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Monday, 6 February 2017

Review, "The Big Sleep" By Raymond Chandler.

Bogart And Bacall
If you're a regular visitor here, you'll know that, while I love to read, it takes me a long time to finish a book. What with writing full-time, family life, my garden, and looking after our dog, hens and  bees, I rarely time to sit and concentrate. As I'm a slow reader anyway, I've generally lost the thread and have to go back a page or two from when I last put the book down. Half the time I seem to be going backwards, which can be very dispiriting.

I received a wonderful haul of twelve books as Christmas presents last December 25th, so I've decided to post one review per month. That will encourage me to keep reading!

You can find my review of the first book I read this year, Cryptozoologicon Vol I, here.  I wanted to alternate non-fiction and fiction, so my second review is of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep is the first outing for Chandler's Private Detective Philip Marlowe, first published in 1939. My copy is the 2011 Penguin reprint, with a forward by Ian Rankin.  The Big Sleep is a book very much of its time, which was an age long before political correctness. Anti-hero Marlowe drinks, smokes and wisecracks his way through a plot that has more twists and turns than a maze. 

Marlowe is employed by wealthy General Sternwood to foil a blackmail attempt on his younger daughter, Carmen. In other (apparently unrelated) news, Rusty, the husband of Sternwood's older daughter Vivian, has disappeared. There's a long and convoluted road littered with corruption in high places, heavy drinking, gambling, violence, smoking, swearing, and several bits that would never get past the politically-correct lobby today, but if you can get past the name-calling, this is a great read. Marlowe eventually draws almost all the threads of the convoluted plot together, and ties them up neatly. One loose end left dangling is Who Killed The Chauffeur. If you can't work it out, you're in good company. Howard Hawks, director of the 1946 film The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, quizzed the author about it. Chandler confessed that even he had no idea! 

Despite a long list of characters, every one of them has a vital part to play and there isn't a wasted word in the whole book. In common with all great stories, The Big Sleep transports you into a different world, peopled by well-drawn characters and set in a location far beyond anyone's usual existence. Not many of us are likely to get mixed up in murder, illicit sex and a pornography racket (thank goodness) but we can all enjoy watching knight-in-sightly-tarnished-armour Marlowe bring his own sense of honour to bear on this serpentine plot. 

I could fill pages with great quotes from this book,  but here's one of the best:

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” 

The description of Marlowe opening up his office first thing in the morning is a classic, and the idea of driving in Californian orange groves (flat tyres, torrential rain and all) really drew me into the story. Wow. That's what I enjoy in fiction— local colour!

Monday, 30 January 2017

What Do You Know...about Bristol?

Clifton Suspension Bridge
I'm starting an exciting new non-fiction project. Women's Lives is a series of books to be published by Pen And Sword Books  in 2018, to coincide with the centenary of women over the age of thirty being given the vote in the Representation Of The People Act.

One volume of Women's Lives will be devoted to a single city in the United Kingdom. My family have strong ties with the city of Bristol, which go back hundreds of years. I was born a few miles away in a village which was then in the Somerset countryside but is now on the outskirts of the city. My first full-time job was in the Bristol offices of a life-assurance company, and after I married I  went to work for Rolls-Royce Aero in Filton

Ancient And Modern...
When I heard about the Pen And Sword project I was keen to get involved. I've been writing romance for a long time, but I started my writing career contributing non-fiction articles to newspapers and magazines. This was too good a chance to miss, so I've now started work on the Bristol edition of the series.

In writing Women's Lives: Women of Bristol 1850-1950 I'll be going back to my roots in a big way. It will mean spending a lot of time combing through the archives, but nothing beats a real-life anecdote.

Do you have any stories to share about life in the City of Bristol in the years before 1950?

Sunday, 22 January 2017

A Winter Walk—With Added Shivers...

One of our dog-walking routes
We haven't had many bitter days here so far this winter, so the wildlife has been fending for itself, deep in the woods. The exception are the grey squirrels, who try their luck every day with our supposedly vermin-proof bird feeders, whatever the weather.

Despite the big animals such as deer and badger being pretty much invisible during mild daylight hours, Alex the dog and I had quite a shock the other day. I was glad we had the company of OH when it happened.  

We keep Alex on the lead until we're deep in the woods as he can act the naughty adolescent if he spots one of his doggy friends heading in a different direction. Once he's let off to race away through the trees, we wander along looking at what's new in the forest. 

A crossbill. Guess how it got its name!
That day, we spotted a flock of  crossbills high in the fir trees. I got a new bird book for Christmas, which said  the crossbills' very dry diet of pine seeds means they often come down to drink at forest pools to quench their thirst.

There are several boar wallows on the route we were taking. It was so cold on that particular day, I thought taking a bath would be the last thing on a boar's tiny mind, so I let OH and the dog canter on ahead while I went to see if the birds would come down to drink. A short stroll took me to a pool in a large clearing. I crept up to see if there were any crossbills about. There was no sign of them, but something large was rustling about in the brambles and dead bracken on other side of the glade. That made me retreat in a hurry. 

