Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Best Sellers

I ordered two novels from the library because they got such good write-ups in the Press and endorsements from other novelists. I tried hard but I couldn't finish any of them even though the plot in both cases was intriguing.
For me, I have to be interested in the story's main character. It is not enough that they have a problem to solve, are in danger or part of an intricate spy plot. If a character doesn't gel with me, I can't muster up enough interest to finish the novel. In addition, I like well-written stories. Having said that, I have to admit that both of the above novels were well written. Both were translated but still managed to catch the authors' style. I take off my hat to the translators. Having worked as a free-lance myself many years ago, I know how difficult it is. But the stories themselves dragged on and on. In both books, I skipped several chapters, skimmed over the rest, and discovered that I had not missed much in the story. A disappointment all round.
As I am about to go on a short trip to the UK, including a visit to London, I did not want to start another long novel, so I went through my Eric Ambler collection and pulled out The Schirmer Inheritance. This is not one of his best known books but I have always enjoyed it. It is short (195 pages) and to the point and I am drawn to the main character, a somewhat naive young lawyer sent to Europe to find the heir to a huge fortune. It was written in 1953 and for that reason alone is a gem! It is hard for us to imagine that in those days, most communication was via letter and not telephone, and train was the favoured mode of transport.
Although often called a master spy story writer, in fact Ambler very often placed his main characters in a strange and difficult situation and had us all glued to our seats while they extricated themselves. He is still well worth a read today.
And I will have finished the book tonight before I leave for my UK trip.  I plan on visiting the book market on London's South Bank. Maybe I'll find some more gems there.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Watching the Birds - where ideas for stories come from

I've been out walking on the beach this morning. The sun was shining but there was a bitterly cold wind from the North. The chill factor was definitely living up to its name.
Watching the sea birds, though, made me think of how very like humans they are in their behaviour.
As I walked along this morning, the elegant Oystercatchers were in their own little group, busy digging in the wet sand for whatever creatures Oystercatchers eat (apart, presumably, from oysters). Nearby were a group of sea gulls, jostling each other and squawking at the top of their voices. Now and then one of them would advance on an Oystercatcher and chase it away. The Oystercatchers had enough of this treatment after a while and took off in an orderly group for a quieter part of the seashore. Some minutes later a bunch of crows decided to join the sea gulls and their raucous voices made themselves heard above the screaming of the gulls. They were still warring with each other when I left them behind and continued on my way. It didn't look as if either party was going to give up ground or indeed score a win over the other party.

I'm afraid the picture doesn't do justice to the scene as I couldn't get too close without frightening them all away and anyway my camera isn't very powerful, but you get the idea. Here is another picture of my route which turned out a little better:

To return to the theme of this blog, I should say that I found plenty in the behaviour of the birds to develop a story on fights over territory or disputes among neighbours. Plenty of ideas there for the importance of setting boundaries, of being tolerant, and of the challenges if the main character in a story had to leave his/her environment because of unfavourable circumstances.
All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable walk with plenty of food for future plots.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Murder most foul - why we like crime stories

I recently read an article which mentioned our predilection for reading about crime whether true crime or fiction or natty detectives. The writer seemed to suggest that we were a bloodthirsty lot. I'm not so sure that she was wrong.
From the earliest times, ordinary people liked to watched spectacles of some sort. Juvenal, a Roman poet from the late 1st/early 2nd century said people only want "bread and circuses" (panem et circenses is what he actually wrote, which roughly translated means bread and games or circuses). I don't think we have changed that much in the intervening centuries. Public executions were popular. Take for example Samuel Pepys diary entry for 16th October 1660 in which he says that he went to Charing Cross to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered. When his head and heart were shown to the people there were "great shouts of joy".  And have you noticed that whenever there is a major incident, terrorist or otherwise, people get their mobile phones out and start recording?
Nearly all of us have stopped at the scene of an accident or of a major fire to see what was going on.  It's not that we revel in others' misfortune. I think it is the herd instinct, wanting to know what happened to our fellow human beings, and the feeling "that could have been me" which makes us do this. Of course, the nightly news broadcasts keep us up to date with all the major catastrophes around the world. Good news never does sell well except maybe at Christmas.
Be all that as it may, crime fiction and true crime, in both book form and on television, remains very popular with readers and viewers alike.What a pleasure it is to curl up in bed at night or stretch out in the most comfortable chair in front of the fire and read about the solving of a murder.
I enjoyed writing my Sergeant Alan Murray murder series. I am not a fan of blood-curdling descriptions of how victims met their end. I prefer the detective side of it and this is shown in my stories. Murray is head of a small police station at the foot of the Kerry Mountains in the heart of rural Ireland where crime of any sort is rare and therefore all the more shocking when three women are murdered within a short space of time.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Elusive Sleep

