Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 2)

Books we Like: Dennis Drayon re-reads Gavin Lyall’s “The Secret Servant”

I originally read “The Secret Servant” shortly after it came out. It seemed breezy enough although I didn’t like the (spoiler alert) cannibalism part. This time, I found George and Agnes cartoonish but acceptable and noticed the tragic aspect of Maxim more fully. Although I also noticed how occasionally he said something snarky which seemed out of character and would have been better coming from one of the other two. Agnes is probably a bit too much on top of George. Lovely vignettes of the other senior civil servants, who are underused. Possibly not really meant to be “Yes Minister” with guns but it ended up that way, as a caricature. A sharply observed one but nonetheless…

As always with Lyall, there are great descriptions and a strong sense of place. Obscure mews in London comes alive, castles in Luxemburg and odd out of the way country villages, and crumbling coach turned motoring hotels. 

And as nearly as often, a pivotal character who just didn’t make enough sense nearly ruins the book. Just as the nutty big game hunter spoiled “The Most Dangerous Game”, so for me Charles Farthing the Yorkshire near-pensioner spoils this book, with his incomprehensibly motivated campaign against Professor Tyler. Also like “The Most Dangerous Game”,  “The Secret Servant” is jam-packed with incidents. There is a whole thirty pages of a Long Range Desert Group Mission in World War Two which contains battles enough to fill a war novel of the time. And in the contemporary timeline, there is a  grenade-ing, a shootout, a second and third shootouts, a sex scene, a riot, a bomb, a fourth shootout, a firebombing, hand to hand combat and in the end it seemed to be bursting at the seams and a little underdeveloped. This time around, Mr Lyall seemed a bit uneasy with his material. There are third-person head-hoppings and sudden cinematic pull-backs to shady characters not necessarily seen by the viewpoint characters. I remember that he seemed much more assured in “The Conduct of Major Maxim” although  I  have only read the start of that again and this time it struck me as being more in the style of the later Smiley books with many different character viewpoints.

Another oddity of “The Secret Servant” is a certain vagueness in the time setting. It might be happening in the early 1970s and not the early 80’s as you would expect on the surface, because World War Two is often spoken of as having happened thirty and not thirty-five to forty years before as would be the arithmetic if it was set at the time the book was published.

Authors We Like: Dennis Drayton re-reads Gavin Lyall

 

I have been re-reading Gavin Lyall’s books over the last couple of months. The pace has picked up in the last few weeks when I noticed that many of them were being re-published as e-books. Partly due to illness, I had the ‘opportunity’ to pick up the pace even further, and so in the last month I have read “The Most Dangerous Game”, “The Secret Servant” and “Uncle Target”. A couple of years ago I bought a second-hand copy of “Blame The Dead” (my favourite Gavin Lyall book) and a new paperback of “Midnight Plus One” (previously my next favourite).

I would have read these books originally in the early to mid-nineteen eighties when I was a college student. He was one of my favourite authors, coming somewhere between Jack Higgins and Alistair MacLean in my all time Top Three Thriller writers. Leslie Charteris and Captain W.E. Johns would have filled out the Top Five, but that is two more posts for another day.

In those days they seemed tough and intelligent thrillers with a sarcastic or even ironic sense of humour and a good pace.

Most likely I have a very different perspective now, as time and culture and I have all rolled on since the early eighties, when the later books were almost contemporary and the earlier ones still seemed recent. The early books now read like historical novels.

Also, the flaws in the novels seem to stick out more than the virtues for me now, probably due to reading them at a more leisurely pace and perhaps a higher standard in contemporary thriller writing.

I intend to go through the books individually and try to start with why I thought they were great stories and point out the flaws in the second parts.

I will dispose of “Uncle Target” first, as I said above I read them while I was at university and had learned to read very quickly and much fiction I read at the time made very little impression on me.  At the half-way point of “Uncle Target” I realised parts of the story seemed very familiar and that I must have read it before but had almost entirely forgotten the story and had wiped the fact and act of reading it from my mind. Perhaps although it is very well executed, it just doesn’t have the spark of  the other books.

I haven’t re-read “The Conduct of Major Maxim” or “The Crocus List,” as  I didn’t like them much at the time, although they would even then have seem better executed than “The Secret Servant”

Reading his other books,  the humour or tone hasn’t aged that well.  “The Most Dangerous Game” he gets away with it because it is so much in character for the narrator, but, with  “Midnight Plus One”  I was thinking “how 1950’s” which I didn’t even notice back in the day. Perhaps my own sense of humour has evolved in meantime. The sense of humour of Cord in “Blame The Dead” also seemed to match the tone of the character and book perfectly so that still stands high in my regard.

Another striking observation even from the first time I read them was his re-use of recurring motifs (hard to call them self-plagiarisms the way Jack Higgins does it) — rock-jawed men have brass bullet casings crunch under their heels, people are shot with high velocity light calibre bullets and survive, and they notice old cars with divided windscreens in different books.  this still strikes me more as attention to detail and unconscious self-repetition as opposed to being a flaw.