OH and the dog spotted me moving fast, and came to see what was happening. Their sudden arrival put up the big old boar I'd heard in the undergrowth. He shot between us and sped away, disappearing in a flash. It happened so fast Alex was too surprised to react, so OH had him under control before he could think of giving chase.  
A wild boar sow and piglet

I suppose it proves that unless you come between a mother and her baby, the boar really are more afraid of us than we are of them.

Despite that, neither OH nor I was going to give chase to get a photo of the animal we saw. The picture of a sow and piglet on here comes from a brave contributor to Pixabay!

Monday, 9 January 2017

Bullet Journaling

I start off every year with a new diary, and can't wait to start recording everything from January 1st onwards. Sad to say, I've never managed a year where every single day of my diary has been filled in.  I keep a notebook with me to write down any ideas, but I usually forget to transfer them across to my diary. It's so dispiriting to miss a day (or two, or more) then come back to find those blank spaces staring up, as full of reproach as they are empty of words. 

Late last year I started experimenting with bullet journaling. The official description from Ryder Carroll, who is credited with inventing the system says:
"The Bullet Journal is a customizable and forgiving organization system. It can be your to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but most likely, it will be all of the above. It will teach you to do more with less"

I use an A4 book of squared paper, which is really useful as I can draw sketch plans of my garden, write diary entries and develop tick-box schedules all in one place. That's much less annoying than having a conventional diary stuffed with odd sheets of graph paper and lists, but it seems a bit of a retrograde step. My OH has spent the last twenty years trying to get me to store everything on my computer, but I've never yet managed to create a paperless office. With this new system, it won't be appearing in 2017, either! 

I start each month by listing the days on one page, where I include birthdays and appointments. The next page is my task list for the month, then the following pages devote a double-page spread to each week, where I make short notes on what I've done on each day.  

When it comes to actually making entries, the shorter the better. Bullet points are best, and you can develop your own system of symbols to save space. You can always include a link to where you've made longer notes. 

Bullet journaling is wildly popular, and it's easy to see why. This is diary-keeping for the Crafting generation. You can spend hours developing your own system of note-taking, and then embellishing it. There are so many stickers, stamps and other beautiful things available at places such as Hobbycraft, the idea of making each day quite literally follow your own design and letting your creative hair down is very tempting. 

Maybe things will improve as I refine my system, but at the moment I find writing out the days of the month several times in different ways a bit repetitive. I enjoy the setting out of pages, decorating them and indexing, but it's absorbing far more of my time than ordinary diary-writing ever did (when I did it). That's a warning sign for me. If I didn't have enough time to write in an old-style diary every day, the chances are I soon won't be able to find the time to tag, colour and cross-hatch my work either!

You can find out more about bullet journaling here

Do you keep a diary? And is it online, or in a dedicated, real-life book?

Monday, 2 January 2017

Cryptozoology—The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name...



A Kelpie.  Or maybe a horse, standing in water...
Review of Cryptozoologicon Vol I, by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen and Darren Naish. ISBN 978-1-291-62153-2

My guilty secret is out. DD discovered a few months ago that I love to be scared witless at the idea of mysterious creatures,  whose natural habitat is the urban myth. She bought me Cryptozoologicon Vol I for Christmas, and it's a winner.

As a child, I listened to months of reports filed from Darkest* Africa by James Powell's expedition who were hunting for the fabulous Mokele-Mbembe. In common with the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, the shadowy dinosaur-like Mokele-Mbembe managed to keep one step ahead of all its pursuers, despite their highly developed brains, opposable thumbs and state-of-the-art equipment. Nobody Powell's team spoke to had ever seen the thing themselves, but their grandfather's neighbour's cousin's wife, or the delivery man's son's best friend knew someone who'd...well, you get the general idea.  Mokele-Mbembe was always somewhere else. It was off on its travels, rumoured to be terrorising the next village along the Congo. Funny, that.

Like Comet Kohoutek and the Millenium's River Of Fire, media excitement was in inverse proportion to results in the search for Mokele-Mbembe. Those African folk employed exactly the same technique English villagers use.  When strangers roll into town asking questions, tell them exactly what they want to hear.  Nod, and smile confidently at any pictures or maps they show you. Then point them a few miles further down the track, where they'll find someone who knows a lot more than you do. That gets rid of your pesky visitors, and often earns you a big fat tip into the bargain.


London's River Of Fire? Or tail of a Bird Of Paradise?
Three cheers, then, for scientist Dr Darren Naish and his fellow contributors to Cryptozoologicon! They aren't taken in by this sort of malarkey, whether home-grown or exotic. They set out to shine a light on the sloppy and wishful thinking that brings cryptozoology into disrepute, and their illustrated book does exactly that.

Cryptozoologicon asserts that "...cryptozoology should be seen as a mixture of sociology, psychology and ethnology as well as zoology." With this objective in mind, the book examines a selection of weird and wonderful creatures. Each is given a chapter to itself, and an illustration.  These are often quirky, and quite honestly with a few exceptions they aren't as entertaining as the text. One of those exceptions is the Chupacabra on Page 34, illustrated by John Conway. A thing more of suggestion  than detail, it stopped me going out into woods after dark for a night or two, I can tell you!