There is nothing I like better than curling up with the Sunday newspapers after lunch. Online editions can never (I hope!) replace the printed word. There is a world of news and gossip and frothy information contained in every Sunday edition. Politics, fashion, domestic and foreign news, and editorials and commentaries from people who know what they are writing about and a few who don't.
I love it!

Last Sunday, I was struck by the bias towards sleep in many of the articles I read. The recently published book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker is providing food for thought, it appears. My guess is that a lot of people found it in their Christmas stocking. I must confess that I didn't read all of it, I mainly concentrated on the parts relating to seniors (being a senior myself, and a bad sleeper to boot). I'm afraid that I didn't really agree with his findings that we all need more sleep than we realize. Quite frankly, I find that if I have a really bad night, I usually catch up the next. As well as that, everyone has a sleep pattern of their own. And obsessing because you didn't get what you're told is the right amount of sleep, is more likely to be detrimental to your health than anything else.  When my kids were small, I felt I never got enough sleep, later I slept less, waking up in the middle of the night. I used to get very frustrated but I don't any more. I found the best way of coping was to either relax and wait for sleep to come or if feeling restless, I made myself a hot drink and watched a bit of television until I felt tired enough to go back to bed and sleep.
I daresay that if any sleep scientists read this, they will wag their collective fingers at me, but all I can say is it works for me.

Friday, 4 January 2019

A couple of things to think about

I came home on the bus from shopping in town just as it was getting dusk. When I looked out of the window I could see all the houses lit up still with Christmas lights. Those dots of light on the country landscape are magical to me somehow. They signify home, warmth, being welcomed. No wonder we light everything up on these, the darkest days of the year. Soon we will tidy away the decorations - there is a tradition that this has to be done before January 6th although I know a lot of people who don't follow it to the letter. And before we know it, the evenings will stay bright for longer and we will start thinking about Spring and summer holidays and sunshine. Yes, I know we will most likely get some bad weather in the next two months. I think it was Tsar Nicholas I of Russia who said "I have two generals who never fail me: Generals January and February", referring to the brutal Russian winters which defeated Napoleon among others who tried to invade. Be that as it may, we have not seen winter until we do see what January and February dish out to us. I don't mind a bit of snow, I must confess!
For Christmas my nephew gave me A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles. I had not heard of this author before but am really enjoying reading this book. Towles' first novel RULES OF CIVILITY was a New York Times bestseller and I intend to get hold of it when I have finished this one. So now I have a nice stack of books waiting to be read. Wonderful. That is the nicest thing about getting books as presents. You end up discovering authors you never heard of. (In the old days, ending a sentence with a preposition would be frowned on - I have no idea if this is still the case, but I've done it anyway, so sorry to anyone who is a stickler for grammar and style).

