Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Bye Prince Harry, Hello Captain Wales...

Stumbling across Monday night’s BBC 3 documentary on Prince Harry in Afghanistan, my first reaction would have been to surf-onwards to the next channel. Fortunately, the missus had the remote at the time and she stuck around for a look. I was glad she did, because as a die-hard republican this made an incredibly strong case for bringing an end to Britain’s hereditary selection of a head of state.

This was not a great documentary. Richard Bacon was fawning and shallow, and there were many interesting issues raised and then passed over. For instance, should royal family members be allowed to serve in combat zones? On the one hand, training someone to fly/co-pilot a £45M Apache attack helicopter is expensive, and a pointless waste if you don’t let them do it for real when the need is there. On the other, their very presence may make the environment more dangerous to those around them – if identified, Harry would be the highest value target in the conflict. And should we really be allowing one of pop culture’s most famous figures to be an ambassador for killing people, just like it was on a video game?

It was a shame not to see this issue properly discussed and explored, but the programme remained compelling for all that. It was clear that Harry is very good at his job – no one gives that much expensive kit to someone in a war zone if they’re not capable of doing the job. It also seemed that this ability, and the training and work he’s done to achieve it, has given him a sense of worth that he otherwise lacks. Being born into the job of head of state doesn’t mean that the occupant will necessarily value it, or get self-worth from it – contrast this with how he/she might feel about it if they were elected or appointed to that role by the citizenry. Who would you rather have doing the job?

If that wasn’t enough, then after an hour of watching Harry explain just how much he despised the media, and hated the almost total lack of privacy in his life, it was hard not to feel sympathetic. This is a young man whose life has been so distorted by being born into the royal family that the only place he can find a sense of peace is on the frontline of a war zone. Think about that. It’s time to stop doing this to people. It’s cruel and unnecessary. If the Government messed with the lives of the rest of us like this - forcing roles and responsibilities on them - there would have been a revolution a long-time ago. No, there was no doubt in my mind as the credits rolled – it’s time to call time on the royals. Bye, Prince Harry, Hello Captain Wales...

Friday, 25 January 2013

Holiday Reading - Review Round-up...

The holidays are behind us, and I hope you all got as much reading done as I did... In fact, I got rather more done than I expected. For various reasons that are too complicated to go into here, I ended up in a hotel room in Houston on my own for a week...

What? You say it's not too complicated? 

Well, ok... my lovely new wife was so sick that she couldn't come on what was supposed to be a combined business trip and holiday. The holiday was hers and the business trip mine - so while she could and did cancel and claim on the insurance, I couldn't. I had to go - and the result was that we spent our first married New Year thousands of miles apart. So I did a lot of reading and writing, even finishing the final draft of my latest novel Powder Burn - but more on that in the future, this post is about my holiday reading...

Rachel Abbott’s Only the Innocent was one of the big independently-published hits of 2012, and I was intrigued to finally read it. The cover and blurb promise an edgy thriller, and there’s no doubt that all those elements are there – sex, abuse, murder. Nevertheless, the book still has a lot in common with a ‘cozy’ mystery, as the detective work revolves around the drawing room of an old manor house - but no, it wasn’t Colonel Mustard with the knife in the kitchen, the end was much darker than that.

Only the Innocent leaves you with a central moral dilemma – something I’m fond of in my own writing - and this lifts it above the run-of-the mill mystery or thriller. Punish the guilty, or protect the innocent? I can’t tell you which the book goes for without dropping some massive spoilers, so you’ll have to read this one, and I can strongly recommend a four star ride.

I held back a star because the central protagonist’s necessarily meek and frightened character became a little wearying. There’s one fabulous moment where Abbott shows the reader what Laura was like before her marriage – unfortunately, it just made me want to read about that Laura, rather than the one we see in the book. But that aside, it’s a well structured, well-written mystery and well worth your time and money.