Overall, I have enjoyed the re-read, and perhaps learned a little bit about writing in the process.

Stuff The Cat: an email conversation between Dennis Drayton and Harry Brooks

Usually we don’t do writing articles, but Dennis is on fire at the moment due to reading what he considers to be bad books and wants to warn off other writers. He has recruited his friend and fellow author Harry Brooks to be the straight man. So without further ado we present:

“Stuff the Cat: an email conversation between Dennis Drayton and Harry Brooks”

Dennis: I say stuff the cat.
Harry: Excuse me?
Dennis: You’ve heard of the book “Save the Cat”?
Harry: Yes its an introductory book for screenwriters, isn’t it?
Dennis: Yes, I recommend people look up “Never mind the cat, save yourself” for one temperate approach. There’s lots of fun to be had with click-bait type blogs with titles like “Why All This Year’s Movies Are the same” which usually totally over-state the problem, like “OMG this summers block busters all have a beginning, middle and end — they are *all* the freaking same!!!”
Harry: But that’s not what you mean, right.
<cricket sounds>

Harry:  Dennis, Right?
Dennis: Er, Right. I confess to being provocative but wanting to make a more serious point. Movies are not novels. (see next blog posting!) It’s a different aesthetic and idiom, and I just worry that the good parts of books will be lost in the process of over-studying movies and television. I admire what Blake Snyder – the author of “Save The Cat”  — has done — the web site and book have established a fun and relatively simple vocabulary for talking about stories. That’s the good bit.

Harry: Can I say something?
Dennis: S’what you’re here for. Go on.
Harry: It’s called Forget The Cat, Save Yourself. Considering the topic, I would suggest calling it Beat the Cat, but that might upset the animal lovers in our audience. Anyway, I’m rambling somewhat. I agree, writing to a template can stifle creativity and lull the reader into a breakfast cereal experience; everything will taste the same. Each book should be a new experience for the reader, not just the story, but the actual reading of it. If everything sits where you expect it to be, it’s like driving the same route every day; you miss the fifty foot Ronald McDonald on the overpass and wonder why your car is covered in Egg McMuffin.
Dennis: I see…I think. Anyway, we are starting to ramble. I think the take-away is this: rules are good, and training wheels are excellent, and we do all owe a debt to Blake Snyder for giving writers a new set of tools for thinking about writing, but it is not a substitute for thinking.

Get me somebody like Tom Cruise: Why a novel is not a bad movie treatment

Admin again: We don’t usually do writing articles, but Dennis is incandescent at the moment after reading some stuff that really set him off. In this second (and we kind of hope final) installment, he discusses why a book is not a movie and why this matters to him as a reader.

Writing is fighting, people. And a terrible sickness stalks the land. Moonlighting movie folks writing ‘novels’ as they like to think of them. This we got to stop.
I recently read the first three pages or so of a thriller. Which turned out to be written by an indie movie maker (spoiler alerts follow — of my reading adventure). I didn’t know this until afterwards, when I looked up the author. Before that I gave up on page 4 or 5. The reading went as follows:
page 1 started the book with an interesting and thrilling scenario, the viewpoint character stumbles on wartime invasion. Promising start, I was hooked. Page 2, not so good, events jump around. But the viewpoint character is an injured recently invalided soldier with PTSD and so maybe it’s meant to be incoherent. Page 3 hmmm view point character is killed by an enemy in very unlikely if not  impossible circumstance.
Page 4.  the Protagonist introduced as “Brad, early forties …” At this point I was so astonished I addressed the author directly over my e-reader: You don’t know what age the guy is, and you’re the author? Get real man!
Page 5. Old flame of protagonist is introduced, she fills in back story “Brad, as you know we both married other people…blah blah blah for a page” It wasn’t quite that badly written but close.
Me to author — how about you stop using dialogue to pretend you are showing and not telling and just bloody well *tell* us, you writing as the damn narrator and leave the poor characters without this embarrassing clunky fake dialogue? Ruining my evening of reading man!
When I discovered that Nameless Author is actually a movie guy, all was explained — the Brad, early forties leaves the casting open — except this is a novel not a screenplay proposal — he is maybe under the impression that a novel is a rough draft of a screen play, with a bit of narrative and description  in place of screen directions. Now I’ve only read a couple of extracts of screen-plays and they are very definitely not * not* novels or anything remotely like a novel.
Please for the love of John Malkovich, would movie people stop trying to pass off failed movie scripts as novels? Pretty please?

Books we like: Dennis Drayton on “East of Desolation” by Jack Higgins

East of Desloation

In 1968 Hodder and Stoughton published a book called East of Desolation by a “first time” author by the name of Jack Higgins.

The first line begins: “I brought the plane in low over the sea and brought her up to three thousand feet…” and only a few lines later, “When I turned he was there as he always was… the head disembodied … eyes fixed, staring into eternity as he lolled back in the co-pilot’s seat.”

