Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: The Bookshop Strikes Back by Ann Patchett


ISBN 978  1 4088 4749 7

20 pages

GBP 1.99

This is a work of non-fiction, but reads like a short story.  The author is the protagonist.  She is a novelist who lives in Nashville.  The inciting incident is the closing-down of the last bookshop in the city.  The antagonists are the unpredictability of the retail book market, and the main character’s own self-doubt.  

This is not life-writing, in my opinion.  It reads more like an adventure story.  The best life-writing is about characters rather than events.  This story is about events rather than characters. 

 It contains what appears to me to be a couple of technical inconsistencies in the tense of the narrative.  It starts in the present, moves into the past, and here and then moves back into the present again.  Unless you are a creative writing technical nit-picker like me, you will not notice this, nor the occasional switch from direct to indirect speech.  It also contains some direct addresses to the reader.

 You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead – to which I say, Pull up a chair, friend.  I have a story to tell.

 And so, I suppose you could call it a narrative “from the inside”, like ‘Moby Dick’. 

 This is a quirky story, a story of struggle against seemingly impossible odds.  As I was reading it, I found it difficult to decide whether I liked it or not.  As I considered this question, I finished the last page. 

 Ann Patchett has also written novels, including ‘Run’, and ‘Bel Canto’.  The latter won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2002.

Review of ‘Pick-up Technique’ by Boff from Chumbawamba

The last time I met Boff was probably at a conference in Bradford in 1998.  He had said that he would try to join us on the ‘Walking the Line’ event at the Ilkley Literature Festival in October 2013, but family commitments prevented him from doing so. 

I asked him recently for his opinion of ‘Pick-up Technique’, and he very kindly obliged.

You can buy the story here:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pick-up-Technique-William-Thirsk-Gaskill-ebook/dp/B00CPRHTH8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390283939&sr=8-1&keywords=pick-up+technique

And read more about it here: http://www.gogglepublishing.co.uk/

Boff Whalley’s latest artistic venture is a play called “Wrong ‘Un”, which is touring at the moment.  You can find out more about it here: http://www.boffwhalley.com/

What follows is what Boff wrote, verbatim, presented with his permission.  I can promise you that my next publication (a novella which should be coming out in time to coincide with the 2014 Huddersfield Literature Festival in March) will have a few rubber ducks in it.

Hi William

Right then
Finally I watched some performances and read the story.
Now this is what I thought. The story is beautifully written and got me hooked. Straight away. I want to find out what happens to these two people. And then I thought, gradually, actually I don’t like these two people. They’re not very nice. 
At that point, about half-way through, I decided I didn’t like the characters and thus found it hard to carry on being involved. I’ve had this problem with a lot of things recently. That book called ‘One Day’ (I think), everyone read it so I thought I should read it too. Yes I am that shallow. Or that interested in popular culture. I finished it but never liked any of the characters in it. The book was a massive best seller. I had a conversation with Alice (Nutter). I asked her, Did you like that book? She said, Sort of, but I hated the people in it. So why did we read it? It was well written. So, following that logic, obviously you’re a good writer. 
When I write theatre stuff (this is going to sound really shallow now) I have to make all the characters reasonably likeable. I want people to identify themselves with a character, so they feel compelled to follow that character’s story.
A friend of mine (Mark Catley) who writes for TV soaps etc once described to me the idea of horrible people in literature/theatre/drama having “a rubber duck”. You make a character who’s not very likeable have a rubber duck – a childhood toy, a picture, a memory – that makes the reader/viewer think, “ohhh I had a little rubber duck too! I can see why that person is horrible! I can share in their pain!” He told me this backstage in about fifteen seconds about ten years ago, and I still have it in my head when I write. The idea of giving horrible people a redeeming quality.
Does that make sense?
Anyway, the two women in the story had no rubber ducks. Maybe that was your point. You wanted them to be simply horrible. 
But I think if the main character had a rubber duck, and I could have felt I was really ‘with her’ in the adventure, I would have related to how she felt when she found out she was set up. As it was, I didn’t care – I just thought, tough, bitch. Was this what you wanted us to think?
Apart from all that, your writing is obviously brilliant. You know that anyway. 
Mind you your video rendition of ‘The Game’ was awful. You, distracted and unprepared, reading your own words like you were reading a biblical passage at some small-town Catholic Sunday School. Most writers are rotten at reading their own stuff. But that’s why books are so good, because it’s the reader’s imagination that voices the characters. And it’s a bloody good writer who can voice those characters better than the reader’s imagination. 
But your rendition of the Everything But The Girl song was lovely. Your passive and distracted manner suited the song. 
You’re a proper eccentric aren’t you? I’m guessing. That’s a beautiful thing to be. 
Anyway you said, “tell me what you think, honestly” so I have done. 