Russell Blake is a force-of-nature, I don’t know where he’s holed up, but wherever it is there can’t be a lot of distractions. I think he’s now published 18 books in as many months. The latest includes the Jet series, and he launched the first four of these in the back half of 2012. These are thrillers in the Lee Child / Jack Reacher mould, only more so. They’re short, sharp and straight-forward – don’t expect much sophistication in the plotting; there’s lots of action, very little sitting around and pondering, and about as much navel-gazing as you’d get from Daniel Craig as 007, i.e. an occasional grim look in the mirror.

And while it’s nuts and bolts stuff, Tab A always fits squarely and neatly into Hole A, and it all comes together like the solid piece of craftsmanship that it is, and the writing occasionally elevates to several notches higher. I wouldn’t call it art, but there’s some excellent descriptive stuff in here. I don’t know that I’ll be rushing back to Jet 2 in the short-term, but I’ll get there next time I’m looking for an easy, super-entertaining read.

This is a book I noticed flying high in the Kindle store and with almost 400 reviews averaging close to 5 stars, I thought it was worth a closer look – I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a great read, the tale of an innocent man dispatched to a brutal jail for the rest of his life – Shawshank Redemption territory.

In my view, it’s a match for that movie. It has all the action required of the genre, but pushes home a few hard points about leadership, the nature of punishment, violence and man’s essential self. It’s not necessary to agree with what Herley seems to have to say about these things – it’s more than enough that he gets you thinking about it.

This really was my kind of book, and in a sense it brought together the thought-provoking element of Only the Innocent, with the faster, cleaner, pacier writing style of Jet - and produced a book as good as either one on their own terms, and better than both judged on my own personal scale.

Richard Herley seems to be one of those writers that publishing forgot, and more power to the eBook revolution in bringing his work back to the surface and into the light it so richly deserves. I will be reading more.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Kill Your Darlings

It’s an old saying in writing circles, kill your darlings. The instruction is not to commit filicide – thank goodness, because there are writers out there who would seem prepared to do anything for a bestseller – no, it means cut out the best bits of your writing. 

Whenever you think your prose has hit the most wondrous heights – delete it. The reason that’s usually given for this is that if you love those words so much, then you have lost a sense of objectivity and that’s dangerous. If all that fabulous language isn’t moving the story along efficiently, then it’s got to go whether you love it or not. It can’t just sit there looking pretty. Unless you're Zadie Smith.

The phrase is usually ascribed to William Faulkner and an earlier version - murder your darlings - originated from a lecture at Cambridge University given by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

I recently had cause to murder a real darling in the final rewrite of my new novel Powder Burn. Originally it contained several viewpoint characters, but in this last go-around I’d decided to strip it back to just two. One of the consequences was that my favourite scene in the entire book had to go, because it was written from one of the deleted points of view – oh, the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Anyway, I couldn’t let it die completely, and here it is... but reading it again a couple of weeks after the act, I’m glad I did it. It was written for the book’s original audience of snowboarders and mountain folk. I’m hoping that the final version of Powder Burn will reach a wider audience, and this scene might have driven them away.

The set-up is that a character called Vegas has climbed a mountain in the Himalayas to attempt to be the first person to ride a snowboard back down it. By the time he’s got close to the top and into position for the descent he’s not in good shape, exhausted and with the stirrings of altitude sickness. Will he climb back down, or ride to his destiny? And what will that destiny be?