Not too late to wish all my readers A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Christmas Cards

Since the beginning of December I have been getting a trickle of Christmas cards from friends and family. This is a lovely tradition, I always think, and it is such a pity that with the popularity of social media it is dying out.
As an ex-pat, living in Germany, I was often starved for news of friends who wrote once a year at Christmas and updated me on their lives. Even more valuable were those who gave me a thumbnail sketch of what was going on in the country they were living in. Of course, you had the one-liners who simply wrote on the expensive Christmas card "we are all well" and added a pious hope that my family were equally healthy and happy. But even these few lines meant that they had thought about me and my family for a couple of minutes at the very least: they had to pick a card to send from the pile they had bought  and in order to write something, they had to call me to mind. I am a great believer in the power of thought or prayer if you want a better word. I remember when I was in hospital following surgery for breast cancer that I could almost feel the get-well wishes pouring out to me.
But I digress. So here I am thinking about the niceness of receiving Christmas cards and the fun of reading how those friends and family who only contact me once a year are doing. How was it all those years ago, when receiving a letter at any time was a big event? When the post coach with its four horses plied between the cities and towns and delivered news of loved ones far away?In those days, far away really meant just that. Many Irish people who emigrated to the USA never came home again. All they and their families had were these letters, cards and well wishes, all of which were read over again until the next time.
I sometimes think that we kept in touch to a much better extent before the advent of email, whatsapp, skype, etc. Letter-writing is an art, of course, and there were people who, because of the lack of education or abilities, simply could not write a very coherent account of themselves. Nowadays they'd simply send you an emoji - enough said!
I still write Christmas letters to friends or family members who I don't get to see very often. These are getting fewer, though, I have to admit. This is partly due to the fact that the cost of travelling has really come down over the years, and let's face it, it's much nicer to see people face to face than to write to them.
This year I have written all my Christmas letters and sent off all my cards except the very local ones. I hope I have made a few people as happy as I am to hear from them.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Buddy Can You Spare Me A Smile?

I've been travelling. This is not a major thing in itself, I hasten to say, I often travel and this year has seen me make two non-scheduled trips. So, what was different about this time? I think that travelling in the summer months, when tourists are mixing happily with the locals, is different from travelling in November before the Christmas markets start.

What do I mean about travelling being different in November? I'll try and explain. I stayed at a hotel in the heart of Frankfurt. It is very convenient, being near the Zeil, the main shopping area, where you can buy anything you fancy and things you never knew you wanted. I travelled several times on the Underground and on the suburban trains. In summer with lots of excited tourists, it wasn't so obvious  but this time with mainly locals coming and going, I noticed the difference. What struck me most was that people put on what I call their "travel face", that blank look, eyes glazed over, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. I noticed the same thing at the airports. Some people read books or Kindles, others flick through their phones in an attempt to distract themselves until they have to get off the train or their flight is called. Far too many plug in their music and can't hear a thing. All of which is understandable at least in part, but why that grim expression? No one cracks a smile not even if an acquaintance/work colleague sits down beside them - they simply nod acknowledgement and go back to their phone or book or whatever. We are all on the same planet but side by side and not together.

Whenever I visit Frankfurt I plan on making two people smile whether they like it or not. It was hard going this time around. In the end a young man (clearly a foreigner) smiled at me when he held the door of the Kaufhof department store for me. The cashiers resolutely refused to twitch so much as a lip muscle. I bought German bread Bauernbrot, a sort of sourdough loaf which I just love to eat when it is fresh. I asked the guy at the counter if he could slice it for me and he gruffly replied that that wouldn't work because it was too fresh and would crumble. End of conversation. Take it or leave it.

Happy Ending: when I showed up at Security at Frankfurt Airport I was literally the only one there - the flight was half empty, as it turned out, and people were either ahead of me or came later. So here was I with a team of grim-faced Security personnel. In fact, they were joshing each other and having a great time and so we got talking and laughing (who'd have thought it?) and they assured me - and I believe it - that a sense of humour is vital for doing their job.  This encounter gave me a feel-good feeling for the rest of the day.

I think we should have a smile day at least once a week, let's say on Mondays when everyone is feeling a bit grumpy about having to go back to work after the weekend. Let's all try it and see what results we get.