And if you are a certain kind of reader, you are thinking “WTH” and are lost, not just for that book but doomed to a 1980s equivalent of watching a whole series over the weekend.

Yes I was proud to be a Jack Higgins fan-boy back in the day.  And this is the book that maybe started it – even as a youngster I didn’t expect that after “The Eagle Has Landed”  there would be any books by the same author that would grip me in my seat. But wow the obsession. I eventually, pre-internet even tracked down many of his psuedonyms so that I could keep reading more and more Higgins. But that’s another post…

I re-read East Of Desolation recently and it stood up very well. Of course in reality although it was Jack Higgins’ first book under his ‘own’ name, he was really Harry Patterson who had already written and published about 30 books under his own and various othere psuedonyms before he wrote East of Desolation, but this might have been the book that made his publishers think yes, this chap is finally going to pay back for our investment in him.

The narrator of East of Desolation is Joe Martin, a jobbing charter pilot in 1960s Greenland who has this very odd recurring nightmare mentioned above and who turns out to be somebody with a dark past. He is bitter and twisted and is an averted alcoholic with unresolved anger issues, as we would say now (violent drunk as we would have said back in the day.)

For a short novel there is a bewildering cast of characters. There is a Hemingway-esque aging American actor who is also not quite what he seems, an Israeli woman who is English, a dashing womaniser, a widowed lady who Martin is convinced is a liar and not a widow,  a dodgy German insurance man and his tough guy toff muscle, a Danish policeman and a crew of dangerous trawler-men. The characters are well drawn, and unlike in more modern books, not particularly likeable. They all have a distinct voice of their own and don’t all speak exactly the same way as happens in later Higgins books.

It is a short book and everything is done economically, descriptions are brief but get the job done. You get a sense of Greenland, and even the rather strange anachronism of the Portuguese sailing trawlers is authentic — they still sailed until the 1970s – although it feels like a tip of the hat to Captains Courageous, but that might be my noticing Jack Higgins’s penchant for sticking in black and white movie cliches in his books. As with other pre-1970’s books, some of the attitudes are very dated and no longer generally acceptable, so your mileage may vary, but I have to say overall I enjoyed the book as much the second time around as the first and appreciated it better for the skills I now recognise.

 

 

Publishers We Like #2: Dennis Drayton on Project Gutenberg

This is sort of a cheat. Project Gutenberg might be more like a book seller than a publisher,  but with the difference that they give the books away for free. The big twist is that all the books are out of copyright. This means that it varies from country to country because copyright law is still the sensible renew after 25 years (eg Australia)  in some countries and the ridiculous “the publishers get to keep the money forever especially if the author has no heirs” 50 to 75 years after author’s death in other countries. You would think as a writer I would be pleased at the long copyright spans, but no it seems to be a corporate greed measure as opposed to anything to do with the helping writers (many of whom, like starving musicians, sign away all their rights, but that’s a discussion for another day)

Anyway, the range of books available at Project Gutenberg is staggering, ranging from the first Georgette Heyer book (recently out of copyright everywhere) some of the vigorously (and dubiously) defended works of James Joyce (who went back into copyright retrospectively in what seems like a ground breaking legal precedent without precedent) all the way back to the works of the ancient Greeks.

If you are not technically minded,  getting the books onto you Kindle, Kobo or whatever reader might be a bit of a challenge, but you can have a look at the HTML versions to start with and get a knowledgeable person to help if you like what you see.

Well worth a browse if you like older books, some of which have aged very well. For discussion of some, see my next post!

Writers We Like #1: Dennis Drayton on Colin Forbes

Writers we like – an occasional series about authors and books that made a big impression on our own authors. First up, Dennis Drayton on The Stone Leopard:

Colin Forbes was a very prolific author and was at the height of his powers all through the 1970’s. I never cared for his later Tweed books, but from when I discovered “Tramp in Armour” through to “Avalanche Express” I ate them up.

The Stone Leopard  blew me away  when I read it as a teenager, in retrospect a few parts felt interchangeable with seventies Wilbur Smith or Jack Higgins books (all three may have shared editors and publishers) — but over-all it was a fascinating near-future, parallel history sort of book with lots of Cold War paranoia, what felt like an authentic French setting, with lots of chases and shoot-outs and a compelling central mystery (who is the traitor at the highest level of the French government?) which kept the story rattling along at breakneck speed.  It is probably very dated now, but for its time and up to the mid-1990s it stood up very well.

 

Publishers we like: #1. Tor Books

An occasional series – our writers are of the opinion that most people don’t really notice the publishers of books and indeed not even the authors’ names until somebody has been doing a big series for a long time, but some should stick in the mind:
1. Tor Books http://www.tor.com/
are amazing, they publish many of the biggest names in sci-fi and fantasy, and their website is a joy and a place to get lost in, so beware 🙂

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