Like all the best books, Cryptozoologicon produces nuggets of fascinating (and genuine) information where you least expect it. If you've ever wondered how bats evolved or why there aren't any large, water dwelling marsupials, this book gives you the answers. It also gives a disturbing insight into how images can be manipulated. A prime instance of this is the De Loys' ape.  In one of my few criticisms of this book, Cryptozoologicon provides only a re-imagined illustration, when it needs the inclusion of the original photograph in its cropped and uncropped versions (you can find both at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Loys'_Ape).  Touted as a missing-link ancestor of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the De Loys' ape was publicised by anthropologist George Montandon, at around the time the dangerous idea of eugenics came into the public arena. Go figure, as our American brothers and sisters (every one of them sprung from Eve, whether mitochondrial or biblical) would say.

I loved this book, especially as it seems to support a theory I've held for a while. At least some of these creatures owe their existence to what the emergency services call "false alarms with good intent". 


Mum! The babysitter's here!
Imagine you are the parent of a mischievous Bronze-Age child, and living in the middle of Flag Fen. Their accident-prone antics drive you insane. Which is the best way to stop him or her from drowning—a) scream at them at least ten million times a day to keep away from the water or b) invent some terrifying creature living in the bottomless depths that will carry him/her and their friends down to its watery lair, to be gobbled up at leisure?


Answer a) relies on constant watchfulness and repetition, and every parent knows children are selectively deaf at the best of times. Accidents happen the second your back is turned, so why not recruit a watcher in the deep? One who never sleeps, and is always on the lookout for an easy meal,  mwahaha...

To sum up, if you're absolutely certain those noises you heard while camping were the mating cries of Bigfoot, and that breeze rushing past your face on a midnight walk was your close call with an Aloo, Cryptozoologicon is most definitely NOT the book for you.

On the other hand, if you're fascinated by why legends are born and develop, and how people always try to explain away the unusual, you'll devour this book like a hungry Kelpie.

* we were allowed to call Africa (and Peru) that, in the far-off days of childhood fiction.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Lights In The Darkness...

I haven't blogged for a while as my mother is dangerously ill, so everyday life has taken a back seat. Between the Winter Solstice on 21st December and the start of the New Year, the days here are short and dark. It's no wonder candles and coloured lights are so important during the holiday season. 

However you celebrate at this time of year, within whatever faith or maybe none at all, I hope you have a lovely time. Remember what the Dalai Lama says; My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. Keep your friends and family close in your hearts, and give them an extra hug whenever you can. 



Monday, 14 November 2016

Writing Your Book, Part Six—Beating The Curse Of The Saggy Middle....

This week marks the half-way point for everyone trying to write a novel in a month by taking part in NaNoWriMo 2016. Writing any book at any time is hard work, but around about now momentum slows. Authors hit a roadblock.  We slump against it, and so does our work. The Great British Bake-Off suffers the curse of the soggy bottom.  Writers live in fear of their manuscript having a saggy middle. Here are three ways to beat the block…

Bogart and Bacall in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep
Blast Your Way Through

Raymond Chandler wrote his best-selling crime fiction at high speed. He was a master of the all-action, snappy story. He said his specific method for beating any block in the type of book he wrote was to have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. I’m not suggesting you take Chandler literally, but throwing something unexpected into your fictional mix can kick-start your writing when you’re stuck. How would your major character react if they lost everything in a fire? Let them swing into action during a local disaster, or a national emergency. Remember, your fictional people aren’t only brought to life by the insights you give readers into their thoughts and actions. The way they interact with others shows us more facets of their characters.

It's a thought...
Tunnel Underneath

If you’ve read Part Five of Writing Your Book (you can find it here), you’ll know I’m a great believer in the power of dirty drafting. Let your ideas tumble out and capture them in a fast and furious stream of consciousness. There’ll be plenty of time to work on the finer points of your story in later drafts, but when you’re stuck at the mid-point of your story, try burying some treasure among your major characters. Dig down into the core of their being. Give them a phobia, a cause that’s dear to their hearts, an unusual hobby, or a tragic past. Forget about beating your word-count for an hour or so, and give yourself the freedom to have fun planting clues. Your iron-jawed Alpha male may never be blackmailed over his secret love for flower-arranging* in your final draft, but it would explain his appreciation of structural integrity and design.

*like many a samurai general, as your feral hero can explain with relish to his arch-enemy and potential blackmailer…

Go Over, Or Swerve

Warning: This method is an out-and-out cheat, so it’s only to be used in your first draft, when you’re really stuck. 

Abandon your work at the point where you're flagging, and type the words With one bound (s)he was free in centred, 20-point bold text. Then move straight on to whichever future scene in your story takes your fancy. You’ll be inspired, and the words will flow again. By the time you’ve finished your first draft and started going through your manuscript a second time, your subconscious will have collected your later ideas at the roadblock, ready for some remedial work. 

Whatever you do, don’t sell your readers short by using this third device  or anything like it in your final manuscript. They’ll be burning your book and flaming you alive online before you can say “…and she woke up to find it was all a dream…”!