He knew what he was there to do after the months of planning and preparation. He must climb and ride. And nothing, not even the bowel snake of fear, was going to stop him. This was his last chance, and every cell of his body knew it. He moved over to the edge and started looking for a place to get down into the chute as he ascended those last few yards. He dragged himself upwards until the cornice on top of the main ridge began to tower over him. He couldn’t go any further, and there was no easy step down, at least none that he could see. But it was only a couple of yards and so without really thinking about it he jumped. He landed flat on his back, and sank into the snow.
Given the steepness of the slope he had jumped onto, it now occurred to him that he was lucky that he hadn’t hit a hard crust. Otherwise, he might well have started the first descent of Powder Burn on his ass. He lay there for a long while, the sun giving the illusory impression of warmth, while he struggled again for breath. It would have been easy to fall asleep. Just to slip away, rest his weary body. But eventually, he remembered that he was there for a reason and he sat up. He wrestled to get the pack off his back, but the snowboard was strapped to it and the tail had dug deep into the snow. He couldn’t work out why he couldn’t drag the pack round in front of him. He floundered, digging a deep hole until finally he got his arms out of the straps and rolled clear.
He stared at it for a while, anger subsiding. Then he fiddled with the strap buckle that was holding the board onto the pack, but it wouldn’t set at the angle for quick release. He pulled a mitten off and tried again, then fumbled until he found a way of pushing the strap back through the buckle an inch at a time. After what seemed like an eternity of effort the board was loose. He set the edge into the snow so the board sat perpendicular to the slope and kicked his feet into the bindings. The hard plastic straps were easier to deal with, and he got them ratcheted up tight with relative ease. He was ready. What about the headcam on his helmet? There was a switch. He wasn’t taking his mittens off again. He reached up and fumbled, fingers thick through the cloth and cold. It felt like he got it. Whatever.
He stared down the chute. The walls seemed to be getting closer together, moving in on him like some giant car crusher. His breath rasped in the neoprene face mask. The backpack - he turned and found it lying behind him. The ice axes were still strapped to the outside. He’d forgotten those as well. The quick release buckles chose to work. He stuffed the axes handle-first into the snow and struggled into the backpack straps, then looped the axe leashes around his wrists. He adjusted the goggles, pushed at the face mask. Then there really was nothing else to do. He had to go.
He stood up, and immediately the board started to slide sideways down the mountain under the extra weight. He was pushing a gathering wall of snow in front of him and already gaining speed, reeling at how steeply the slope fell away beneath him. It crossed his mind that he could just cruise down like this. Then he remembered Lens and the camera, and a switch clicked in his brain. He had never stepped back, never bottled a drop or a jump or a run. He flicked his hips and his board pointed straight down the slope.
The acceleration was a familiar sensation, and the trained responses kicked in from thousands of hours of riding. But never before had he dealt with this much gravity, at this altitude. The adrenaline rush flushed through him with the avalanche of raw sensation, of clumsy response. Of nerves and muscles doing whatever they could to keep him upright and pointing down the hill. Somewhere, there was a voice saying - put in a turn and slow it down, this is the limit of control. But the chute walls were a fuzzy black blur and with the tunnel narrowing and quickening and flashing past on either side with terrifying closeness, the fear of blowing the turn and hitting the wall rose like bile and drowned even that shred of conscious decision making. It was all he could do to control and respond to the board, the snow. The froth of fear and reaction pushed the voice of experience under for the last time.
Then he fired out of the bottom of the chute and the run didn’t look so threatening. It was wider and the wall on the left hand side had disappeared. It didn’t matter that riding over the cliff was just as fatal an error as slamming into the rock – he felt the psychological pressure of making the first turn ease. He gently put some pressure onto his toes to push into a turn away from the wall. He was on perfect snow and the board – yabbering and hammering at his legs - responded. Now it flashed through him. He realised what was beyond the edge ahead. He didn’t panic. He just pushed a little too hard instead of rolling into another turn. Even then, it was far from disastrous. The board was hitting the snow with too much angle and too much speed. But it could have just bitten deeper into soft snow, slamming into a huge, thigh-jellying power slide that if controlled, would, if nothing else, have finally slowed him down.
But some confluence of snow type, temperature, humidity, wind, and geography ensured that his board dug only so far into the snow before it hit a layer of ice. The edge started to skid along the top of this harder surface, while the snow above it let go of its frail grip - just as it would in an avalanche. For all the resistance it provided at this critical moment, it might as well have been on roller bearings. He felt nothing more than the sudden rush of acceleration and a moment later, along with a couple of hundred pounds of snow, he flew off the edge of the mountain and out into space. He was falling, spinning in a whirl of powder, unable at first to comprehend what had happened. But he had a long way to go. Time to realise that he was all done. That there was nothing left to hope for, save a miracle landing. And perhaps more realistically - that it wouldn’t hurt. There was a feeble blip of anger at his error, then resignation. No screaming, no histrionics, becalmed in utter helplessness, then nothing.