’ – (p382) It would be a shame if we were not to meet her again.

A brilliant novel that deserves to do well, giving the likes of Martina Cole a run for her ill-gotten gains.

[A shorter review will appear on Amazon et al...]

Sunday 29 May 2016

Book review - In Honour Bound

Gerald Seymour writes about contemporary issues and this one is no exception, being published in 1984 at the height of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.This version is 'tenth impression with a new cover, 1990'.

SAS Captain Barney Crispin is meant to train Afghans to deploy Redeye rockets against a Soviet killer Mi-24 helicopter, with the intention of bringing back to the UK secret parts of the crippled craft.  Sadly, their mission goes catastrophically wrong and the guerrillas are killed. Driven by guilt and bloody-mindedness, Barney determines to disobey orders and infiltrate Afghanistan and do the job himself – with the aid of Gul Bahdur, a teenage Afghan boy as guide, and a couple of donkeys. This foray into danger is well told, so we can feel the privations suffered by Barney – and the Afghans he meets.

In parallel with his mission is the dilemma of the Soviet commander in charge of the Mi-24s, Major Pyotr Medev, who is tasked with clearing out the Afghan villages without losing any craft. So far, he’s managed this (and thousands of refugees in Iran and Pakistan attest to it): until one of his aircraft is shot out of the sky…

Another protagonist is Italian nurse Mia Fiori who spends her leave helping the guerrillas in the Panjshir Valley. Unfortunately, this time around she is baulked before she can get there…

Lastly, there’s disenchanted ex-sergeant Schumack, a soldier of fortune who is intent on fighting for the Afghan cause until he dies.

Their paths will cross and they will be in great danger. Pressure pushes Barney to use his Redeye missiles to down a helicopter and retrieve the vital parts before the snows block off half the country. He only has eight missiles. He is begrudgingly accepted by the Afghan fighters, though he has to walk a knife-edge between total rejection and death at their hands.  It’s a battle of wills and wits, leading to a tense showdown.

Research and detail piled on detail lend credence to the story. We feel we were there, in the Soviet airbase at Begram, the dangerous streets of Kabul, the treacherous mountains and passes of Afghanistan.

Seymour never disappoints, though I sometimes feel he unfairly condemns his heroes and heroines in the final stages. I won’t say what happens to the hero of this one; it’s worth reading to find out!

Saturday 28 May 2016

End of an era

Jen is stepping down as MD of Cantabile choir in anticipation of ultimately returning to the UK (when we sell the house, of course...)

This last few weeks saw the choir perform to appreciative audiences at two venues: The Casino, Torrevieja and La Siesta Church. Jen's last concerts as MD - going out on a high, as reported in the Costa Blanca News this Friday.

Well done, all concerned!

'... fight scenes that rival the best of Bourne or Bond'

'Morton knows how to write a kick-ass action sequence, too, with fight scenes that rival the best of Bourne or Bond.'

Thank you Rowena Hoseason for this review on the site

The Tehran Text - e-book available at these Amazon sites:

Friday 27 May 2016

Blog guest - Shani Struthers and 'domestic spiritual clearance'...

Today my guest is author Shani Struthers, from Brighton, UK. Today sees the launch of her third Psychic Survey book, 44 Gilmore Street

This follows on from the popular earlier novels, The Haunting of Highdown Hall and Rise to Me. She has also written a prequel, Eve, which is featured in my blog here

These Psychic Survey novels have already garnered a staunch review base of 50+ reviewers, a great achievement.

The main characters who form the Psychic Survey team are Ruby, Theo, Ness and Corinna who deal with ‘domestic spiritual clearance’ – a great invention.

Her other paranormal novel is Jessamine.

Shani has been fascinated by the paranormal for most of her life, and as she says in our Q&A session below, all of her stories are inspired by true events and experiences.

Q & A

How long have you been writing? 
I’ve been a copywriter for over twenty years, working mainly in the travel industry but I’ve only been writing novels for four years.

What influenced you to start?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel; I’ve been threatening family and friends with it for a long time so I thought I’d better make good that threat!

How do your family/friends feel about your writing?
They’re proud of me but, as you know yourself, Nik, when you’re writing/editing a book you tend to live and breathe it – I think they’d rather I came back to the real world more often!

Are you planning to write any more romance books or will you stick with the paranormal? Of course, you can indulge in romance in paranormal novels too!
Jessamine closed the gap between my romance and my paranormal books, it’s a romance but with a supernatural edge to it. There’s also a touch of romance in the Psychic Surveys books between the two main characters Ruby and Cash but it’s real and down-to-earth as opposed to slushy. I’m not averse to romance in any way but I think paranormal is my genre from now on, it’s more fascinating to write.

I know some of your favourite authors are Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Shirley Jackson and Susan Hill. A tall order, I suspect but what is your favourite book? And why?
It is a tall order but rather than say what is my favourite book I’ll say what book has inspired me most lately – it’s Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while and finally got round to it and loved it. Like the black and white film of the book - The Haunting with Claire Bloom – it’s a real lesson in ‘less is more’. So much is left to the imagination and it’s that that is truly terrifying. That’s the way I want my writing to go in future.

What challenges have you overcome in having to concentrate on the supernatural?
I don’t write horror as such, I write paranormal but I have had to delve into some very dark research because of it – research that left me feeling very unnerved. I’ve decided not to focus on anything Satanic but to focus on the ghost element instead – and I always try to look for the human story behind the haunting, that’s what really fascinates me most – why a spirit is grounded.

There’s also an element of time travel involved, since ghosts have a habit of appearing in their future. Would you consider a time travel novel at some point?
We are conditioned to think of the world as linear but maybe it isn’t and maybe the spirit world isn’t either. Never say never.

Is it a challenge, this delving into the past to unearth the present haunting?
It can be but I look for inspiration in real life events and then add a heavy dose of fiction.

Who is your favourite character in all your books and why?
I love them all – the good and the bad – but my favourite is Ruby Davis, the main character in the Psychic Surveys books. She starts off as fairly naïve due to a sheltered upbringing by her grandmother but over the course of six books she’s going to find herself going down some very dark roads. I like to write strong, independent female characters and she’s going to need every ounce of her strength.

Ahah, six books! That’s good planning, Shani. Creating a series can bring its problems. For example, how do you continue to think up new storylines using the same characters and yet remain fresh?
I have a story arc in mind and that helps – a journey for each of the characters to go on but yes, it’s a problem regarding trying not to info-dump too much in subsequent books – to keep them action-centred rather than a recap.

As an author, what is your biggest challenge and how do you overcome it?
Confidence – you know what it’s like, ninety nine people can love your book but one slates it and which one affects us more, yep that one in a hundred. That’s the biggest challenge for me, listening to criticism but only if it’s constructive.

Other than writing, what are some things that you love to do?
Just hanging out with my friends and family really, eating, drinking and being merry!

Thank you, Shani. And good luck with your latest, 44 Gilmore Street.

Readers find Shani here:
Facebook Author Page:
Newsletter Link:

Psychic Surveys Book Three: 44 Gilmore Street