Sherlock S3E3: His Last Vow and Series 3 Awards

The title was the usual pun on an original Conan Doyle story, ‘His Last Bow’, the very last in the storyline of the originals, though not the last to be published.  As usual, there was a mixture of references to Conan Doyle.  The meeting between Mary Morstan and Sherlock drew from ‘The Empty House’, in the kind of location , the use of a dummy Sherlock, and the subject of marksmanship.  The references to ‘the East Wind’ also come from a dialogue between Holmes and Watson at the end of ‘His Last Bow’, but the symbolic meaning of it has been altered to make it contemporary.  

I was interested to note that the missing ability in higher mathematics, which Conan Doyle attributed to Moriarty (Professor Moriarty, to be precise) turned up in connection with Sherlock and Mycroft’s mother.  I suppose that everybody knows by now that the parents were played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s real parents (and that Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington are partners in real life).  As soon as I realized during series 1 that this adaptation does not depict Moriarty as either a mathematician or a professor, I felt sure that it was going to be cutting-edge and contemporary.  The fact that the mathematical accomplishment has eventually turned up suggests how determined Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are to re-use as much of Conan Doyle’s material as possible.  They are, to paraphrase Eric Morecambe, playing all the right Conan  Doyle notes – just not necessarily in the right order.  It is significant that the mathematician is a lesser, boring character, rather than a cool, major character.  Gatiss and Moffat also seem to have a passion for pay-off and return, and so I think it likely that Mrs Holmes’s triple integrals may turn up in series 4.  Her textbook is entitled ‘The Dynamics of Combustion’, and so I predict she will be called upon when something is about to catch fire or explode, probably at a moment when she only has thirty-eight seconds left in which to do the calculations.  

Here are the Sherlock Series 3 iamhyperlexic awards.  As is customary, Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) is excluded from all categories except his own. WARNING: contains what may be construed as spoilers.  

Best Villain: Alongside the two obvious nominations for Moriarty (Andrew Scott) and Charles Augustus Magnusson (Lars Mikkelsen) are two others: the photographer in S3E2 (Jalaal Hartley) and Mark Gatiss (Mycroft, for the way he treats young Sherlock).  The winner is, of course, Moriarty.  Even when he is not there, his presence is still felt.  Moriarty is the only one who could have beaten C.A.M.  The Charles Augustus Magnusson of Sherlock is even more stomach-turning than the Charles Augustus Milverton of the original.  But he under-estimated Sherlock and got shot, and so he loses.  

Word Cloud Most Harmful to Hyperlexia Sufferers: the one surrounding Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington) outside the restaurant in S3E1.  This returned in S3E3, where the word ‘Liar’ persisted.   I hope, if it ever returns, it is with adequate supporting explanation.   The lists which appear in S3E3 when C.A.M. has his spectacles on are also rather irritating, but yielded to the pause button.  

Funniest Word Cloud: (Actually a series of word clouds) the ones in S3E2 which appear at the crime scene when Sherlock is stumbling around, drunk.  

Best New Character: Archie (the page boy with the penchant for murder scene photographs in S3E2), Young Sherlock, Mary Morstan,  Mrs and Mrs Holmes, Bill Wiggins (Tom Brooke).  The winner is Bill Wiggins.  I am sure he has a bigger future in series 4.  

Best Re-use of Conan Doyle Material:  there are dozens of possible nominees.  My favourite is Sherlock’s mention of white supremacists when he sees the tattoo on the hand of the unconscious security guard in S3E3.  This is a reference to ‘The Five Orange Pips’, a story about the Ku Klux Klan.  

Best Don’t Try This At Home Moment: Drinking beer out of measuring cylinders.  Upon their first appearance, when Sherlock asks for two “beers”, they were clearly filthy, as laboratory glassware often is, and hence, probably, toxic.  

Sherlock’s Best Moment: When he drops the champagne glass in S3E2, having realised that Tessa, the nurse, had referred to John Watson by his middle name, and hence had seen one the wedding invitations.  Or using an engagement ring as an inducement to get into C.A.M.’s flat in S3E3.  The champagne glass narrowly wins it.  This is the essence of genius: bothering to regard something as important, even when it is manifestly unimportant to every-one else in the world.    

Best Moment By A Character Other Than Sherlock: John Watson’s escalating beatings of Sherlock in S3E1 when Sherlock reveals he is alive.  Molly Hooper’s (Louise Brealey) slapping Sherlock repeatedly in the face when his urine sample tests positive for controlled drugs.  Mrs Hudson’s uncontrollable laughter when she realised that Sherlock would have to read out the telegrams at the wedding.  The winner, just, is John Watson’s busting of Sherlock’s nose.  The fact that the eateries Sherlock, Watson, and Mary Morstan attended got less salubrious each time Watson made another attack was very funny.  Molly, while important to the story in this series, seemed to have a smaller part than she played in the last one.  I hope she moves back into the foreground in series 4.  

Best Editorial Decision: Giving Mary Morstan a substantial and mysterious back story.  In the originals, she has “Victim” written across her forehead from the first moment she appears.  Or preparing for series 4.  Preparing for series 4 wins by a mile.    

And please, Mr Freeman, no more messing about with dragons this time.  It’s redundant, all that stuff.

How did Sherlock survive the fall? Part 2

My attempt on 20 January 2012 to cover all the possibilities has been vindicated.  The answer, according to the numbering of my earlier list, is: “Option 5”, but with an inflatable rather than cardboard boxes.  My hunch that Molly was part of the plan was also correct.  Many people correctly surmised the use of a ball under Sherlock’s armpit to stop the pulse in his arm while Watson attempted to take it.

Once again, I notice Mark Gatiss’s penchant for making puns out of the titles of the original stories (‘The Empty Hearse’ instead of Empty House) and his wanton propensity for using plots from the originals as mere ornaments, rather than episodes in their own right.  This happened in S3E1 with ‘A Case of Identity’ (the tearful woman, accompanied by an older man with whom she was lodging, bemoaning the fact that her on-line companion had apparently disappeared).

The reason why Sherlock’s name appears so frequently in this blog is that, while fictional, he is outstandingly the most famous fellow sufferer of hyperlexia.  (I wonder if Mark Gatiss was playing Mycroft or speaking for himself when he utters line, “I live in a world of goldfish.”)  My attacks always get worse immediately before, during, and for a while after each programme.  I deplore the harmful and insensitive ways the word clouds are used.  The fact that they are on screen for too short a time even for some-one like me to assimilate them is one thing, and that can be offset by using the pause button.  However, the content of these word clouds is infuriating.  Take the scene in S3E1 when Sherlock, Watson and Mary are standing outside the restaurant, after Watson has tried to sublimate the shock of seeing Sherlock again by attacking him.  The word cloud which appears contains some terms which make it obvious how they arose: ‘cat lover’, for example.  However, another one was ‘Lib Dem’, which is infuriating.  Unless it was something as obvious as the bit of metal on Jabez Wilson’s watch-chain in ‘The Red-headed League’ which indicated that he was a freemason, I do not see how you can tell that some-one supports the Liberal Democrats merely by looking at him or her.   If the writers have a practical hypothesis of how all the terms in the word cloud arose, they should show it.  If they do not, then they are not only belittling their own artistic creation, but they are scoundrels.